Usually the idea of symbolic interaction applies to individuals and small group engaging in social interactions. A video surfaced however, of an agent of a Corporation with $6.1 Billion in profits engaging a mass group of employees being told that they’re jobs are (basically) being shipped to Mexico for cheaper labour. The video is worth unpacking sociologically, and not only shows all the usual Sociological subjects, but shows the symbolic relationship that corporations have with their employees; which is an interesting interplay between power and fear.
What’s more, is that when Janet Yellen, current Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank in the U.S. was presented with the facts of the video, well, she was pretty much tone deaf. Instead of answering why an immensely profitable company was shipping 2100 jobs to Mexico, when the Federal Reserve was supposed to have had “stimulated” Capital Expenditure (through loans that never happened, mostly), Yellen could only talk about aggregate employment levels. Which is too bad; because I’ve always viewed Yellen as an extremely astute economic scholar.
First the worker video unpacking, which is actually a video from a worker’s Facebook Page, as reported by the Huffington Post. This is for Carrier Refrigeration, which makes commercial grade refrigeration units for grocery stores, transportation, etc.
- At 1:00 the agent for the corporation states that the move would help the company stay competitive while maintaining high levels of product quality.
- At 1:12, the Corporate agent calls the marketplace “extremely price sensitive”
- At 1:15 the Corporate agent makes clear that this is “strictly a business decision.”
- At 1:25 the Corporate Agent says that the move is in no way a reflection of the productivity of the workers.
- At 1:37, it’s made clear that the transition would not start to happen until 2017
- At 2:08 the agent states that the decision is “subject” to discussions with the labour unions, and that they will sit down with officials from the unions.
- At 2:20, the agent states that he (basically) wants employees to “stay committed” to their corporate goals
- At 2:48 the corporate agent acknowledges that this will have a bad impact on families and the community
- At 3:12 the agent states that the company is committed to treating the workers with respect throughout the transition, and will work with union representatives to assure that respect.
Yes, the video is that short.
Let’s unpack this a little:
When Point 1 is put into context of Point 4, these are contradictory. If the company has no problem with the productivity of the workers in the U.S., then why do they need to address productivity issues in Mexico? The answer is the one word that does NOT appear in both sentences: competitive.
The agent calls the marketplace sensitive to prices. Prices are fixed, not discovered. If the market was so sensitive to prices, iPhones would be $1. People are willing to pay more, because the price is set to more. And it’s not like there is massive competition for commercial refrigeration units (unlike cell phones).
Point 5 goes along with Point 7. The company is about to destroy the families but wants the workers to maintain their “commitment,” or their loyalty.
The rest is about power, and the view of the company towards the power of the unions. If the company were so concerned with giving unions a place at the table through the transition, and to assure respect, then why wasn’t the union given a place at the table when the decision was made? The idea that the decision to move jobs to Mexico for “competitive” reasons could be overthrown by the Unions is pure fallacy. If the unions don’t consent (and they surely won’t) the company could simply close its doors for “competitive” reasons. This has been done before, and on a much more massive scale (think steel plants). While the company is stating that they value the voice of unions, they actually do not – this is the difference between rhetoric and practice.
The symbolism is poignant. An agent for the Corporation, standing at an elevated podium telling workers to remain loyal to a company that is about to (and did not in the past) show much loyalty to them when they produced $6.1 Billion in earnings.
Which brings me to the Yellen testimony before congress.
Senator Donnelly has a point: the company made $6.1 Billion in earnings, and apparently that’s not enough. When answering the Senator’s question about how this could happen, Yellen went on an incoherent rant about families losing jobs during the downturn and that losing jobs is miserable.
But all is not lost!! Yellen assures us that the Fed has done everything in its power to assure that there are enough jobs in the overall economy for those workers to find another job!
Except that they haven’t, and there aren’t. The total job vacancies versus the total unemployed (just those looking for a job that are without a job) shows that there are more unemployed people than there are jobs – and those actual job openings are questionable at best. This of course doesn’t include all those millions of people that are underemployed looking for additional jobs too!
So there is a symbolism in the interactions between corporations and workers. It’s spin, and corporations at one time may have (rightfully) thought that spin would win hearts and minds. Spin in the post 2008 world seems to be doing 2 things instead: either creating anger, or creating fear – or both. What it’s NOT doing is creating solidarity – which can be a subject for research all by itself.
Janet Yellen’s testimony only shows two primary things: 1) that economists seem to be constitutionally incapable of dealing with social problems created by the economy, and 2) that institutions have no tools to address these social problems even if economists were capable of dealing with them.
This is a prime example of how symbolic interactionism plays a role in economic activity, especially in the interactions between corporations, labour and institutions.