My apologies to Horace and Winston’s fan clubs (Tom doesn’t have one, but we try not to mention it because it’s a sore point), but I’m giving the boys at the large round table the night off. I have a few things I want to say myself.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 35: We Are All Johnnie Jones
by Steven C. Day
It may be that in the end we are all just like Johnnie Jones; all passengers aboard a tiny piece of driftwood afloat in a giant corporate ocean, subject at any moment to being picked up by a wave and sent crashing onto the rocks. Except for those at the very top, the whole concept of class has in this sense lost much of its meaning: White collar vs. blue collar — an empty distinction; middle management vs. worker bee — a hill of beans. Viewed in this light, we are almost all joined together in today’s corporate America, bound by the same overwhelming sense, no, sense isn’t right, more like a cold hard reality of the uncertainty and vulnerability of our lives: And of how much the fate of those lives is controlled by decisions made in far off corporate boardrooms.
And like so many other people, I had good reason to know this long before I ever heard the name of Johnnie Jones.
It was 11 years ago to be specific: My girlfriend (soon to be my wife) was working as an officer in the credit card department of a mid-sized bank, let’s call it Bank #1; she’d worked there for over a decade. As tends to be true for the non-uppity-ups in the banking industry, her pay, well, it sucked. And despite a fairly frugal lifestyle, she was having a hard time making ends meet. So she decided to look around.
And by and by she scored a job offer at the largest banking corporation in the state (Bank #2) to work in its credit card division. The offer included a healthy, if far from spectacular, increase in pay. After some soul searching, she decided to accept the job and gave notice to Bank #1.
But a funny thing happened on the way to employment nirvana: Very soon after she started the new job, an unexpected announcement came down from on high: Bank #2, the one she’d given up a secure job to join, had just been acquired by a larger regional banking corporation, Bank #3. And since Bank #3 had its own credit card division, my future wife’s services, as well as those of numerous other employees, would soon no longer be required.
Now, call me cynical, but I’m willing to bet all of Bill Bennett’s gambling losses that a large commercial transaction of this nature didn’t just spring into life over the course of the very short time she had worked there. Not a chance. This sale had been in the works for many months.
Yet, not once during those many months did Bank #2 feel it necessary to mention to prospective new employees anything to the effect of, say, “Hey, bub, you might want to know that this great new job we’re offering you . . . you know, the one you’re betting your family’s future on, will probably disappear in a few months.”
No, they never got around to mentioning that.
I guess it must have slipped their minds.
(And yes, I know there could have been securities law issues involved in prematurely disclosing a pending sale, not to mention the potential of screwing up the deal itself, but they certainly could have taken steps like quietly imposing a hiring freeze, or making new hires expressly temporary, as opposed to simply lying to people.)
Were an ordinary human being to treat another person in this fashion, most people would readily denounce it as immoral behavior, if not out-and-out fraud.
In the case of large corporate employers, however, we somehow seem always to end up using different language — words like capitalism, free enterprise and employment at will.
Somehow, somewhere, sometime, someone decided that large corporations have no responsibility to be fair to the people who work for them; that the moral duty to treat fellow human beings with decency ends at the boardroom door.
Just ask Johnnie Jones.
I’ve never met Johnnie Jones; In fact, I had never even heard of him until three days ago when Horace gave me a copy of an article from the Wichita Eagle his daughter, who lives in Wichita, e-mailed him last Sunday. But from the picture and the description in the story, I can’t help but think Johnnie Jones is somebody I’d like: A big Santa Claus of a man, with the rough edges of a person who’s done hard, honest, physical work his whole life.
Here’s how he described to the Eagle his 32 years working at Boeing in Wichita:
“He said he’s seen lots of colleagues come and go and come back and go again during the endless cycle of layoffs and rehires tied to swings in the aircraft business.
“But he had never been laid off himself.
“He said that since 1972, when he started working at Boeing refitting B-52 bombers, he had worked hard, went years at a time without missing work, and even skipped vacations he was entitled to, in order to keep his high attendance record.”
Sounds like a good employee, doesn’t he? And assuming it’s true he’s never been laid off, it kind of seems like his employer knows that too, don’t you think?
But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that there’s little the American corporate culture values less today than the past service and loyalty of a company’s workforce.
And the same goes, of course, for any corporate loyalty to the communities where those workforces live and work.
Just ask Wichita, Kansas.
After over 70 years of operation in the city, Boeing announced last year that it had decided to sell off its Wichita commercial aircraft division — a potentially huge blow to a community and state that had supported the company in countless ways over the years; ultimately Canadian-based Onex Corporation stepped in as the prospective purchaser. Onex made it clear from the start that big changes were coming, and that not all current Boeing employees would be coming along for the ride.
Onex began the process, appropriately enough, by entering into contract negotiations with the unions seeking concessions; but as corporations are want to do these days, ultimately it decided to take matters into its own hands.
In what had the look of a carefully choreographed corporate dance, Onex publicly announced that unless its “best and final offer” to the Boeing machinists, which included a 10 percent pay cut and a substantial reduction in medical benefits, was accepted, the company would back out of the sale. At the same time, Boeing let it be known that were this to happen, it would have no choice but to take drastic actions likely including selling off the Wichita operations in pieces — an action sure to have a devastating impact on both the employees and the community as a whole.
Then, just last Friday, only a few days before the scheduled vote on this “final offer,” Boeing, without any prior warning, ordered all machinists to remove their personal belongings from company property; they were told they would each be getting a letter the next day advising whether or not they would be receiving a job offer from Onex. Only those who received an offer were to report back to work the next Monday (although the others would still be deemed paid Boeing employees until the sale went through, presumably very soon following an affirmative contract vote).
Johnnie Jones had a pretty good idea what was coming: Just two months earlier he had been given an unexpected transfer from a job on the military side of the company (not for sale) to what he regarded as a make work position on the much larger commercial side (being sold). He was fairly certain that he was being prepped for slaughter. He thought it was because of his age.
Here’s the goodbye letter Johnnie Jones (and others like him) received from Mid-Western Aircraft Systems, Inc. (the name Onex is using for the old Boeing operations):
We regret to inform you that you will not receive an employment offer from Mid-Western Aircraft Systems, Inc. at this time. Thank you for your interest in the new company and for participating in the employment process.
We appreciate how difficult this waiting period has been for you and we wish you the best of luck for your future.
Mid-Western Aircraft Systems, Inc.
Wouldn’t that give you a nice warm cuddly feeling inside after 32 years of loyal service?
And since he didn’t receive a job offer from Onex, he wasn’t allowed to vote on the contract offer. Suddenly, he was persona non grata across the board.
Johnnie Jones is 60-years-old. A picture on the front page of the Eagle showed him crying as he read the letter.
Sometimes, instead of the sudden fall of the guillotine, like the one that struck down Johnnie Jones, corporate bloodletting occurs through a slow agonizing “Chinese water torture” like process. That’s what happened at my wife’s new job after Bank #3 acquired Bank #2. There were no immediate mass layoffs. The individual kills came gradually over a period of months. You’d show up Tuesday and Beth was gone; Friday, Carl’s desk was empty. No one ever knew for whom or when the bell would next toll.
And in charge of it all was the Dragon Lady (that’s really what they called her). Although I never met her, the description I heard was of a stiff, very serious, “business only” woman in her late 40s or early 50s. Bank #3 had been in acquisition mode for a number of years, gobbling up smaller banks one after another. Her job — her only job as I understood it — was to oversee the process of incorporating the new acquisitions into the broader company. In other words, identifying and dumping those human resources whose positions were considered redundant, and then piling the extra work onto existing personnel.
It’s a funny thing about corporate America, however. There’s almost always a bigger fish out there somewhere.
And very shortly after Bank #2 was purchased by Bank #3 (even before the signs had been changed out), Bank #3 was itself gobbled up by a mammoth national banking corporation (Bank #4), another transaction that had presumably been in the works for some time. And the thing is, Bank #4 already had its own stable of Dragon Lady types, and apparently saw no need for another one.
According to reports that filtered back, the Dragon Lady was last seen storming out of her office at Bank #3, her personal possessions in her arms.
Like I said: In the end, we’re all Johnnie Jones.
Another story: It was at least 15 years ago; back when I was still practicing law. I was defending a pizza company against a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed she was injured in a slip and fall in one of the company’s restaurants. The owner of the company had meanwhile sold the entire outfit to a large multinational corporation — making a killing in the process.
As part of preparing the defense, I needed to interview the company’s former director of operations, the guy who’d basically run the business for at least the last 10 years. We arranged a time and he came to the office. Let’s call him Bill. Bill was silver haired, 55-years-old, sharply dressed and a man who looked very much at home in the role of a business executive.
But there was an unmistakable sadness about him.
As we talked, I learned that he’d been with the company for over 30 years, starting out as an assistant manager at one of the restaurants back during college and then working his way up. At least to hear Bill talk, he personally had a lot to do with the company’s success over the years, helping it to grow from only 19 restaurants when he started to over 100 at the end.
Then one day, as unexpected as a blizzard in Alabama in August, he received a call from the owner of the company, who was quite elderly by that time, telling him that he was selling the franchise.
Bill, who had no equity in the business, was 54 and out of a job. A full year had since passed and he still hadn’t found anything. The last position he’d applied for, an executive position with an out of state food services company, had attracted over 2,000 applications: Bill didn’t get an interview.
He was a class guy. Despite the bitterness he felt over the way his friend and former employer dumped him, he cooperated fully in the case. It was just the right thing to do.
As I got to know him, I had no doubt Bill would make some company a hell of a good executive.
But he was 55 and not widely known outside of his own small company. The prospects weren’t good.
Bill wasn’t alone, of course. Although this wasn’t the situation in his specific case, the truth is that figuring out new and creative ways for corporations to “downsize” their way out of aging well paid employees (while avoiding liability for age discrimination) has been a growth industry in this country for years now.
I’ll say it again: In the end, we’re all Johnnie Jones.
When the letters were delivered to Boeing workers in Wichita last weekend (regular mail for those getting an offer; special delivery for those like Johnnie Jones getting the ax), one of the employees who found out he would no longer have a job was Dale Swenson. In addition to working at Boeing, Swenson, ironically enough, is a Republican representative in the Kansas legislature. He told the Eagle he believed he had been a victim of the “mindset of corporate America to treat their workers like a cheap commodity.”
A “cheap commodity”: That says it pretty well, doesn’t it?
Work isn’t just about putting bread on the table, after all, as important as that is. For most of us, it’s a part of who we are; part of our self-worth; part of what makes us proud and gives us purpose. And to have that debased, treated as nothing more than a cheap commodity, is an awful blow — in some ways an even harsher one than the loss of income itself.
People have long talked in terms of the war between capital and labor in America: But that’s old hat. Capital won that battle years ago — a victory now deeply etched into the DNA of our economic culture. It’s reflected in the ballooning economic inequality in America, the lack of real wage growth for ordinary workers, the increasing corporatization of American politics, the well established decline in mobility between social classes and the general growing harshness of our economic order.
The battle today isn’t between capital and labor. It’s between unrestrained capital and everything else: True democracy vs. the power of K Street and corporate payola; protection of the environment vs. unlimited development and weakening pollution controls; a true marketplace of ideas vs. a narrowly held corporate media; public investment vs. private greed; a clean, safe and fair workplace vs. maximization of profits over all else; Social Security vs. a boondoggle in favor of Wall Street; and on and on.
And right now, with George W. Bush happily ensconced in the White House, Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist running Congress and a solidly conservative (and growing more so) federal judiciary firmly in place, unrestrained capital is running wild in the streets.
And people like Johnnie Jones, and for that matter people like my wife, the Dragon Lady, Bill and, in this context, even State Representative Dale Swenson for the most part aren’t being heard at all.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
On Tuesday, May 24, 2005 thousands of Boeing machinists snaked through long lines to cast their votes on the Onex contract proposal. It was a cloudless day in Wichita, too hot for comfort outside, but still a welcomed break from the severe thunderstorms that had rumbled through on each of the previous two nights. By all accounts the mood of the Boeing workforce was decidedly morose: Friends were suddenly out of work, and those who remained were facing a true Hobson’s choice: Vote yes, and accept significant reductions in wages and benefits as well as troubling changes in job classifications, or vote no, risking a very clearly threatened apocalypse.
And they voted.
And it wasn’t close.
By a margin of 57-to-43 percent they told Onex to go to hell.
Was it the smart thing to do? I don’t know. Boeing is a powerful corporation, and it has clearly decided that one way or another it is finished with commercial aircraft production in Wichita. It seems very unlikely corporate policy will now change in this regard. And if Onex really does back out of the contract and Boeing is unable or unwilling to bring a new purchaser in, the possible consequences, while I think it unlikely, could range all the way up to the catastrophic, both for the workers themselves and for the city.
But right now, I can’t make myself focus on all that: I’m just too impressed.
God do those folks have guts! Two corporate giants brought everything they had to bear on them, every threat, every stunt, every black op trick they could come up with and these ordinary American workers looked them straight in the eye and said, “Get lost.”
I’ll bet Johnnie Jones is damn proud of them.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001