Just who capitalizes on 21st century capitalism?

My brother and I talked today about his employer refusing to deal honestly with him about his retirement benefits, after a 30-year career with 2 corporations now merged into one company. We agreed that big corporations all too often take advantage of their employees. 

Ken Lewis, former CEO of Bank of America where I once worked, is being sued by shareholders for misleading them about the size of Merrill Lynch losses prior to the 2008 shareholder meeting to approve B of A’s ill-fated acquisition of Merrill.

If corporate management tramples employee and shareholder interests, just who do they serve? Their customers?

Earlier this week, I called Duke Energy to add electrical service at a new address. Because I was going to have 2 accounts for a couple of weeks, my call did not fit the pattern that the automated phone service is programmed to handle.  I had to go through numerous automated menus before I was able to get a real person on the line to help me. At the end of our conversation I was transferred to someone else to “verify the transaction.” Prior to “verifying the transaction,” he insisted on trying to sell me something I did not want or need. I couldn’t get a real person to help me with what I did need, and I could not get rid of the person selling me something I did not need.

I think that many big corporations are clearly not focused on serving their customers.

In the 1980s when I worked for the bank, customer service Quality Assurance was just coming into vogue, and management gave QA the required lip service. But lip service was all it was, because then as now, top corporate managers primary focus is serving themselves.

Since participating in the May 9 Make BofAPay protest in Charlotte, I receive emails from protest organizers. Today a group called Jobs With Justice sent me an email with this content:

A Powerful Spring for the 99% – What do you think?

Submitted by Jonathan Williams on June 7, 2012

This Spring has been unprecedented.    Occupy organizers                     

In April, we launched the 99% Spring, a nationwide effort to train 100,000 people in organizing and direct action. Hundreds of people were trained, and within weeks they were hosting their own trainings for thousands of others.

99% Power turned that training into action. In a wave of protests confronting the worst corporate abusers, we’ve faced off with Wellpoint, Walmart, Sallie Mae, Verizon, Bank of America, and more.

And we weren’t alone. This shareholder season saw a record number of resolutions introduced by the shareholders themselves to cut CEO pay and to disclose lobbying expenditures. Shareholders of Citigroup, one of the largest banks in the U.S., successfully voted to reject a fat CEO compensation package. Meanwhile, dozens of companies have dropped ALEC, the shady organization responsible for creating model legislation such as the Stand Your Ground law that has received national attention in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

More importantly, we’ve begun to name names. We have begun to name the individuals responsible for destroying our economy and widening the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Many executives were shocked to find their names and faces on signs lining the streets outside of their shareholder meetings.

Workers at CJs Seafood, a Walmart supplier, shuck crawfish

Now, we’re continuing the fight from every angle.

This week, guest workers at CJ’s Seafood, a supplier to Walmart, went on strike. The workers, who were hired under the federal H-2B temporary worker program, even went to the police to complain of forced labor and being physically threatened for not working fast enough. When manager Michael Leblanc found out, he threatened violence against the workers and their families in Mexico. Terrified, the workers courageously went on strike and filed a U.S. Department of Labor complaint against the company. You can learn more about the CJ’s Seafood guest workers on our blog.

Yesterday, Walmart opened an investigation–acknowledging that something has gone very wrong in their supply chain. While the nature and timeline of the investigation are still unclear, their acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing is a significant step forward in our campaign to change Walmart.

Our online petition, shareholder actions, and direct worker organizing have forced Walmart to acknowledge abuses in their business practices. Now, we must take the struggle forward. It will take a massive movement along every point of the Walmart supply chain to change the largest retailer in the world, but winning will change more than just Walmart, it will transform our economy.

The Old Testament, written long ago, tells the archetypal story of David and Goliath, the little guy against the giant. Google it if you don’t know who won.

Wake up America!

May 24, 2012

Expect chaos when the political process breaks down

ku klux klan 2012

Today, Occupy organizers sent me a very disturbing link to information about an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina, my home state. The group is planning a cross-burning on May 26 in Harmony, North Carolina. Can you believe the irony of such a hate-filled event in a place with a name like that?

Because my international readers may not be familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this group and its history:

Ku Klux Klan, often abbreviated KKK and informally known as the Klan, is the name of three distinct past and present far-right organizations in the United States, which have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacywhite nationalism, and anti-immigration, historically expressed through terrorism. Since the mid-20th century, the KKK has also been anti-communist. … (I)t is classified as a hate group…estimated to have between 3,000 and 5,000 members as of 2012.

The first Klan flourished in Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid 1920s, and adopted the same costumes and code words as the first Klan, while introducing cross burnings. The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities. The first and third incarnations of the Klan have well-established records of engaging in terrorism and political violence…

Here’s what the Occupy organizer’s email had to say about this event:

We need to take this very seriously especially in light of the international, unprecedented capitalist crisis that has caused mass unemployment. Fascism started to rear its head a few years ago with Tea Party, fortunately there was a Left response from the Occupy Wall Street movement that helped shut down most that energy, or atleast the mainstream media’s obsession with it. These fascists are very dangerous, so we should also keep this in mind we decide to mobilize to counter protest. Our best self-defense is with a mass crowd and counter-rally. Comrades in FIST are beginning to mobilize for this rally on Saturday, anyone else down?

Here’s what I have to say about it:

This is very, very scary. We are living in dangerous times, and people need to be aware of what is going on. Our country is upside down and people are becoming desperate. Now that I am out of the rich enclave where I lived for many years, I meet people literally every day who are in very dire straits. Wake up, America! There is trouble ahead. The way of life that has evolved since WWII is about to blow up.  In America, when the political process is in gridlock as it is now, direct political action by grass-roots organizations is inevitable. Turn to the pages of American history written by the the 1960s protest movements to learn about just one of many episodes of such grassroots action in our past.

I turned to those pages myself today, and I was surprised by what I learned. Both protestors and police in Charlotte viewed the May 9 protest as a practice round for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this September. When I learned this, I recalled  vivid images from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that I watched on black-and-white TV as a 14-year-old. I remember watching police clubbing protestors’ heads as clearly as I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot. Both events were major shocks to the American political system.

In Charlotte I learned that protestors provoke police to get media attention. The 1968 police violence in Chicago demonstrates that this is a very dangerous game.

Occupy Bank of America Charlotte

Police arrest protestor at May 9, 2012 Occupy Bank of America Protestthat this is a very dangerous game.

But here’s what surprised me. I thought that the anti-war protestors were successful, and ultimately they were. But an outstanding, balanced 4-part You-Tube video about the ’68 Chicago convention reminded me that the violence the protestors evoked from the police backfired big-time. In the 1968 election, Republican Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, whose campaign was associated with the chaotic images televised the night he won his party’s nomination. The Vietnam War that activists were protesting went on for another 7 years.

The ’68 Democratic Convention now appears to me to be the event that pushed the political pendulum in the opposite direction, beginning the long swing toward ever more extreme conservatism that has brought us to where we are today.

I also made an interesting observation when I looked at a summary of political party control of the presidency and Congress since the early twentieth century. Prior to the financial system meltdowns of the Great Depression in the 1920s and the Great Recession starting in 2008, political control of both the presidency and Congress was held by the Republican party. This is fact, not opinion. It is my opinion that unchecked political power controlled by wealthy conservatives protecting their personal financial interests was a significant contributing factor to both financial meltdowns.

Yes, a Ku Klux Klan rally in a place called Harmony is ironic all right. But I learned long ago that God lives in irony and paradox, where opposites interact in attention-getting ways. God, the Spirit, Divinity by whatever name you want to call “It” is the Invisible Hand pushing the pendulum back and forth. At least, that’s what I think. And I do think. Not everybody does. Some people just act and react without thinking. That leads to trouble.

Protest Bank of AmericaReclaiming my idealism in the streets of Charlotte, NC

I’ve been getting a lot of criticism lately for being angry. I realize my anger makes other people uncomfortable. But anger is part of human nature for a reason. Anger is a motivator. When our souls are on fire, we are moved to take action. Anger gets us off our butts watching people on TV do things and causes us to take action ourselves.

Just in case you’ve been wondering, the Occupiers didn’t go away. Like sensible creatures, they holed up for the winter, planning their next move. Their planning has offered me a good outlet for some of my anger–Occupy Wall Street South, a march against Bank of America on Wednesday, May 8, in Charlotte, NC, where I lived for 30 years until July 2011.

I worked for nine years for NCNB, a Bank of America predecessor bank. I had been educated in business, a BA in economics from Duke and an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill. I call those nine years with NCNB “The Period of My Disillusionment.”

I still remember the day in 1981 when the bosses came around and “suggested” I contribute to the NCNB-PAC. I had just finished business school. There, students had presented papers in my “Business and Society” class, the class that was supposed to cover ethics. For some reason, many of these presentations had been about PACs (Political Action Committees). Student presentations are boring so I hadn’t paid any attention. But ever since the Enron scandal I have thought that we should have spent more time in that class talking about ethics. Filling class time with student presentations was a cop-out for that professor, a foreshadowing of the ethical cop-outs MBAs subsequently helped to unleash on a gullible world that had entrusted them with our collective assets.

I am proud to say I had the courage to decline the arm-twisting to contribute to the NCNB-PAC, a bold move for a new employee.  Later I did contribute, when I understood that inter-state banking legislation was needed so that U.S. banks could get large enough to compete in increasingly global markets. I contributed  because I understood the issue, not because of corporate pressure.

In my bank job I managed the budget process for the operations subsidiary, figuring out how to quantify and track cost savings from our mergers with out-of-state banks. This was important stuff, so I worked up close and personal with senior executives and got to see how these people think. Their behavior, what they thought and cared about, is what disillusioned me. These men–and they were all men at the time–cared far more about ego and self-promotion than they did about the business of banking.

People say women are emotional and catty. These men were consummate back-stabbers, slammed doors on the executive floor, pouted and sulked, and were never happier than when they got big fat raises to spend on luxury cars and extravagant houses. Some did their jobs well, some didn’t. If you were a corporate executive, it meant you had played the corporate game well and picked the right coattails to ride on.

My observations are not sour grapes. I didn’t get fired, I quit my bank job in 1990 to focus on raising my children.  So the behavior I witnessed was way back in the 80s, when Ronald Reagan had made greed and excess acceptable again after the idealism of the 60s and 70s. Greed and excess became increasingly out of control until the 2008 financial crisis, which wiped out the financial security of hard-working people all around the world.

I don’t think Americans really understand the pain that our culture of greed has exported to the rest of the world. The recession is deepening in the Eurozone, where unemployment has risen again to almost 10%. In France recently, I was surprised by candidate posters in a primary election railing against the havoc wreaked by Wall Street and demanding retribution. In hard-hit Spain, citizens try to cope with a drink called the Anti-Crisis sold at bars for an affordable single euro.

It makes me angry that the unethical, self-motivated executives and their political accomplices who got us into this mess continue to live lavishly, while ordinary people who trusted these leaders suffer.

I am grateful to the organizers who are giving me a chance to participate in this protest in Charlotte. I did not participate in the protests in the 70s because I knew I did not fully understand the issues. I have always tried to think for myself. Most people don’t. Most people look to others to lead, and they follow.

Our corporate and political leaders led the world into disaster and I am not ashamed to be angry about it. After living in Charlotte for 30 years, I know a lot of people there, and my actions will make a lot of them uncomfortable. But you know, a lot of people all over the world are damned uncomfortable right now.

I am glad to be taking my anger to the streets of the town that trashed my idealism. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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