An Open Letter to Richard P. Rush and the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce
from Robert Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City
I read with great interest your call in the Sunday Oklahoman (February 15, 2004) to the legal community to "rid from their midst those trial lawyers who have put a bull's-eye on the back of business by launching frivolous lawsuits for personal gain". It is always refreshing to hear somebody from the business community speak out against the dangers of greed to our community. Certainly the legal profession needs to do its job to guard the public from such problem lawyers, but I am not sure that you are really the proper person to issue this call..
When it comes to greed negatively impacting the quality of life of people in Oklahoma, the business community is not without blame in this matter. Thus, before you publicly cast stones at lawyers, perhaps the State Chamber of Commerce should first see to it that the business community of Oklahoma is cleansed of its own sin.
In a letter to the Oklahoman on the tort "reform" issue, I have noted that big lawsuits begin with irresponsible and criminal business corporations. Our legal system goes very light on criminal corporations, and thus it seems to me that these large judgments are in fact a grassroots response to the fact that criminal corporations are allowed to kill, and then kill again, without serious punishment. A corporation can kill or injure any number of employees, customers, and innocent bystanders, and pay only a money fine, no one will necessarily go to jail. Thus, I invite the State Chamber of Commerce to join me in my call for a death penalty for criminal corporations: three deaths due to corporate criminal or negligent action, or three convictions of a felony, and a corporation's charter should be revoked. I hope you would agree with me that criminal corporations should not be able to kill and kill again, and a corporate death penalty would certainly prove to be a deterrent to other bad actors in the marketplace. Fewer bad actors would lead to fewer lawsuits, and that would be a benefit for all.
Many Oklahoma businesses do not pay their employees a living wage, but instead prefer to take advantage of people's desperation. I suspect that many such businesses are members of the State Chamber of Commerce. While their actions are of course legal, I hope you will agree with me that such businesses do violence to the moral fabric of this state, hurt workers, and are big problems for the taxpayers. They are effectively welfare corporations - they are unwilling to pay the full cost of doing business (that is, the full cost of their labor), so they pay low wages and the employees are then forced to depend on government programs or private charity to pick up the slack. One study that I am aware of, calculates the ANNUAL taxpayer subsidy for most Wal Mart employees at more than $2,000 each! Managers in such businesses often refer their employees to organizations like our Catholic Worker house, who provide food to people in need.
Business persons commonly claim that they are forced to pay such low wages due to economic constraints, but I haven't noticed any of them making their books public to prove these statements. Nor do I see many owners of such businesses living on minimum wages. I do hear an attitude of contempt from many business owners regarding their low wage employees. Such statements are common whenever a proposal is made to increase the minimum wage. "These people aren't worth any more than they are being paid," is the typical way this is formulated.
Our society has become so corrupt that people can make these statements in public, and expect that people will consider their comments to be respectable. Thus we see how the culture of death has distorted our thinking. These apologists for exploitation are saying that some people deserve to work full time, but even so to not make enough money to pay for their housing, food, transportation, and medical care. And these businesses claim to have a right to exploit their workers in this manner! One has to wonder about any employer who takes advantage of employees in this manner, working them 40 hours or more a week but paying them such low wages that they are not able to properly provide for their families' needs.
I do not have a legal solution to offer, although an increase in the minimum wage would help, but I do think that much could be done in the way of public shaming and shunning such corporations. Thus, I encourage the Chamber of Commerce, if it is truly interested in protecting Oklahoma employees, as you claim in your editorial, to make "paying just wages" a condition for membership in your organization.
I call upon the State Chamber of Commerce to take the lead in building a culture of respect in the business community for employees, in place of the culture of contempt which is so often evident in the actions and statements of business people in this community, and your representatives in media, politics, and academia.
I call upon the State Chamber of Commerce to examine the growing problem of business dependency on government welfare. I have already mentioned the problem of welfare corporations paying low wages and thus forcing taxpayers to subsidize their payrolls. It is one thing for governments to extend temporary help to businesses, it is another issue entirely for the business community to become dependent upon welfare. It is evident that we need a "corporate welfare reform," similar to the welfare reform for individuals that was enacted in the 1990s with the enthusiastic support of the business community, to address the problem of transgenerational welfare dependency. Characteristics of such a reform could include:
(1) A five year lifetime limit on receiving corporate welfare.
(2) Any corporation that is guilty of a felony, or whose officers or stockholders are guilty of felonies, should not be allowed to receive any corporate welfare.
(3) Any corporation which receives corporate welfare but then which moves out of the state should be required to repay their corporate welfare checks in full.
Every day Oklahoma looks more and more like a Victor Hugo novel, and the business community is helping to drive this process by its incessant demands that business and corporations receive special favors, subsidies, and protections. You criticize lawyers for their greed, which is perhaps the most classic case I have ever seen of the pot complaining about the color of the kettle.
If you were truly interested in protecting workers, you would be doing things such as I suggest in this open letter, but the fact is, you are just another special interest, slopping at the public trough, attempting to externalize your costs, and making it possible for corporate criminals to legally escape the consequences of their actions so they can kill and maim another day.
Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, 1524 NW 21st, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73106,
cc: Catholic clergy of Oklahoma
Posted to the internet at www.justpeace.org/rush.htm
Richard P. Rush, President, Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce, 330 NE 10th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73104-3220