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. 

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