Sunday, October 04, 2015

The mirror says I am selfish, nasty, brutish, and short. Mirrors lie, of course!

In Two days, one night, Marion Cotillard's character--and we, the audience--are presented with a tough challenge.  She is laid off, and the only way she can get her job back is if her co-workers will give up their bonuses.  Will the workers watch out for their own selfish interests, or will they push her out?

A few years ago, the faculty union at the university where I work voted to strike if their salary demands were not met.  (Full disclosure: I have never been a member of any union.)  Those were the recessionary years after the tech bubble burst and after the fateful events of 9/11.  In the tight budget context, the university did what it had to do in order to balance the books and pacify the faculty--it laid off a few staff, while scrounging around for money.  I wrote to the then president of the union (he is the boss even now) "are we trying to square the circle here?"

While I am no commie who believes in a "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" ideology, I always find it bizarre that even the pink and red unions operate in ways that clearly pitch workers against workers.

Whether or not there are unions at a place of work, when budgets are tight leading to threats to workers' compensation, it is strange that workers would rather see some of their colleagues laid off than to take a a cut in their pay.  I suppose if the richest who have in plenty will not engage in any sense of sacrifice, then why should we expect the middle- and low-income workers to be any different, right?

Whole Foods, for instance, which for years has prided itself on the wages and benefits that the employees receive is now laying  off a few workers because, well:
Whole Foods announced it was eliminating 1,500 jobs—about 1.6 percent of its American workforce—"as part of its ongoing commitment to lower prices for its customers and invest in technology upgrades while improving its cost structure." The focus on cost-cutting isn't surprising—Whole Foods stock has lost 40 percent of its value since February, thanks to lower-than-expected earnings and an overcharging scandal in its New York City stores.
(Another full disclosure: I have always hated the hype about Whole Foods and, thus, I am perhaps enjoying the trouble the company is in!  I don't care much for its founder either.)
It's not unusual for a publicly traded company to respond to a market swoon by pushing down wages and sending workers packing. But Whole Foods presents itself as a different kind of company. As part of its "core values," Whole Foods claims to "support team member [employee] happiness and excellence." Yet at a time when the company's share price is floundering and its largest institutional shareholder is Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs—which owns nearly 6 percent of its stock—that value may be harder to uphold.
Easier to uphold when everything is going great, but one heck of a challenge when the trends are unfavorable.
One way it can truly win is by continuing to do what it does especially well: Providing solid-paying work and above-average benefits to its employees. Even if that ultimately means laying some off, presenting relatively generous severance packages is a good thing, too.
Is it?

Nothing makes economic sense anymore, especially when I think about how the low-wage workers are forced to compete against each other, even as the overall income distribution gets increasingly skewed:

I guess deep down we--the richest and the union worker alike--are all intensely selfish creatures who could not care a damn about the others?  How depressing!


Ramesh said...

Of course we are all selfish. Every single one of us. In a larger context, its the same when we demand benefits after benefits from the government. In your country, even the most foaming in the mouth Tea Party types wants unlimited Medicare.

What does an organisation in cost trouble do ? There is absolutely no option but to reduce costs. Across the board salary deductions never work - every body grumbles about pay cuts, the best leave and you are left with the least productive who are completely demotivated and won't leave only because they cannot get another job. Job cuts are inevitable, alas.

Incidentally, before you rail too much at the relatively well paid managers - they are subject to layoffs far more frequently than say workers. That goes for CEOs too. And as a percentage of salary, severance benefits are usually much more generous at the lower end of the scale than upper end.

Its however true that many guys at the top are grossly overpaid - often ridiculously so. I believe over time, that will correct itself too. In the BPO industry, it has come to a ridiculous situation that its economically better to fire one American manager than to fire 100 back end staff in India. You can guess who's the more likely to be fired.

Sriram Khé said...

The mad Tea Party type wanting more Medicare is a classic and tragic example of this lack of self-recognition. A CEO wanting to maximize his/her gazillions and working through the legal loopholes so that not a penny is paid as taxes towards the collective welfare is the kind of selfishness that I would do without. The union folks who maximize their own economic situation at the cost of others, ... the list is endless.

Yes, I always wish that the preachy limousine liberals too would admit that very few among us humans are not selfish. However, where the rah-rah pro-market people (you know who you are!!!) and I diverge is in the utmost belief that selfishness is a virtue that will make the world a paradise for all of us. In my political/philosophical approach, I want humans to recognize our selfishness and to rise above that.

Anne in Salem said...

Yes, your mirror lies.

Sriram Khé said...

If only the mirror would lie about my looks too and tell me that I look like George Clooney! ;)

Mike Hoth said...

I always find it interesting on the Sundays I preach (only for prayer, communion, and offering, then I hand off to a real preacher!) that you seem to blog about my messages. You didn't enjoy my wedding location so much that you sneak in the back of the sanctuary, do you? I told my congregation about sacrifice, as well.

Of course, I didn't talk about axing off other people, but of self-sacrifice. I used Father Damien as an example, the heralded priest who moved to a leper colony to build schools and houses in the 19th Century. It was a self-imposed death sentence, and he eventually contracted leprosy and it killed him. He chose to serve others at any cost, and make the world a better place.

Unfortunately for us today, we still remember Damien because his is an extremely rare breed! We're much more likely to be the selfish creatures than saints, and we continue to tell ourselves that other people are less important than our happiness.

Sriram Khé said...

The selflessness of a Father Damien is so beyond us regular humans that we can't even begin to understand how people like him decide to do what they do. (even in the contemporary world, there are such people, one of whom is the doctor that Kristof wrote about in the NY Times: Extremely rare breed, indeed. We are better off thanks to them.

I am delighted that you are doing things that make you (and, now, your wife too) happy. While I am a committed atheist, as I have often blogged here, religion plays a huge role in providing people with meaning for their existence.

I stay away from any religious sanctuary, including my parents' worship space at home ... why walk in and disrespect when my atheism is no secret, right?

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