Tens of thousands of workers at America’s third-largest hardware chain are trained in more than customer service. They are trained in the conservative trickle-down economic zealotry that animates their billionaire boss. Menards is the largest privately owned home improvement chain in America. Its owner is John Menard, Jr., famous for keeping “a tight rein” on the smallest details of his company’s operations. His net worth of more than $10 billion makes him the richest man in Wisconsin, and one of the 50 richest people in America…. After Menard was forced to pay a $1.7 million fine in the 1990s for illegal dumping of hazardous waste, one state official says Menard told him he “just didn’t believe in environmental regulations.” More recently, a Menards spokesperson announced that the company did not plan to open a new store until Obama was no longer president.
Back in the day, workers were paid in company script, lived in company housing, and shopped at company stores. The company instructed workers as to whom they were to cast their vote for…and they did as they were told. Today workers may not be so directly and cynically under the complete control of their employer, but modern technology has made it easier for an employer to more completely control something previously beyond their reach: their employee’s brains.
This is not to tar all large corporations with the same brush, of course, but neither are companies like Menard’s particularly unusual in their attempts to indoctrinate employees with a right-wing political agenda. A few years ago, I worked at a local Target store over the Christmas holidays, and part of the initial training was watching what could only be described as an anti-union propaganda film. Stressing that a union would only disrupt the glorious collaborative culture that characterized Target stores, unions were portrayed as wishing for nothing more than to destroy what Target has worked so long and hard to create. The film was completely lacking in subtlety, not that it kept most of my fellow workers from nodding sagaciously while watching.
A couple generations ago, unions were what stood between greedy, rapacious moguls and the employees they wished to treat as chattel, disposable parts useful only for the value they created. Workers were exploited for their labor and tossed aside when they were no longer of value. Unions helped to prevent workplaces built on the cynical and exhaustively exploitation of workers. Most of all, they helped ensure that tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire could never happen again.
No one suffers the brunt of John Menard, Jr.’s conservative beliefs more directly than his own employees. Menards’ virulently anti-union policies stand out even in an industry full of anti-union corporations. The company was recently sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board for violating labor laws after it was revealed that the company had required managers to sign contracts stating that they would forfeit more than half of their pay if employees formed a union on their watch.
But Menards is not satisfied with merely having a non-union work force. Documents provided to us by a Menards employee show that the company conducts what can only be describe a systematic indoctrination into conservative political beliefs, under the guise of its “In-Home Training Program” (IHT).
In some respects, the only difference between John Menard, Jr. and robber barons is the passage of time and the availability of modern technology making it easier to control employees. Where employers previously relied on intimidation and the knowledge that jobs were few and far between to control employees, now the Internet makes indoctrination easier.
We take for granted that an employer’s control and influence over workers ceases at the end of the workday…which is true in most workplaces. Unfortunately, there are still modern day robber barons like John Menard, Jr., who hold views reminiscent of the 19th century, when being a “company man” meant ceding control over virtually all aspects of one’s life to their employer. There are still far too many captains of industry who view themselves as superior beings whose role is to not only make a profit but to show their employees the “right” way to think.
When employees are allowed to think for themselves, they become more difficult to control. They start wanting things- like safe workplaces, reasonable workloads, and the right to organize and advocate for what they childishly view as their “rights.”
How can a CEO count on making millions if the natives are allowed to be restless and engage in activities that don’t contribute to the bottom line?