Further, I believe that Georgia's workers need few protections because they have ultimate freedom, which is to quit and find another job in their field. Despite our latest economic woes, the flexibility of our job market is such that workers still have options and can choose to leave a company if their work situation is unacceptable. Georgia's status as a Right to Work state has always increased the vibrancy of the labor market rather than detracted from it. However, Amendment 1 on the ballot will clamp down on these freedoms.
Amendment 1 on the ballot reads:"Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to make Georgia more economically competitive by authorizing legislation to uphold reasonable competitive agreements?"
Sounds reasonable, eh? Everyone wants Georgia to be more economically competitive, right? Unfortunately, this question is wildly misleading. In actuality, the Amendment is designed specifically to prohibit and restrict competition in the labor market. Passage of this amendment will stifle economic growth and employee rights in this state.
A little history is appropriate. Since the mid-1970s Georgia's Code has maintained that employment contracts which "restrict or prohibit competition" shall largely be unenforceable. Such contracts previously required "strict limitations" such as less than one year of prohibition, naming a short list of specific competitors, or limiting solicitation of specifically named customers. If these limitations were not in place, then all employment limitations were void.
In 1990, the Legislature, with the backing of large businesses, passed a law changing this interpretation. Instead, the new law allows the following agreements to be enforced:
n A two-year limitation against competing in the same industry, without specifically naming competitors. No limitation on the broadness of the industry is defined.
n A three-year limitation against soliciting any clients of the company, even if an employee never personally met the client.
n A three-year limitation against soliciting employees of the company.
n These limitations apply even if the employee is fired or laid off.
The courts held that unconstitutional, as the Georgia Constitution prohibits laws that "restrict or prohibit competition." Now our legislature is attempting to remove our constitutional protections. Furthermore, they have already passed the law to enforce these new changes.
The biggest problem with this ballot is the attempt to mislead the voters. The ballot clearly states "make Georgia more economically competitive." Yet the text of the bill is the exact opposite. The bill is "to provide for the enforcement of contracts that restrict or prohibit competition." How can prohibiting competition for employees make the state more economically competitive?
The second problem is that breakthrough innovations often require deep industry knowledge and experience which can only be gained by working in the industry, often for large companies. However, these same companies often fear disruptive change and do not support employees' ideas. Employees may now choose to leave those large companies and assume the risks associated with capitalizing on innovations. If denied the ability to do so, many of these breakthrough changes would never be commercialized. Innovation would be stifled. Since 2008 virtually the only area of new job growth has been small business. This amendment would prevent the formation of many of the small businesses that are the lifeblood of the state.
The final problem is that this amendment reduces labor market flexibility. The South has experienced the majority of industrial growth since the 1970s because of Right to Work laws and labor flexibility. This amendment, by prohibiting employees from working in their chosen industries, limits that flexibility. Employees become slaves to their employer with no rational means to gain experience in any industry and then switch jobs. The natural response will be a draining of talent from the state because top performers will refuse to sign draconian non-compete clause contracts.
Quite frankly, while I support many Republicans, I'm disappointed in those responsible for creating this bill. This is clearly bowing down to the interest of big business without thinking about the macro-economic impact. If we really want Georgia to remain economically competitive, we must vote "no" on Amendment 1.
Barbara Donnelly Lane is a writer in east Cobb now working on her master's in teaching at Georgia State University.