The People’s Republic of California Goes After Volunteers

Imagine if you chose to invite some people over to your house. In exchange for helping you clean up your yard, you make them your special brand of fried chicken. Or in exchange for washing your car or painting your house, you invite them out for a treat at their favorite restaurant, or give them a day at a local theme park.

Would you approve of the state (or federal) government stepping in and saying, “No way. You’re not allowed to do that. It’s wrong not to pay people for what they’re doing.”

I bet you wouldn’t approve. If you don’t, then ask yourself how this recent development reported by the San Jose Mercury-News [9-15-14] is any different, in principle:

A small-time vintner’s use of volunteer workers has put him out of business after the state squeezed him like a late-summer grape for $115,000 in fines — and sent a chill through the wine industry.

The volunteers, some of them learning to make wine while helping out, were illegally unpaid laborers, and Westover Winery should have been paying them and paying worker taxes, the state Department of Industrial Relations said.

“I didn’t know it was illegal to use volunteers at a winery; it’s a common practice,” said winery owner Bill Smyth.

Westover was cited in July for not paying minimum wage, not providing wage statements and not paying workers’ compensation insurance, said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the state.

“These are not idle things. People should be paid for their labor. The workers’ compensation violations are very serious. What happens if someone has a catastrophic injury at the winery?” he asked.

And, he added, “It isn’t fair to wineries that are paying their employees to have to compete against for-profit wineries that do not.”

The key word to understand here is volunteer. A volunteer chooses to do something free-of-charge, for reasons of his or her own free will and choice.

The California government is counting on you to assume that these workers were coerced, even though they plainly were not. They’re hoping citizens will never state this obvious fact, because doing so would undermine the whole rationale for government intervention in the first place. And the government gets away with it, with this and much more. Why? Because people shrug their shoulders and say things like, “What can you do? There goes the government again,” or, “The law is the law.”

But what if the law is wrong?

A proper government does protect citizens from coercion. Slavery, for example, is and should be against the law. If somebody threatens you with physical violence if you don’t perform some service or task for them, this is both morally wrong and, properly, illegal.

But if somebody is not coerced, then it should not matter to anyone why somebody is volunteering to do something. It’s nobody’s business why somebody does something for free.

You might think, “That person benefitting from that pro bono service is taking advantage of the volunteer.” There might or might not be merit to your opinion. You’ll probably never know for sure, because it’s difficult if not impossible to know what precisely motivates a person to do certain things. Most importantly, it’s none of your business and you have no right to use police, armies or any other branch of government forces to make people do (or not do) what you feel is better for them to do. Your “right” to a clear conscience does not trump the right of a person to volunteer for another person, even if (in your view) he is making a fool of himself.

In a case such as this one, many motives are possible. Wines — especially fine wines — can be highly expensive. It’s possibly the case that many of the people volunteering for this activity love to be around wines and enjoy the opportunity to try the more expensive ones in exchange for their labor. More than that, they might find it a valuable and enjoyable use of time to spend in the environment of a winery. Or perhaps they wish to learn how to make their own wine, whether for pleasure or eventual business someday. Why the hell is it the government’s business?

Nobody should be obliged to justify or defend their motives for voluntary activity to a state government. Yet that’s precisely what happens every day, not just in California, but throughout the country as our federal government exerts more micromanaging power all the time. It’s the same principle at work when the government outlaws jobs below a certain wage, outlaws employers from hiring non-union members, or outlaws anything that would otherwise take place among consenting adults.

The true motive for the California government’s action, of course, isn’t concern for the welfare of others. The true motive is revealed by this state spokesman’s statement: “It isn’t fair to wineries that are paying their employees to have to compete against for-profit wineries that do not.”

Ah, there it is. The real motive of all government laws favoring “social responsibility”…control.

Wineries who don’t like freedom of competition — not when it possibly hurts them — utilize the force of government to get their way. They do so in the name of altruism. It shuts people down cold. “Well,” they might otherwise think, “it’s really not nice or fair for some wineries to shut down others just because they don’t want the competition.” But then the claim is made, “It’s mean to deny the workers their rights. Are you in favor of slave labor? Do you want people to work for nothing? What sort of unkind person are you?”

As for worker’s compensation claims, there should be no state involvement in this, either. If either volunteers or paid employees are harmed, this is their own responsibility for taking on the risk in the first place. And if they have an objectively tenable legal claim against their employer, they can hire an attorney and take it up with them. But that’s a whole separate discussion, and a distraction (serving as a rationalization) from the basic issue here.

Nobody rational wants to be in favor of slave labor. Almost nobody, in today’s neurotic culture, wishes to be seen as mean or lacking compassion (regardless of the facts). So the debate is ended right there, not because of facts or justice; but because of moral intimidation (followed up by legal coercion).

In California especially, with one party and one agenda controlling the whole government, it’s an atmosphere of unrestrained and unrelenting government control over the true rights, minds and activities of not only politically unconnected wineries, but anyone who does not fit the progressive political mold.

There’s socialism and “progressivism” for you. Workers’ “rights” used to justify nothing more than the desire of some businesses to put competitors out of operation. All of it masquerading as the self-conscious and self-congratulating “compassion and fairness” for which California’s one-party government of progressive control freaks is widely known.

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