Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Businessman to Listen To

Edward Filene must be turning over in his grave at the attitudes of both the National Chamber of Commerce and the local version.

A famous and successful store in Boston, Filene's was founded in 1881 by William Filene, German-Jewish immigrant from Prussia. Sons Edward and Lincoln took over in 1891. Inheriting the store in 1901, they became two of the nation's best-known businessmen in the early 20th Century.

Edward quickly earned Filene's a reputation as a customer-oriented store, but he was also a pioneer in employee relations. He instituted a minimum wage for women, profit-sharing, the 40-hour work week, health clinics, and paid vacations. He encouraged formation of the Filene Cooperative Association, maybe the earliest American company union. Most businessmen objected violently to engaging in collective bargaining or arbitration with their workers, and sometimes the violence was real and bloody. Filene, earlier than most, recognized that the workers were not his. He also helped pass the country's first Workmen's Compensation Law in 1911.

He was a founder of the Boston, U.S., and international chambers of commerce.

Of course, he was unusual. According to a friend, “He had a great distaste for material things, lived very modestly, never owned an automobile, and was scrupulously careful about small expenditures, all because he felt that he was a trustee for the money that he had earned and that the trustee-ship involved turning his accumulations into the greatest possible disinterested public service.”

In the 1930's, he cooperated with FDR, unlike most wealthy men. He believed that mass production, mass distribution, and worker purchasing power were the answer to economic depression. Roosevelt called him “an analyst who was able, by mathematical calculations, to make plain to us that our modern mechanism of abundance cannot be kept in operation unless the masses of our people are enabled to live abundantly.”

Henry Ford also saw that if he paid workers reasonably, he got better work – and his employees could buy cars from him.

Our business community lacks that vision.

Sadly, today's national Chamber of Commerce is a mouthpiece for the reactionary view on any issue.

The local Chamber didn't deign to discuss the minimum wage initiative with CAFÉ while there was still time to negotiate.

The Chamber also opposed the proposed new National Monument, a highly popular proposal that looked likely to help us economically. Years of discussions involved compromise with a variety of voices.

Yet in the final months, the Chamber submitted a guest column to the Sun-News calling for “cooperation” and “an issue agreed upon locally.” Proponents thought that's what they'd painstakingly worked out.

The guest column claimed there were “no provisions for BLM land releases for the future growth of Las Cruces.” But the areas close to Las Cruces, where such development might reasonably occur, weren't part of the proposal. Did they imagine housing developments on top of Las Uvas or the Robledos, or at Kilbourne Hole? There's ample room for such growth as we're likely to see – or should see, in an arid desert where we're already overtaxing our water supply.

After six years of community discussion built tremendous local support, the Chamber said “Wait, we need to discuss this.”

Shortly before CAFÉ had to finalize its wae proposal, a friend told me the Chamber now wanted to talk. He said the Chamber recognized something was going to happen, and wanted to help shape it. That seemed reasonable, if belated; but soon afterward another Chamber guest column rejected the increase and offered no alternate proposal.

Instead, the Chamber found three friendly city councilors and quickly got an inferior ordinance passed. (Remind you of Steve Pearce's clever effort to confuse monument supporters by proposing very minimal protection after years of opposition?)

I'm no expert. But Greg Smith's recent suggestion that increasing the minimum wage was a cause of the 2007 recession is nonsense. Dangerous shenanigans by banks, investment companies, and mortgage companies created highly risky investment vehicles and an overheated housing market full of bad loans. Officially, the main cause was “widespread failure of financial regulation.” No authority I've read mentions the minimum wage.

Economists don't agree that a wage increase will kill business. But I have good friends who own businesses in town and are strongly opposed to CAFÉ's proposal. I don't know that the proposal is perfect. I wish the business community had engaged in a meaningful dialogue while there was time for improvements.

The City Council vote was a perfectly legal tactic to confuse voters and defeat the CAFÉ initiative. It may succeed. But it was unfortunate. In spirit, the business community reminded me of a kid I knew who used to kick over the Monopoly board if he seemed to be losing.

William Filene, a founder of the National Chamber, would have had coffee with Sarah Nolan and tried to work out the best solution for workers, business owners, and the community.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 6 July.]

[In the column I mentioned two Chamber guest columns.   Earlier, I drafted but didn't finish a response to the one on the proposed minimum wage hike, and have added a bit of that draft below:

Chamber of Commerce President Bill Allen's recent guest column in these pages was disappointing. A mutual friend had me kind of expecting something reasonable.

Allen nowhere indicated a desire to work things out. He asserted blandly that no one would oppose a “reasonable” hike; but he never gave anyone a hint what he or the Chamber might consider “reasonable.” 

Rather, he took an extremely pessimistic view on the legitimate issue of how the hike would affect small, local businesses. 

Worse, he started talking about “outsiders.” Sorry, Bill. I remember being a civil rights worker in the Mississippi Delta. Fayette County, Tennessee. The white folks, startled by the nascent efforts of local blacks to free themselves, shouted about “outside agitators.” I was indeed an outsider, but we'd come in because local folks wanted and needed us. So “outsiders” has a tinny sound in these old ears, Bill. Suggest you stick to rational arguments on substance. Hell, Jesus and Buddha were probably outsiders in most of the towns and villages they visited; doesn't undermine the wise words they often spoke. 

It also strikes me if that “outsiders” label is a jab at CAFE, because it is not a purely local organization, then it applies to half the businessfolk in town, because McDonald's, UPS, Farmers' Insurance, Hobby Lobby, and the like are not purely local organizations either. They're huge international corporations that exist to make money for shareholders. If we close our ears to local members of CAFE, which at least exists to try to do good, then surely we oughtn't to listen to local employees or franchisees of business corporations, whose charters say nothing about trying to do good.

(Personally, I'd listen to everyone. But then, I'm an outsider. Moved here initially in 1969. Not sure about Mr. Allen.  But maybe we should just listen to J. Paul Taylor, Billy Garrett, Merrie Lee Soules, and Gary Esslinger.  And Robin Westbrock, when she starts talking.)]

No comments:

Post a Comment