Corporate Barbarians and the erosion of community threads

Some of you may know that for nearly six years I was a bi-weekly columnist for a local weekly newspaper. Although I was too much of a hack to pretend to good journalistic standards, I did my homework, tried to make my opinions relevant to my audience, and frankly I enjoyed to hell out that gig.  I gave it up, voluntarily (a decision that I sometimes regret) due to work pressures and time commitments.

I walked away from that column on my terms and with head held high.  Maybe someday I’ll go back to it, but not yet.

On Tuesday, a guy I literally had just met, who had put in 43 years at the only state-wide newspaper was, in a ten minute meeting, summarily sacked.  You can read the report posted by NPR here:

I was Mr. Kerr’s last interview – literally his last at The Providence Journal. We met on Tuesday morning at 10:00 at a coffee shop and talked for a little over an hour.  As we parted, he said he was returning to the office where, unbeknownst to him, his fate awaited.

When I found out about the layoffs, a part of me felt that I had given him the proverbial kiss of death in the morning.

Lest anyone think I bemoan the layoff because my interview won’t get published, think again. Of course I always welcome the chance to publicize the great work of RICLAPP and its people, but I’m certain that there will be other opportunities. There’s an old baseball saying, “You  win some, you lose some, and the rest get rained out.” We got rained out on Wednesday.

I’ve known Bob Kerr for decades; I only first met him for one hour last Wednesday. I know him through his columns. He wrote for all of us, highlighting everyday Rhode Islanders who struggled to overcome their own personal adversities, or those engaged quietly and without fanfare to make Rhode Island a better place and life a little more gentle for those who have the least among us. And, yes, he created the “Clemency Coach” where he poked a stick in the deserving eyes of its passengers.

In short, I learned more about the community that I’ve lived in for sixty-six years than I ever learned from the stark and sterile sterile stories on the front pages above the fold. People, everyday people, people who work in anonymity, are what make a community. They are the strength of a community and highlighting their lives and their efforts made me feel more connected to my community and I am better for it.

For that alone I say, “thank you Bob.”

But equally unsettling was how the layoffs were conducted. Forty-three years reduced to ten minutes; the delivery of a severance package with the admonition that if you complain you don’t get the money. If you exercise any legal right that you might have, you lose the money. Here’s your hat and coat; don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

I was speaking with someone with vast corporate experience and I was told that this is the way it is today. The “suits” either come in or send a minion to deliver the fatal blow to a lifetime of work. It matters not whether you’re famous or anonymous, the end is visited in a bloodless cold manner. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

Except it is personal. People are self-defined by the work they do. It becomes who they are, a part of their history and future. This sense of self, fortified with the dignity that work provides, gives you the ability to take your place equal with others in the community.

There’s a lyric in Bruce Springsteen’s song Youngstown  that I think is apropos: Once I made you rich enough; rich enough to forget my name. 

So to the Corporate Barbarians I just say this: your actions are personal, not just to the people directly affected but to the community as a whole. Institutions built from the ground up and sustained by people who give their lives to them are essential to the fabric that binds our communities. They help give life and vibrancy to us individually and collectively. The opportunity to work at what we do with pride and purpose, secure that there is a contract – unspoken but very real – between employer and employed, is vital to stitching together the rich tapestry of our community.

When the Barbarians come in and deep dive to the bottom line, unconcerned with the damage in their wake, they tear at the fabric of that delicate tapestry. And as we have seen over the past decades, communities have been destroyed by this perverse and predatory zero sum game played with the real lives of real people. George Packer in his book The Unwinding details this much better than I can here, but suffice it to say that what we saw last Wednesday is another in a long string of examples of predatory purchases that chip away and eventually destroy the soul of a community.

In a couple of weeks my subscription to The Providence Journal is due to renew or expire. Here’s my notice: when that renewal notice comes, don’t expect a response. I’m done. I will not contribute one more penny to a corporation that has so little regard for me and my community. This has been coming to a head for years, now it’s time to do something. I know that my little subscription in the cosmic scheme is meaningless, but if others combine….

See, I just gave you more than ten minutes in severing our forty-two year subscription relationship. That’s how it’s done fellas.



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