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Corporate Cultism

Gadfly | September 3rd, 2015

Corporate cults and the industrial revolution: it ain’t over until it’s really over

Business and labor have been battling each other since the invention of the cotton gin and the loom revolutionized the textile and clothing business in England and America in the early 19th Century.

In a very short period of time steam engines running complex machinery made the factory floor a hellish place to work in extremely poor lighting. Machines were not fenced in, so moving parts often injured or killed tired workers.

Children as young as eight were often hired cheap to work on the factory floor up to 12 hours a day or more because they could squirm between tightly packed machines—sometimes.

So many employees were injured or killed in horrific conditions that governments finally had to do something to control the carnage. The English were the first to attempt control. Parliament passed the Factory Act in 1819 limiting children’s work periods to 12 hours. Age was not specified until the 1833 Factory Act banned children under nine from factory floors and limited 10-13 year olds to a 48-hour work week. It took the Factory Act of 1844 to limit women to 12 hours a day. The Factory Act of 1847 limited women and children to ten hours a day. The Factory Act of 1874 limited workers to 56.5 hours per week— rarely enforced.

The lack of unions and government regulations in the United States around the turn of the century created unsafe and unhealthy work sites. By 1900 factory accidents killed 35,000 and maimed 500,000. Near the beginning of the Pennsylvania iron and steel industry, 195 workers were killed in 1911 alone.

that same year, 146 girls and women, ages 13 to 23. were killed in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The safety program protecting 275 workers in a nine story building? 27 buckets of water and fire escapes that collapsed when workers tried to use them. 25 died jumping down an elevator shaft. 19 died behind locked doors. There was only one door unlocked in the building. The possibility of theft of cloth, you know. 25 died in a cloakroom. But 62 jumped from the ninth floor to their deaths on New York concrete over 100 feet below. Onlookers watched in horror as bodies hit the sidewalks. One witness said he could not forget the sounds of “Thud--dead, Thud—dead, Thud—dead.”

There are still One Percenters and the members of The Best Congress Money Can Buy they employ who are opposed to government safety regulations in the workplace. My God, safety rules cut into the bottom line! How about two operators in a train cab or another pilot in the jet airline cabin? Too expensive? How many do we have to kill before our government steps in? Will it take 200 first graders blasted to pieces instead of 20 at Sandy Hook to regulate guns? Remember, almost anyone can buy a gun that can shoot 700 rounds in a minute.

After 200 years of fighting the Industrial Revolution, now workers battle the employment revolution

The Industrial Revolution created enough money for some millionaire to pay $23.8 million for Andy Warhol’s painting titled “Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (With Vegetables)” a couple of years ago. I try to understand most art, but I have always given up on Warhol’s fascination with cans of soup that look like they belong on Hornbacher’s shelves. The guy was a real artist with his other work, but evidently the world is silly enough to pay him millions for soup can paintings that could pass for good color photographs. Oh, well….

There is no doubt that the strength of labor unions from the 1930’s through the 1970’s created the first powerful middle-class in the history of the world. Research conducted on this period of labor history by Princeton University revealed that nonunion workers made 7.5% more in industries that were 25% unionized than what they would have made if the industry was not unionized.

Large nonunionized corporations had to come close to unionized wages to prevent organization of a union in their own business—and to compete effectively for workers.

From 1947 through 1973, when unions were at their strongest, real wages for nonmanagerial employees increased by 75%. With the decline of unions from 1973 to 2006, real wages for those workers rose only 4%. Many households now maintain their standard of living only by women entering the workplace or by men taking second jobs.

Union members still have about a 20% advantage over nonunion workers—but only depending upon what the industry is. In cities where the hotel industry is unionized, housekeepers, as an example, make more than $20 an hour. If only half of the hotels in a city are unionized, they average about $15 an hour. If all the hotels in a city are not unionized, the housekeepers make just slightly above minimum wage.

As unions shrank, inequality grew. From 1947 to 1972 worker productivity rose by 102% and household income also rose by 102%.

Since 1973 all productivity gains have gone to the top 10%--with no money going to the 90%! The top 10% say that “educational shortcomings” are behind poor wages.

In the years since 1979 the share of American workers with college degrees has increased from 19.7% to 34.3%. But records show that college graduates making at least $37,000 at jobs with health insurance and retirement plans have declined from 43% in 1979 to 41% in 2010.

The growth of right to work--FOR LESS!

Half of the states, currently all governed by Republicans, have passed stringent right-to-work laws in the last 60 years.

When the Democratic Party and LBJ passed civil rights legislation in the 1960’s (with the help of a few moderate Republicans), Southern whites quickly leaped from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party so they wouldn’t be caught voting with blacks.

The Republicans turned all Southern states into states where no person can be compelled as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, nor to pay dues to a labor union. These laws have resulted in much lower wages in all Southern states and about a dozen Midwest states.

Right-to-work has turned into right-to-work-for less because unions are much weaker. Union workers in union states make $5,971 more than their right-to-work counterparts, and median household incomes in union states are $6,568 higher. In right-to-work states 25.9% of the jobs are in low-wage occupations, compared with 18% in union states.

Workers in right-to-work states have a higher uninsured rate than in union states. Poverty and infant mortality rates are much higher in right-to-work states. Right-to-work states spend a shocking 31.3% less per pupil on K-12 education than union states. Right-to-work states have a more shocking 54.4% higher rate of workplace deaths than union states, illustrating that worker organizations do have the power to improve working conditions.

Gigs, cults, and cheating as wide and deep as the Amazon

A recent survey published in Harper’s Magazine indicates that Wall Street is so crooked that 20% of the workers in the financial and securities industries openly admit they have to “engage in unethical or illegal activity to be successful.”

Times haven’t changed from the time of the big savings and loan scandals during the Reagan administration. I remember when a major player in the scandal even imported hummingbirds to his Arizona S&L to provide ambiance.

But there was one difference. After all the money was “stolen,” after all the crooked deals, over 1,000 S&L miscreants were sent to jail for “unethical or illegal activity.”

After our latest financial crisis caused by bankers conducting fraud against almost the whole world, only one banker has gone to jail, a poor second-rate bond trader at Credit Suisse in London. No banker in the U.S. has heard the clang.

But 49 banks have paid a total of $190 billion in fines as penalties for screwing the public. Who pays the fines? Not bank CEOs or bank board members, or the ones who should have gone to jail. Of course not, the shareholders end up paying the fines and suffering the loss. Actually, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase Bank, got a 74% raise to $20 million after he negotiated his bank’s fraud fines!

While bankers are laughing all the way to the bank, our present labor force is in the middle of the biggest employment changes since the end of the Industrial Revolution. We have an irregular economy, according to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. He estimates that in five years 40% of our labor force will have uncertain work, called “gigs,” as in rock bands playing short engagements.

More and more of our workers will be independent contractors, temps, self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Few will have any idea what they will make next week or next month.

As an example, Apple, at present the richest corporation in the world, employs directly only 100,000 of the million workers who actually make, sell, and fix Apple products such as iMacs and iPhones.

Reich has another prediction: in ten years most workers will have “gig” work.

Jeff Bezos, corporate cultism, and the Amazon plantations

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is building a 820,000 sq. ft., $220 million plantation in Shakopee, Minnesota that will employ 1,000 people. Now the world’s fifth richest, the Amazon billionaire calls these distribution warehouses “fulfillment centers.”

Ex-employees have other names for them. The most prominent is “plantation,” reminding everyone of those huge cotton and tobacco farms worked by slaves for three centuries.

Amazon employs 183,100 around the world—and turnover is so heavy it has to hire close to that number each year. Many workers last less than a year.

To fully understand the workplace culture installed by Bezos, one needs to read Corporate Cults by Dr. David Arnott, a professor of management at Dallas Baptist University. As in religious cults, some employees in corporate cults become “enculted.” They pledge unconditional obedience, willingly give up vacation days (if the corporation has granted any), and lose their own identities by investing their energy and time with the business instead of with their family and community.

Bezos got many of his management ideas working for a Wall Street financial firm that used computer algorithms to get the absolute most out of each trade and investment.

A serious book about management, Assholes: A Theory by David Aaron, describes Bezos, some of his billionaire compatriots, and many politicians with great accuracy. I would like to expound on his criteria, but I think his description becomes clear by identifying some assholes: the late Steve Jobs, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney of government and Halliburton, Ann Coulter of the bizarre political quotes, and Donald TRUMP (“I’m very rich!”), of TRUMP EVERYTHING, who has promised to take us out of our miserable wilderness to his promised land paved with gold.

Each Amazon employee must learn and use 14 rules inscribed on a laminated card. Workers in the Industrial Revolution were worn down physically by long hours and dangerous working conditions in factories and mines. Today, in “gig” workplaces and those dominated by corporate cults and asshole CEOs, employees are worn down mentally by long hours and constant stress to perform at a very high level.

Bo Olson worked for two years as a book market supervisor at Amazon. He said the enduring image of his job place was the sight of fellow workers crying in their office cubicles. He said: “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face. Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk. Back-stabbing was encouraged.”

By the way, both Corporate Cults and Assholes: A Theory are sold by Amazon.

Martin Luther King wrote this about management in 1965: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

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