The FUNdamentalist

Good people, greed, and the corporate cult(ure): An insider’s view of Amway

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (February 1998)

FUN co-editor Richa interviewed former Amway employee Amy Schatner. Amy’s sibling, Sharon Schatner, who was there listening to Amy’s complaints during Amy’s years at Amway, also contributed. The interview was reviewed by Amy and edited. The book reference is to Stephen Butterfield’s 1985 book, “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.”

Amy: My aunt worked there and told me about a job opening. I went in and interviewed for this job — I was right out of college — they told me they had something more in line with my career. I got all excited. It turned out to be something where the distributors call in to get their items replaced when they’re defective.

So, I got in that way. I stayed there for six months, moved to another department for six months, then another department for about five years, then another. I was there a total of about seven and a half years.

Richa: Did you know anything about Amway when you went to apply there?

Amy: I knew it was a big company out there in the country where my aunt worked, and my brother. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about “corporate America,” I just wanted to get a job.

For the most part I pretty much did the same kind of work. I worked directly with the distributors on the phone. I moved up and I moved on. Each promotion gave me more responsibility and was more challenging.

I’ll tell about the good things first. They gave me opportunities to learn computer skills that I didn’t have before… [long pause] I can’t think of anything else!

Sharon: Well, the thing about Amway is, you get in there, they pay so well, they give good benefits, you have such security. I worked there for just a short time, but what I’m saying, once you’re in there, it’s kind of like a little trap.

Amy: The golden handcuffs. That’s a good point, because that is part of why I stayed there. The important thing to note is that I realized, probably in year two, that I wasn’t happy, this wasn’t where I wanted to be, I didn’t see it as my career, I didn’t identify myself with my work, and I always knew… I’m out of here any minute now, just any minute now. I never bought into it like all the other people I worked with, I never had the loyalty, the enthusiasm for the company. But, yet, I stayed there seven and a half years.

There were a lot of personal things that kept me there. Fear of failure, fear of success, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I decided at one point I wanted to go to graduate school and get a degree in psychology. So I went through that process, tried hard, and thought I had a strong application. I did not get in. A that point I was miserable enough, backed in a corner enough, so that I was just going to do whatever I had to do to get out of there.

That’s how I finally was able to get out of there, and became more blessed than I ever deserved, because I got a job that I love with all my heart. I mean, it’s very emotionally taxing and a very hard job, but I love this job.

But anyway, at Amway, there are things that would happen that I would talk about with my coworkers, and they would say, “Just don’t think about it.” For some people it is the only opportunity they have. People that live way out, they haven’t had educational opportunities…

Richa: Did Amway do things to cultivate or reinforce that attitude, that things should just be accepted without question?

Amy: Yes. Amway does an excellent job of building company loyalty. This is going to sound cynical, but I honestly believe it is not because they really, truly want their people to be happy, but because they know the value – the monetary value – of having a workforce that loves the company they work for.

I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. That’s kind of how I felt; that that wasn’t “the way to be” – so blindly loyal and blindly accepting of everything.

Just to give you kind of a funny story, they have these monthly employee meetings where virtually every employee of the entire corporation is invited…

Sharon: It’s mandatory.

Amy: No, it’s not.

Sharon: Oh? I was never told I had an option.

Amy: Anyway, the president of the company, or the vice-president, addresses everyone on how business is, and people can ask questions. Most often I’d go to these meetings – most people in my division did — because it was an opportunity to get away from the drone of work. It was near the holidays, and I came in and all the chairs had this blue sheet. It was a poem about Amway: “I go in every day, this is the way I like to earn my pay…” You know, just the hokiest, “Rich and Jay, hooray! Hooray!” I mean, just like that. I wish I could remember the lyrics. I thought, “What is this?”

Well, it was a song. And they got a piano out, and everybody was asked to sing this song. And I’ll be damned if everybody didn’t sing this song. I mean, everybody sang it! And they were happy to sing it, and they enjoyed singing it, and I just wanted to disappear! It was just the most bizarre thing. I felt like it was the Third Reich.

Sharon: The crowd behavior thing.

Amy: Yeah. It just didn’t seem like there was one person that thought, “This is weird,” or even, “This is silly,” or something.

Richa: I would think it would have been hard to tell.

Amy: Yeah. But I’m too rebellious, or maybe I’m stupid, but I didn’t sing it, and I looked around and it was like, these people are like sheep.

But I worked with some wonderful people, and some friends that I will always have. I just feel at the time they were all mindless, even though I know that’s not the case.

I could ramble on for hours, but the bottom line for me, my leaving Amway, feeling it was not a place where I belong, was greed. I worked on the phones with Amway distributors every day, all day. That was the bulk of my work for many years. Near the end of my tenure there, maybe the last two or three years — every once in a while we’d get to travel on these weekend “expos” where distributors would get together and rent this hall and they’d have speakers and they’d have expos of products. Quite a lot of contact with distributors. Greed, and all the ugliness that greed brings. That’s what I saw a lot of. That’s really what kicked my butt out the door.

Richa: Can you describe specific ways that the greed came through?

Amy: Boy, every subtle and not-so-subtle way. Distributors on the phone would be willing to be just a little dishonest, or just cheat a little bit in order to get more money. Lie to you to try to get from you, as if you had the secret of how to get more money. The distributor functions were… a lot of gold and diamonds. I mean, huge diamonds. In the Amway hierarchy they reach different levels of achievement, and they’re all represented by different gems. The highest one is diamond. “Go diamond!” is the battle call. “Go diamond!” everywhere you hear. And diamonds is one of the things people spend their money on.

There’s a monthly magazine they have called “The Amagram,” and they would always feature a “star” couple. They would be depicted in rolling his with their mansions. The pervading message was “You gotta have more! You gotta have more!”

I’ve go to say, the two founding fathers, Rich and Jay, I truly believe that they were, and they are, good men with the best of intentions and the highest integrity. The second generation, the very kids, I don’t feel that way about. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s just so big now that they can’t keep their hands on everything…

Another story: Remember, during the elections, when Amway purchased TV time for the Republican convention for the sole purpose of being able to air the convention? You know, they’re a privately held company; they can do that. That’s the way our system works in this country; they have that power. But what bothered me was I went to one of those employee meetings, and Dick DeVos stood up there and said they did that — a private donation that they never planned on being publicized — for the sole purpose of wanting to expose more Americans to the democratic process. And I though, “Why can’t you just say you’re Republicans and you want Republicans to win?” That just really bothered me. And I thought, this guy, he spins things so much as he goes along, that I don’t know if he really believes that, or if you spin things for so long you lose any objective perspective.

Sharon: Remember you told me about the meeting where they talked about something with capitalism, where they were trying to win everybody over to their way of thinking?

Amy: Rich wrote this book called “Compassionate Capitalism,” which had these different points, and they would do this thing during those meetings where they would show Rich talking about each point, a different one each time. He would talk about what each meant.

Richa: Did people pretty much buy that?

Amy: Oh, yeah, because there’s a certain ring of truth in that. I mean, there has to be, otherwise nobody would buy it at all. There’s nothing wrong with personal responsibility; it depends on the spin you put on it.

Sharon: It sucks people in with beliefs they’ve been taught all their lives, and it makes it seem like you’re just confirming what everyone knows.

Richa: I remember some of that from the book. It came very much out of a Cold War type of thinking from the 1950s, even though the Soviet Union no longer existed by the time it was published. But did those talks focus more on the personal?

Amy: No, it’s definitely economic theory, financial theory.

They are into making money, and they make no bones about that.

This is something that started happening just before I left. You’d hear a lot about “corporate culture”; how very important that was, the corporate culture you were working with, and how we should all “be on the same page.”

They have this little thing called “Culture Seminar” where you spend half a day eating doughnuts and drinking coffee and watching videos and doing exercises, about trying to identify with an Amway distributor and who would like to be an Amway distributor. Part of that is watching the video that shows a typical distributor: They’re trying to work a full-time job, and take care of kids, and build their business in their spare time. So all their evenings and all their weekends are spent at Amway functions. That’s no kidding: I mean all of them. And their kids — I couldn’t believe this: The video would show, “Mom, dad, come and toss the ball with me.” And mom and dad would sit down and explain that they’re building their future, blah, blah, and the son was just kind of, “Whatever.” And the weekend comes and they drag him out of town again for this distributor function yet again, and there’s the whole problem of the babysitter. The kids are tired, the parents are tired, the babysitter goes home. The kid never did get to toss that ball, but “you’ve reached a different level, and I understand how great that is, and I’m so proud of you” and we’re all just a great big happy family. Then they turn the video off, and I’m thinking to myself, did anybody see how sick and wrong this is? That these kids have no parents? Then I though, okay, maybe I’m the only one that sees it that way; maybe I’m nuts. But somebody did say something; somebody did say, “Boy, I don’t know about those kids?”

Richa: I should think it would be hard in that corporate culture to say anything at all critical or questioning.

Amy: Right. It is.

One more story. My department purchased a type of technology that cost almost a million dollars. I don’t want to say just what it is or what department because there are still people there that I really care about, and I don’t want to see them be hurt. Real expensive technology; state of the art. We were the only ones in the company to have this technology at the time. Well, they wanted to be sure the employees were really going to use it and buy into it. It was a way to help them do their jobs more efficiently and easier. You know, people who have been doing the same job for a few years – it’s hard for them to change the way they do things, so it was rather hard to get people to use it.

So they had a meeting to explain this new technology. And during this meeting my boss said, “You have to use this system [X] times a day.” Somebody raised their hand and said, “I don’t need it. I know this stuff.” And she said, “I don’t care, do it anyway. Just use it.” And I said “Why?” (You learn not to ask “why?” because you get slapped in the face; nevertheless I asked, “why?”) And she said, “We have to show that we’re using the system. We have to show the person — you’d know who it was if I said it — we have to prove to them that this is a good investment. We have to show a return on the investment, and we have to do it fast.” And I said, “You want me to lie about how often I use this, and how often I need this?” And the answer was “Yes.” And by that time I had been pushing it, so the answer was, “YES, and PLEASE shut up!”

I’m sure that happens everywhere across America; it’s not unique to Amway.

Richa: That’s the only time such a thing happened?

Amy: That was the only time I was blatantly asked to lie, other than my old supervisor saying, “Tell ‘em I’m not here” kind of thing. And this is from a woman who I respect. She’s a neat lady. I mean, I like her. And I think that it was just another case of, she didn’t just sit down and say, “You know, I’m asking people to lie for me.” She was so intimidated by her manager, and so afraid, that she just did what she though she had to do. And she probably wouldn’t even remember it.

That incident, more than anything else…that was near the end…I though, I can’t do it, I just can’t play the game any more. And there was no way that I could play the game, and sort of melt into the background. They would see it, because the numbers would show that I was not using the system.

Richa: Getting back to the distributors, Butterfield wrote that only 1-2% of distributors ever make, or ever can make, the way Amway’s system is set up, enough money to comfortably support a family. In talking with distributors every day, did they ever indicate that they had an idea of the odds against them? Did they have a sense of the frustration in trying to do that, or the structure that makes it so hard to do that?

Amy: Absolutely. I remember probably four years ago hearing that the average direct distributor earned $30,000 a year. You have to have reached a certain level, and you have to have so many people under you who have reached a certain level, to become a direct distributor. The vast majority of the people I talked to were not direct distributors; were nowhere near being direct distributors. I mean the vast majority.

Every so often you talk to a high roller, but that was unusual.

I always attributed that to the nature of my job. People who need my help may be somebody who is not as experienced.

But I think there are a lot of people out there who get into the business because they think that they’re going to get rich, and they’re going to have a nice annual income with moderate effort. And that’s just not the case. That’s not going to happen. You won’t make real money unless you are like, one of those people who are in the video, who puts that much into it.

The whole nature of that, the whole lifestyle, you have to buy into. They want to make their employees more and more thinking like the way their distributors think. You have to think Amway, and breathe Amway, have Am-friends, and Am-products. It scares me! That kind of lack of creativity. It just makes me very uncomfortable. It brings out the worst in people, and that’s where you see the greed.

Richa: Did you see that being true for the employees as well; the people you worked with?

Amy: No. The people I worked with were pretty much normal people.

I love the paycheck, but you have to sell your soul for that time and a half because you’re smiling and you’re acting like, “This new product is just the living end!”

There’s always this mystery to me about why people are so willing to throw out their feelings about things and just buy into this. It’s not people who just don’t have any other opportunities, or people who aren’t terribly bright.

Sometimes, they’d send us to meetings, and you’d get to fly, and stay in nice hotels. You’d be there with all distributors representing the corporation, and you’d smile and wave, and they would all want to know about what it’s like to work for Amway. On one hand, they think it’s so great, but on the other hand, they just can’t believe, “Boy, I can’t believe, why aren’t you an Amway distributor? We know what this business can do!” These are doctors, a construction worker, an accountant, or something like that… It kind of reminds me of the games with fraternities or sororities, “I’ve got to belong” or something; be part of the group.

Richa: What about these meetings for distributors you mentioned. What would they be telling people?

Amy: People who work at the corporation in a certain department that distributors work with a lot would come on stage, and the distributors would get very excited about these corporate people. If you were a family member — anybody named DeVos or VanAndel — tears would come to their eyes. They were very moved even to be in the same room. They could say or do anything, and [the distributors] were just very thrilled.

I just want to say that all these great and noble reasons for me not working there are not it. I mean, that’s not completely why I am not there. I have to say that the very personal nature of my work was very difficult for me. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like it when people aren’t fair, and aren’t nice and kind. People aren’t going to be fair, whether it had anything to do with me or not. And just by the nature of my work I had to deal with that and I just didn’t like it. I used to be good at it, but I just didn’t like it.

So maybe, if I had a job that was creative, where nobody asked me to lie, where I did work that I could say I was proud of, and that kind of enriched me, after all I just said, I might still be there.

I took a pay cut to leave that job, and I would take a pay cut to do anything that was better than that; better for me, for my soul.

Richa: When you first applied, did you have any knowledge at all of the fraud, forged documents, dummy corporations in Hawaii to cheat on taxes, that sort of thing that had gone on and gotten a lot of publicity in the corporate media? Or did you learn about some of those things while you worked at Amway?

Amy: That all happened before I came there. When I first came there I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing. It just kind of had to slap me in the fact before I woke up. I would hear references to it and people would make jokes about it, but I never really got into that whole story.

There was a sense of people around me that we should be grateful to have a job. We should be grateful we were given the opportunity to work.

Sharon: And to have such a good job, because the company is so good to you. And they do things that make you feel you are very lucky to have a job because you’re sitting at a phone or whatever, you’re making nine or ten dollars an hour..

Amy: When I left I was making $15 an hour. Now that’s a lot of money.

Sharon: And all the benefits and bonuses.

Amy: And some people made more money than that, who didn’t have a degree. For them, darn right, they were very grateful.

For me, little things too. Like, I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat or fish or poultry. To people I worked with, that was a freaky thing! I mean totally freaky, crazy. They’d tease me constantly. Not in a mean way. Just, they’d never let go of the fact that they really felt that was bizarre.

Richa: Did it seem to you, as Butterfield wrote, that Amway had characteristics of a cult?

Amy: You know, a lot of people refer to Amway as a cult. I don’t think they are a cult in the sense that most cults are, but the distributors (“distributor organization”) use a lot of tactics that are very similar to cults. It is very much a pure world and if you diverge… Anybody who isn’t “with” that is either a “negative person,” or at their most generous, somebody who “just isn’t quite ready yet.

Privileged People Get Together to Talk about Racism

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1998)

From October through December, the Grand Rapids Magazine provided us with a look at how arrogant and candid rich white people can be. Not that this was the intention of the local glossy mag, rather it was the outcome of their organized chat group of privileged people from the area who came to discuss racism in Grand Rapids.

The “dialogue” took place in June and consisted of 5 white folks, 2 black people, 6 men, and one woman. All seven people represent significantly privileged economic sectors of the community: Peter Cook – Chairman of Mazda Great lakes; Stephen Drew – partner with Drew, Cooper & Anding; Tom Regis – Regis Reality; Diana Sieger – President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Dan West – GRPS Board of Education; Casey Wondergem – Amway Senior Public Affairs Counsel; and Bob Woodrick – Chairman of D&W.

It would be relevant to the discussion here to note some of the other connections that members of this dialogue group have in the area. Casey Wondergem is a member of the Downtown Development Authority, the non-elected body of rich, white men, that use tax payers money for “development” projects in downtown Grand Rapids. Peter Cook, according to Russ Bellant’s book The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, is very active in religious right activities. He is part director of Gospel Films Inc. in Muskegon, a media forum that promotes religious intolerance and political theocracy. Cook also is a major donor to TEACH Michigan, an anti-public schools organization, Campus Crusade, Focus on the Family, the right-wing Media Research Center, Michigan Family Forum, and the Acton Institute.

Having said all that it is not my intention to dissect the text of the “racism dialogue,” instead I only wanted to mention some of the things said and encourage our readers to get a copy of the October, November, and December issues of the Grand Rapids Magazine.

All of the white members of the panel, except Bob Woodrick, either down-played racism in Grand Rapids or simply denied that it existed at all. Peter Cook said, “I hate to say this, but most of the racist comments I hear come from the black community against the white community.” Tom Regis scapegoated Sidney Rhoads Jr. (who does a show on GRTV) for creating negativism in the community. Sidney apparently said that blacks feel cheated because they created the wealth in this country that the whites have. It would seem that Mr. Regis doesn’t think that history has anything to do with our present situation.

Casey Wondergem probably topped them all in ridiculousness with a comment that I thought was no longer tolerable in most common sense circles. He said “some of my best friends are African Americans.” After picking myself up off the floor from laughter, I came to my senses and saw that what the whole discussion was revolving around was not really racism, but classism.

While both West and Drew contributed the more intelligible comments, neither of them questioned the economic inequity that exists in our community, nor that most people of color are disproportionately poor in this community. Tom Regis’s idea of the community coming along way was the example of Casey Wondergem arranging a party at the University Club with Dutch and non-Dutch people. Radical indeed.

Reading this discussion made me realize even more how out of touch with reality people in power are. Their words were self-indicting as to their ignorance, indifference, and complicity in creating and maintaining structures that exploit and exclude people in this community.

Everyone needs to read this series of articles. Make copies and pass them on to friends. Let’s start our own discussion groups and submit the results to Grand Rapids Magazine or suggest real people in the trenches to be part of another discussion group for their mag. Maybe FUN will organize one for the next issue. Who do you think should take part.

Press Censors Some Citizen Input on New Police Chief

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1998)

Only 20 people showed up for a public forum on input for what kind of police chief the City should hire. These 20, however, were not short on ideas. The Press, instead, chose to report on the less significant aspects that were presented by the public.

Only 2 of the twenty were mentioned by name or quoted in the article. In fact, City manager Kurt Kimball got more print than all the citizens present combined. The ideas reported were the need to hire from within the department, an honest chief, dealing with rogue cops, and some mention of sensitivity to “racial and economic diversity.”

What a disservice to the Grand Rapids public. People had some great ideas, ideas that came from a real community/neighborhood perspective. Dave Bulkowski who is with the Peoples Transportation Forum and the Center for Independent Living urged the new chief to be sensitive to people with disabilities. Frank Lynn, with Catherine’s Care Center and a long time neighborhood activist, came whole list of ideas, none of which were mentioned in the Press article of Nov. 12.

Frank suggested that the police chief work closely with neighborhood groups, that the police work should be rooted in the neighborhoods in a collaborative effort. The chief should also be about economic reinvestment into the core city neighborhoods as a preventative measure against crime. This could be done by supporting the re-directing of seized drug assets back to neighborhoods most effected by drug related crime. Frank also suggested that more alternatives to crime should be employed to take some offenders out of the cycle of crime.

Other comments suggested that the chief take a strong stand against police brutality, which was a much different statement than what the Press ran. The issue of sensitivity to the diversity in the community was actually stated as sensitivity to racial, cultural, gender, and class diversity in the community. I found it interesting that class was changed to economic.

In addition was the concern about the process of public input. Before the public was invited to participate the City Commission voted to give a $27,500 contract to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct a search for the next chief. If the city will consider hiring within the department why hire a DC base firm? It seems to me that the public input process is a bit of a token or a wish to put on the appearance of following a democratic process.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that someone raised the issue of the chief of police being more accountable to the public. As it now stands the chief is accountable to a non-elected official, the City Manager…Kurt Kimball. This was conveniently omitted from the Press article, maybe because it went more directly to the point of a real democratic process with the next police chief.

Local Think Tank Invites Media Pundit

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1997)

On October 20, for $7 you could have heard ABC’s 20/20 personality John Stossel speak on “Greed and Freedom.” Sponsored by the Acton Institute, Stossel was to speak about the evils of regulation and the “unnecessary level of fear that exists for the American consumer.”

Of course Stossel would say this, he works for ABC, which is owned by Disney, a company that makes its money off of the slave labor of mostly women in poor countries around the world. Stossel, who used to be a consumer advocate and activist-reporter has now become one of corporate America’s favorite pundits. According to Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon in their most recent book, Wizards of Media Oz, Stossel has been producing bogus shows on 20/20 like “Much Ado About Nothing?” where he questioned the bans on unsafe chemicals or “The Town That Loves Garbage” where he hailed landfills and belittled environmentalists who worked for conservation.

Stossel was such a hit with big business and ABC that he eventually began hosting hour-long specials. One entitled “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” was a critique of the federal regulations aimed at the chemical industry. “Unknown to viewers, two of the three producers hired to work on Stossel’s special had resigned–because their research, including data that showed product safety regulation to be cost-effective, did not conform to Stossel’s preconceived beliefs (Wizards, pg. 20).”

Also according to Cohen and Solomon, Stossel gave a speech in 1994g to the “American Industrial Health Council” – a group that includes Du Pont, Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, and Squibb – telling the firms what they wanted to hear. Stossel claimed that the EPA and the FDA should be abolished. The Council paid Stossel $11,000 for the speech.

Increasingly there is less and less distinction between the “news” companies and those they are doing stories about. Stossel himself is quoted as saying “I have come to believe that markets are magical and are the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market.”

The Sweetened Version of a Modern Day Crusader

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1997)

On Saturday, October 18, the Grand Rapids Press ran a front page of the “Religion” section article on Campus Crusade for Christ co-founder Vonette Bright’s recent talk in town. Press writer Joane Sher tells us that Bright was hosted at Calvary Chruch, the mega-church located just off the East Beltline with a seating capacity greater than DeVos Hall.

The article quotes Bright frequently on the importance of women being witnesses, sort of a compliment to the growing men’s movement known as the Promise Keepers. The article also gives us quote a bit of background on both Vonette and her husband Bill, how they met and co-founded the Campus Crusade for Christ movement in the early 1950g’s. Interestingly, nothing much is said about what Campus Crusade has done, nor what its mission is.

Founded on the campus of UCLA in 1951g, Bill Bright’s goal was always to promote an ultra-conservative Christian worldview. To counter the anti-war movements on campuses in the 1960g’s, bright organized the Christian World Liberation Front. The group eventually split off to become what was known as the “Jesus Movement.”

In the 1970g’s, Bright went worldwide with a huge crusade in South Korea called “Explo 74.” The crusade was endorsed by South Korean leader Park Chung Kee who was notorious for being repressive. The site of Bright’s headquarters for the South Korean campaign was located on a spot that was donated by the government, which was the scene of a bloody battle between Park’s military and squatters in 1968g.

In 1973g, Bright co-founded Third Century Publishers, a conservative evangelical publishing house to promote a right-wing economic agenda and a neo-theocracy approach to government. Amway co-founder Rich DeVos was also involved with the project. In 1987g, Bright was personally invited by President Reagan to be a part of a dinner meeting with Salvadoran President Duarte and his military brass. Bright attended and there was no mention of his challenging Duarte for his bloody campaign against the Salvadoran people, nor Reagan’s military and financial support of the bloodbath.

These are only a few omissions from the Press article on an ultra-conservative movement leader while in town. This should not surprise us in a religious political atmosphere that praises the Promise Keepers and demonizes women who question their agenda. (Some of the info in this article comes from Sara Diamond’s book Spiritual Warfare)

Cow Diseases and Mad Humans

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Since late March the corporate media has been giving us “stories” about what the dead cow industry calls “Mad-cow” disease. From the very beginning only two issues have even been discussed; how does this effect the dead cow industry and will this disease harm humans. Certainly i am not unconcerned about human health and well being. but the media coverage to this point has laid the blame at the feet of cows. According to Jeremy Rifkin’s book Beyond Beef “Scientists suspect that Bovine spongeform encephalopathy (BSE also known as mad-cow disease), which is incurable, is caused by feeding cattle offal (butchered sheep parts) from sheep infected with scrapie.”(pg. 143) If we follow Rifkin’s position on this, the “mad-cow” disease has in effect been manufactured by the systematic breeding of cattle by humans for human consumption. This systematic breeding has produced all kinds of diseases and suffering for the animals that will eventually be killed for human consumption. But now that the disease could harm human, and more importantly, harm corporate profits the media has decided to make it an issue.

This “mad-cow” disease has struck Europe before. In 1986g it hit British herds and within 4 years had caused the death of 16,000 cattle. What BSE does is eat away at the cow’s brain, “causing it to become spongelike in appearance.” Nowhere have we seen in the corporate media any honest discussion of what pain and suffering this causes the cattle: This should be of no surprise since millions of animals are murdered daily for the sole purpose of human consumption and that is not really even viewed as a relevant topic for discussion.

On a local level these media sins of omission take on an added dimension of disgust. On Wednesday, March 20, a local group known as West Michigan for Animals organized a public gathering for National Meat-Qut day. This was in conjunction with actions taking place all across the country calling upon people to abstain from eating animal flesh. Some 30 people gathered outside of a McDonalds on Michigan Ave. to hold signs and pass out flyers.

The group was primarily made up of high school and college age folk who brought with them their energy and rage on behalf of non-human animals. The only corporate media coverage was that of Channel 8 and they provided no reporter only a camera person. They did run a short sound bite at l1:00pm, but did not take advantage of making any connection to the current “scare” surrounding the “~-cow” disease. The Gran4 Rapids Press is always whining about not .covering events unless there is some local connection. What better opportunity to McDonalds, that most sacred of places for fast food devotees. Certainly can not be, demonstrating in front of BIG business. Maybe it was because the participants were young and outwardly rebellious. Of course, if they had been youth engaged in denouncing abortion or making a pledge of abstinence from sex the media would surely have been there en masse. In the end it seems to me that the corporate media does not want to discuss or allow others to discuss cow or any other animal humans consume; because they refuse to discuss the horrific-suffering and carnage that is perpetrated by humans, mad and sane alike, against animals.

“With BSE there are two issues where agriculture is vulnerable to media scrutiny. These are the practice of feeding rendered ruminant products to ruminants and the risk to human health.

The mere perception that BSE might exist in the US could have devastating effects on our domestic markets for beef and dairy products… How the American public and foreign markets respond will depend on their confidence in the US Government and particularly in APHIS (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). The media will play a tremendous part in conveying this information to the public. Thus, our relations with the media will play a vital role in this issue.”

Debt, Deceit, and Death: How Vern Ehlers Misleads Citizens

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

At recent “town meetings” with 3rd Congressional District Rep Vern Ehlers, attendees received various information about the federal budget. That information (which continues to be passed out despite having become dated) includes a budget breakdown which is shown in a pie chart and a line graph that is supposed to indicate the “path to a balanced budget”.

The pie chart that constitutes graph 1 includes Social Security and other “trust funds” that are supposed to be collected and administered separately from general funds. By lumping those funds together, trust funds are made more vulnerable, and military spending is made to seem like a smaller portion of the overall budget. The government has lumped these funds together in this way since 1968, when Lyndon Johnson wanted to make spending for the USA war against Indochina appear to be less of a drain on funds than it really was.

In addition, interest on the debt seems to be understated. That interest is now over $300 billion annually. According to the War Resisters League, 80% of it, conservatively estimated, is the result of past military spending. When those facts are taken into account and separate trust funds are removed, the military proportion of spending jumps to about half

Vern Ehlers indicated that balancing the federal budget is very similar to balancing a family budget. When there is less Inoireyav3llable, then “tough choices” have to be made.

Getting to specifics, co noted that reductions in Social Security payments have been consistently opposed, though suggested that such things as raising the retirement age (which amounts to a reduction in payments) “may have to be considered”. As for military spending, which Vern’s chart labels “defense”, co said it has already been reduced by 20% and we can hardly reduce it more while expecting to be able to meet the Pentagon’s criteria of being able to wage two simultaneous wars at any given time.

Vern cited the present military activity in Bosnia as one example of why a continued high military budget is needed. It is as good an example as any. With consistent media reporting on how USA troops have reluctantly entered a violent situation in order to mediate peace, it is relatively easy to get away with such statements.

The real situation in Bosnia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, however, is that Western powers, led by the USA, worked for years to destabilize the economy there, and especially to crush worker-managed enterprises and social programs. Their success was primarily responsible for bringing existing social and ethnic conflicts to the point of war. USA-dominated international economic. institutions, as they have done in so many other parts of the world, ended up devastating the economy.

That restructuring continues to take’ place, as the sovereignty of former Yugoslavian states bas been stripped in order to allow international banks and other corporations a free band in plundering the area One writer calls such restructuring a “mirror” for what is increasingly taking place now in the USA and other industrialized countries (Michel Chossudovsky, in CAQ, Spring, 1996).

Thus a major reduction in military spending, contrary to the deceitful information that Vern Ehlers is propagating, is not just reasonable, but necessary if the world is to retain any real hope for peace. But that is not the only way the budget can be substantially reduced.

Another way is to raise sufficient revenue to cover the bills. Vern says that the “American” people oppose any further increase in taxes. That, again, is nonsense. There has long been considerable support, despite over a century of media propaganda, for a much more progressive tax structure.

Graph 4 incorporates military spending reductions with changes in the federal tax structure to make it considerably more progressive. It assumes, first, that taxes on individuals in the USA are structured so that no person earns more than 10 times what any full-time working person earns. .It follows recommendations along those lines made by labor writer Sam Pizzigati in cos 1992 book The Maximum Wage: A Common-Sense Prescription for Revitalizing America—by Taxing the Very Rich. Pizzigati’s plan would substantially raise taxes on the top one percent of incomes while reducing taxes for the other 99%. This would reverse the trend of the last two decades, in which the richest 1 % have more than doubled (perhaps tripled) their income, while the majority, despite a continually growing economy have seen their income reduced. At the same time it would add an additional $200 million or more (in current dollars) to federal revenues.

Pizzigati’s plan is incorporated not because it is the only way, or necessarily the best way, to reduce the deficit by making taxes more progressive, but because it is clearly spelled out and seems very reasonable, at least as a starting point. Some other progressive tax schemes on individual income would actually reduce the deficit even faster. For instance, changing the income tax rates to what they were at their highest point – at the end of World War II – would probably raise more money than Pizzigati’s plan. The highest tax bracket at that time was taxed at a rate of 94%, just 6% less than Pizzigati now suggests, while upper income brackets just below the highest bracket were taxed at considerably higher rates than in Pizzigati’s plan.

In addition, various corporate tax breaks can be removed. Yearly totals include S&L bailout costs ($25 billion), corporate deductions for mergers and takeovers ($20 billion), arid numerous other deductions for such things as expanding overseas (thus eliminating USA jobs) that collectively add another $50 billion or more.

Only current military spending is assumed to be reduced, to 10% of its present level. This would save over $250 billion yearly.

Given that military spending is so highly destructive, one may wonder why even 10% is retained. That is because some have argued credibly that, given the present state of the world, such an amount may be needed to actually protect the USA from attack. While some of us reject those arguments, it seems reasonable to bring military spending to that level first, then, as the rest of the world bas opportunity to stabilize, work at eliminating the rest.

At any rate, the combined total of the above savings -amounts to about $550 billion yearly.

Another major problem with Vern Ehlers’ presentation was the total failure to acknowledge the USA’s social/ economic debt to people in various exploited areas of the world. That this failure is common even among progressive-minded people in no way excuses it. Any talk of relieving the debt burden should not fail to include that debt.

As this debt is directly due to USA robbery of assets in those areas, it seems reasonable to tax a portion of that stolen wealth as a means of starting to repay the debt. A reasonable way to do this is to tax wealth concentrations over $1 million in two ways: first, a 2% yearly tax on that wealth, which would raise roughly $30 billion yearly, and second, a 100% lifetime gift tax on such estates, which would raise roughly $40 billion yearly:

The latter tax would have the added benefit of breaking up estates of wealthy families and eliminating the present gross unfairness of a relative few getting millions of dollars simply for being born into the right family while most people’s inheritance amounts to little or nothing.

Numerous people, from radical to ultra-conservative politically, have made suggestions along this line. Liberal/radical thinkers cite. the gross unfairness of the existing tax structure. Ultra-conservative thinkers cite the need to protect inequality. An example of the latter is Paul Fisher, who claims cos suggested wealth tax would be enough to eliminate th~ federal deficit all by itself, and who writes: “Such a tax on wealth is a reasonable charge for the service which the government should supply. No one can hold on to great wealth without the protection provided by the government through its laws, its courts; its police, its diplomats and military defense, and the other few necessary services which government should supply.” Unfortunately (but probably necessarily), such public honesty is rare on the “conservative” side of the political spectrum.

The total of those wealth taxes would be about $70 million, or approximately 1% of the USA’s GNP. Considering the incredible extent and depth of damage done to exploited peoples, this is clearly totally inadequate as a matter of justice. And, of course, no amount of money can makeup for most of the social damage already done.

But $70 billion is no small change, and could serve as a starting point for making such reparations as are possible. And making a commitment to begin those· reparations, even if insufficient at first, would bring the issues involved to the forefront rather than allow them to continue to be buried.

These suggestions are reflected in graph 4 which reflects not just the current year’s federal deficit, as does Vern’s graph, but the total federal debt (as defined by the federal government itself).

The solid line starting at the lower left, indicates the increase in the federal debt from 1980 to 1995. Note that, while it had been increasing up to 1980, after that year it increased at a sharply higher rate. In the 12 years during which Republicans held the Presidency, it increased from under $1 trillion to over $4 trillion.

The intention all along was not to balance the budget, as Reagan and Bush both claimed, but to undermine the social economic safety net that supports so many US Americans, just as has been done for decades in Third World countries with the aid of military coups, death squads, IMP restructuring, etc. David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, admitted this long after co left that position: “the deficit was a deliberate creation of conservatives to cripple the public sector, making either redistribution or improvements in domestic programs almost impossible.

Now Vern Ehlers, another Republican, is suggesting we ba1ance the budget, as before, in large part on the backs of those in the USA who can least afford it Vern’s painful and unfair means of doing so (short line segments extending from 1995) would result in a leveling, but not a reduction, of the total federal debt by 2002. Obviously, that is better than allowing the present situation to continue (long line segments extending from 1995 and quickly reaching the top of the graph), which simply could not be maintained for too much longer.

For all Vern’s comparison of the federal budget to a family budget, the graph makes it clear 1bat co is not even sensibly using cos own analogy. In a family budget, if one incurs substantial debt, a reasonable person devises a plan not just to keep the debt from increasing, but to eventually eliminate it.

The solid line from 1997 to 2015 incorporates the above-mentioned strategies that Vern has failed to even consider in order to do just that. It should be noted that once progress is made in reducing the total debt, further progress becomes easier, because interest charges (which are now a substantial part of the deficit) are reduced. Though that interest goes mostly to those who are already wealthy, and therefore is hard to justify, i have assumed that it will, in fact, be paid off. It would be quite reasonable to restructure that debt, as bas been done for numerous Third World nations, cutting payments by, say, 50%, and thereby allowing reduction of the debt to zero even faster.

The short solid line at the upper right represents a reasonable guess that, if the USA/corporate debt to exploited peoples elsewhere in the world is attacked head-on as suggested, by the year 2050 we may actually be able to see our collective way to settling that debt. At present, and certainly for a long time to come even with such an effort, that debt will remain out of sight.

While it may be argued that such a rapid turnaround in federal indebtedness is politically unrealistic (i.e., the wealthy are too powerful to make it feasible), it is even more likely to be politically unrealistic as long as our elected representative to Congress fails to even raise· the relevant issues. And as long as the extreme inequality which fuels that debt is allowed to continue, it is also politically unrealistic for us to expect to retain any semblance of real democracy.

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said: “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Empirical surveys by researcher Edward Mulier strongly bear this out,· indicating recently that democracy has always broken down in countries with the most extreme income inequality, while that has never happened in those countries with the most egalitarian income distribution.

The evidence cannot get much stronger than that, and the message cannot be much clearer.

Eulogizing Legitimate Criminals: The Corporate Media and Ron Brown’s Death

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

When street criminals die they are either not noticed or the corporate media gives a hint of good riddance to those who made neighborhoods unsafe and unsightly. When a corporate (read: legitimate) criminal dies the media heaps up endless praises as if they are arguing for the deceased’s canonization to sainthood. This is exactly the kind of coverage we got from the corporate media with the death of Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

The Wall Street Journal called Brown the “darling of corporate America” and the Uncle Tom of syndicated columnists, Carl Rowan, said “he (Brown) rose above barriers.” Indeed he did. Brown rose above certain racial barriers in the early 80g’s while stumping for the law firm of Patton, Boggs, & Blow. One of his clients was Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Brown made sure that the brutal Duvalier regime had continued access to Washington, despite domestic and international pressures to the contrary. In a 1983g memo that Brown sent to Duvalier we can get a flavor for the relationship of these two Black men, “My current role as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee has served us well in these efforts, while my contacts with my counterparts in the Republican Party assure continued access and excellent relations with the government of President Reagan.” (The Uses of Haiti, by Paul Farmer, pg. 223) Here we can see how Brown rose above barriers to help Duvalier to repress his Black population.

Jesse Jackson, who more often than not, displays his true colors says of Brown, “We must remember Ron Brown – freedom fighter, social servant, patriot, dream-maker.”Let us recount an instance that reflects such eulogizing of the darling of corporate America.

In 1980g, again his law firm of Patton, Boggs, & Blow became servant of a group of freedom fighters in Guatemala, known as Amigos del Pais. “The Amigos, once described as the ‘John Birch Society of Guatemala’, are a group of landowners which financed death squad activities.” (CounterPunch V.2, No.8) This was during the Lucas Garcia regime where 3,900 people were killed in the fl1′st 10 months of 1980g alone. Not to be swayed by human rights abuses Brown sought other business in Guatemala. In 1982g, while the regime of Rios Montt was beginning its counterinsurgency campaign directed against the majority Mayan population, Brown signed on the Guatemalan Sugar Growers. The head of the Growers was Julio Herrera, a member of the second wealthiest clan in the country. Also associated with the Growers was Mario Sandoval Alarcon, founder of the Mana Blanco (white hand) death squad. Referred to as the grandfather of the death squads, Sandoval got his start with the Movement of National Liberation party in 1953g, when he received CIA money to help oust the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. (Unfinished Conquest, by Victor Perera, pg. 45) This is what no doubt gained Ron Brown the title of freedom fighter.

Federico Pena, the Sec. of Transportation, gushed about Brown by saying “His warmth was genuine and you could feel it.” Pena would know, in the early 90g’s Brown used his political/corporate connections to get Pena money to finance the Denver Airport, that from the beginning has had numerous problems and has cost the taxpayers of Colorado millions of dollars. This is certainly what Brown is best at… .going to bat for corporate interests. It should not have been a surprise to us then that Clinton named him as Sec. of Commerce in 1993g..

The death of Brown and some 22 other corporate flacks on April 3 should have signaled to us the true allegiance of Ron. Brown and the Clinton administration. They were flying to the Balkans to broker deals for US investors after years of bloody warfare that Brown’s boss endorsed and even supported with ongoing weapons sales. As the April 1 issue of CounterPunch demonstrates, the corporate interests represented on the trip with Brown were all huge financial donors to the Clinton campaign. Some of the more notable are AT&T, Bechtel, Boeing, Enron and Northwest Airlines. This fatal trip reveals the fundamental motive of US foreign policy: support or create instability and then intervene, with corporate CEO’s and bankers wearing a humanitarian face, when a country is too weak and divided to say no. (see the most recent issue of Covert Action Quarterly, the example of the Balkans is looked at in detail.)

i point out these things not because i am cold hearted or like to diss on people after they have died. The point being that there needs to be an honest depiction of people, especially people who put themselves in the public eye. It is a healthy activity to engage in critical discernment and accountability of people who claim to represent us. The corporate media did none of this.

“If you are not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

- Malcolm X

Labor History in Grand Rapids, Part I

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

In 1900 Grand Rapids was a bustling river town, not fully settled, but no longer frontier. The red light district was located in the river valley while the mansions of the wealthy overlooked the city from Heritage Hill.

Only seventeen years earlier, the last great log run swept away the railroad bridge near Ann Street. Crowds gathered along the banks of the Grand River to watch as thousands of white pine logs created a jam seven miles long and thirty feet deep. Perhaps this is why so many furniture factories started in the “valley city” — cheap wood, cheap water power, and cheap labor. Scattered along the river and throughout the city were 85 furniture and woodworking factories. Berkey and Gay, Widdicomb, American School Furniture Co. (American Seating), Sligh, Stickley Bros. and others were just then making this medium size city of 87,576 the furniture capital of the United States, a title it held until the Great Depression.

It was this cheap labor that bothered Thomas Kidd, secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union (est. 1895). Low Grand Rapids wages were depressing the earnings of his members.

If the union was to grow, Grand Rapids workers needed to be brought into the fold. Kidd made numerous speaking trips to the city passionately and eloquently presenting his case to the English, Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, and Lithuanian finishers, rubbers, cabinet makers, sanders, and machine hands who compromised the 7,000 workers of Furniture City, USA.

“The most foolish and silly thing the working men have done of late years is to allow themselves to be kept divided by the religious question. Who ever heard of a corporation, a trust, or a combination of any kind, of capitalists allowing any question foreign to the objects for which they are organized to enter into their consideration at all? Everything likely to create discord is wisely cast aside, and all keep their eye on the main thing — the dollar. That is what they are after.”

“All the institutions of the country are used against us, even our chump of a president, Grover Cleveland [enthusiastic applause] and our condition will never be improved with being a better Democrat or a better Republican. Is all this not enough without our quarreling over questions of faith and thus assisting the enemy to bind us still tighter? [Many of the Dutch were opposed to trade unions.] The working men of this country are gradually but surely getting behind those of other countries. I am a Scotsman and I never worked over eight hours per day, nor on Saturday afternoons until I cam to this progressive country.”

“The union label is the coming power, and it will do away with strikes. The wood workers have adopted a label and already a furniture manufacturer in Chicago is using it on all his furniture, and a Minneapolis manufacturer will at one begin using 22,000 labels a week, and there will be no more strikes there. Furniture without the label can easily be boycotted through the central bodies in other cities.”

“In comparison with other furniture localities, wages here are fairly good, but if the workers here remain unorganized it will only be a matter of time when the employers will have to cut you still lower in order to compete with furniture from other parts. Reason as you will, experience proves conclusively that you will never get better wages unless you organize. In Oshkosh and Marshfield, Wisconsin, wages were as low as five cents an hour before unions were organized in those places, and the men were working eight hours a day, forty cents a day! Just think of it. Do you want to come to that? If you do, continue to go it alone, each man for himself, and you will get it, just as sure as you live.”

Despite Kidd’s best efforts, Grand Rapids Local 46 and Spindle Carvers Local 84 never numbered more than 200 members. In March, the AWWIU held its national convention in Grand Rapids. If the workers would not come to the union, the union would come to them. As hosts, Local 46 and 84 hand made convention badges of “white maple veneer handsomely lettered and mounted.” Sixty-eight delegates attended the week long session.

Most were German immigrants with a few English, French, and Swedes thrown in. The constitution was amended and union policies debated. However, all was not work. Germans, being Germans, and definitely not following the temperance fashion of the times, attended a social session held for the delegates entertainment:

“When the social session opened at 9 p.m. the hall was crowded, over four hundred present. ‘Elk’s mil’ was the first order of business and after several trips of the white-aproned dispensers, the fun began.”

An invitation was sent by the delegates to the local furniture manufacturers inviting them to meet with the union’s officers to discuss the advantages of the union label. Sligh, Rettig & Sweet, and the Luce Company agreed to meet.

The appointed time came and went, but no furniture representatives.

Unwilling to was the evening, the AWWIU officers decided to take in a performance at the Powers Theater. And what should be playing but “Sappho,” a performance so risqué, with the actress who portrayed a Greek heroine baring her arms and feet, that it had been banned in New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

However, this was not the only thing laid bare that night. It seems the lure of culture was too strong for even upright, respectable businessmen, for there, seated in the crowded theater, were the errant furniture barons.

Epilogue

Kidd never did organize the furniture workers of Grand Rapids, despite his charismatic appeal and unceasing efforts. It would take another organizer and another union to lead Grand Rapids furniture workers in the Great 1911 Furniture Strike.

Stand For Children: Making a Commitment For Their Future

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Every day in America 15 children are killed by firearms, 2,660 babies are born into poverty, 2,833 students drop out of school, and 8,493 children are reported abused or neglected. For a country that claims to love its own or embrace “family values”, the US ranks 18th in the world in infant mortality. The Children’s Defense Fund, an organization that for years has been defending the rights of children, has called for a national day of commitment to children.

On June 1, in Washington DC, there will be a day long event to call attention to the plight of children and to get communities organized arid energized to work in their communities on behalf of children. Stand For Children expects over 1,000,000 people to converge on the Lincoln Memorial to challenge the harsh policies of the current administration. Their brochure states that “if you are struggling to raise a child but know you could do better, come stand with us. If you are a young or middle-income family working hard to make ends meet, come stand with us. If you are troubled by the pollution of our airwaves, air, food, water, earth, and our children’s values, come stand with us. If you are worrying about whether your children’s schools are preparing them for the twenty-first century, come stand with us. If you are anxious that your children will get sick and not get decent medical care because you lack health insurance, come stand with us. If you are lying awake nights concerned about your children’s safety, come stand with us. If you have had enough of political leaders talking about family values while not supporting what families need to raise healthy, safe, moral, and educated children, come stand with us. ”

Locally a group has formed to coordinate travel plans. Two buses are already reserved and hope to be filled. We are also planning a send off rally for die people who will be making the trek to DC. If you want more information on the trip or what else the local group is organizing you can call the 4C’s office at 451-8281. The group here is intent on using the June!, event as a rallying point for efforts here in Grand Rapids for the long haul. Even if you can not attend the DC gathering or the local rally talk about this issue in your family, school, neighborhood, work place, and place of worship. For the present and the future, LETS STAND FOR CHILDREN!