Chamber of Commerce Asserts Property Right Over Employee Vehicles

March 29, 2012

HELENA, MONT.  The Montana Chamber of Commerce is rating candidates for the Legislature based on Chamber-asserted employers' property rights over employees vehicles.  A simple extension of this logic suggests that employers could confiscate and sell employees' vehicles to bolster sagging business profits.

Under this same Chamber theory, employers could require employees to travel to and from work with mandatory employers' dangerous substances contained in the employees' vehicles such as toxic chemicals, radioactive wastes and explosives.

Critic Harry Morrison, an attorney who disagrees, commented, "The broad claim of an employer property right over employee vehicles is a significant departure from current law and places at risk the investment any employee has in his or her vehicle.  All the employee must do, under this theory" Morrison explained, "is to park a private vehicle in the employer's parking lot and poof, the vehicle becomes the property of the employer.  The employer could then do anything he wishes with the once-private vehicle, including using it as a place to store and hide toxic chemicals from government inspectors, a practice that could put the employee at significant risk while traveling to and from work."

This dramatic move is driven by Chamber support of an alleged right by Chamber-member employers to prohibit employees from having newspapers or Bibles in an employee's vehicle.  Chamber officials explained that some articles in newspapers could be contrary to the interests of employers, such as stories about union activities.  Speaking on a condition of anonymity, one Chamber executive explained, "We just can't allow employees to do anything as unreasonable as having a newspaper or Bible in their car.  Abusive employees could possible read something during a break period that would cause them to be distracted later from their work.  Employers are paying for their full attention.  It is clearly in the best interest of everyone for employers to stake out this important legal ground.  If we can't assert full property rights over employees' vehicles, then we can't prevent employees from having objectionable Bibles, newspapers and who knows what else in their cars."

Asked if employers would actually confiscate and sell employees' vehicles, the anonymous executive responded, "Employers provide the jobs in Montana, and they must be allowed to do whatever they need to keep their businesses functioning and profitable."

Susie Smithson owns and operates a Christian book store.  Smithson expressed concern that if enacted by the Legislature, such rules might even prevent Smithson or her part-time employee from having a Bible in a car in the store's parking lot.  "I'm not sure that's fair," Smithson said.

The Chamber spokesman commented, "For Montana to be a workable place, we need to have simple rules that everyone understands.  What could be more simple than a law declaring that if an employee parks in his employer's parking lot, the car becomes the property of the employer.  After all, the employer owns the parking lot, doesn't he?"

When faced with possible opposition from the Montana Christian community and the Montana Newspaper Association, the chamber spokesman responded, "The Chamber represents the largest employers of Montana.  We get what we want from the Legislature.  Our members will pay for as many lobbyists as we need to convince uninformed legislators that either we get our way or a there will be no jobs in Montana.  Legislators see the Chamber as speaking for all employers in Montana.  We have the political muscle to get what we want.  You want commerce - you do what we say.  Who cares about a few rusty old cars anyway."

The issue may be a contentious one in the next session of the Legislature.  The Chamber is already rallying employers to take a stand.  One employer even suggested that the principle be extended to employees' homes on the theory that it is the employer's money that is used to buy the home.

 - End -