Works in Progress

Change takes time. Hardly ever does it happen overnight – almost always it happens over a period of months or even years. Issues need either to ripen naturally, to come gradually to the forefront of our collective attention. Or there is an outside intervention of some sort, a leader, say, or a fierce group of followers, or an unanticipated event, in which case change is created more hastily but, nearly never in the blink of an eye.

And so it happened that three stories I covered in this space previously made headlines again this Thanksgiving week.

First is what turned out an ongoing saga – the saga of Twinkies. In my most recent blog I wrote that Hostess Brands (manufacturer of Twinkies) bit the dust because of bad leadership, because the leaders of the company and the leaders of the baker’s union could not reach agreement. Among the many consequences of the failure to compromise was that most of Hostess’s thousands of employees were slated to be laid off.

Ride to the rescue the law! Well, maybe. The ultimate outcome remains to be determined. Still, when bankruptcy judge Robert Drain was charged with closing the company, he balked. Instead he asked both sides to join him for a mediation, in which he would try to broker a new contract. Judge Drain explained himself in court, “My desire to do this is prompted primarily by the potential loss of over 18,000 jobs.” Stay tuned.

Second are tomorrow’s regional elections in Catalonia. This is a story of which most Americans remain unaware. But it is an important one that in theory at least presents a threat to the integrity of Spain, which in turn presents a threat (yet another!) to the integrity of the European Union. Catalans – Barcelona is their capital – have long been of two minds about the central government in Madrid. On the one hand they have harbored, for decades, centuries, separatist sentiments, which surface when times are tough – like now. On the other hand Catalonia has never been independent. In fact, in 1978 Catalans voted overwhelmingly to support Spain’s new democratic constitution. Therefore tomorrow’s vote – which is to decide if a referendum on Catalan independence should be held in 2014 – is critical. Given the temper of the times – that is, given the temper of followers (voters) who want what they want now – I would not be surprised if Catalans vote yes on the referendum as opposed to no. Not that Spain would ever grant them independence…. Not that they would know what to do with independence if ever it were secured….

Third is the story of Wal-mart – that chronic chronicle of management against labor. For years Wal-mart has successfully fought off repeated efforts by workers to organize. This has not stopped various Davids from taking on the Goliath that is the nation’s largest employer and retailer. Sometimes the arrow in their quiver was the law. Sometimes it was rabble-rousing, protests, which was the case this Thanksgiving weekend. For weeks OUR Walmart, a union-back group trying to engage and enlist Wal-mart workers, had been threatening to protest on Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year. In fact OUR Walmart so thoroughly rattled the company that just before the holiday, for the first time in a decade it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

If the filing was a warning shot – a warning to employees that they better not protest – it accomplished what it intended. Notwithstanding predictions by the insurgents that they would disrupt shopping at Wal-mart stores nationwide, the evidence a day later is that they failed to meet their goal. Wal-mart reported record sales and its stock went up yesterday, not down. To be sure, OUR Wal-mart claimed a victory of sorts, insisting that there were 1,000 different protests in some 46 different states. But the numbers were small, and their successes most modest.

Still, this story, like most in which followers take on leaders, is a work in progress. Whatever the short term outcome, Wal-mart is on long-term notice. Management is monitored by labor – which is precisely why the former felt it had better file a formal complaint against the latter.

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