Of Twinkies, Walmart, Applebee’s and Thanksgiving Dinner: Thoughts on the Employer-Employee Balance of Power

This week, we’ve seen some really powerful stories about the imbalance of power between employees and their bosses. As we’ve discussed many times before, corporations seem to be more willing than ever to operate at the expense of the people who work for them—but we’re seeing some stirrings of hope from an unlikely place.

Doug Foote has already covered what really happened at Hostess, the snack food company that threatened liquidation last week, at the cost of more than 18,000 jobs. The latest news today is that Hostess and union members will enter mediation to prevent the company from closing up shop.

The potential Hostess shutdown would have been a classic example of the private-equity business model looting what was once a successful company. As John Nichols notes at The Nation, even after giving concession after concession to management, employees bore the brunt of the company’s troubles as executives and private-equity investors extracted what value was left. One Hostess employee who wrote about his experience reports that, in addition to offering a truly terrible contract, Hostess management actually “borrowed” money from workers’ self-funded pensions that bankruptcy would have enabled them to never pay back.

Even as the company seemed to be falling apart, management showed us its priorities: Hostess went to court to get permission to pay $1.75 million in bonuses to executives.

That this story has been reported in the news as reflecting a problem with the union shows how deeply a “the employer is always right” mindset is embedded into our national debate.

Another story that has had some sadly anti-employee reporting is the trend among chain restaurant owners of laying off staff or raising prices and loudly blaming the Affordable Care Act. Owners from chains like Papa John’s, Denny’s and Applebee’s have all taken to the press to shout about “Obamacare” as the reason to put the squeeze on their employees. This is dubious at best, and it’s better described as a cheap tantrum over the fact that the law will be a huge benefit to underpaid and under-insured employees of the kind employed by chain restaurants.

Speaking of underpaid employees, a lot of companies in the retail sector are exerting power over their workers this week with extended “Black Friday” hours. The already-intense competition among retail chains to take advantage of the year’s biggest shopping day has reached a point of absurdity: as if defying the laws of time itself, many retailers have declared that “Black Friday” actually starts on Thursday night, cutting into employees’ ability to spend Thanksgiving with their families.

Finally, while we’re on the topic of retail, let’s head to the biggest retailer in the country: Walmart, the company that has used its massive size and supply-chain control to force down wages and workplace standards across the industry. Walmart is now facing real pressure from its own employees, in a way that hasn’t been seen in the five decades of the store’s existence. Walmart employees have started to strike and plan a protest on “Black Friday” to demand better working conditions.

Want to see what happens when working people start asserting their own interests together instead of just taking what they’re given alone? Even extremely powerful companies get scared. Right now, Walmart is running to the federal government to beg them to pre-emptively stop the protests and even put an ex-employee in handcuffs when he tried to talk to his old co-workers about striking. That’s not the sign of a company comfortable with its moral standing—it’s a sign of panic.

Hopefully the energy we’ve seen from Walmart employees standing up for their rights will spread. Good jobs with fair compensation in sectors like restaurants and retail are good for the economy—unless you think that “the economy” only refers to the bank accounts of Hostess executives, Applebee’s franchisers, private-equity partners and the Walton family.