Monday, June 30, 2008

The Good Professor's Epic Blunder

After Epic Systems decided to pull its business from any vendor with ties to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, it was to be expected that someone would proclaim Epic's action un-American or un-something or other.

What was unexpected is that such an unthinking view would be expressed by a professor at a major university. Howard Schweber, a professor of law and political science at UW-Madison, took exception to what he called Epic's "secondary boycott" of companies that support WMC. Professor Schweber told the Wisconsin State Journal, "putting pressure on a person or business not to associate with another person or business is ethically dubious in my mind. If people have the power to coerce others to remain silent or change their views, that's a threat to personal liberty."

Ethically dubious? How's that? And how does Epic choosing which companies it wants to do business with constitute a "threat to personal liberty?"

Aside from Epic being totally within its rights, has Professor Schweber ever heard of the Montgomery bus boycott? Does he believe Rosa Parks was "ethically dubious" or a "threat to personal liberty" when she refused to give up her seat? Was the boycott that Dr. Martin Luther King and his allies organized soon thereafter unethical? Most Americans don't seem to think so, because there's a national holiday named for King, for crying out loud.

How is Epic's economic noncooperation ethically different than the tactics Mohandas Gandhi and his followers employed to end British rule and win India her independence? For his efforts, Gandhi came to be known as the Mahatma, or "Great Soul." Not the kind of nickname normally given to the ethically challenged.

King and Gandhi were hardly the first to use economic leverage to advance a cause. Ever hear of the Boston Tea Party? Weren't the colonists coercing the British to change tax and trade policies?

Does Professor Schweber teach his students that strikes are unethical? How about trade embargoes or other economic sanctions one nation (often ours) imposes on another whose behavior is deemed unacceptable? Sure they're staple tools of foreign policy, but applying Dr. Schweber's Epic test, aren't they over the line ethically?

Far from a sin, Epic's actions put the company in very good company. If there is a discernible shortcoming, it is this: WMC does not have clean hands when it comes to elections in this state, but neither do many others. It's not that Epic is doing anything wrong. And it's not that WMC doesn't have it coming. It's just insufficient. Many more deserve the Epic treatment.


Eric said...

Schweber might have a point on the restriction of personal liberty if this actually affected PERSONS. If Epic Systems refused to hire people because they support the positions of WMC, that would be unethical.

Howard Schweber said...

What is being overlooked here is that Epic is using its economic clout to coerce people -- yes, individual persons -- into ending political associations and silencing their political expression. The analogies in this post are false: without exception they refer to primary rather than secondary boycotts, and did not involve coercion.

Confronted by the demands of large corporations, small business owners are vulnerable to economic coercion in exactly the same way as employees. The idea that people in this day and age do not recognize that corporate power can be a threat to free expression is startling.

Howard Schweber

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Professor Schweber, the analogies are apt and it is you who is offbase in trying to apply a legal concept unique to labor negotiations - namely primary vs. secondary boycotts - to this case.

Didn't Gandhi aim to cripple foreign cloth makers or salt exporters in order to bring pressure to bear on the British government? And didn't the American colonists deliberately hurt tea producers and transporters in order to send a political message to the King of England? Wasn't the East India Trading Company a "secondary" target when its ship was boarded and its cargo was dumped in Boston Harbor?

More to the point, in characterizing Epic's action as a "secondary boycott," you appear to be trying to suggest that Epic is doing something not only unethical but illegal. After all, secondary boycotts are banned in the U.S. by the interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, by the Taft-Hartley Act, which amends the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act.

You are straining the boundaries of good scholarship to defend WMC. The question is why.

Anonymous said...

What people seem to ignore is Judy Faulkner's connection to One Wisconsin Now (OWN). OWN has given financial support to judicial campaigns where the candidate is leaning left. If you read Epic's (aka Judy's) press release on this topic, you'll notice one of the excuses provided in proverbial line in the sand with WMC members is that they're supporting an organization that provides financial support to judicial campaigns. Does this mean Epic will boycott Judy?

Anonymous said...

Funny how there are a lot of anonymous posts on here.could it be people are scared to comment on epic.....tyrannical ways perhaps? Fear of their infamous blacklist or worse? I'm dying to see what happens when epic tries to bully the DoD.