Along With Atlas, West Virginia Shrugs
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book of the Month Club surveyed readers and asked them to name books that had made a difference in their lives. As you would expect, the Bible finished in first place. You will be surprised to learn that Ayn Randís 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, was in second place, leading all other books.
Jeff Allen, a railroad-hopping hobo, is one of my favorite fictional characters. We meet him in ďThe Sign of the Dollar,Ē the 20th chapter of Atlas Shrugged. Jeff is discovered hiding in Miss Dagny Taggartís personal rail car. Miss Taggart, by the way, is no mere rich dame on holiday; she is the Operating V. P. of Taggart Transcontinental railroad.
Rather than have the conductor throw Jeff Allen off the train, Miss Taggart unexpectedly invites him to join her for supper. And it is their dinner conversation that succinctly explains Ayn Randís view of communism and compulsory unionism. The dinner scene, in many ways, is the essence of Ayn Randís philosophy.
Jeff Allen had been a machinist and shop foreman at the Twentieth Century Motor Company plant in Wisconsin. When the owner of the company died, his heirs recommended a new employee compensation plan: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Still ashamed of his actions after twelve years, Jeff Allen admits that he and the other workers voted the plan in.
Jeff Allenís dialogue, spoken in the inner sanctum of Ayn Randís heroine, is both riveting and compelling. He explains how unproductive workers bled the talented and ambitious workers of not only their paychecks, but of their will to work. No matter how much the ablest produced, the needs of the non-productive were never satisfied.
With regard to the authorís writing style, her metaphors are often over the top and harsh to a fault. Even so, I would submit to you that the answer as to why West Virginiaís best and brightest young people have left here in droves for jobs in other states is because West Virginia government has adopted a semblance of ďFrom each according to his ability, to each according to his needĒ in its tax laws and spending policies. For decades, the business sector has been charged ever-escalating taxes and fees to pay worker compensation benefits, unemployment benefits, Medicaid benefits, public employee benefits, and public education costs. For decades, businesses have closed or moved their operations out of state. For decades, West Virginiaís students have learned the three Rísóreadiní, writiní, and route 77.
But wait! Times have changed. We now have a new slogan: West Virginia is open for business. Yes, there certainly have been some noteworthy changes in public policy over the last year or two. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of talk in the halls of the Capitol about allowing state employees to organize collective bargaining units.
Letís leave it at thisósaying youíre open for business while saying youíre in favor of a closed shop is a contradiction in terms.
For all practical purposes, public school teachers already represent a collective bargaining unit. That system, while never tightly glued to begin with, is starting to unravel even more. Eastern panhandle teachers want pay adjustments for the regionís higher cost of living. Since they canít get that pay increase under the present system, many have opted to teach in Virginia. Ironic, isnít it, that our teachers can earn much more money in a right-to-work state?
To be sure, Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction; there was no Twentieth Century Motor Company nor did Taggart Transcontinental rule the rails. The story line, however, rings true with readers because Ayn Rand eloquently translates this simple truth: Employees are not simple pegs to be driven into convenient holes by the powers that be.
If West Virginia does allow state employees the right to form collective bargaining units, then organized labor faces a very risky situation. In recent years, unions havenít had much luck winning elections. Should state employees reject union representation, and there is likelihood that they will reject the union if given the chance, it would have the same effect as if West Virginia passed a right-to-work law. Now that message really would announce: West Virginia is open for business.
Let Ďem vote.
David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV
"Along With Atlas, West Virginia Shrugs" appeared in the December 9, 2005 edition of the West Virginia State Journal.
Copyright 1990-2005 David G. Allen