Sunday, September 11, 2011

Shame on us.

    The last time I was evacuated from anywhere was at the Victoria's Secret Warehouse and Distribution Center in Columbus. It was on 9/11/2001. We had spent the morning in the break room watching the World Trade Center Towers go down (over and over as they did that day on on the news loop) and by about 11:00-11:30 am, someone had called in a bomb threat to Victoria's Secret. We were evacuated. Our department and several others went to the truck pad behind Shipping. It was a cloudless warm day and we spent three hours out there while the bomb squads searched the 200,000 sq.ft. distribution center. Being only a couple miles from the Airport, the lack of air traffic was noticable and very eerie. People with radios reported the third plane going down in Pennsylvania. and the details of the attack on the Pentagon. I went through most of a pack of cigarettes while we waited. I remember thoughts of dismay that we had such an inept president. Little did I know then that the shock of that day would do so much self-inflicted damage to our country.   Within hours of the revelation that Bin Laden was behind the attacks, viscous racist rants against Muslims were all over the  right wing radio call-in shows with racist moderators like Limbaugh encouraging them. Limbaugh, the known racist and newly anointed leader of the republicans, daily claimed to know the thoughts of anyone to the left of Pat Buchanan (another known racist) and proclaimed them anti-American and Evil.    These kind of attacks would become standard fare on Fox News. After Mr. Cheney's wars, meant to claim the world as America's Dominion at any price, the racism could be seen as the new heart of the republican party when it tried to paint Obama as the uppity black man who didn't know his place. Caricatures of Obama as a half naked native witch-doctor, a dancing Sambo, or a monkey were proudly waved at tea-party rallies and they flooded the internet. The plan by the nation's right wing wealthy to drive down the cost of labor has driven down the standard of living for most americans but these racist citizens are willing to pay that price in order to be able to publicly express their hatred with the new coded language  they've learned from Limbaugh, Beck, Palin and their ilk.  To avoid paying television writers more money, we are pushed a swill of drunken adults behaving like whining 2 year olds, contestants encouraged to lie and conspire for money, and news presented by Bozos with monstrous egos, small intellects, bigotry and bully bravado. Now they're running candidates for the American presidency with about the same qualifications. So, as we remember those lost that day and honor heroes lost among them, let us shame those leaders who used it as an excuse for political gain and to denounce the war mongering administration that harnessed racial hatreds to murder half a million Iraqis for no reason but bully bravado. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Paranoid Control Freaks

My working experiences lead me into the clutches of Les Wexner's empire. I started there at Victoria's Secret Catalogue during Christmas rush on the midnight shift replenishing the picking floor, removing empty merchandise boxes to the conveyors feeding the compactors, then replacing them with full boxes (30-50lbs.) in the aisles of shelving where the next day’s orders would be pulled. It was brutally physical work for someone nearing 50 years old (I was the oldest one on that crew). I started at $8.35/hour (considerably less than my union steelworker’s pay 30 years earlier) and that was with a shift differential. My day job, selling insurance (don't get me started about how corrupt that business is.) was going nowhere so I stayed on after the Holidays and by the next Christmas rush I was a "group lead" at $11/hour. The year after that, I was a supervisor in the returns inspection and repackaging department. Mr. Wexner had built his "Limited" brands with clothing designed in New York but manufactured offshore, mostly Asia and the third world for penny wages. His rise closely aligned to the destruction of the American garment industry (not a coincidence).
As a supervisor, I was indoctrinated into the paranoia of the Emperor’s fear of the living wages Unions may force upon him. I attended supervisor indoctrination sessions one day every two months. This became the “VSC Institute of Management Excellence”, and after two years of it I was rewarded a certificate of completion. Actually, it was occasionally useful with sessions on ways to conduct job interviews, motivational and coaching skills, and stress relief. I found the “teambuilding” sessions as demeaning and as airheaded as the ones on “The Office”. I found the one on how to pigeonhole people by personality type for easier exploitation to be particularly offensive.

Once a year, a session was held for all supervisors and managers across the Limited organization on labor relations. A team of lawyers from the largest law firm in Columbus, Ohio would present a 3 or 4 hour lesson on recent labor law and how to deal with Union activity, how to spot it, how to approach it, how to talk to subordinates about it (apparently if I said it was my own opinion first I could present the company line in detail so we were rehearsed on what to say.)  We were given a special phone number at the law firm to report the names of any “associates” seen organizing on behalf of a union (very secret, don’t let anyone see you writing down names). By my estimation, the billable Lawyer hours to make up this presentation and give it to all Limited management would probably be in excess of a couple hundred grand. It was really slick with a senior partner leading it. In reality it was probably part of a multimillion dollar annual retainer paid for legal services of all kinds for the corporation. The impression given was that to have to recognize a Union would destroy the organization. It was hinted that Mr. Wexner would rather move his operations to a southern “right to work” state than recognize a union. He saw cheap labor as the secret of his success.
My perspective on this was considerably different. I worked and supervised these people trying to live on under $10 an hour. Their lives were not easy. The work was often unpleasant. Personnel turnover was constant. In a department of 85 people there were always a dozen new hires in their 3 month probation, sometime as many as 25. They had to meet production, attendance and accuracy standards at the end of three months or be fired.   I fired a lot of people as a VSC supervisor. My job wasn’t pleasant either, sometimes. This kind of turnover in personnel was expensive, in terms of productivity and in terms of quality control. When I supervised returns inspections product not properly inspected would be repackaged and returned to stock to be sold, undergarments that smelled of body odor, product with stains or rips. Any of this merchandise being sold to a customer as new would damage the brand’s reputation. With the pressure to process higher quantities, quality was the price. Fewer than 1 in 1000 items were reinspected for quality.
One of the most satisfying parts of the job was the diversity of the workforce. Immigrants from other countries were a sizable portion of the workforce. We had people from Russia and the Eastern Block, Slovakians, Hungarians, Rumanians. We also had a few Asians. Most of these were longer term employees, hired before I was a supervisor. Bilingual Spanish speakers were being hired for the Arizona call center but I encountered few Hispanics at VSC. While I was a supervisor there was a large influx of Somalis hired. Provisions were made for their Muslim religion and translators provided if they didn’t speak English. After a few racially charged incidents at other Limited distribution centers, I volunteered to conduct “Diversity” training classes for the rank and file. I had thought it very progressive of the “Limited” brands to provide this to all their employees. It wasn’t until that year’s “labor relations class for supervisors” that I realized it was also part of the anti union strategy. The larger the percentage of immigrants the harder union recruitment would be. The low wages didn’t seem so to newly arrived immigrants and the language barrier would make union recruitment difficult.
It is probably true that paying Union wages would have cut into the profitability of Mr. Wexner’s business. But, I don’t think it would have been all that bad. For the Bra he paid $2 to manufacture and ship to Columbus Ohio from overseas he was charging his customers $30 and $5 shipping and handling (the profit from excess shipping fees alone almost covered the cost of labor at the distribution center). A Union wage would have cut way down on the cost of employee turnover and training. Large scale businesses do manage to thrive with workforces represented by unions. UPS does quite well, as does Kroger, Ford, and others. I’ve come to think sloppy management quick to blame union “greed” for their own lack of foresight. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

The "Great Repression"

I know, I know the "Great Recession" is supposedly over. Wall Street is back to pre-recession numbers. We're adding all these great low paying part time no benifit jobs to bring that unemployment rate down under 9%. The sticky problem is that the human suffering has not abated at all. Indeed, reprehensible schemes to pad the wealth of the richest (who do not live among us, but rather apart unto themselves), at the expense of the  middle class and the old and the poor, are introduced in Congress daily by the "Chosen Ones" paid representatives (Reference the republican budget plan introduced by Paul Ryan this week that would end Medicare) . I would rename the class warfare being waged by the John Birch /antidemocracy billionaires upon us, "The Great Repression". Sure, it's only a label, but, it captures what they are doing.

In other news, I'd like to point out a phenomena I've noticed on the rise here in Chicago. I'm sure it's nothing new, but, I'm noticing it more. I'd refer to it as "homeless hoarders". This morning in a steady Chicago rain, I saw a homeless woman at a bus stop with her two-wheeled shopping basket piled shoulder high with her shoddy belongings, she also had three canvas laundry bags stuffed full, each with the draw strings threaded through the handles of numerous plastic bags, also full. I didn't see how she moved this now wet pile to the bus stop, but when the bus stopped and she tried to load it on, the driver, understandably, wouldn't let her board. The Clark street bus is one of the longest routes in the city. It would have gotten her out of the rain for a couple of hours. When I pointed this out to Marsha she mentioned having seen another homeless hoarder downtown who took two or three trips to get her hoard across the street to the other corner. Lives filled with despair and clinging to shabby memories are the downtrodden whimpers of a selfish society.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Arrogance in America.

In my  junior or senior year of high school, as part of the Middletown High School Marching Band, we were trotted out to an open field east of Armco's south gates. In full uniforms we played Sousa marches to the arrival of Governor Jim Rhodes and the local dignitaries, including Armco's top brass. They used gold and silver shovels to turn some loose dirt (the ground was too dry and hard for these old guys to actually dig in and get a real shovel full). Photos were taken. The shovels were collected to be engraved and hung on office walls. Speeches were made. The occasion was the groundbreaking for Armco's "Project 600", a construction project to build the world's most automated rolling strip mill to produce carbon steel. It would replace Tytus's mill that would still run till the project's completion. The "600" in the title represented the projected cost of 600 million dollars (it ended up costing a billion and a half). This mill would use half the men to produce more than twice the steel of the old facilities. The speeches that day tied the event to America's business genius and future prosperity. The American steel industry forsaw no limits to its growth, none.

A couple years later, while I was at school between Armco summers, the steel industry agreed to the most lucrative union contract in history, they were making so much money the thought of a slowdown from a strike caused their  quick compliance to union demands. As always the unions had included items they would deal away for extra pay but they didn't have to. My pay, the bottom rung, went up a dollar an hour. But, the real kicker was a provision that after 12 years with the company each employee was entitled to 13 weeks of vacation once every 5 years with the normal 4 weeks they had earned for the intervening years. As it turned out, many of the old-timers didn't even like this and returned to work after the regular 4 weeks and drew double pay for the other nine. The provision was dealt away the next contract for even greater wage increases. When I was there it did open up work for guys like me in the summer replacing vacationers.

My dad's Armco stock value was approching a quarter of a million dollars in value (as head of Industrial Engineering he was making a salary under $30,000 but he'd been with them a long time and was nearing retirement).

So, my first summer at Armco. I'm in labor reserve. On mondays we go down in the trench under the hot strip (it shuts down a shift on mondays for maintenance) to shovel the scale into a water stream to carry it out into a collection pool for reclaimation. The furnaces are left on so the temperature down there is about 110 degrees F, we work in shifts, three teams 20 min. at a time each. When we come up we're given salt pills to avoid heat stroke. We rest 40 min. before going back down and it takes at least half that to stop sweating.

My actual first day on the job another summer worker and I dug a 5' by 5' by 5' pit down to a pipe that was leaking, using a jackhammer to break up the concrete on top and then shovels and pick axes to dig the pit. But, most of the time I was pushing a broom, sweeping the red-brown dust that covered everything into piles and shoveling it into wheelbarrows. That's what I was doing on this one particular day, I was sweeping up in the huge cavern of a warehouse where overhead cranes lifted the steel coils, several tons each, hot off the mill and moved them to pallets to cool. This space was part of my regular routine by late in the summer. On another day in this same space I had watched a crane leader (the guy on the ground who put the hook into the coil, or out) direct the operator to drop the coil and it came down on the leaders own foot. The next day the big sign at the mill entrance read "0 days since the last major accident". He lost his foot. But, on this particular day, things were normal. I always paid attention to where the crane was and where it was going. A group of guys in suits and hard hats came in, about 30 or more. I recognized a couple of them as guys from my dad's engineering department.They seemed to be leading a tour. The rest were Asian. They were talking to everybody. One came up to me and in perfect English asked how I liked working here and what my duties were. He asked how often my supervisor checked in with me and what encouragement I was given. I answered and he took notes.

I latter asked my dad about this tour. He told me they were Japanese engineers who had paid Armco several thousand dollars for an engineer guided tour. He had, under instructions from the top brass, personally shown them the scale model of Project 600 on the floor of the big conference room and they had poured over blueprints for the new mill  with upper management on hand to answer questions.

Before Project 600 was finished several small automated mills were rolling out steel in Japan and offering it to Detroit at unmatchable prices. By the time the new Armco mill came online they didn't have enough orders to fill more than one shift a day. It would be several years before the mill would run at full capacity. Within 6 years of dad's retirement his stock was worth $40,000, that's when he finally sold it. It would have gone down from there. The steel industry was betrayed by Detroit. They went to Washington to beg for quotas on foreign steel. The Nixon and Ford administrations were deaf to their pleadings. Steel executives blamed their expensive Union workers for their inability to compete, never admitting the part played by their own arrogance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Stupid is as stupid does.

As Loretta Lynn famously said "I may be ignorant, but I ain't stupid", thus making the crucial distinction between  uninformed and slow-mindedness. I, however, have given some additional thought to the concept of "stupidity" since moving to Chicago. In a city this densely packed with people every turn reveals stupidity in all its comic and tragic presence. From the night when a mother herding her 3 children, all of them in dark winter clothing, across the street in the middle of the block that has the streetlights out, in fast moving traffic, barely avoiding tragedy, to the panhandler in a parking lot wearing only a hospital gown and slippers, an IV needle still dangling from his arm, waving his admission papers at me, " They wouldn't give me a drink!", he said, pleading for money to acquire alcohol, stupidity is all around us.

All of us are capable of it. Indeed Chicago is the Mecca of Comedy. From Improv classes at Northwestern (include in that recent live sex ed demonstrations), to more comedy clubs than anywhere else in the world, Chicago breeds comedy, most based on incredible stupidity. Saturday we dyed the river green to begin a week of proper Irish drunkeness. I was in the Cuban Cafe "90 Mile" picking up carryout and there were three Chicago Cops trading stories from the Saturday night shift. "Eight hours later I got him out of holding and he was as drunk as when I put him in!" (reference any episode of "Shameless", Sundays 9pm, HBO)

Being intelligent and well informed does not exclude you. Admit it. We have all done stupid things, some we regret, some we remember fondly (I don't know how to categorize the squirt gun ambushes on drunken freshmen while tripping at Ohio State. Hey, it wasn't my Idea. Going along can be stupid too.)

So, let's review.

We know stupid people can act stupid (reference "Jackass the Movie"). Actually stupid people, though plentiful, don't act stupid all the time and most disguise it the best they can. The males usually try to cover it with excessive macho bluster which usually only works for females of the stupid persuasion (reference reality television, ok, and George W. Bush). OMG they're breeding!

Drunkeness can promp stupidness no matter what the IQ or usually sensible nature of the drunk. After all, stupor and stupid come from  the same Latin root meaning numb. (long term drunkeness can make the stupid permanent with the side effect that they think their actually smart, reference Charlie Sheen, and yes, George W Bush, again)

Excessive multi-tasking can cause stupidity usually afflicting those who think they're smart, like the Northwestern student riding his bike down the yellow line on the busiest street in Evanston, his laptop open in the basket, his phone held to his ear, steering (poorly) with the hand holding his cigarette. I do hope he avoided that Darwin Award.

Then there's the world champion causes of stupidness. Love, dispair and desperation. I had this epiphany when I first saw "Raising Arizona" (and I'm loathe to admit this because I really don't like Nick Cage's work). But, our prisons are full of stupid, desperate people. Prisons aren't full of evil genuises and their talented henchmen like most movies would have you think.

All this leaves us to explain the stupidity of the rich white men who allowed this nation of manufacturing to devolve into what it has become.

Here are ideas that try to explain everying:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My first Union

Between my early college years (1965-1968), I worked summers at Armco Steel, one summer in labor reserve, one as plant mail delivery, and one as a fabricator in the tubing division as a member of the Armco Employee's Independent Federation (AEIF). Though they would later be locked out by AK Steel ( a reformation of Armco), starting a prolonged labor action to fend off the company theft of their pension benefits (sound familiar?), at the time I worked in the AEIF they had never been on strike. They would work through a United Steelworkers' strike; in return, the company would agree to terms of the national union's contract without suffering the pain of a strike. The AEIF was originally formed in 1944. Aside from the summer as a mail clerk, this was incredibly physical and dangerous work but, the pay over 12 weeks of summer was enough to finance my education, tuition, room, and spending money for 9 months. Every summer I worked there they had a work fatality, one summer there was more than one. A couple years after I left there were 11 in one year. Those kind of summer jobs don't exist any more. I graduated without a single student loan. (they weren't even available until my last years in school and then they weren't designed to be a huge profit center for private banks).

At the time Armco was the 5th biggest steel maker in the country. John B. Tytus, with a degree in English Literature from Yale, had invented the process to roll wide sheets of steel in huge quantities back in the 20s. His plant was still in operation when I worked there and witnessed its operation. He died of a heart attack in 1944, the year the AEIF was formed. At that time Tytus's rolling mill provided 60% of the skin for General Motor's cars off that line. Armco had also invented the corrugated pipe that became the standard for drainage and culverts nationwide. American Steel was in its prime. Armco offered any employees classes in metallurgic sciences, math, science, public speaking, engineering (on their own time of course). My dad took advantage of these and rose through the ranks in the white collar "time study" department to become an industrial  engineer and, by the time I got there, head of industrial engineering. He never attended college (he was never a union man). But he enjoyed the union negotiated health benefits (without co-pays) and pension plan. He also enjoyed a subsidized company stock purchase plan (Armco Stock only) as a white collar worker.
A close friend of his who retired about the same time as dad converted all his to AT&T. Dad, ever loyal to the company, held onto the Armco stock. The friend made out. Dad's stock lost 90% of it's value within 10 years. That 10 years will be the point of my next post, or "the nearsightedness of overpaid management", or the "overpaid workers" excuse for stupidity.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Their favorite fallacy.

Not all rhetoric is bombast or exaggeration. Indeed, all writing, is, in some way, rhetorical, an attempt to influence the reader's thoughts or actions. Yes, even fiction. Hence, the fallacy of the Straw Man. So, to convince you that all "Liberals" are evil, Mr. Limbaugh will assume the fiction of knowing their innermost motivation and ascribing a yearning for soviet communism to their every purpose. This nonexistent liberal is the straw man that made him a multimillionaire. He is forever attacking the secret motivations, never the ideas, of his enemies in his unending quest to engender hate in his listeners.
     So, here I am to advocate for all the straw men in the imaginations of all the ignorant bigoted fans of fox news, the delusions of the incuriously hateful. To pose the question, "HUH?"