Job got you down? Imagine if you worked here. (This sequence started in the story, “Logical Conclusion“)
Part 5 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
Leon Jackson glared at the FW Diner’s new sign as he pulled into the parking lot. Its familiar curved roadway design had been replaced with a stylized ball-and-chain. “That’s disgusting,” he grumbled, glancing at his wife.
“Could have been worse,” Francine said, wincing. “They might have used a hanging tree, except the company was imprisoned. Maybe they should have shot it.”
Fremont-Wayfarer’s high-profile trial and conviction for stealing from its own employees had been the second case following the Supreme Court’s momentous decision to grant full citizenship to corporations. The first had ended in a death sentence, dissolving the company and throwing thousands of people out of work. This one marked the end of unbridled corporate behavior, for the court had imposed severe restrictions, replaced its board of directors, and assigned a new kind of parole officer to oversee its three-year sentence. The CEO was doing his best to make a buck off it.
As they walked towards the entrance, the Jacksons got a glimpse of some of the other changes that had been made. The big picture windows were now fitted with oversized plastic bars, complete with painted-on rust, and the interior was all institutional beige. But the most dramatic difference wasn’t evident until they’d walked in, for the wait staff all wore sunny yellow prison jumpsuits, and the young woman behind the register was dressed like some kind of back-room drone. It was ghastly.
She looked up and smiled. “Welcome to the FW Diner. Two for dinner?”
“I don’t think so,” Leon said sternly. “May we speak with the manager, please?”
Francine watched curiously as the cashier fumbled with an old-style push-to-talk microphone. Clearly, the bulky unit it plugged into was chosen more for prop value than functionality.
The man who approached them a few moments later was fitted out with Hollywood’s idea of a prison guard’s uniform. He extended a hand in greeting. “Hello. I’m Alizondo Klee, the night manager. What can I do for you?”
Leon ignored the offer. “For starters, you can explain what the hell this insult to the families of real inmates is all about.”
“Yes, that. Well.” Klee smiled awkwardly and looked down at his uniform. “How much do you know about the conditions of the company’s sentence?”
“How much do you know,” Francine countered, edging closer, “about what it’s like to have a family member imprisoned? About how cruel people can be when they learn there’s a convict in your family? Huh? Do you people think it’s all a joke?”
“Of course not, ma’am.”
“Then why did you let them do this? Why are you participating in this hateful parody of justice? Why?”
“Believe me, it wasn’t our idea. In fact, the union would have staged a strike if it hadn’t been for –.”
“For what?” Leon challenged angrily, cutting him off. “For a payoff? Did they promise you all raises? Or was it a threat?”
A jovial man approached from the dining room. “Is there a problem, Al?”
Klee turned towards him. “Randy, do you mind if I invite this couple to join us?”
“Of course not. Friends of yours?”
Randy shook his head. “No. We’ve just met, but I think we’d all benefit from a little chat.”
Leon sized him up. “Who’s this?”
“I’d like you both to meet Randolph Starling. He’s the man responsible for bringing in the death sentence on Consolidated Communications. He’s also had an interesting chat with the CEO of the company that owns this chain.”
Starling nodded in greeting. “Come on back. It sounds like you have something on your mind.”
Francine stood her ground. “I will not be bought off.”
“That was never my intention. Please. Join us. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
As they approached the table where Klee and Starling had been eating, a yellow-clad young man pushed another one against it and slid its two chairs over, holding one of them out for Francine. When she reached him, he asked, “Would you prefer steak or chicken, ma’am? It’s on the house.”
The confused couple placed their orders and joined the two men around the newly enlarged table. Then, Leon fixed Klee with a serious gaze. “You were about to explain why the union didn’t call a strike.”
“I was. But perhaps it would be better if we just let you see for yourself.”
The woman from the register walked over with two glasses of water. After she set them down, she said, “Hi. I heard what you were saying back there, and I want you to know that having the company incarcerated was the best thing that’s ever happened for the employees of Fremont-Wayfarer. It’s how we finally got unionized. Mr. Klee is not only our night manager. He’s also on the Board of Directors. That’s right. The union of this company has a voice on the board.”
Francine took a sip. “So tell me. Why do you put up with this? Aren’t the uniforms and décor demeaning?”
“It would be, if that’s all there was. Our first reaction was to strike. But then one of the members reframed it for us, showed us another way to look at it, how we could turn it to our advantage.”
“And that was…?” Leon prompted.
“It gave us a way to tell people why it’s so important to be able to constrain what businesses can do. At the very least, it starts people talking. If they get angry enough to say something, the way you two felt when you walked in, we can start to communicate. We can make sure people understand that there is a difference between flesh and blood people and legal fictions like Fremont-Wayfarer. Corporations were granted the rights of citizenship, but never ran the risks that people do, never had to face up to the responsibilities that go with those rights. But now they do. Now they can be killed for murder, or imprisoned for theft, just like the people who work and eat here. And because it lets us talk about this, it also defuses the taboos that keep people from talking about the folks they love who may have been locked up just like this company was.”
Starling extended a hand to the young woman. “That was great. Have you ever considered being a motivational speaker? Miss…?”
She shook his hand. “Barbara Woods. Thanks.”
“That aside,” Leon pressed, “why was this enough reason to buy into the idea?”
“There was a bit more to it than that,” Klee said as the cashier turned to go. “Edward Reese, the CEO, could have had the charges dropped by convincing the corporate community to relinquish their claim to the rights of citizenship. Mr. Starling here gave him that out, but he refused. At the first board meeting after sentencing, he proposed a scheme to keep the chain open by flaunting the company’s status as a convict with this radical makeover. For the employees, it came down to a choice between humiliation and unemployment, because none of us really believed that people would want to support a business with criminal ethics. But if we could turn the potential for humiliation into a virtue, into a conversation-starter, then we could not only keep our dignity, but also become a force for change. Every single employee of Fremont-Wayfarer, from the farm workers who harvested your salad and the truckers who brought it here, to the people working in the inns and restaurants, has, in a fashion, been deputized. They have all been charged with spreading the word about corporate criminality, with interacting with the public instead of acting like mute wage slaves.”
Several employees had stopped what they were doing and walked over. People at several nearby tables had put down their forks to listen.
“At a stroke,” he continued, “Edward Reese created an organized force for getting the people who work for every other business in this country to speak out against whatever criminal activity their own management may have been party to. That is why we’re proud to wear these uniforms.”
Francine looked up at the gathered staff. “I had no idea.”
One of them, a bearded man with silver hair, nodded. “But there’s still something missing. And I think you may be able to help us with that.”
“Yes. We’re out here talking to folks like you. What we don’t have is a voice on the inside of real prisons. I hear you have a relative inside.”
She nodded. “My brother.”
“I don’t know what he might have done, or even if he was justly convicted, but I do know there are a lot of people in prison for making choices forced on them by circumstance, and that those circumstances may have been contrived to make someone else rich. We’d like to find out how much of the prison population are locked up because what was done to Fremont-Wayfarer wasn’t a possibility yet, how many people have had their lives, and the lives of their loved ones trashed for the benefit of well-heeled scum like Reese and his corporate cronies. And to do that, we need you to join the conversation.”
She smiled. “I’m flattered.”
“You’re needed,” he corrected.
A boy from one of the nearby tables came over and stood beside Klee. “Can I ask you something?”
“Bobby,” an irritated older voice called, “leave them alone.”
“Sure,” he said, waving off the concerned woman. “What is it?”
“My daddy’s been locked up since I was little. Can I get an outfit like these?”
“So I can wear it to school. I’m proud of my daddy, and I want everyone to know it.”
Leon smiled at his wife and sat back. Dinner had just arrived. And he could enjoy it.
[Afterword: The story continues in “Going Down“.]
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack