Forum Post: BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU: WALMART, Harley Davidson & the Absurdity of Compartmentalized Thinking
Posted 1 year ago on Nov. 20, 2012, 5:01 p.m. EST by therising
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When I think about the fact that 6 members of the Walton family have as much wealth as the poorest 40% of American citizens combined and then con sider how they're STILL trying to squeeze a bit more out of employees, I'm baffled. It's just so weird. I realize that corporate leaders and their minions (and even shareholders in this "ownership society") suffer from the disease of compartmentalization. But is that disease so blinding that it prevents them from seeing that they're messing with their OWN CUSTOMERS?!
American citizens will need to make a decent wage in order to afford stuff (whether it's flat screen TV's or Harley Davidson motorcycles). So why the hell do corporate giants like Walmart. and Harley fight like hell to screw their employees, the very people who they need to buy their stuff. There must be a good metaphor for this in the animal kingdom, but I just can't think of it. Or wait, maybe no animal would be so stupid as to bite the hand that feeds it.
Here's piece I wrote on Harley Davidson that speaks directly to this issue:
HARLEY'S FREE RIDE: THE GUTTING OF AN AMERICAN LEGEND
I'll never forget my first time on a Harley. I was eight years old and absolutely obsessed with getting a ride on the gleaming machine that was often parked near our house. The bike's owner was a family friend named "Whitey", a jolly factory worker with a bushy white beard. Picture Santa in faded jeans and a blue bandana.
After some intense lobbying on my part, Whitey checked with my parents and the deal was done. On a bright sunny July afternoon, he loaded me on the back of his white fatboy and roared through the curves on back roads. The engine rumbled magnificently and the leaves of the trees blurred into a sea of green. I wrapped my arms as far around Whitey's beer belly as I could and grinned uncontrollably.
It was the summer of 1977 and I remember thinking "We could go anywhere on this thing." My personal understanding of the dreams of freedom, adventure, and independence was born during that ride. We were traveling on familiar roads yet I was awake to the vivid scenery in a whole new way. It was as if someone had taken the lid off the world.
We've come a long way since my ride on Whitey's white stallion. Unfortunately Harley Davidson's "Live Free and Ride" image of independence is beginning to ring hollow. After all, Harley is a company that has developed a very public habit of government dependence. It also doesn't help that Harley's management team seems to have done its damnedest in recent years to lower the wages of the very workers who were once its core customers.
One might argue that Harley Davidson has rarely been managed well by the top brass. However, it would be difficult to image a more reckless group of stewards than those now steering this once legendary American company. They too have been grinning and thinking "We could go anywhere on this thing" only they're wearing alligator shoes and are more enamored by stock options than the wind in their hair. Under their Gordon Gekko-style leadership, Harley Davidson has engaged in what many have called extortion, first in Pennsylvania and then in Wisconsin. Their greed knows no bounds.
The current crop of executives at Harley were educated at some of America's finest schools, but the tactics of this crew remind one more of the mob. The basic shakedown perpetrated by this new elite goes something like this: Give us millions in taxpayer money or we'll take a big chunk of your community's jobs away.
I read in the Wall Street Journal that the leadership of Harley recently told Pennsylvanians that they would move the company out of state if taxpayers didn't give them millions. So much for the Harley image of rugged individualism and the independent spirit championed in "Easy Rider".
The company of course kept their facility in PA after winning government subsidy and wasting the resources of several other target communities which Harley had pretended to eye for manufacturing. It was around this same time that Harley Davidson, along with McDonald's, countless banks and many other brazen corporations had the nerve to put their hand out for federal aid. They took corporate welfare as part of the big Wall Street bailout while millions of American suffered and received no bailout themselves.
"Privatize the profits, socialize the losses" is the mantra, a sickness that has crept into the bones of corporate America.
It turns out that Harley putting its hand out is not an isolated incident. The company has gone to state or federal taxpayers for handouts at least 3 times in the last three decades. Perhaps Harley should change its slogan from "Live Free and Ride" to "TAKE a free ride."
Give up significant benefits and take pay cuts, Harley told many of its workers. The rest were told their jobs had been eliminated. Keep in mind that the workers Harley has treated so poorly are not just the people who helped make the company great. They're also taxpayers who helped pay for Harley's government handouts. Harley made all sorts of commitments of jobs when they recently took money from Pennsylvania taxpayers, but ask anyone working inside the factory about what really happened. They'll tell you that the company reneged on its jobs promises, bringing in temps for a while and then tossing them aside like so much loose change.
It takes a lot of nerve to threaten to take jobs from the citizens of Pennsylvania. The senior management at Harley made similar threats to Wisconsin taxpayers. Amazingly, Harley's leaders told the good citizens of Wisconsin that they'd move their midwest facility to Pennsylvania if the state of Wisconsin didn't give the company millions of dollars.
After the incidents of extortion, there's always lots of happy talk from senior management about cooperation and shared success. This reminds one of the post-fight chatter of an abusive husband: "I hit you because I love you baby."
How will Harley Davidson get into the pockets of taxpayers next? Are you aware that Harley appealed its property taxes on the grounds that its site is so polluted that it's not worth anything? Will they ask for more handouts from the U.S. government as they quietly hire subcontractors to make some of their parts oversees using cheap labor?
Let's face it. The American flag flying outside Harley are beginning to seem as out of place as those in Wal Marts. The truth is that very few of the top corporate executives around the U.S. these days demonstrate any meaningful love of country. They're tools of global conglomerates. Their fancy public relations firms may drape them in the American flag but their true allegiance is to short-term profits no matter what the cost to company, community or country. Many shareholders share in the blame since they foolishly push for illusory short-term gains for themselves at the expense of long term stability for the company and the country.
There are lots of good corporate executives and a lot of good companies in America. The bad apples, however, are ruining it for everyone, both the people and the legendary American companies they've built with their sweat and ingenuity.
What Harley execs and the rest of the bad apples who share a shortsighted worldview fail to realize is that consumers vote too...with their wallets. The self-serving leadership of Harley (and the shareholders who rule over them) need to remember that Harley sells more than motorcycles. It sells dreams. And it's hard to imagine customers buying the live free and ride dream of Harley for much longer. After all, the company's elite leaders have undermined the entire brand of independence by suckling regularly on the government teat.
This disease has infected many in corporate America. What are they teaching at Harvard Business School, the Naval Academy, Yale and Westpoint? Sell out your brand? Gut the soul of your organization? Trade your entire reputation built over decades in order to bump your third quarter profits? Preach rugged individualism and the power of private enterprise out of one side of your mouth and beg for government bailouts out of the other? Across the country, a new breed of brash self-serving short-term thinkers seems be taking the reigns. Their scorched earth policy is not just hurting their companies. It's also harming our communities and our country.
The good news is that many shareholders and consumers (otherwise known as citizens) are beginning to wake up. Our parents' grandparents' generation of conservative business people are appalled by the actions of the so-called leadership at many of today's companies. Executives from the greatest generation who protected our nation and the world during World War II understand that a company is only as strong as its community. After all, who exactly is going to buy these motorcycles if companies like Harley continue to drive down the real wages of American workers?
I'll never forget my first ride on that Harley, all those horses rumbling underneath us as Whitey skillfully steered his gleaming machine through the rolling hills. To Harley senior management, I say this: Whitey made good money in the years before Ronald Reagan delivered his government handout to Harley. Whitey was once your core customer. Years ago, he would have lined up to meet you. Now he just thinks you're a bunch of bush league silk suited schmucks who gutted the once great company that built his white stallion.
It is because of this distrust you've inspired that your shortsighted style can't succeed. The shame of it isn't just that people are no longer buying your line of bull. It's also that your kids and grandkids will someday realize what you've done and how it's affected them and their country. It seems likely that your offspring will be even more disappointed in you down the road than your ivy league professors are now. You sold us all out: your kids, your company, your community and your country. Shame on you.