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#507 - A Political Opportunity, 14-Aug-1996

A political opportunity has arrived. For the past 15 years, Americans
have been angry at government. Now, a new survey shows, they are also
angry at big corporations. Americans have not lost their anger at
government, but now they have decided that large corporations are the
major cause of their growing economic insecurity, and they are fuming
about recent corporate behavior.

This new information will raise strategic questions during the next few
years: Can popular anger at corporations be channeled for environmental
protection? Can it be harnessed to give people greater control over
their own lives (in other words, to make America more democratic)? Can
it help Americans see that we could return to a time when the public
took responsibility for DEFINING corporations, instead of allowing
corporations to define us?

A telephone survey of 800 voters during June 1996, accompanied by six
focus groups, has revealed that Americans of all ages, all incomes, all
races, and both political parties are seething over the way large
corporations have been treating their workers in recent years.
Specifically, voters are angry about the following kinds of behavior:

** Massive layoffs at a time when profits and CEO salaries have been
going through the roof;

** Firing full-time workers and filling their jobs with temps who get
neither medical benefits nor pensions;

** Firing older workers and replacing them with younger workers are
satisfied with lower wages.

In sum, people are angry that corporations are showing disrespect for,
and disloyalty to, the American workforce.

The survey and focus groups were conducted by EDK Associates and by
Peter D. Hart Research, working under contract to the Preamble Center
for Public Policy in Washington, D.C.[1] The sample size of 800 means
that the surveyors can be 95% confident that their results are accurate
plus or minus 3.5%.

Almost without exception, people who feel negative about corporations
feel VERY negative. And huge numbers are feeling negative. Large
majorities see corporate behavior as a "serious national problem." When
asked if reduced benefits (health care and pensions) are a "serious
problem" or not, 82% say yes. Large layoffs during times of
profitability are regarded as a "serious problem" by 81%; huge CEO
salaries (which are now 200 times as large as the average worker's pay)
are a "serious problem" for 79%, and stagnant wages (wages that don't
keep up with the rising cost of living) are a "serious problem" for
76%.

People do not buy the explanation that recent corporate behavior is
required by a competitive global economy. Only 22% of those surveyed
said they thought competitiveness motivated corporate behavior; 70%
said they thought greed was the motivating factor (while 7% said they
didn't know). This view --that greed is what motivates corporations,
not competitiveness --crosses all age groups, all races, all
educational backgrounds, and all incomes. It even crosses political
parties: 79% of Democrats, and 63% of Republicans said they thought
corporate greed explains downsizing, stagnant wages, and reduced job
benefits.

Furthermore, most people now see corporate greed as a greater problem
for the economy than government corruption, waste, and inefficiency.
Asked to choose between wasteful government and corporate greed as the
main obstacle preventing the middle class from getting ahead, people
chose corporate greed (46%) over government waste (28%), with a
substantial percentage (22%) volunteering the opinion that both were
responsible. Thus, despite continued high levels of public
dissatisfaction with government, 68% of Americans believe big
corporations are as responsible as, or more responsible than,
government for the economic problems of the middle class. Even among
Republicans, 55% says corporations are at least as big a problem as
government.

The telephone survey and focus groups showed that Americans are angry
because of their personal experiences with large corporations. Some
economists have characterized anti-corporate attitudes as "whining" by
a "spoiled" work force that has unreasonably high expectations. However
the survey results suggest that this is not true. People are not angry
simply because they have been denied a promotion or a pay raise. In
fact, the survey shows that Americans' expectations for their living
standards have shrunk. In focus groups, people stated that they no
longer expect to do better and get ahead; they're just hoping --
sometimes desperately --that they won't lose ground. What DOES make
them angry is when they, or someone close to them, is hurt by a
corporation --losing their job, being forced to double up their job to
take on the responsibilities of someone else who has been fired, or
facing outrageous health co-payments and deductibles. These first-hand
experiences are what is fueling anger at corporations.

What is surprising --members of the survey team said they were
"shocked" and "amazed" by these findings --is that the public is ready
to support government action to control corporate behavior. Most people
surveyed (69%) say they generally favor government intervention to
ensure that corporations act more responsibly. Some 42% strongly favor
this position. This is an important reversal of political ideas that
have dominated America for 15 years.

As Garry Wills described recently in the NEW YORK TIMES, Ronald Reagan
developed a winning political strategy, which still dominates the
Republican Party agenda today (and in no small measure dominates the
agenda of the me-too Democrats as well).[2] Mr. Reagan successfully
blamed government corruption, waste and inefficiency for all of the
nation's problems. After he won the Presidency by promoting these
ideas, he then ran his own government in a fashion that was unusually
corrupt, wasteful and inefficient, tripling the national debt while
delivering fewer benefits, thus further eroding public support for
government. In this fashion, Mr. Reagan laid the groundwork for further
attacks on government as the enemy of the people, giving rise to Newt
Gingrich, the Contract with America, and extremist anti-government
attitudes that eventually expressed themselves in the bombing in
Oklahoma City and the rise of the "Wise Use" and libertarian militia
movements.[2]

Americans are still angry at their government, but now they are also
angry at large corporations, so angry in fact that they are willing to
take a chance on government action to control corporate abuses of
working people. This is important. Relentless "positioning" by
corporations has tried to convince Americans that corporate control of
their lives is natural and inevitable, that alternative relationships
are unthinkable, and that decisions affecting the lives of working
people are made by "the market," which is beyond the control of mere
humans. Now there is evidence that Americans aren't buying it;
according to this new survey, people are beginning to see some hope of
changing their lives through collective action.

Still it would be a mistake to overstate the findings of this survey.
People don't begrudge corporations the right to make big profits. They
are merely angry that big corporations aren't sharing those profits
with their workers who, after all, make the profits possible.

People aren't angry because CEOs make huge salaries. They are angry
because CEOs make huge salaries by laying off thousands of workers.
This is "obscene," they say.

Americans admire large corporations who play by the old rules, which
are perceived to be a kind of unspoken "social contract" between
workers and management: "I'll work hard for you all my life, and you'll
pay me a family-supporting wage. To keep ahead of inflation, you'll pay
me a bit more each year, guarantee me a job so long as I play by the
rules, and provide me with health care and eventually a pension for my
retirement." When a corporation is profitable and yet breaks the
unspoken social contract, this becomes a source of anger for Americans.

Where does this lead us? What sorts of campaign strategies does it
suggest for politicians, for environmentalists, and for those seeking
to give more Americans a voice in the decisions that affect their
lives? Here are a few ideas:

** Importantly, anger at corporate behavior is an issue that does not
divide along racial lines. Working to control corporate behavior could
provide common ground among African Americans and caucasians.

** It helps to talk about all the bad things corporations used to do
(child labor; 14 hour work days; using rivers as open sewers, for
example) and how people got together and stopped those things. Probably
the greatest barrier to progress in America today is peoples' sense of
hopelessness. Hopelessness leads to paralysis. Telling true stories
about real victories can help people gain hope. Hope makes collective
action thinkable and therefore possible.

** Environmentalists, and others seeking reform, can build on people's
anger at government AND corporations by emphasizing how government
caters to the interests of large corporations, wasting taxpayers' money
in the bargain. The true relationship between corporations and
government is a reciprocal one: corporations dump mountains of cash
into elections, corrupting the basic institutions of our democracy
while putting anti-government, pro-corporate extremists into office. In
turn, government then subsidizes big corporations and relieves their
tax burden. Greedy corporations then turn around and abuse their
workers, who are already bearing the brunt of the nation's unfair tax
system. This kind of subsidy abuse by corporations --and the corrupt
election process which feeds it --could easily become a target of
significant anger. With some work, the result might be a law to get
corporate and other private money out of our elections. Democracy in
this country would be advanced in a major way, as would environmental
protection.

** Corporations are unlikely to change their behavior voluntarily. It
seems safe to say that they can't. Therefore, as time passes corporate
abuse of workers seems likely to continue and to get worse. Some
corporations may try to hide their behavior; for example, some will
probably get smarter and stop ANNOUNCING their huge layoffs. But
corporate behavior still will spark anger as real people are hurt. In
sum, continuing abuse of workers' loyalty and trust will be hard to
conceal. What is the full potential for reform that this situation
offers? It seems very likely that, today, no one knows the answer to
that question. To make the most of this political opportunity will
require careful thought.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] The results have been published as: EDK Associates, CORPORATE
IRRESPONSIBILITY: THERE OUGHT TO BE SOME LAWS (New York: EDK Associates
[235 West 48th St., NY, NY 10036; phone: (212) 582-4504; fax: (212)
265-9348.], July 29, 1996). Copies are available from: The Preamble
Center for Public Policy, 1737 21st Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20009;
telephone (202) 265-3263; fax: (202) 265-3647. Free, but if possible a
$5.00 donation to cover costs would be appreciated.

Three focus groups were conducted with caucasian, non-college-educated,
working class men and women in Hartford, Conn., San Jose, Calif., and
Oak Brook, Ill.; two with caucasian, middle class, college-educated men
and women in Iselin, N.J. and in San Jose, Cal.; and one among African-
American working class men and women of mixed education levels in Oak
Brook, Ill. A "focus group" is a conversation between trained listeners
and the members of the group, who respond to questions posed by the
listener. The conversation is videotaped and then analyzed and
evaluated.

[2] Garry Wills, "It's His Party," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE August 11,
1996, pgs. 30-37, 52, 55, 57-59.

Descriptor terms: corporations; economy; inequality; surveys;