Two web petitions showed up in progressive inboxes last week. One, organized by Daily Kos in support of striking Verizon workers, was blasted out by “alternative” cell service provider CREDO Mobile. The second, organized by MoveOn, was a call for taxing the rich, piggybacking on a recent op-ed by billionaire Warren Buffett. Though neither petition itself is objectionable, together they illustrate a harsh reality: It’s easier to get the wealthy to share their money than their power.
CREDO offers customers wireless service with an added appeal: a small fraction of each phone bill gets donated to progressive organizations. The company gives customers the chance to vote on which liberal group gets a cut of their check and employs a campaign manager who emails customers with e-activism alerts, like the one promoting the Verizon strike. CREDO runs an aggressive media campaign calling out its competitors’ right-wing donations. What it doesn’t advertise is who gets the rest of your check. CREDO re-sells mobile service from Sprint, which is as right-wing as AT&T or Verizon and viciously anti-union when it comes to its own employees. There are no Sprint union members on strike right now, because there are no Sprint union members at all.
While Sprint executives may not thrill at pennies siphoned off to the Rainforest Action Network, re-selling to CREDO is an excellent business model, given CREDO’s ability to peel off progressives who might otherwise choose unionized AT&T. (Verizon’s landline division is unionized, but almost none of its wireless employees are.) In an ironic moment on Tuesday, Mother Jones magazine (whose namesake was a labor organizer) sent out an email from its president urging readers to “consider getting your mobile phone service in tune with your progressive values by switching over to CREDO mobile today.”
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Warren Buffett’s progressivism is similarly circumscribed. The celebrity chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway deserves credit for calling for us to (in the words of his op-ed) “Stop Coddling the Super-Rich.” He’s right to point out that the super-wealthy sacrifice less than they can and should for a healthy economy, and to urge that they be required to contribute more, rather than (as many conservatives would recommend) just entreated for charitable donations. But let’s not forget Buffett’s public opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, a modest reform aimed at making it easier for workers to take power away from the wealthy through organizing. “I’m against card check, to make a perfectly flat statement,” Buffett told CNBC in 2009. Yet he still conceded that “by and large, the people who are in unions have not been well-treated by the tax code that we’ve had over time.”
In other words, Buffett wants a tax system more favorable to workers, but not reforms to make it easier for them to fight for such a system—let alone for more money from their companies—just as CREDO siphons off a bit of customers’ money to left causes but poses no threat to Sprint’s discretion over its workforce or its profits. This dynamic, unfortunately, is often found in ostensibly progressive companies. I’ve reported on it atApple, Ikea, and most recently Trader Joe’s, where management is telling farm workers that it would have no problem paying an extra penny per pound of tomatoes to underwrite fair treatment, but would never sign an agreement binding it to meet with advocates, grant access to auditors, or cut off abusive growers.
“There’s class warfare all right,” Buffett has said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It’s not every wealthy business leader that will come out and say that. But rarer still is the one who will willingly give up the chance to run their company as a dictatorship.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.