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Issue #1537      29 February 2012

Culture & Life

Not so soft soap

They say you can prove anything with statistics, but that is generally said by people who want you to ignore a statistic that does not support their position on a particular issue. Some statistics however can be very instructive and revealing.

Thus, US historians Walter Schiedel and Steven Freisen announced not long ago that the gap between rich and poor in the US today was far greater than the gap between rich and poor in ancient Rome!

In the days of the Roman Republic (that’s the time of Julius Caesar), the richest one percent of the population controlled 16 percent of society’s wealth. Today in the US, that one percent on top controls 40 percent of the country’s wealth.

What is perhaps most amazing about that statistic, is that the capitalists who make up that one percent on top seem to think they’re going to stay there. To borrow an expression from somewhere else, I think they’re riding for a fall.

The website of the Russian news channel Russia Today ran on online poll to mark the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of socialism in the USSR. It was not a very well designed poll, but the results are interesting anyway. Fifteen percent of respondents ticked the box “Yes we are definitely better off without the ‘evil empire’ ”.

Twenty three percent however said it was not a good thing because it left the US unchecked. By contrast, a whopping 41 percent said it was not a good thing because Communism offered hope for a better future. And a politically naïve 21 percent said it would have been better “if NATO had collapsed with it”. (It makes you wonder what they think actually happened.)

Workers in Britain have been engaged for a couple of months now in protest rallies and demonstrations against government and business attacks on their pensions. Wringing their hands and claiming the attacks are “austerity measures”, and that they are for “the common good”, the Tory/Lib-Dem government and the big capitalists are out to downgrade pensions and cheat workers out of their entitlements.

In the public sector, workers and employers both contribute to pension funds. (In the private sector, two thirds of workers get no contributions from their employers.) Workers get some security in their old age, while employers get a fresh source of investment capital they can draw on when needed. Supposedly, everybody wins.

But bosses (even in the public sector) resent having to pay anything to the workers’ pension funds, and are always on the lookout for ways to get their hands on the money in the fund without having to pay any of it to the actual workers.

One popular way in recent times has been for the company to quietly transfer the workers to an associated company and then to send that company into liquidation.

The giant Unilever concern, the 18th richest company in the world, can hardly go down that road. Instead, it has chosen to downgrade the company pension scheme from a final salary scheme to a career average scheme. They might seem innocuous-sounding differences, but if implemented they would see some workers losing 40 percent of the value of their pensions.

In a move calculated to embarrass the bosses of Unilever, a protest rally at the beginning of the year outside the company’s London headquarters was joined by Lord Leverhulme himself, heir of the original Viscount Leverhulme. The present Lord Leverhulme called on the company not to stray from what he called its corporate social responsibility pledges and to stop taking risks with the company’s reputation.

The first Viscount Leverhulme started out as plain William Lever, proprietor of a small soap factory in the old Lancashire manufacturing town of Warrington on the Mersey. He was imbued with the reformers’ zeal which, although not widespread was also not uncommon among 19th century manufacturers. It often went along with strong religious convictions, especially in the industrial north of the country, stronghold of the English reformed churches (those who in response to the question “Religion?” would answer “Chapel!”).

And of course, Engels, Marx’s close friend and collaborator, was a factory owner.

While building up the vast Lever soap business, William Lever engaged in an historic fight to win pensions for workers. (At the protest rally in January, the present Lord Leverhulme warned that the pensions snatch planned by the company and its government backers “shames this legacy”.)

His ancestor believed that workers also deserved decent housing, access to schools, all those things the affluent took for granted. At Bromborough Pool, in Cheshire, in 1888 he established a model industrial village, which he named Port Sunlight.

He became a Liberal MP in 1906, and was made a peer in 1917. He died in 1925. While he lived, the company supported the continued growth of Port Sunlight, but the moment he died the company abandoned it. A program about the region on the ABC last week explored the ruins of Port Sunlight, showing what a truly grandiose scheme it had been.

The cottages Lever provided for his workers hardly compared to the mansion he lived in himself, but the capitalists who sat on the Lever board were unwilling to share even that small fraction of their profits with their workers. Now they want to get their hands on their employees’ pension funds.

One of the legacies left by Lever was a workforce that was kindly disposed towards the company, on historical grounds more than anything else. That too has gone: the company had its first strike in the UK only last December. In retaliation, the company cancelled the Christmas celebrations (how petty can you get?)

It was of course inevitable that William Lever’s hopes for “corporate social responsibility” would founder on the shoals of corporate greed. Engels could have set him straight, but doubtless Lever never asked.

Meanwhile, the present corporate heads of the Unilever company must be scratching their heads – or laughing derisively – over such alien concepts as being “shamed” by pinching their workers’ pensions. Profits are profits – the name of the game is to get them any way you can.  

 

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