The Color of the Sky

The best definition is an example. Imagine defining "blue" to a person born blind. And even a person with perfect sight, such as a small child, will learn that blue is the color of the sky, or perhaps the color of that car parked over there, or a favorite sweater. How could you describe the sound of the piano to an aborigine who had never seen, much less heard, one?

Or consider the word "government." You can look it up in the dictionary, and find it is "an organization which wields political power," or "that group of individuals who govern," with "govern" having previously been defined as "rule, regulate, control." Or you might look, in the case of the U.S., to the Constitution, and find there what the Founders thought government ought to be, and which, in fact, it actually was, for a millisecond.

But the best way to learn the reality of government is through example. The rather dry and abstract terms of the dictionary, or the glowing and thrilling words of the Constitution, you may find, have little bearing upon what, in its actual operation today, government is.

The local Chrysler plant provides a good example. In a St. Louis suburb, the automaker assembles mini-vans, and pickups. The plant, which I have visited a couple of times (and if you get the chance, do so yourself. It is an awesome experience.) is enormous, with 2.64 million square feet of floor space. The company’s policy has always been to allow workers to smoke. Until recently, no one has complained. One of the workers, however, Rossie Judd, has asthma, and the smoke, she claims, triggers attacks. She’s had to visit the emergency room five times because of her asthma, and has been on sick leave for nearly a month as I write this.

Perhaps it has occurred to you, as it has to me, that Ms. Judd would be better off in another job. To continue to work in an environment which is so unhealthy would, at once time, have been considered foolish. Not today. Ms. Judd is going to use the power to government to change the entire plant to her liking, and she will doubtless succeed.

Contradictions appear. If our society is a democracy, as we’re always told it is, then how can one person make the majority adhere to her wishes? If our economic system is "free enterprise," why isn’t the enterprise in question free to set its own rules?

Well, never mind. It seems there is a law: the Missouri Clean Indoor Air Act, which says that no more than 30% of the total workspace may be used for smoking. It’s hard to argue with the logic of this: 29% would have the smokers standing atop one another, and 31% would mean the plant was filled with smoke. This percentage wasn’t just picked from the air, after all. Doubtless, there were exacting studies of the total air volume in the plant, the number of smokers at any given time, the number of cigarettes smoked, and the resulting concentration of smoke in the air, as compared with the amount which is apt to trigger attacks of asthma, as well as other diseases. Anyway, the Chrysler plant, by allowing smoking throughout the area, is evidently in violation of this state law, as well as federal law.

The union which represents the workers has stated it will not oppose a change in the company’s smoking policy, to bring it into line with the law. A union spokesman said, "I can’t fight a state statute. I will not fight the law." The idea of a union going to the mat for its workers is evidently passé. It will still collect the dues, of course, but to expect it to fight against a politically correct cause on behalf of the dues-payers is unrealistic.

A non-profit (?) law firm in St. Louis is assisting Ms. Judd. Its director said, "They (Chrysler) have come around. This is a big step forward for employee health and safety." Is that so? Let’s see: suppose Chrysler sets aside 30% of its floor space for smokers, who can smoke there at certain times — never mind what this does to productivity. The concentration of smoke in this area will obviously be much higher than when the smokers were distributed throughout the plant. If smoke is a health hazard, how will this policy contribute to the health of the workers? Of course, their being there and smoking is voluntary, but so is Ms. Judd’s being employed at the plant in the first place. How can a large number of workers be forced to risk their health to protect the health of one of their number? And if they must cross a busy work-space to get to the smoking area, their risk of being injured accidentally by various machines is increased.

The director also expressed amazement that Chrysler would allow smoking "all over the building. I couldn’t believe it in this day and age." This day and age being, of course, the day and age of all-powerful government, unrestrained by any Constitution, extending its power in every direction over as many people and companies as possible, in as many ways as can be conceived, under whatever pretext it thinks it can get away with. (You don’t really believe that Ms. Judd’s health is of even the slightest concern to Missouri or the United States, do you?)

That’s what government is today. Forget your dictionary, or the Constitution, or Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights. Government is as government does.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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