What if corporations were treated like people? Opportunity comes in unexpected packages. (This sequence started in the story, “Logical Conclusion“)
Part 4 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
Alizondo Klee broke out in a broad smile when he saw the knot of picketers gathered around the entrance to the union hall. He walked up to a young man in a business suit, and pointed at the sign he held. “Is this as surreal for you as it is for me?”
The picketer glanced up at his sign. “We’re serious. Labor has no business in the board room. You’re not management.”
“You’ll have to take that up with Judge Clary. His orders were clear. One of the terms of Fremont-Wayfarer’s sentence for stealing from its employees’ insurance fund was a union rep in the board room.”
“What union rep?” He snorted. “There is no union. Reese wouldn’t allow it.”
Klee laughed. “There is now, buster, and the CEO didn’t have any say in the matter. Now, let me through.”
Things had been moving quickly ever since Edward Reese and his executive staff were read the terms of their company’s three-year sentence under the glare of intense media coverage. Fremont-Wayfarer was only the second corporation to have been convicted since the Supreme Court confirmed that legal fictions were to be accorded the full rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. The first had been sentenced to death, which, for a corporation, meant dissolution. A lot of people lost their jobs that day, and businesses across the country scrambled to clean up their act. Fremont-Wayfarer wasn’t one of them.
At the first meeting of the provisional board of directors, Edward Reese had proposed a scheme to take advantage of the company’s unique situation. Parole officer Claire Fuller, who chaired the board, had asked Klee to present the man’s insane scheme to the union membership. Surrealism was definitely going to be the flavor of the day.
Galen Kumar, the newly elected union president, called the meeting to order. “I’d like to thank each and every one of you,” he said after the chatter subsided, “for all the hard work you’ve put into making this the fastest growing union ever. Of course, the court order did have a little something to do with that.”
Shouts of encouragement tripped across the gathering, as did some choice remarks about the larcenous hyenas in the corporate suite. Kumar raised his hands for quiet. “On that note, I’ll yield the mike to Alizondo Klee, who recently had a chance to speak with the CEO on your behalf. Mr. Klee.”
“Thank you.” He looked out at the membership for a moment. “Payback is a bitch, isn’t it? Being able to sit down with the man ultimately responsible for all of the slimy cost-cutting, the ludicrous employment contracts, and the outright theft of your hard-earned benefits fund was absolutely delicious. Watching him squirm at questions from the company’s parole officer would have been worth paying for. It took a lot of work, but we succeeded. We exposed the corrupt underbelly of the company we all work for, and got the court to exact the punishment deserved by those responsible. So for the next three years, we have a court-ordered say in how this company is run, and how each of us is treated. It is up to us to find a way to retain that voice once the sentence has expired. One way to do that is to demonstrate how valuable our voice is to the success of the company. That’s what today’s meeting is about. Fremont-Wayfarer CEO Edward Reese has submitted a proposal to the board. I’ll lay it out for you, and then we’ll open the floor to discuss it. The court has given you a seat at the corporate table. Whatever we decide here will be the union’s position on that board.”
Klee thought for a moment. “We’re in an interesting situation here. The company itself has been incarcerated. Limits have been placed on what it can do. The executive officers are forbidden from leaving their jobs, and the usual lax governmental oversight has been replaced with the equivalent of prison guards. So let me ask you all a question. How many of you have had personal experience with the prison system. Either yourself or someone you know. Hands?”
A nervous murmur swept the room. Then, three people shyly raised their hands. The crack of a cough echoed in the stillness. Here and there, several others looked around, and added theirs to the group. After that, a wave of hands thrust skyward, to the sound of hushed questions from those nearby.
“Thank you.” He motioned for hands to be lowered. “I take it, from the reluctance we just saw, that it’s not a subject that’s raised lightly. Which I suspect means that there’s a lot of emotional connections involved. But there’s a good reason I’ve brought this up. Those of you who just identified yourselves have experiences and insight that the rest of us can benefit from. But because of the stigma associated with the prison system, it’s a part of your lives that you keep hidden.”
He paused, and studied the faces looking up at him. Men and women who had worked together, some of them for years, but who had never spent time getting to know one another. People who worked on company farms, who drove produce trucks, and who made, served or cleaned up meals in the chain’s restaurants. People who did their best to clean the shabby rooms in the low-rent motels, and those who drew tips from business travelers in the upscale hi-rise hotel towers. He made momentary eye contact with a few union members who had raised their hands, then scanned for people studiously looking away.
“Okay. Here’s the thing. Edward Reese is all about the bottom line for this business. We all know that. We also know that he’s not above making other people feel uncomfortable, or even embarrassed, in order to make that corporate buck. He sees the company’s incarceration as an opportunity, and he’s drawn up a scheme to capitalize on it. Since the company has, in a sense, been sent to prison, he wants the restaurants to look the part. To do that, he has suggested decorating them to look like prison mess halls, redoing the menus and the ads, and having the employees dress as inmates, guards and maintenance workers.”
The sudden rustling of papers and squeaking of folding chairs stopped him cold. He raised a hand for restraint. “Before we open the discussion, let me just say that Ms. Fuller, the parole office charged with chairing the board, didn’t think you’d go for it, but wanted me to report what you had to say before any decision was reached. So, who wants to start?”
Several people rose to their feet. Two of them started to speak at once, then they each tried to defer to the other, and laughingly sorted it out. The young woman who won the nonverbal negotiation turned towards the podium. “I’m Jan Littlefield, and I think Reese’s plan is as hurtful as he is. I make my living from tips, so I already have to wear a uniform. That may make it easier for customers to recognize the servers, but it also makes us seem like servants or even dumb robots. It’s demeaning enough to be forced to wear orange jumpsuits if you’re in prison yourself. But to expect us to expose ourselves to the ridicule heaped on real prisoners is unforgivable. I say we reject the idea outright.”
Klee thanked her, then pointed at the balding man who had deferred to her.
“I drive truck, myself,” he said nervously, “so what I wear is irrelevant. Oh, right. I’m Anthony Hsu. Anyway, I agree with Jan here for the most part, but there was something else that disturbs me about this scheme. From what I know about Mr. Reese, he always has some secret other reason for doing things. I doubt this is any different, so I’ve been wondering what else might come of suddenly exposing the public to the sight of people in prison garb. And it struck me that it would make them more used to the idea of prisons, like maybe to get them ready to be regimented in some way. I don’t know. Martial law or something. It’s just a gut thing, really. Thank you.”
The man’s comment must have struck a nerve, because a hushed commotion flooded the room. Klee covered the mike with his hand and waited for someone else to rise.
A white-haired man holding a blackberry stood and waited for the chatter to subside. “I’m Terry Guilfoil, and I had the misfortune to have spent some time in prison when I was a young firebrand. Those of you who know me have probably heard about the protest that went sour. The jury reluctantly found us guilty only because of how they were charged by the judge, and thanked us afterwards for having had the guts to speak out as we did.”
He looked around before continuing. “The prison system could have been used to re-engage people in a healthy social network, but instead it became a way to cull them. In some states, convicted felons permanently lose their right to vote. They lose their say in choosing leaders and passing referenda. Combine that with the social taboos about discussing such things, and you have an invisible caste of so-called undesirables.”
“But now, the Supreme Court has exposed corporations like this one to the same trap. Seeing Freemont-Wayfarer’s ass in the wringer has already had an effect on a lot of other companies. It’s what the threat of incarceration was supposed to be all about in the first place: a disincentive. But that’s not going to continue unless we make certain that corporate citizens being held in the correctional system do not disappear behind that same taboo.”
“I say we accept the proposal, but take control of the situation ourselves. That we use this opportunity to talk to people – the people who eat at the restaurants, and the ones who stay at the inns – about what they can do to make this situation work for the common good, and not just to punish the ones who misused their power.”
Klee raised the mike. “Would you remain standing, please? I think we should explore your suggestion further. What would people like Jan say to their customers, then?”
He nodded. “Well, for starters, they can talk about what their own company did to them. There’s bound to be curiosity. People will be asking questions, and we shouldn’t be shy about answering them. Once the subject has been raised, Jan could ask whether the customer knows about things that their own employer might be doing illegally. It opens the conversation. And more than that, it establishes personal contact, makes is absolutely clear that the waitstaff are people. I think it’ll bring people into the restaurants. Anyone who interacts with the public in the course of their job can do the same thing. Hotel housekeeping, for instance. Not too many people chat with them. This can change that. It will also raise people’s opinion of themselves. And that’s essential to revitalizing the social network in this country.”
After that, the discussion exploded with ideas. Even people who were initially opposed to the idea began to see how it could be turned to their advantage. The give and take went on for almost an hour, then one of the members called for a show of hands. Klee estimated the yeas and nays, and spoke into the hubbub.
“It’s settled then. We’re going to take this paper tiger and tie its leash around Reese’s neck. I can’t wait for the next board meeting. In the meantime, feel free to conspire among yourselves. This is one act of civil disobedience that will be fully sanctioned by the court. Let’s hear it for the First Amendment! Oh, and one last request: don’t mention this to the astro-turfers outside. Let them find out the way their masters know best: illegally.”
[Afterward: the story continues in “Serving Time“.]
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack