Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
May 23, 2012
Last week I spent most of my column hammering on an evil creature named Jeffery Smisek who happens to be the CEO of United Airlines.
This week – right at this very moment, in fact – I am looking fearfully over my shoulder as I write this column, sitting in Row 20, Seat D, of a United flight from Denver to New York.
Actually, I’m not really that fearful.
Yes, I am writing on a United flight, but I’m not worried about being assaulted by Smisek loyalists on the crew.
In fact, I was astonished at the flood of emails I received from United employees – including a substantial number of senior pilots – who cheered me on.
It seems they hate Smisek even more than I do.
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I’m not going to give any names or identifying information, but just to give you the general flavor, here’s one sentence:
“I have worked for this rotten cesspool of a company for years now and thank God I am close to retirement (or what little is left of it after these criminals have pretty much gutted my retirement benefits).”
And then he went on to tell me how he really felt.
So, as I said, there’s not much danger that outraged flight attendants are going to stage a raid on Row 20, Seat D.
And many of those who wrote agreed with my point that although Smisek might be particularly verminous (Is that a word? Must be.), what’s happening at United is typical of this new world of ours. Call it “Corporations Gone Wild.”
Boy, there’s a movie to consider. Drunken corporations on spring break, shaking their assets in your face. Instead of ripping off their T-shirts, they’re ripping off their shareholders and customers. Not naked breasts, naked aggression. Pension raids, not panty raids.
OK, a lot of corporations took big hits when the economy cratered in 2008. But somehow the guys at the top turned it into a kind of billiards game, in which they rebounded off the cushion (a nice thick cushion of taxpayer dollars) and passed that crushing blow on down the line to all the little guys. It’s all a game of balls – and deep pockets.
And, all along the way, they kept churning out reams of corporate PR, insisting how much they cared, how concerned they were, how they wanted us to all be one big happy family. (The old-fashioned kind of family, in which father doesn’t really know best – but still gets to keep all the money.)
And now, bringing it all a little closer to home, we’re seeing an interesting version of the game playing out down in the midvalley, where the corporate guys at City Market are bouncing around like epileptic hamsters on acid.
The cause of their frenzy, of course, is the imminent arrival of Whole Foods right next door.
Suddenly, someone up at City Market HQ woke up and screamed, “Something must be done!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been shopping at that City Market ever since it opened. It’s my neighborhood market, and it’s pretty good. Not great. Pretty good – and that’s not bad.
But now, with Whole Foods threatening to eat its lunch (Hmmm, that’s a curious turn of phrase for a grocery-store battle, isn’t it? How about “fry its bacon”? Better.), City Market is swinging into action.
Now, it does occur to me that whatever they’re doing to make City Market a “better place” could have been done long ago. I mean, if they want customer loyalty, why not just do their very best all the time? Weren’t we worth the effort last year?
But worse than that, the whole effort seems out of control. (See “hamsters, epileptic, on acid” above.)
They’ve torn up huge chunks of the store, causing vast disruption to customers and employees alike – and when they’re done, it’s hard to figure out exactly what they did. Or why they did it.
And talking to the poor workers caught in the middle is painful.
A friend was there last week, while a man in the produce department tried to placate a near-riot of shoppers, lost and enraged in the debris that used to be a place to buy vegetables.
All he could say was that he was sorry. Everyone who worked there was sorry. They had no idea what was happening or why. Orders came down from above, and crews of workmen invaded the store and tore everything to pieces. Meanwhile, the people who sell the vegetables were treated as if they were rutabagas.
I spoke briefly with one long-time worker at the store who told the same tale: Even the store manager didn’t quite know what was going to happen. Or when.
The manager had been told when work would start – and then a crew from out of town showed up an entire week early and began tearing things apart.
“Every day we show up and just look around to see what they did last night,” he said. “They never tell us anything.”
But through it all, the corporate PR keeps on rolling down, slick and smooth, mayonnaise for the soul.
We love our employees. We love our loyal customers. We do all these wonderful things out of the goodness of our hearts – just to make life better for all of you.
Meanwhile, given the chance, they’ll use your eyeball for an ashtray.
If I may quote from another one of my United correspondents: “The company takes great pains to always put a positive spin on things and convince us that things are great! … Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, once said ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ Smisek and his cronies are masters at this.”
And now I see that my computer’s spell-check is suggesting that instead of “Goebbels,” I must have meant “gobbles.”
And maybe that’s exactly the heart of the matter.
The guys at the top are gobbling – and “goebbeling” – everything in sight.
And insisting they’re only doing it out of love.
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