A riff on Shawn Newton’s June 12, 2011 sermon, “The State of Things.”
This is about three remarkable capitalists.
W. K. Kellogg, the Battle Creek, Michigan corn-flake man, believed that profits created by mass production should be shared with employees. In the Depression year of 1930, Kellogg put his workers, mostly women, on a six-hour day, four days a week, permitting him to hire more employees. It worked well. More families had dependable pay cheques, and employees had more time for canning, quilting, church work, and family picnics.
This changed after World War II when men, returning veterans, got more of the jobs. In their leisure time, the men went fishing, hunting, and driving snowmobiles. Note the difference in activities: boats, guns, and snowmobiles are expensive toys. The men wanted bigger pay cheques, were willing to work longer hours to get them. Mr. Kellogg died in 1951, but the short work-week persisted until 1985, at which time employees’ days increased to eight-hour shifts.
I ask: what was gained; what was lost?
Closer to home, you may remember the disastrous 2009 fire at Chapman’s Ice Cream factory in Markville, Ontario. Immediately after the fire, the owners, the Chapman family, announced that they would be keeping salaried staff on payroll until the factory was rebuilt, saving them from unemployment.
The third is Milwaukie, Oregon, U.S.A. business owner, Bob Moore, who in 2010 transferred ownership of his whole company, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, to his 209 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
However, stories like these are not common. It appears that Charles Dickens was prescient when he wrote “A Christmas Carol.” He foresaw the transition from an admittedly paternalistic, but also more personal, business culture, represented by old Fezziwig, to one of a more grasping, selfish, impersonal nature, represented by Scrooge and Marley. Fezziwigs are now less common in a world of mobile capital, mergers, and acquisitions.
Note that Kellogg’s, Chapman’s, and Bob’s Red Mill, are family-owned businesses in smaller communities, where people know one another. None is owned by a Boston-based hedge fund, for example, nor by a multi-national company headquartered thousands of kilometers away.
Kate and I try to strengthen our communities by buying, when possible, Canadian-made goods sold by local stores and co-ops, and much of our food is locally-grown. It feels good to engage and support our neighbours.
On vacation, when visiting First Nations, we lodge and eat at on-reserve facilities and donate to First Nations defenses against corporate plunder of their environments.
This is joy-filled activity because it comes from a deep place of love and gratitude for having been given so much. However, we are far from perfect: we do own a car.
My social conscience comes from my parents’ Rooseveltian New Deal beliefs, enhanced by my Baptist youth, campaigning for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, and the Kennedy and Trudeau eras. Now I can see the deprivation many First Nations suffer, and note my benefits from “white male privilege.”
I believe we must look at different models of economic activity that are more local, more human, more cooperative, and more respectful of our planet.