Friday, August 09, 2002

This letter to the New York Times, in response to an op-ed suggesting that a solution to the current problems of the stock market would be to encourage workers to invest more money in their retirement accounts, makes some points that I think are germaine to the current corporate scandals, and points up some of the consequences of an increasingly powerless, unorganized work force:

To the Editor:

Re "To Encourage Recovery, Encourage Investors," by Muriel Siebert (Op-Ed, Aug. 6):

As a former employee in a mid-sized Fortune 500 company, I watched for years as executives cut capital spending to meet or exceed profit projections. I saw research and development cut, as well as training. I saw the "old guard" ousted through quiet, targeted layoffs and replaced with cheaper, inexperienced 20-somethings.

Now Ms. Siebert asks us to double our investments in these empty hulks. Dream on.
C. L. FINCHER Little Rock, Ark., Aug. 6, 2002

In recent years, workers have stopped trying to protect their interests in the workplace, and have instead, contented themselves with thinking that their interests would best be served by investing in the market.

Recent events should tell us that workers cannot expect investing to make up for their unwillingness to protect their actual earning power, still the most important source of genuine middle class prosperity.

In this era of weak unions and eroding worker power, the weakening of protections that unions once provided, and sought to have codified into law for all workers, in fact, contributes to the environment in which the corporate scandals we've recently seen, like Enron, happen.

How? By creating increased pressure to go along to get along, an unwillingness to question authority, the inability, really, to question higher ups without putting one's job in jeopardy. Weak worker protections create an environment in which internal politics rule, and no one is accountable.

The practice of "rank and yank" -- followed by Enron and other corporate criminals -- is supposed to ensure that quality people rise to the top, and that unproductive people are eliminated. But, it doesn't take much thought to realize that, in practice, it most likely has the opposite effect. Why? Because questioning those who are doing the ranking becomes a very dangerous behavior. What is really most likely to be most rewarded in "rank and yank" performance reviews is an employees willingness to be a "team player" and get with the program -- no matter how flawed, and even corrupt, the program may be.

My father was a union organizer in the 30s. He came of age in the worst days of the Depression. In that terrible time, union organizing offered hope and focus, and laid the groundwork for real gain when times changed and conditions improved.

The generations that inherited that legacy, perhaps because those gains were inherited and handed to them, rather than fought for, and because, thanks to the unions, they had become routine in the workplace, haven't felt, for a long time now, erroneously I think, that they needed to look out for their own self-interest more effectively, and have, all in all, been less willing to rock the boat in the workplace.

Many, in fact, have bought into what I believe is a mistaken notion; that collective action, such as union membership, is the opposite of empowering. That it conflicts with the independent, entrepreneurial spirit that we Americans so admire. And that it is unworkable in the fast-paced, constantly changing modern workplace.

The truth, it seems to me, is quite the contrary. My own father was a highly skilled craftsman, one of the elite in his field, who worked all over the country and the world -- for hundreds of employers -- in the course of his career. He understood that in our capitalist economy nothing, including a union, could ever guarantee you a job. And that economic survival depended first and foremost on the quality of your skills, and your ability to adapt to constantly changing economic circumstances. But, he also understood that, even for the exceptionally skilled, only a union could, and was necessary to, guarantee that you received both fair compensation for those skills, and,just as important, the reliable and consistent benefits that make adapting to changing circumstances possible.

In light of the current corporate scandals, and the ill consequences they've had for workers, it may be time for this generation of workers to learn the lesson the Depression generation knew well: that there are natural, unavoidable conflicts between the best interests of workers and the best interest of owners -- even white collar, technical and professional workers -- and that workers themselves must, together, take the initiative to create the tools that allow for their interests to be well-represented in a negotiated resolution of those conflicts.

My Dad was one of the most independent-minded humans you will ever meet. Which is exactly why he valued the union. It gave him power in the workplace that even exceptional skills cannot really provide. In fact, the way he saw it, without the union, work and success would be MORE dependent on factors that had nothing to do with skill -- such as his ability to ingratiate himself, and a willingness to go along to get along. Without his union, he would not have had the power to criticize how the job was being handled, the quality of the work, the product being produced, the work environment. My dad had a name for the strategies that people today are advised to use to get and keep employment and decent compensation -- the networking, forming connections, ingratiating oneself with the powers that be, etc. He called it "ass-kissing."

Too much "ass-kissing" -- among managers, executives, politicians -- and workers -- and not enough accountability is exactly the heart of the problem we face today.

If employees and shareholders don't hold the corporations they work for accountable, who will? And if corporations aren't accountable, how much value will investing them with our labor and our savings really provide?


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home