Where to now, St. Labor?

Human history presents to us an account of people  learning how to work together to overcome nature’s hostility. Toward that end, we see that humans organized themselves,  erecting  along the way great institutions of government and culture. We associate the history of past institutions with the names of leaders who founded them—Alexander, Caesar, Napolean. Magnanimous leaders rise up to forge empires or institutions from the fragmented resources of previous ages. Years later, those institutions are slowly dismantled and/or necessarily reconstructed by their descendants.

In the context of our western world, for instance, we read that the disarray of  Alexander’s Greek empire eventually furnished a rubble of culture and knowledge upon which a Roman empire could later be erected. With the passing of more centuries, the Catholic Church replaced the Roman empire as an organizing structure for further civilizing development. Later still, the papal dominance was decimated by Protestant reforms and restructuring. Then came the nation-states projecting their varied hegemonies—Germany, Austro-Hungary, France, Great Britain.

This dynamic of growth and decline is seen throughout the history of the world in kingdoms, empires, nations. We can see similar patterns in business.

In the United States, we saw Rockefeller blasting his way through the American hinterlands, building an empire of oil and railroads along the way. We saw Carnegie forging a great institution of steel. We saw Edison providing the spark for an energized era of electrical empowerment.

Then as sure as you’re born, along came enterprising innovators and aggregators to capitalize upon the industrializing tracks that had been laid in previous years. Ford, GM, Chrysler all carved out, over the course of the twentieth century, their slices of our burgeoning prosperity. That prosperity was founded upon the potential energy of hydrocarbons being kineticisezed into economic dynamism.

It’s a similar scenario in this era, the age of information.

Consider a great company called IBM. There’s an innovative giant that made a big impact on the way American business was conducted in the latter half of the twentieth century.  IBM, through profit-seeking creativity, converted the record-keeping practice of business in this country from traditional hand-scribed accounting procedures to computerized data management. Their resourcefulness produced a string of new developments that  changed forever the way business is done, and generated huge profits for its investors and employees along the way.

For a while, IBM didn’t just change with the times; IBM changed the times.

For twenty years or so.

Then along came Microsoft and Apple. The rise of software-enabled personal computing effectively dismantled IBM’s mainframe empire.

Now Microsoft is where IBM was twenty years ago—too big to adapt, too cumbersome to think out of the pc box. Microsoft’s empire of software and personal computing power is being overshadowed in a networking cloud that will leave their twenty-year windows of opportunity quaintly obsolete. Their expensive proprietary packages will go the way of the punchcard, lying in the chads of business history.

Could IBM have foreseen the rise of Microsoft and Apple and made adjustments to ensure its own position of primacy in the computing world?  No way. That’s not the way it works. Innovations are made by new entities that are not confined by thinking inside institutional boxes.

Could Microsoft have foreseen the rise of Google and Cisco and made adjustments to ensure their position of primacy in the computing world? They did not. Now Microsoft’s dominance is fading into a cloud. Does Microsoft have within its programming loins the resourcefulness to, twenty years from now, evolve with the times and emerge, as IBM has, with a new role? We shall see.

In times such as these great leaders make things happen differently from the way they did before.

Thomas J. Watson and Bill Gates were both legendary icons in the history of business, but neither of them could build an empire that would be immune from the abrasive grinding of the sands of time and competition.

Just as IBM had to be downsized, restructured as a new entity in order to function effectively in the competitive world of business, and just as Microsoft is now being, or must be, similarly rearranged if it to survive, so must be the strategy of every working person in these United States.

The sun is setting on America, and we can’t go west, young man young woman, any more. California’s broke. Now  the westward march of American industry has screeched to a great, grinding halt. Will the working stiffs of this country wither to welfare atrophy while cyber-savvy credit swappers securitize their way to gated-community opulence?

Working people of the USA, we better figure out a way to get through these cataclysmic times—a way that goes beyond making demands upon the diminishing resources of a waning American business empire—a way that goes beyond sucking the dregs of a failing insurance system—a way that surpasses the passing of greenback reserve notes issued by an insolvent government.

And that way will surely involve an old-fashion thing called work. Time to get off our asses; that includes you democrats.

I’m asking you, the working people of America, because, although I worked for twenty-five years as a carpenter in North Carolina, I’ve never been a union guy. From my southern, right-to-work perspective, the unions’ demands on corporate resources were appropriate and constructive in past ages of expansion when there was plenty of work to go around. But now those demands are incongruous with our present predicament of scarcity. And what are we going to do about it?

Where are the true labor leaders of our age?

Let’s face it folks.  The American labor movement, in its present incarnation, has outlived its usefulness. What must it do to morph to something useful again?

What would Eugene V. Debs do? What would John L. Lewis do? What would Cesar Chavez do? Try to write new contracts with dinosauric car companies that have, by their failure to make fuel-economizing innovations, painted themselves into a corner of stylish obsolescence?

The “organizing” for our next phase of the American experiment must be even more innovative than any previous expressions of it.  We’ll have to get back to our roots, literally.

Got veggies?

Carey Rowland, author of Glass half-Full

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