I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

alive as you or me.

Says I, "But Joe, you're 70 or 80 years dead, and if you don't mind my saying so, that song about you isn't quite Schubert, or even Steven Foster."

And standing there as big as life, and smiling with his eyes, Joe says, "Eighty. And if the song inspired some people to work and take risks for the common good, you can keep the Art. But enough about me. How'd you like to know the next great growth business? The candidate for total re-engineering which can knock the socks off American business if it gets its moves right."

D: Why Joe, I didn't know you were such a capitalist. Are you up to some sort of trick? I warn you, I'm not investing in any new ventures, but OK, I'm curious.

J: Don't worry; this is one you can't make a profit from. But tell me, what's a formerly very successful operation, a major part of American life, that's completely out of touch with its constituency, needs a new constituency anyway, has forgotten its principles, and is disintegrating at a great rate--yet would fill a great need if it came to its senses?

D: Sheesh. I don't suppose you're talking about Bill Clinton's political party. The only other institution that's that badly off is the unions.

J: Got it in one. Read any good proxy statements lately?

D: Well, I've started reading them seriously for the first time in years, but what's that got to do with it?

J: Take it easy, all in good time. When you've been dead for 80 years there's no urge to be hasty. Why all the proxy reading, anyway?

D: Partly my large supply of leisure and the feeling that I owe some duty to my money in the matter of investing it right (sorry about that plutocratic sentiment, Joe); partly the current fad for worrying about corporate governance; largely because of having watched the degradation of a company that I used to be associated with.

J: So what do you find that's entertaining?

D: Well, 10 or 20 years ago management had an unwritten guarantee that once a guy got in, you couldn't get rid of him without paying him off to the tune of a year of salary and bonuses, maybe even more, in return for not making a stink. Even my own beloved company did that kind of crap.

J: A year or two of pay for no work, just because you leave. Sounds like a good enough deal to me. Maybe we can could arrange that for the United Mine Workers.

D: Wrong two out of two, Joe. No way it's good enough. These days it's common--I'd call it the norm, based on my recent readings--that top management has an ironclad written guarantee of 2 or 3 or 5 years pay if they get knocked off or feel that they just can't hang around any longer.

J: Aren't you getting carried away here? You don't really mean five years' severance?

D: I do mean five years, though I concede that that's not the norm yet. One company whose proxy statement I just read has a guarantee of 5-year severance payments for two of its VPs. One is the Chief Operating Officer, who at least arguably has some important relation to success in their business of making widgets for furniture; the other is the VP for mergers, acquisitions, and strategic planning. Gag me with a spoon.

J: Strategy eh? Yeah, I remember, when labor organizing was a kind of war, the Europeans decided to have a real war, and I sort of envied the idea of sitting 50 miles away from the action doing strategy rather than laying your ass on the line. But you said I missed on two out of two just now. I guess that means the mine workers won't get this kind of severance. But how about your friends? Are white-collar types getting in on this bonanza, or are they the New Working Class?

D: Now you're getting it. This part is so bad that even the Wall Street Journal has noticed.

J: Cheap shot.

D: Maybe, maybe not. The parts of that rag that report the news (not the third column from the right or the editorial pages) will often catch on to old news soon enough to scoop the rest of the press, I admit. Anyway, they ran a good story just recently, pointing out that a couple of years ago companies were cutting back people because of hard times, and now they're sacking more people because of good times, so that they can make their record profits even bigger; and even the Journal can see that this might have an effect on how well the workers will be able or willing to perform for the companies' benefit.

[Perhaps I was being unfair here. Since that time, WSJ has covered this matter extensively, and has even questioned how long prosperity can go on when increasing numbers of people have no income from which to buy things. At least they've caught up with Henry Ford.]

J: Do you think this is a real trend? Will it affect the really sharp sort of people that you associate with?

D: Well, back at my old company, management recently explained how after you finish a project, you can't just assume you'll be put on another one; you have to find an opening somewhere where you might be needed, and apply for it from scratch. If there isn't anything open at the moment, or you can't sell yourself properly, bye-bye.

J: Hmm. Ship a product, get laid off.

D: Publish and perish. This, of course, came from the Human Resources Department, which took the place of unprofessional people like K---, whom some people (not I) actually considered a pawn of management in whose hands confidential information wouldn't be safe from abuse by the bosses. How much better off the workers are now that there's professional HR management to look after their interests! Meanwhile, HR is also working on the project of generating proper class barriers by admonishing managers not to fraternize with the workers, so I'm told.

J: Does all this look ominous for your friends in the New Working Class? Did you even imagine that things would go this way?

D: Yes, Socrates. Thanks for the leading questions, Socrates. In point of fact it was 20 years ago that I saw the new class divisions coming along, and guessed that anybody who wasn't lucky enough or unscrupulous enough to get on the gravy train was gonna be pushed way down as the middle disappeared.

J: 20 years? Before Reagan? So you foresaw all this? Why didn't you warn everybody?

D: Before Reagan. And of course I didn't foresee how it would work, any more than I knew in 1981 how our new company would feel when it was a hugely successful company doing 100 million a year and still (for a while) fun to work for. Just a strong hunch based on what I saw already in the mid-70s. As for "warning everybody", get real.

J: Well, anyway, we all know that real programmers are a bunch of unmanageable individualist cowboys. Do you see all these guys and other cowboy-types fighting these trends with a Union?

D: The Hell you say. Does eighty years of being dead cause brain damage or something? The ones who don't despise unions politically on principle still can't stand them as a practical matter, just like me. But as the companies succeed in squeezing out the cowboys, things will change. And when some very bright person--hey, did you ever notice there are lots of bright people in white-collar jobs?--thinks of how to get people to defend their common interests by forming a union that doesn't walk like a union or quack like a union... Dammit Socrates--I mean Joe--you got me making your argument for you.

J: Surprise. But are there any signs that it's starting? What do you think of the famous cc:xxxSerfs memo?

D: I don't know what to think of that one. From its ending, it looks like a product of the Marketing & Accounting doctrine that software is always late and has the wrong features because programmers are all goldbricking; maybe the work of a provocateur who holds to that theory. That was my first take on it. But the piece shows too much of a serious understanding of what's really going on. A provocateur would be crazy to write something that good. And besides, it's literate. The style doesn't seem to be that of any of the company's founders, but there's hardly a line (outside the very last section) that I wouldn't be glad to have written. Where are the clichés, the misspellings, the bad grammar? If management has provocateurs this good, it's frightening. My theory is that it's genuine, but the part at the end about doing a slowdown is either hopelessly naïve or a desperate attempt to find some sort of bang-up ending for the piece: organizing effective collective action just doesn't come this easily--I'm telling you this?

J: Well, I know where the memo came from, and now I'll tell you what's going to happen to the way the brain-worker business is organized.

Bim bam boom and the dope gave out. Whoops, that song is Minnie the Moocher, not Joe Hill. Let's try a different ending.

Then Joe took out some cards of business consultants, economists, political consultants, reengineering experts, and thousands of pissed-off brain workers. The cards all started flying out of his hands and fluttering down on my head, and as I brushed them off, I woke up and found that I was brushing some leaves that were falling on my head as I awoke on a pleasant summer afternoon, ready to go in for high tea at Christchurch with Mr. Dodgson.

And then I woke up. Or maybe I was run over by a truck. I dunno. Joe didn't tell me how it's all going to come out, but at least I know how to end a piece that uses the tired old dream gimmick.

alive as you or me:

Joe Hill, IWW organizer; b. 1879; executed for murder, 1915.

"In Salt Lake, Joe," says I to him,
Him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge."
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."
See the whole lyrics.

When Republicans called the Democrats' social-welfare ideas "pie in the sky", they were paying homage to Joe Hill, who wrote, in part:

You will eat by and by,
In that wonderful land above the sky.
Work and pray,
Live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
[To the tune of "In the Sweet By-and-by"]
[go back]

proxy statement:
Proxy statement of Leggett & Platt Inc., 1995, page 11.

[go back]

Sorry, I can't provide copies of this scurrilous gem: it would violate the copyright of whatever sly fellows (and/or gals, of course) put it out.

[go back]

Date last modified: March 29, 2001
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