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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

The leaders of the business world relish in combativeness. Bookstores abound with business books likening business dealings to war—Sun Tzu's Art of War is a favorite of executives and mid-level management all over the country. Leaders of business love a good fight—until they get one, and then they cower in fear.

When a workforce goes on strike, it is a bold, difficult decision not come to lightly, and it is one that has several aims—a small workplace strike can bring attention to an issue with management, it can disrupt production, and it can show a negotiator that the workers mean business. But in a business sense, it is the workers creating an artificial shortage of labor in order to make explicit their worth. Understand there is a transaction between all of us who work and those making profit from that important work. Businesses rely on infrastructural protections to make transactions possible—but they try to deny those same protections to their own workers. They want contracts honored—unless they have to pay up. They want streets paved, criminals rounded up, and order restored—but shirk their duty to community. And the consumer—the consumer is but a nuisance.

Low turnover, employee incentive and a respectful workplace are essential to high productivity, which maximizes profits. If a company, or a corporation, were an infinite, neutral entity, it would naturally seek to create these conditions. But, unfortunately, companies and corporations are run by men, finite and greedy as they are. And as a result, short-term gain is the name of the day, often at the expense of the long-term health of the organizations. The result is often the exploitation of labor.

Which is OK. America was founded on exploitation—we're a frontier culture, nobody knows that better than Chicagoans. Talk about combative—navigating the business landscape of Chicago may be more polite than it was a hundred years ago, but it is no less nasty. How funny that so many of these big CEOs turn to hothouse flowers when workers come to realize their strength and choose to drive a hard bargain. They hide behind the politicians they carry in their pockets to pass stricter and stricter rules to make it nearly impossible to fight a fair fight. Workers who want to see their workplace improve so that their productivity may be higher—and the company more successful—are repeatedly suppressed, often illegally, at the altar of higher short-term profits. As a result, the consumer and the community often pay the price. This is not optimality in capitalism—it is abuse of power in order to protect one cowering group against another. And those Ayn Rand types who squeal at the idea of collective bargaining are unable to see the hypocrisy of employers hiding behind the skirts of authority to protect themselves against a rational business transaction.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

In Chicago, two large concerns operate a huge portion of the healthcare market—Advocate Healthcare and Resurrection Healthcare. Advocate is a largely Lutheran concern; Resurrection, Catholic. The pair have been virulently anti-union and have taken umbrage at the current campaigns to get them to be good corporate citizens by living up to the charity care standards demand of them by the communities in which they operate. These two campaigns—the Hospital Accountability Project (HAP) and Healthcare Employees Acting at Resurrection Together (HEART)—point to the failures of these two conglomerates to give back to the communities that make them so rich. Not only this, but many in the healthcare industry are forced to work long hours for little pay, and work long weeks due to forced overtime for registered nurses (RNs). The result? Degraded quality.

But the holy men of Resurrection and Advocate don't see it this way. They see a slight dip in their short-term gain should the workers force them to bargain. So they get angry. They hold captive-audience meetings where they decry the evil unions behind these campaigns, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). They find ways to skirt the issue of their egregious exploitation of the sick and infirm, completely ignoring that they were allowed the valuable concession of providing healthcare with the understanding that they would "First, do no harm."

The more these healthcare concerns are reminded of their hypocrisy, the angrier they get. The more they mewl and puke about how "unfair" it is that they are being "singled out" for not paying their dues to the communities that allow them to operate, the more they put themselves out there. The rougher they'll put their screws to their workers, hiding behind an anti-worker National Labor Relations Board to protect them, dandies hiding behind their bought men.

It is not easy to form a union at a workplace. It is a fight, just as those who start their own businesses must fight to succeed. May the strong survive, after all. But our economy is moving rapidly into a service economy, if it isn't there already. When America suffered the pangs of growth from an agrarian economy to manufacturing, there followed shortly thereafter a conflagration where working people built organizations to improve their bargaining strength. There is no reason to believe the same won't happen again. But it won't be steelworkers or canal porters. It'll be graphic designers and web techs and registered nurses and software analysts.

If you believe what you do is of any value, if you believe the productivity you and your coworkers provide is essential to the success of the enterprise you consent to work with, you should steel yourself for a fight. It's the American way. Nothing is gained through curtsies and shuffled feet. Chief Executive Officers and shift supervisors pretend towards toughness, but there is no thrill like seeing them scurry before a real fight. But when the time comes, will you sign that card? Will you check that box? Granted, it can be a nerve-wracking ordeal, but this country and its amazing economic miracle are the work of brawlers, not yes-men. Empowered workforces are more productive workforces. More productive workforces mean bigger profits and better products or services. That is the wondrous efficiency of capitalism, not myopic gain for the connected.

If you want to prove to yourself, your bosses, and future generations that you are a person of worth, then take the steps necessary to build an organization to get what is yours. It isn't about naïve ideals. It is about getting yours and making sure that you don't toil towards no end. Your work is of quality, the product you create and the services your provide must be of quality—and if the people who shirk their duty to that quality refuse to see it, how dare you let them tarnish the reputation of that work without reprise?

At some point, those of us in the service sector will have to make a choice about their worth, about that one-third of the day they spend selling themselves. That'll be a fight to behold.

Welcome to America. It can be combative.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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