It has long been sort of amazing to me that the really fascinating news can be most often found in the Business Pages of a newspaper. This section contains the news that most often affects our daily lives. While frothy Wal-Mart PR news can often find its way onto page one or the middle of a news broadcast - the stuff that really gets our juices flowing is in a part of the paper that most folks seem to put aside, as it “doesn’t affect me.” How wrong they are! This piece was written a few years ago, but I think the quotes and articles cited still make excellent points.
When this piece ran it included a set of three photographs featuring Gene Austin of West Fork, sitting in a chair reading the newspaper. In the first photo he looks calm, in the second he looks shocked, and the last photo shows him with his face buried in his hands. I always like to think that those three simple pictures illustrate why we ignore business news at our peril.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Working Class should pay attention to Business Pages
This may seem a stereotypical scene, but it may remind you of your own workplace. In many of the places I have toiled over the years, whenever a daily paper was brought in, the sports pages were usually grabbed first, followed by great debate over the sporting events of the previous day or night.
Then, the straight news coverage was taken up, followed usually by the comics. Rarely, if ever, did anyone pick up the Business pages. We were hourly workers, after all; what was there to interest any of us?
We weren't bankers, or stockbrokers; Business pages may as well have been written in Sanskrit, for all the attention we paid to them.
Though I have long had an interest in politics (particularly regarding labor issues), I was also late in realizing that the Business pages held anything of relevance for me.
This changed in the late 1980s, when I worked for Mexican Original, a tortilla plant in Northwest Arkansas owned by Tyson Foods. Before Tyson had taken over our operation, our Christmas bonuses had always been fairly generous. After Tyson took over in the mid-1980s, they were still fairly generous.
But in this one particular year, our portion was less than spectacular.
Christmas bonuses are a sort of moral contract between workers and management. Hourly employees work as hard as they can throughout the year, even when sick (few companies are enlightened enough to give hourly workers paid sick days), and in return, the company shares some of its profits at year's end.
But this year, our "moral contract" was honored by the gift of two (count ‘em, folks!) Cornish hens. Let's see, that came to about three or four sandwiches, if I recall correctly.
It wouldn't have been so bad, but one evening in the break room, one employee discovered that company CEO Don Tyson received a record bonus that year. That's a whole lot of Cornish hens.
The news article in question wasn't in the regular news pages, as I recall, but in the Business pages. It wasn't quite an epiphany, but rather like a small bit of daylight coming through the cracks of a mine.
I didn't suddenly start grabbing the Business pages and devouring them. Probably months went by before I looked at them again. But gradually, they became a part of my daily reading routine.
A lot of older readers may recall that in the past, many newspapers regularly carried labor news. Truth be told, inquisitive readers, many newspapers had writers who actually covered labor issues on a regular basis. To say that this is a thing of the past is an understatement, to put it mildly.
Still, if you look hard enough, and you know where to find it, there is still plenty of news that affects what is sometimes amusingly referred to as the "working class."
Now, it's true that for most of what is sneeringly referred to as the mainstream media, working class issues get short shrift. Check out your local television station come Labor Day: what you are most likely to find are items on how people are spending their day off.
Just imagine if they gave Labor Day the same attention they give Christmas or Memorial Day. Or, conversely, imagine if the only coverage they gave Memorial Day was a report on how people were spending their day off. Just imagine the outraged calls to the television stations.
A look at the Business pages in the recent past may give one pause; maybe it's time to at least give the Business pages a quick glance over breakfast, or during coffee break at work. Except where mentioned, most of these news items come from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"Trucking fatalities put state atop list" - March 13., 2007. Yes, Wyoming and Arkansas have retained their rankings as the deadliest states in the U.S. for commercial truck accidents. And not just accidents - accidents with fatalities. Safety groups say that the government should limit the number of hours truckers spend behind the wheel each day.
Yeah, that will happen.
"Cochran Firm sues Tyson over workers' back pay" - April 17. The law firm founded by Johnny Cochran has filed five suits in federal court in recent months. The cases deal with unpaid back pay for the time it takes to take off and put on protective clothing, and passing through security on breaks.
As someone who spent several years working in poultry plants, this case is especially interesting. The average person probably has no concept of the fact that a fifteen minute break is probably nowhere near that, in reality.
"EPA wants gassy farms to escape law" - March 28. Our good friends at the EPA would like to exempt livestock and poultry farmers from those pesky laws which require public disclosure of gaseous emissions from animal manure. It's that damned Superfund law which is causing all this trouble.
Not to worry, though. Our very own pseudo-Democrats from Arkansas, Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Mark Pryor, have both supported a bill that would effectively change the status of animal manure, thus making it exempt from the Superfund law.
In fact, it was our very own Blanche "How many liberals can I fool today?" Lambert Lincoln who introduced the measure in Congress in March.
Some have different reasons for reading the Business pages. Catherine Donnelly, a writer based in Northwest Arkansas, has this to say about the subject. "If I am in the market for a new job, I like to peruse the business section to see what new businesses are cropping up.
"Also, just from a human interest standpoint, I like to try out new businesses. Since our family hates the Wal-Martian shopping mentality, we try to patronize new businesses and spread the word. It's important for start-ups that we notice them early and keep supporting them so that they can stay in business. Otherwise, we can complain all we want about the big box companies swallowing up the mom and pop companies. If we don't actually make a point of shopping there, isn't it us that is putting them out of business?"
"Hertz Chief: More job cuts on the way"> - March 14. In an ever increasing effort to increase profits, Hertz will lay off employees, in addition to the 1,550 workers it has already announced it will let go.
"Music sales plunge as buyers tune out CDs" - March 25.
"Ex-Reagan aide faces fraud charge" - March 27. David Stockman, former budget director for Ronald Reagan , has been charged with "overseeing" fraud at a company he ran before the company filed for bankruptcy.
Justice delayed is still sweet.
"Ad accuses Wal-Mart of stifling port security" - March 23. A union-funded group (WakeupWalmart.com) sponsored a TV commercial, which charged that the Bully of Bentonville is blocking efforts to make U.S. ports more secure. Is Wally World one of the forces behind blocking the use of scanning equipment at our ports?
Wal-Mart says no.
Joe Alexander, a Fayetteville political activist, has this to say about keeping up with Business news, "The reason why working class people should pay attention to the Business section of the paper- as well as other sources of news about what's going on in the ‘big picture' of local, national and world events- is that nobody who cares about their own future or the future of their children can afford any more to be ignoring the news and just going on about their own personal life as if they have no responsibility to know about or do anything about anything beyond their own immediate personal life."
Alexander feels that the governments of the world have been supplanted by a small elite whose agenda may be anything but humanistic.
While pointing out that reading the Business pages is one way to keep track of what is happening, Alexander warns that, " . . . to some small degree though it tends to be all the propaganda of the super-rich elite; there are now many websites and talk radio shows, especially those of the Genesis and Republic networks that provide very good ‘alternative' news that responsible people would do well to pay attention to."
Sundays and Mondays tend to be "fluff" days when it comes to Business reporting. My experience is that it is mainly business trends and technological advances. I used to read the bankruptcy filings every week with some fascination - till I filed for bankruptcy myself.
After that, it was a while before I even looked at that page again.
"Labor costs increase as factory orders fall" - March 7.
While we are on the subject of "labor costs," does anyone else get a little riled when people talk about "worker productivity" rising or falling? People work hard, and if "productivity" is falling, it probably ain't the workers' fault.
Why not refer to it as "Management productivity falling"? I could go for that, and I suspect that a few million hourly workers would, as well.
"Aliens' impact focus of study: They contribute more than they take, researchers find" - April 5. Best not let the Minutemen hear about this one.
"Sirius to provide TV signal to Chrysler" - March 30. Ah, satellite signals beamed directly to your vehicle. Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Networks can soon be watched in your family room on wheels. That's just sort of heart-warming.
Couch Potato, meet Car Potato.
Dan Vega, a Fayetteville writer and co-host of One Whirled View, shown on Fayetteville's Community Access Television, often uses information he has gleaned from the Business pages on the show.
"I read the business pages in order to understand what seems to be the dominant force now ruling planet Earth and humanity. The business model of constant unlimited growth does not exist in the natural world. Nothing lives and grows forever. Cancer tries to."
Vega warns that one must keep a close eye on what is happening, claiming that in a quest for "immortality," Business often adopts extreme measures to keep itself in power.
"This is when exploitation of the planet's resources, including humans, becomes necessary. Wars for resources, free-trade pacts (which aren't about free-trade) and the domination of governments by corporations are all symptoms of business trying to perpetuate itself forever."
Vega also says, "Fascism is partly defined as the bonding of government with business. The current atmosphere in American government where business controls so many policy decisions based on the infusion of huge amounts of money should serve as a warning to us all as to where we are headed."
"Car-Mart posts $50,000 loss" - March 8. Repos and poor accounts have dealt a severe blow to the vehicle retailer. The firm, which specializes in selling cars to individuals with very poor or nonexistent credit histories, says that it wants to attract a "better customer."
Take that, poor people!
"Mortgage woes could spread: Wal-Mart, Home Depot among retailers likely to feel effects" - April 1, Morning News.
Some folks have stopped paying utility bills just to be able to pay their mortgages. Some are eating less. This will have a ripple effect on far more than just the housing and building supply industry.
If there truly are patterns to life, a lot of them can be seen in the Business pages. The few labor articles one is likely to read about will be there, written for the most part by reporters who have little or no understanding of labor issues.
But on any given day, there may be more environmental news, more health care news, or just plain interesting news than can be found in the straight news section of the paper. Often, reading the Business pages can put the "straight" news into a better context.
So go ahead, try it. Look over the Business section tomorrow, or the next day. You may not find something every day to pique your interest, but most days I suspect you will.
And if you are a member of the "working class" - whatever that means anymore - you owe it to yourself to keep on top of the Business news. To hurl a cliche in your direction, knowledge truly is power. And information is power. So grab that Business section every so often, arm yourself with information about what is happening around you, and to you.
Otherwise, my friend, ultimately you're just more mulch for the Machine.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, "Freedom Run," and a recent history of Fayetteville, "Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002."
Arkansas Free Press - May, 2007