Free at Last?

“This is the day when Michigan freed its workers.”  That’s what Republican state representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons told her colleagues in the Michigan Legislature yesterday, according to a story in the New York Times.

freedomIn case you missed it, Michigan made history on Tuesday.  Yes, Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, became the 24th state in the country to pass “Right-to-Work” legislation.  Right-to-Work legislation is newspeak for making it difficult for unions to raise money, since under these laws a workplace cannot make the payment of union dues or fees a condition of employment.

A lot can be and should be said about how pernicious these laws are; John Logan says a lot of it here.  But what has been most striking for me throughout this debacle is how much of a stranglehold the right seems to have on the concept of “freedom.”  Demolishing unions is about freedom?  Seriously?

This hasn’t always been the case.  My bedtime reading right now is Eric Foner’s brilliant book The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history told as a persistent struggle over the meaning of “freedom.”  It’s a good reminder that in other epochs freedom had more substantive, more collectivist connotations.  Franklin Roosevelt spoke powerfully of freedom from want as one of his Four Freedoms.  The Freedom Movement (you know, that thing we call the Civil Rights Movement today) linked the struggle of black Americans to the story of Exodus, and envisioned the promised land as possible only through the bonds of solidarity and moral commitment.

I’m not proposing that we need only use different language—that we can reclaim “freedom” through linguistic jiu-jitsu.  But I do think there’s a lesson here about linking what we believe is right and just to the moral principles on which the country was founded.  I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of “freedom talk,” since the way it is used today seems so far from the world as I hope it might be.  But rather than ditch the concept perhaps it’s time we work—in thought and deed—to reclaim it.

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