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The Right to Assemble

The first amendment encompasses much content in a few words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In a previous post, I discussed the issue of freedom of speech. That and the freedom of religion are certainly the most controversial of the first amendment rights.

However, in light of many recent news events it is important to address another equally important, though significantly less popular right – the right of the people to peaceably assemble.

While at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, I was shocked by the emotion that the issue of organized labor evoked from both sides. The topic being discussed was a procedural and reporting issue, the merits of federal employee unions were not even on the table, and yet name-calling and heckling abounded. Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA) took the emotion to a stratospheric level when he reminded the crowd that the firefighters that ran up the stairs of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, where unionized. Though I could not resist pointing out to my colleague that firefighters are not federal employees, and I am sure that the only affiliation those brave men and women considered was patriotism and devotion to their fellow man in need. Their union affiliation was likely far from their mind – but I digress.

In light of this encounter, I began to notice the issue of organized labor roiling all over the country. Most people are aware of the stands that Governors Chris Christie (NJ) and Scott Walker (WI) have taken in opposition to the state employee unions within their states. In Wisconsin, Walker’s effort to curb collective bargaining by public-sector unions is currently awaiting a hearing before the state supreme court. Though it is expected that the court will support the governor’s action, activists on both sides have been busy in anticipation of the case.

Also in the news, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been taking legal action against seemingly everyone. The agency is trying to prevent Boeing from building 787 Dreamliners in South Carolina, instead of the unionized factory in Washington state. Also, the agency has taken it upon itself to decide if a school is religious enough to call itself Christian. Unfortunately in recent cases, St. Xavier University and Manhattan College did not make the religious cut. Speaking of the first amendment, I see an “establishment of religion” issue in there – but again, I digress.

Also in the NLRB’s sites are several states whose citizens voted for amendments to their state constitutions that limited union activity within their states. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) did not take to kindly to his state being threatened with litigation by the NLRB, and has recently filed a bill that would limit the litigating ability of the agency. This action will surely be a point of controversy as it comes up for a vote.

Amidst this union hullabaloo, I hear anti-union sentiments voiced by many. Indeed, opposing organized labor has become politically synonymous with being pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-business. The religious right and the fiscal right have all gotten behind the cause as the front-line battle in the debt and deficit debate.

All of this media attention makes this is an opportune time for a reminder about the first amendment right to assemble. Every citizen has the right to organize, and if they choose to come together as employees of a particular industry or company, that is their prerogative.

For those truly concerned about the government operating within its constitutionally defined limitations, we must understand that there is nothing unconstitutional about unions.

Lest anyone think that I am advocating for the AFL-CIO, let me point out what is wrong with the modern, monstrous incarnation of unions. The special treatment that unions receive from the government is immoral and corrupt. When unions are recipients of tax dollars, special contracts, and crazy legal exemptions, objections should be raised. This has rightfully been brought to the forefront in recent weeks, and should continue to be investigated.

As the debate over government spending rages on, let us avoid ad hominem attacks against unions and union members and focus on the real problems of cronyism and favoritism within the government.