Put Independence to Work

John Adams

John Adams

The idea for Independence Day appeared in a three-page letter of July 3, 1776, from John Adams to Abigail Adams.

Adams wrote that the event “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade; with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations; from one end of this continent to the other; from this time forward forever more.”

So it has, on July Fourth. Never mind that John Adams wrote to his wife that the celebrated day should be July Second.

The second would have memorialized the day in 1776 when the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia signed a resolution of independence.

Two days later, Congress signed the Declaration of Independence — on July 4, 1776. The declaration spelled out the rationale for liberating the colonies from Great Britain and going their own way as the “thirteen United States of America.”

The declaration was distributed widely and embraced.

Thus, the holiday date. Happy Fourth of July.

USURPATION

A trend against independence brings no celebration to Americans starting new jobs. Workers are tied down by a rapidly spreading stricture: the noncompete clause.

The purpose is to lock employees into a single company for their type of work in the local region or beyond.

The clause, which also goes by the name of noncompete agreement and covenant not to compete, usually hides within a stack of employment forms. One fills out and signs such paperwork on the first day of a new job.

Sometimes the clause is presented as part of a contract. New owners of a business can foist a noncompete clause on workers during “rehiring,” despite having held the same jobs for years under previous owners without restriction. The clause can apply to permanent or temporary positions.

However presented, a noncompete clause’s trigger mechanism and outcome are the same: Leave one company for a new job with a competing company before a waiting period of six months to two years, and a lawsuit against you and your new employer will arrive before you settle in.

Noncompete clauses are used by 21 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees and 12 percent of companies with fewer than 25 employees, says a paper by professors at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan.

The American freedom to choose one’s employment is as old as the nation.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are “unalienable rights” spelled out in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson drafted the declaration at the urging of John Adams. Both were delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Adams was the second U.S. president. Jefferson was the third president.

CEO TO SANDWICH-MAKER

Once, the practice of requiring a noncompete clause was limited to a position such as chief executive officer or membership on a company’s board of directors. These are among several top-of-pyramid roles involved with the strategy of a company, which is often secret. In many companies, those few people are compensated greatly. They are provided a compensatory cushion to depart in luxury and, after a rejuvenating break, flourish elsewhere.

Now, noncompete clauses appear in the paperwork for new employees such as middle managers, fast-food workers and laborers. This restrictive practice has spread to the bottom of the employment pyramid. Neither strategic secrets nor necessity reside in this broad base.

Noncompete clauses result in workers avoiding new jobs, ignoring new opportunities.

Contract-happy employers run rampant over job-needy workers across the nation, except in California. The state bans noncompete clauses. Limitations have been considered by other states but are few.

EXPERIENCE

One might expect a noncompete prohibition to mute competition between companies. History shows otherwise.

Silicon Valley, an area of California south of San Francisco, is known for high-tech innovation and wealth. The valley enables entrepreneurs to establish companies. Some fail, but a good number expand like the big bang.

This approach is not angelic: Apple and Google were caught in a 2005-2009 pay-fixing pact to stop engineers and programmers from switching companies. Nonetheless, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial companies continue to emerge and blossom under California’s ban on noncompete clauses.

Choosing one’s course and determining one’s future are liberties that define the American Way. Most people make their income from companies. When companies use noncompete clauses, they stifle freedom as a way to make workers dependent.

In the name of liberty, all states — if not Congress or a federal court — should ban noncompete clauses. Nothing could be more un-American than restricting one’s independence.

Adapted from “Protect Liberty of Job Choice.”

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