Southern-Fried Management

The horror story of Lynchburg’s Peanut Corporation of America only gets more gruesome. This little company that operated out of a backyard garage is involved with the deaths of nine people and illness of 637 others in 44 states and Canada from Salmonella due to egregiously unsanitary working conditions at PCAs plants in Georgia, Texas and Virginia.

Stewart Parnell, the company chief who sold tainted peanut butter in food products used by school children, soldiers and the elderly, took the Fifth when interrogated by a Congressional committee this past week. His firm is now bankrupt, the plants are closed and Parnell faces possible criminal charges and a raft of civil suits.

Media accounts, especially by The Washington Post and Georgia newspapers, note that Parnell’s factories operated under horrific conditions. Rat and other rodent feces were widespread, roofs leaked and allowed defecating birds to fly about inside, salmonella-tainted vats of peanut butter continued on in the production process although company officials knew it.

And workers who complained were fired or otherwise intimidated.

What is amazing is how such treatment of non-union labor, coupled with food processing conditions straight out of the 19th Century, are still tolerated while the Employee Free Choice Act, which would level an uneven playing field when it comes to union elections is the Big Bogeyman across boardrooms and among right wing pundits especially in the South.

This reactionary behavior just shows how things really don’t change in the anti-union South and how workers are “simply luck to have a job, Boy,” and should have no say in how they organize, how they work or what contributions they might make to their safety and that of the company they work for and the public. I know of what I speak. My first job 38 years ago was at a rabidly-anti-union small town newspaper in North Carolina. I was a labor organizer and negotiator at The Virginian-Pilot when it was trying to force the local bargaining unit the recertify in the 1970s (it failed) and later worked twice for anti-labor Media General as a reporter and a manager.

The free choice act would allow workers thinking about exercising their legal right to organize to do so more easily. They would merely have to sign a card. Right now, the local or bargaining unit must hold a formal secret ballot supervised by the government’s NLRB. Problem is, the voting gives management a major and easy target to turn up the screws and intimidate workers into rejecting the union.

Right-wing editorial writers and pundits, putting on their funny glasses, naturally see it the other way. Here’s a gem from a December editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“The comically named Employee Free Choice Act, more popularly known as the card check bill, would essentially eliminate the secret ballot from union organizing elections and force companies to accept the unions’ most outlandish demands when negotiating workplace contracts. It would open workers to blatant intimidation by union partisans — forcing employees to declare publicly whether they support efforts to organize.”

The big and secret joke here is that Media General, owner of the newspaper, forces new workers to sign a document saying they have read and condone a “corporate philosophy” that Media General wants to be union-free. This is what has been known as a “Yellow Dog” contract that tries to take away the legal rights of workers to organize. We’re back to “You lucky to have a job, Boy!” Who is intimidating whom here?

Ditto, the pathetic Bacons Rebellion, the formerly erudite e-zine that has been taken over by a bunch of right wing public relations people, marketing salesmen, spin doctors and other hacks. Here’s an excerpt:

” . . . a major U.S. labor leader has already boasted that the passage of the Act will enable unions to gain 15 to 20 million new members in the next 10 years, thus essentially doubling union membership in our country. Labor union dues and revenues would increase by five billion per year resulting in increased union economic and political clout. Instead of simply leveling the playing field, the Wall Street Journal has recently opined that the EFCA would result in “union supremacy.”

Lawdy!

What’s needed in Virginia, especially in this downturn, is a major and sophisticated rethinking of labor relations. Unions should not be seen as a bunch of Hoffa thugs, workers can make important suggestions about safety and efficiency, and they can be partners with management.

For an example, consider a new book called “Why GM Matters,” written by a close friend of mine, Bill Holstein, with whom I have worked on and off for 23 years. Bill is an expert, former foreign correspondent with long experience writing about business in China, Japan, and other places. He was with UPI in Kabul when the Soviets showed up and he knows a lot about American and Japanese car companies. In his timely book, he contrasts how Toyota treats its workers and how GM used to:

“Part of the profound knowledge was based on a deceptively simple axiom. Toyota managers relied on workers to make cars, so it built a manufacturing system around their needs. For Toyota, this had led to a completely different relationship between management and labor. In the bad old ways at GM, management dictated what would be built and with what equipment. It really didn’t care how the workers made the vehicles, consequently, workers didn’t really care how good the cars were.”

I’d like to think that at some point, the Old South can get more sophisticated. But old ways, such as union-bashing by newspapers and “think tanks” along with corporate behavior like that of the Peanut Corporation of America, die hard.

Peter Galuszka


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17 responses to “Southern-Fried Management”

  1. I think GOOZE has got into some pretty provocative territory and to be honest… the viewpoint that a unionized workforce could keep a Corporate scofflaw in line – better than some bean-counter subject to the likes of an anti-regulation, anti-labor Administration has appeal.

    Let’s call it “balanced” business that represents both the interests of the share holders – and the workers and consumers.

    I highly value the voice of folks like Gooze Views in the face of the unrepentant “let Capitalism run amok” crew.

    To be honest, as of late, (not counting the most recent Presidential election), I find more and more to like about the way the European Union does business because the world-preeminent defender of “Democracy” and “Capitalism” has shown to be not a friend of the worker or the consumer but more a friend of the wealthy and subjugators of ordinary citizens interests.

    We have no better reminder of this than the current economic situation that is almost purely the result of unbridled, benignly- regulated capitalism.

    The last administration basically made illegal corporate behavior a virtue.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I thouht you might mention that Parnell’s sister is married to a Farwell.

    When this story first broke someone said that PCA’s CEO must not pay much attention at all those churches one hears about in Lynchburg.

    Otherwise right on Peter and Larry too.

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: You are mixing apples, oranges and turnips.

    There are several separate issues. None of them have anything to do with the South other than the accents of some folks (not me).

    The criminal behavior should be treated by the criminal justice system.

    If card check, whatever, for union organizing had a secret ballot, it might be a lot better idea.

    If union leadership didn’t act as thugs and liberal lackeys, then maybe they wouldn’t be portrayed as such. Heard a funny (pathetic) story in WV in 07 about a union guy who was so stupid that the union boss told the mine operator that he wouldn’t even let him slash tires during strikes because he would screw it up. Anecdotal, I know, but interesting.

    What remains is the fact that the unions, and in some fairy tale universe the organized shareholders, are the only force that serves the best interests of the workers against abuse in the workplace.

    There is a need for unions and a future for unions. But, I suggest a number of things need to change about the unions to make them better advocates for individual workers.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    JAB,
    Both of us may be using cartoons to make different points. You seem to insist that ALL unions are blue collar thugs. I may be pushing the view that all Southern managers are something out of 1960s Hollywood.
    Of course, neither view is entirely true but elements of both views may be true.
    What I make no apology for is questioning why companies such as PCA manage to exist. The Post story says that Lynchburg’s Chamber of Commerce had never heard of the firm before the salmonella stories. Perhaps, but where were the regulators? Where was Virginia’s news media? Why does it take Congress to do the heavy lifting here? And I do contend that there is a very Southern attitude among far too many bosses that riffs off the old plantation master theme. I’ve lived this and am not making this up. I’ll never forget how when I finally left the UpperSouth-DC area in a transfer to Chicago I was amazed at the very different worker-manager relationships. The workers were far more outspoken and put up with none of the management BS that Southern workers would.
    You are entitled to your views, but keep in mind that you spent most of your life in military service which is an entirely different world. Hey, I respect that so please don’t take offense. But I don’t think I’m mixing apples and oranges.

    Peter Galuszka

    Peter Galuszka

  5. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG: As I’ve said a number of times, it’s really hard to insult me now that my dog is dead. Insulting him would be personal with me. But, he is gone.

    The differences you saw may be cultural.

    I don’t insist that all unions are blue collar thugs – but that too many leaders are indeed corrupt,stupid, self-defeating,goofy social liberal – etc. But, I don’t have the experience to say what per cent is what etc.

    Whereas, you’re correct, I could make some insightful and accurate enough observations about military leadership (like most general officers are C students from state schools – which places them around the 67%-75% of the nation for intelligence).

    Again, I think there is a need and a future for unions. But, I don’t know what reforms or, in military parlance, changes in head space and timing of leaders is needed to get there.

    FYI, I heard a few years ago that 40% of union rank and file vote R in Virginia.

    If PCA broke the law, then that’s why we have a Commonwealth’s Attorney.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    JAB,
    I had no idea general officers were so stupid. I thought they all were Petraeus material. But then, I am reading Rick Atkinson’s second volume in his WWII history and you may have a point.
    PG

  7. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    PG:Tsk, tsk, you elitist! Smarter than 2/3 of Americans = stupid? LOL.

    The GOs, like any other population, fit on a normal curve. Dave Petraus is 3 standard deviations to the right. He taught in the same department I did at West Point – right after I left.

    Also, smart is a relative term. Being expert in a few key bodies of knowledge and having certain skills is what GOs have – and what makes them good generals and admirals.

    If you read about the post-WWII period, you can find where most Americans held the successful officers (like Ike) in high regard for winning the war, but the elites who enlisted and were drafted came away with a low opinion of dumbass officers. It’s an elite issue. LOL.

  8. I think we are dealing with some stereotypes here – all the way around.

    For instance, do we realize that the pilots of the planes that we fly and entrust our lives to – including the highly skilled chap who save a bunch of people in the Hudson – is also a union “thug”?

    But I do have a question about Petraeus – all of his peers and colleagues AND all of his superiors right on up to the Commander in Chief – NONE of them was smart enough to figure out the “surge” until he came along and clued them all in?

    If true.. what does that say about our military leadership?

    None of them could figure this out until he came along?

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Unfortunately, both unions and management have stereotypes that they have earned the hard way.

    That said, unions have more of an interest in good management and a continuing business than management has an interest in good labor organization.

    I beleive that
    Arthur Deming spoent a good amount of time n Asia and asian management took his teachings to heart. In the U.S. neither unions nor management seems to have figured out that the guy turning the screws is the screw turning expert.

    RH

  10. The story is that in a Japanese factory – that a factory worker than see’s a major flaw is not only supposed to stop the assembly line but if he does not, he could be punished.

    In American assembly lines, the worker who does something to slow or halt the assembly line is fired or if unionized – intimidated and threatened with reprisals.

    Demming’s philosophy is that BOTH Management and workers should take pride in workmanship and strive for quality which provides the customer with value for their money.

    This is why – virtually everyone knows what you get with a Toyota Corolla – and they know that the car has value – even if it costs more than other cars that compete in it’s class.

    Here’s the thing.

    Most humans start out wanting to do a good job.

    But most of them.. get told in a variety of ways that doing a good job is way down the list of things to worry about.

    Soon – they learn.

    you do what you are told and “thinking” is a threat to management.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    I think I learned that in fifth grade.

    I made the mistake of correcting a teacher – and being right.

    I’ve hated public schools ever since.

    RH

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Peter, It’s interesting that you contrast GM to Toyota in a post preaching the necessity of unions. How many Toyota plants are represented by the UAW (or any other union, for that matter)? Just asking.

    One more question: Do you honestly think that a unionized plant in Georgia would have imposed higher sanitary standards?

    As for Stewart Parnell, I don’t want to convict him before he has his day in court, but it sounds like his acts were despicable. He deserves what he has coming in terms of lawsuits and criminal charges. Also, Americans should bring back the old-fashioned practice of shaming those who disgrace themselves. There should be no place for people like him in polite society.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Mr. Bacon,
    The post does ot “preach” the necessity labor unions. It preaches the worthiness of better and more enlightened atittudes on the part of management with or without unions. Heavily-unionized GM, BTW, has adopted many of Toyota’s assembly line processes, unions or no. I am saying that workers have a voice and can work to improve the workplace.
    I know you’ll be giving me the usual anti-union stuff that GM is tremendously burdened with health care costs for unions and workers. True, but that’s a pact GM made decades ago in part to avoid socialized medicine. Toyota is spared those costs because in Japan (you got it!), there’s socialized medicine!
    Would a unionized plant in Georgia made a difference,?Can’t prove it but I’d say yes, definetly, just as unions have for decades called attention to unsafe work practices that jeopardize their workers’ safety and that of the public. I’ll get you a list if you want.
    As for Parnell being innocent until proved guilty, let’s just say that a number of people are dead and hundreds sickened. CEOs do have a responsibility and when deaths occur it is a matter of much greater importance than if the company lost money in the last quarter. Their responsibility goes far beyond “innocent until proven guilty.”

    PG

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    “Toyota is spared those costs because in Japan (you got it!), there’s socialized medicine!”

    You would think that the champions of business would have figured this out by now.

    RH

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    This discussion reminded me of a book that I read in the mid-1990s — “The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production.” The excellent book was about much more than lean production. As Peter said, Japanese production was about employees. Any employee could stop the entire production line to address a quality problem.

    Too many American businesses think that the way to start a business is to determine your bottom line financial result and then work backwards as opposed to asking how can we make a product or deliver a service that delights the customer and produces a good profit.

    TMT

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    TMT
    They are called “andon chords” On the Japanese assembly line any worker who spots a flaw can pull the chord and the process stops. In old-style U.S. assembly lines, if a flaw was spotted, the vehicle just moved on. If a worker reported it, he or she risked punishment. Now, however, GM has adopted andon chords since it has adopted Japanese style management.

    PG

  17. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, you said, “To be honest, as of late … I find more and more to like about the way the European Union does business.”

    I’m certainly not going to defend the excesses of American crony capitalism, but I would hardly hold up Europe as an example for emulation. Not only has Europe consistently had a structural unemployment rate significantly higher than America’s, and not only has its economic growth been slower, but now it’s going into a *deeper* depression than we are. It turns out that their bankers were even *stupider* than ours (if that’s humanly possible), and because their economies can’t generate sufficient domestic demand, their industries were dependent upon U.S. markets for growth.

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