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“Not A Creator Or Manufacturer In The Lot”: America’s Would-Be Aristocrats Forget The Most Important Thing About Business

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every successful small business shares the same traits. And they all begin with high-quality employees. I’m thinking of three local establishments where I’ve traded for years: an auto repair garage, a dentist’s office, and a one-size-fits-all country store where I buy cattle- and horse-feed.

Along with just about everything else the aptly-named “Toad Suck One-Stop” might conceivably carry: from crickets and minnows to motor oil, pain remedies, kitty litter and homemade sandwiches. If you get up early enough, they’ll even fix you breakfast while somebody else loads feed sacks into your truck. (Toad Suck is a place name designating a long-ago ferryboat stop on the Arkansas River.)

It’s much the same at George Jett’s auto garage down in Little Rock; also at my dentist (his name is Lamar Lane). The first thing you notice is familiar faces. People who work at these places stay for years. And they do so because they’re well-paid, earn decent benefits, and are treated respectfully. So they like their jobs, take pride in their work, and are glad to see familiar customers.

Now I’m not going to lie that I love going to the dentist. But I do like feeling among friends, even if it means hearing Dr. Lane carry on about his LSU Tigers. (Because my wife was born in Baton Rouge, where her daddy played ball, I get a double dose.)

Something else: how a business treats employees also tends to be a reliable predictor of how they treat customers. Dr. Lane does high-quality work and stands by it. If a crown breaks, he replaces it free without asking if you were shelling pecans with your teeth.

My man George Jett hires good mechanics, values their skills, and guarantees their work. If the rattle’s still there, he’ll drive the vehicle around the block and then put it back on the lift to figure out why—also at no additional charge.

Jason down at the One-Stop isn’t exactly a philanthropist — at least not where Bermuda grass hay and Canadian night-crawlers are concerned. Keeping a business with so many moving parts running requires constant attention to detail. New hires that stand out back smoking when shelves need restocking tend not to last. Loyal longtime employees won’t cut them much slack.

Gas is cheaper at the Walmart across the river in Faulkner County, but the One-Stop’s pumps stay busy. It’s the community’s unofficial town hall. If you want to know who’s looking for a lost blue heeler or how Holly’s orphaned baby raccoons are doing, it’s got to be the One-Stop.

Ordinarily, such commonplaces would hardly be worth recording. So there are friendly folks at the country store.

Who’d have thunk it?

Unless, that is, you live in the United States of America, a large proportion of whose tycoon class appears determined to drag us back to the Gilded Age.

If they gave a Scrooge McDuck Award for the nation’s greediest knucklehead, the 2013 winner would be Home Depot’s billionaire founder Kenneth Langone, a Catholic who voiced public alarm at Pope Francis’s seeming enthusiasm for the gospel of Matthew 19. That’s where Jesus observes that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The Pope didn’t cite that verse, nor discuss politics as such. However, his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium did warn against “crude and naive trust in the… sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

What, not worship money? Never mind that this is elementary Christian doctrine. Langone warned that American plutocrats don’t want to hear about it, even in church.

You may not be surprised this same worthy also regards President Obama as “petulant” and “unpresidential.” His hawklike visage appeared prominently in a Forbes photo lineup of “Anti-Obama Billionaires.”

Scrutinizing the list, I noticed that almost everybody on it made his pile either by manipulating money or squeezing minimum-wage workers dry: casino operators, real estate speculators, corporate buyout scammers, hedge fund geniuses, fast-food franchisers, big-box retailers, and Donald Trump.

Not a creator or manufacturer in the lot. This is our would-be new American aristocracy, largely bereft of — indeed actively hostile toward — the retail virtues I’ve celebrated. (None of whose practitioners necessarily share my partisan views; I’m talking morals here, not politics.)

But the good news is that according to Adam Davidson in the New York Times, old-fashioned business ethics may be making a comeback through the unlikely agency of a Turk.  According to Davidson, the going thing in corporate circles is The Good Jobs Strategy, a book by Zeynep Ton, an M.I.T. business professor.

Ton argues that what some call the “Costco” strategy of hiring better-trained, better-paid employees “will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and—surprisingly—larger corporate profits.”


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 8, 2014

January 9, 2014 Posted by | Businesses, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Higher Wages Are Good For Companies Too”: The Intellectual Rigors Of Low-Wage Work Are Too Frequently Dismissed

Barbara Gertz is 25 and works at a Walmart in Aurora, Colorado, stocking shelves on the overnight shift. She and her husband, a cement mason, can get by most months, but there have been days Barbara has called in sick because she can’t afford the gas to drive to work.

Higher wages would obviously benefit Barbara and her colleagues at Walmart who protested last Friday. They would also benefit fast food workers striking tomorrow in 100 cities across the country who earn, on average, $11,000 a year.

But according to Zeynep Ton, an adjunct professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, higher wages are better for companies, too.

Ton’s book, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits, comes out in January and in it, she describes how large retail companies like Mercadona, Trader Joe’s and Costco have been able to invest in workers without raising prices. “These companies think about employees not as costs to minimize but as capable human beings with the potential to generate sales and profits,” Ton recently wrote on her blog. “Doesn’t all this cost a lot? Of course it does. But that’s only part of the strategy. These companies also design and manage work in a way that makes their employees more productive and takes full advantage of a committed, motivated, and capable (that is, well-paid, well-trained, and well-treated) workforce.”

Here’s one of Ton’s favorite examples of why the so-called Good Jobs Strategy works: During the recession, both Walmart and Mercadona, Spain’s largest supermarket chain, had to cut costs and did so by reducing the variety of products they carried. Walmart customers were annoyed when their local store stopped carrying their favorite brand of potato chip, or toilet paper or T-shirt. Sales dropped; Walmart’s chief merchandising officer had to leave the company. At Mercadona, customers were unfazed if an item they wanted was out of stock because workers, who as a matter of company policy are trained in every department, were able to recommend a replacement. Sales figures increased, even after Mercadona reduced its prices by 10 percent. Workers would let management know if there was a particular product that too many customers seemed to miss. “They could do this because they are empowered, cross-trained and have the time to engage the customer,” Ton writes. By comparison, Barbara told me that “there’s just a total lack of respect” for associates at Walmart. She mentioned a friend who politely pointed out an inventory problem to her supervisor and was fired the next day for the very mistake she tried to correct.

Ton’s argument is that workers who are paid fairly and treated respectfully are more productive and more innovative, across industries and on all salary levels, at Google or at Walmart. “Low-cost retail work is not trivial and how you perform that work makes a big difference for the company’s bottom line,” Ton has written. Retail work requires intuition and charm, quick decision-making, a good memory. As Mike Rose, an education professor at UCLA, has eloquently written the intellectual rigors of low-wage work are too frequently dismissed.

Ton’s Good Jobs Strategy also applies to fast food industry. In-N-Out Burger, the cultishly beloved West Coast hamburger chain, is a good example. The starting wage is $10.50 per hour, significantly higher than at McDonald’s. They have the lowest turnover rate in the fast-food industry. Like Mercadona and Trader Joe’s, In-N-Out keeps overhead low by limiting their offerings, by doing just a few things—hamburgers, cheeseburgers, milkshakes—really, really well.

With more than half of fast food workers on public assistance, costing taxpayers an estimated $7 billion a year, the demands of Thursday’s strike is in the public’s best interest as well. On Tuesday, the Washington, DC, Council voted to increase the minimum wage to $11.50 per hour and to extend paid sick leave to tipped workers, having found, despite theories to the contrary, that such a policy does not discourage new businesses from opening or cause preexisting businesses to relocate. President Obama recently endorsed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

If political pressure and public protest don’t cause McDonald’s and Walmart to increase worker pay, perhaps pure profit-driven thinking will. After all, what if Barbara had to call in sick on one of the busiest days of the year?


By: Jessica Weisberg, The Nation, December 4, 2013

December 6, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Debunking GOP Hype”: Very Few Businesses Plan To Drop Health Coverage Because Of Obamacare

Companies that have threatened to drop coverage of their employees as a result of Obamacare are vocal, but according to a new study they are also few and far between. Only a total one percent of businesses said they are not going to continue coverage in the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey. Another 2 percent said that they are “somewhat unlikely” to continue providing health care to their employees. Meanwhile, 69 percent will definitely cover employees, and 25 percent “very likely” will.

The results are encouraging primarily because they show businesses have growing confidence in Obamacare — last year, the survey showed that far fewer companies were certain to continue their health care plans. It also means business leaders are beginning to recognize the benefits providing employees with health coverage:

That hefty percentage of respondents who said coverage definitely will be offered in 2014 contrasts with a similar survey the IFEBP did last year, when only 46% of respondents said coverage would definitely be offered. That greater certainty expressed by employers about offering coverage next year may the result of several factors, said Julie Stich, research director for the Brookfield, Wis.-based IFEBP. One factor may be a greater consideration by employers on how offering a health care plan can significantly aid in the recruitment and retention of employees, Ms. Stich said.

Offering health care does, indeed, aid recruitment and retention. And if three percent of companies chose not to do so while the rest do, they will likely suffer the consequences. Lacking health coverage also drives away some of the best employees, especially when, under Obamacare, those employees will then be forced to take on the cost burden of healh care coverage themselves.


By: Annie-Rose Strasser, Think Progress, April 11, 2013

April 14, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Care | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Freedom For The Few”: Corporations, Miniature Governments With Their Own Undemocratic Governance Structures And Election Systems

We should be done by now with the idea that a corporation is a single thing. Corporations contain a multitude of conflicting interests and are much more like miniature governments with their own governance structures and election systems than is commonly recognized. While these structures are far more hierarchical and undemocratic than we require of our public institutions, Americans should not be resigned that this is the best or the only way the private sector can be structured.

The debate over corporate disclosure currently going on at the SEC exposes some important fissures within the modern American corporation. On the one hand, corporate managers and their allies have argued that corporations should be able to engage in political activities without having to disclose how much they spent or who that money went to. But there is a subtle slight-of-hand to this argument. It conflates the overall interests of the corporation with the desires of management and directors. What proponents of this view really mean is that management and directors should be able to make political expenditures without getting any input from shareholders or other constituencies within the corporation.

On the other side of the debate, shareholders and shareholder advocacy groups have been calling for greater disclosure regarding how corporate money is spent in politics. Shareholders have pointed out, rightly, that management’s political activities are not necessarily good for business. The money spent on political activity is money that shareholders might otherwise see reinvested in the company or have paid out in dividends, and it is money they have residual legal claims to. And, importantly, it often expresses political views that shareholders have no interest in supporting.

Shareholders have been introducing and voting on proposals to improve disclosure. But even when these measures pass, they are merely advisory and do not bind managers. It’s simply not the case that corporate political spending reflects the views of all the people who make up a business. Under existing corporate law, these intra-business disputes already tend to be resolved in management’s favor. And right now it is only management and directors whose views are reflected in political activity. It’s also noteworthy that employees’ interests aren’t even a part of this picture.

In spite of all that, management continues to push back against shareholders. Likely emboldened by Citizens United, proponents of management-dominated corporate speech have begun to claim First Amendment freedoms against their own shareholders. Consider this rather surprising statement from former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins:

shareholder activists, including unions, state pension funds, and ‘socially responsible investors,’ have increasingly turned to shareholder proposals to selectively burden American businesses exercising their First Amendment rights.

Leaving aside the fact that nobody has First Amendment rights against other private actors, this is an extremely bold assertion. This is tantamount to saying that the interests of management should trump all others and that neither private nor public actors should be permitted to interfere.

Frighteningly, recent developments have begun to enshrine this pro-boss, pro-management bias elsewhere in the law as well. This trend can be seen in a number of settings. During the last election cycle, a number of journalists were reporting that employers were asserting a First Amendment right to trample on the voting rights of their employees. In the ongoing fights over the Affordable Care Act, a number of employers have asserted a constitutional right not to pay for employees’ access to birth control and reproductive health services. (And in the religious non-profit setting, the Obama administration appears prepared to give them the exemption they were seeking.)

Corporations are a “they,” not an “it.” And it’s vitally important that this “they” doesn’t only mean corporate management. More democratic private sector institutions would be an important start. But we need a new constitutional framework for understanding people’s positive rights in the private sector as well. Freedom under the First Amendment doesn’t simply mean, as Paul Atkins might like, protecting bosses from public and private accountability. It means empowering a variety of people, shareholders, workers, communities, and the broader public, to shape the political conditions they live in.


By: Anthony Kammer, The American Prospect, February 6, 2013

February 10, 2013 Posted by | Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quality Vs Quantity: Yes, We Need Jobs. But What Kind?

On Thursday, President Obama will deliver a major speech on America’s employment crisis. But too often, what is lost in the call for job creation is a clear idea of what jobs we want to create.

I recently led a research team to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has advertised his track record of creating jobs. From January 2000 to January 2010, employment in the Valley grew by a remarkable 42 percent, compared with our nation’s anemic 1 percent job growth.

But the median wage for adults in the Valley between 2005 and 2008 was a stunningly low $8.14 an hour (in 2008 dollars). One in four employed adults earned less than $6.19 an hour. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported that the per capita income in the two metropolitan statistical areas spanning the Valley ranked lowest and second lowest in the nation.

These workers aren’t alone. Last year, one in five American adults worked in jobs that paid poverty-level wages. Worker displacement contributes to the problem. People who are laid off from previously stable employment, if they are lucky enough to find work, take a median wage hit of over 20 percent, which can persist for decades.

To understand the impact of low wages, in the Valley and elsewhere, we interviewed a wide range of people, including two directors of public health clinics, three priests, a school principal and four focus groups of residents. Everyone described a life of constantly trying to scrape by. One month they might pay for the phone, another, for utilities. Everyone knew how long each company would carry unpaid bills before cutting service. People spoke not only of their fear of an unexpected crisis — an illness, a broken car — but also of the challenge of paying for basic needs like school supplies. Many used the phrase “one paycheck away from homelessness.”

Because their parents cannot afford child care, children move among relatives and neighbors. They watch too much TV. They don’t finish their homework. Older children grow up too fast from parenting their younger siblings. As one person observed, “All you think about is which bill is more important.”

Economic stress strains marriages. Parents cannot afford quinceañeras for their daughters. In church youth groups, teenagers ask why they should stay in school if all they can get are low wages.

Many children are latchkey kids. Accidents are frequent; we heard of an elementary school student who badly burned himself in a science experiment, with his older brother watching. Their father couldn’t take time off from work to visit his son in the hospital. Children come to school sick. Parents miss teacher conferences because they can’t afford time off. Type 2 diabetes is a scourge in the Valley. Since Type 2 diabetics can be asymptomatic for years, many don’t buy medicine; as time passes, they become severely ill, often losing sight or a limb.

The director at one clinic, with nearly 70,000 visits a year, estimated that half of its patients had anxiety or depression. Often people can’t get to the clinic because they cannot afford to lose work time or because gas costs too much. When they go, they take their families, because they have no child care.

And yet the Valley is not hopeless. Teachers stay late to help with homework. They make home visits to meet parents. Health clinic employees work overtime. The community organization Valley Interfaith has pushed for training opportunities and living-wage jobs. There is no “culture of poverty,” but the low-wage economy has corrosive and tragic consequences.

Must we choose between job quality and quantity? We have solid evidence that when employees are paid better and given more opportunities within a company, the gains outweigh the costs. For example, after a living wage ordinance took effect for employees at the San Francisco International Airport, in 1999, turnover fell and productivity rose.

Contrary to the antigovernment rhetoric, there is much that the public sector can do to improve the quality of jobs.

A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute reported that 20 percent of federal contract employees earned less than the poverty level for a family of four, as opposed to 8 percent of traditional federal workers. Many low-wage jobs in the private sector (notably, the health care industry) are financed by taxpayers. The government can set an example by setting and enforcing wage standards for contractors.

When states and localities use their zoning powers to approve commercial projects, or offer tax incentives to attract new employers, they can require that workers be paid living wages; research shows this will not hurt job growth.

Labor standards have to be upgraded and enforced, particularly for those employers, typically in low-wage industries, who engage in “wage theft,” by failing to pay required overtime wages or misclassifying workers as independent contractors so that they do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

Americans have long believed that there should be a floor below which job quality does not fall. Today, polls show widespread support for upgrading employment standards, including raising the minimum wage — which is lower, in inflation-adjusted terms, than it was in 1968. It’s time for the federal government to take the lead in creating not just more jobs, but more good jobs. The job-growth mirage of the Rio Grande Valley cannot be our model.

By:  Paul Osterman, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 5, 2011

September 6, 2011 Posted by | Businesses, Class Warfare, Conservatives, Corporations, Economic Recovery, Economy, Education, Government, Jobs, President Obama, States, Teachers, Unemployment | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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