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.
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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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