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!


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