This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here.
Greenville, South Carolina, is a laboratory for a social experiment — its hypothesis: that a community can take a “principled” stand against workers organizing for collective bargaining, and can enforce that stand on the entire work force in the community.
In its most simplified form, the experiment looks absurd: a highly organized business community employs a number of devices to convince workers that they are better off unorganized. But this strange combination of hypocrisy and Alice-in- Wonderland logic has worked with frightening effectiveness. And since Greenville is one of the nation’s major “job meccas” — it is the most rapidly developing part of the second most rapidly developing state — this experiment will continue to have national consequences.
In the old days, the experiment was carried out with the ingenious paternalism and personal style of a handful of mill owners, men like Captain Ellison Smythe, F. W. Poe, the Beatties and Hammetts, and Lewis Parker. Their success helped make Greenville the “Textile Capital of the World.” Today the efforts to keep workers unorganized begin in the boardrooms of Greenville’s corporations. A few of the older leaders sit on numerous boards where they are joined by many newcomers. The interlocks between banks, textile companies, utilities, insurance firms, large retailers and manufacturers are so extensive that they have created a tight-knit network of corporate and personal relationships that encompasses every major business and elite family in Greenville.
The relationships are further solidified by these same people’s membership in key churches (Christ Episcopal, First Baptist, Buncombe Methodist), social clubs (Greenville Country Club, Poinsett Club, Green Valley Club) and their service on the boards of various social agencies and arts organizations (Greenville Symphony, St. Francis Hospital, Greenville Little Theatre, March of Dimes, etc.).
As a result of this intricately interconnected web of relationships (see chart), the elite of Greenville — the corporate policy-makers — speak with one voice. Each time one of the big corporations holds a board meeting, its 10 to 20 directors have another chance to hammer out and ultimately harmonize their different interests. When the board of the South Carolina National Bank meets, for example, the directors of eight supposedly competing textile companies who serve on the bank’s board can formally and informally discuss such common issues as interest rates, investment priorities, municipal expansion, labor problems, and political races. And when the Liberty Corporation (controlled by the Hipp family) holds its board meeting, nearly every key leader in Greenville’s business world attends.
The policies which shape the social experiment of Greenville are made in these boardrooms. They are expressed with a single voice to the public through the Chamber of Commerce. And they are implemented by a host of lower management technicians who receive their training through the Chamber’s multitude of programs.
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce thus fulfills a crucial function in coordinating the “boardroom crowd” and teaching the rising executives in its member businesses how to execute the boardroom’s wishes. It is the hub of Greenville’s social experiment.
The Chamber describes itself as the primary agency responsible for maintaining and improving the business climate of Greenville. Its programs have eight objectives: to foster a superior public education system, balanced economic growth, efficient local government, a more favorable business climate, an improved quality of life, an attitude of unity and pride in the community, development of community leadership, and support for the American free enterprise system.
The Chamber carries out the program with an annual budget of $658,000 (1977) and a series of committees and task forces which involve more than 500 Chamber members. Many of these committees perform such stereotypical Chamber functions as membership recruitment and government lobbying on issues from minimum wage to OSHA enforcement to tax legislation. Last year, for example, the Greenville Chamber joined other chambers across the state in a successful campaign to thwart reform of South Carolina’s inadequate workman’s compensation laws.
While such activities obviously serve the interests of business at the expense of the average working person, there are others that are considerably more subtle in shaping how people behave — indeed, how they think. These are the training and education programs aimed at transforming existing and emerging leaders — from corporate vice presidents to librarians to Urban League officers to factory supervisors — into efficient, effective advocates of the philosophy, “What’s good for management is good for the people.” Like other Chambers around the country, the Greenville Chamber of Commerce has begun sponsoring these sophisticated seminars which rely heavily on new techniques of behavior modification, group counseling and interpersonal therapy. The guardians of Greenville’s stand against unions now have a whole new arsenal at their disposal.
Most of the Chamber’s educational/ training programs fall under two broad areas, Community Development and Employee Relations, directed respectively by full-time staff members Frank Ryll and Bill Westmoreland. One of the Community Development programs is a course called “The Economics of Freedom for Employees.” It teaches employees of Chamber members how the free enterprise system works, and has four objectives:
EDUCATION ... is the best method of overcoming the ignorance prevalent among employees and the general public over the working of the free enterprise system in Greenville and the Nation. . . .
TWO- WAY COMMUNICATION. . . lines opened between top management and supervisory-level employees on operations, profits, goals and corporate responsibility. . . .
LOYALTY. . . gained by each employee through appreciation of company achievements and operations within free enterprise. . . .
RETENTION ...of important aspects of this new-found knowledge so participants can effectively discuss economic freedom and the system with fellow workers. . . .
The “employees” course, discontinued in 1976, was brought back to life in 1978 by popular demand and henceforth will be offered twice a year. Seventeen people took the course on November 17, 1978: six from Simon’s Cutting Tools, one from 3-M, two from Southern Bank and Trust, two from the Greenville County Library, two from the Greenwood School District and four from Judson Mills (a division of Deering-Milliken). The faculty was drawn entirely from Furman University and consisted of three economists and one political scientist.
Topics of discussion in the course included “The Characteristics of Capitalism,” “Profit,” “Capital and Its Sources,” “Free Trade” and the CBS News film “The Second Battle for Britain,” which blames Britain’s economic troubles on socialists and unions. Over and over, the course hammers home the basic message: profit is needed, government regulation is bad, and unions are outside interference. Employees come away from the session with a complete understanding of management’s world view, without ever exploring what their own self-interest might involve in “the free enterprise system.”
The Chamber has also been concentrating recently on a companion course for elementary school teachers titled “The Economics of Freedom for Teachers.” More than 350 teachers in Greenville and adjacent Pickens County have already taken the course.
But the real jewel of the Community Development section of the Chamber is its Leadership Greenville program. Now four years old, the seminar and retreat series counts among its more than 200 alumni vice presidents of the major banks and companies like Michelin Tire, Riegel Textile, Phillips Fibers, Stone Manufacturing, J. E. Sirrine, Daniel Construction, Bigelow-Sanford, Greenville News-Piedmont, Liberty Life and J. P. Stevens, plus county commissioners, city management personnel, state legislators, school administrators and social service agency heads. According to Frank Ryll, a transplanted Floridian who directs the program, Leadership Greenville is a descendant of Leadership Atlanta, a program that began in 1969 as a result of concerns about how leadership in the community was emerging. The program is also tailored after efforts of the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro.
With an annual budget of $40,000, half drawn from student fees and half from the Chamber, the program is geared to identify highly qualified emerging leaders; provide them with an understanding of the needs of the community; counsel them in “management and leadership” skills; develop an “esprit de corps” for working on community projects; create communications channels between the participants and existing community leaders; and identify places where they can become involved in community activities.
Indeed, the program has created a network of emerging leaders whom other alumni can call up to serve on boards and commissions or to get contacts for new employees. The local United Way, for example, has seven alumni on its board and two alumni on the staff. The political community is also looking more and more to Leadership Greenville for the young politicians who are properly groomed in the ways of integrating business interests and public service. Political aspirants see graduation from Leadership Greenville as a “leadership credential” — almost like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval — which will help them move up in the party machinery and appear as a more viable candidate should they choose to run for office.
By involving blacks and women in the program, and by tackling various “community issues” like law enforcement and public education, Leadership Greenville has given the Chamber both the “liberal” image of a concerned agency and a wider audience for its own special concept of leadership skills and management goals. The combination of this liberal image with Leadership Greenville’s esprit de corps provides the Chamber with a smoke screen for its anti-union efforts and a means to subdue and co-opt the very people who might otherwise provide the leadership for progressive change in the community.
The Employees Relations division of the Chamber is equally subtle. Its director, Bill Westmoreland, adamantly claims no one at the Chamber is anti-worker. Indeed, Westmoreland sees his personal “mission” as convincing companies that it is good business to treat their employees like human beings, and provide for their non-work-related social and emotional needs.
Westmoreland stressed over and over that the key message of his Positive Management Leadership Training (PML) programs is that employees must be treated with fairness and dignity. He believes that most of the services that unions provide, such as grievance procedures, seniority systems, and open-door policies, are services “which long since should have been provided by the companies.” He firmly believes that by providing these services companies can avoid unionization. For Westmoreland, any company which gets a union probably deserves it.
He is a self-described “missionary” for this position in the Greenville area, and the large corporations are responding to it well. In the three years the program has been run, more than 60 executives from the highest levels of local management have attended.
Westmoreland refused to detail the curriculum he uses in the course, but he did say he drew on materials from the American Management Association and American Society for Personnel Administration.
The course itself consists of a retreat and eight follow-up sessions. The retreat sets the stage for the entire course. Management participants are taken away for a weekend and spend much of the time role playing a work place which is out of control. The instructors act out the role of the workers and intimidate the executives into realizing the benefits of “positive leadership.”
According to Westmoreland, most the larger corporations have developed their own sophisticated employee relations programs. The Chamber focuses on those companies without programs and those most vulnerable to labor “unrest.” It monitors the activities of unions as they begin to organize, alerts companies ripe for unionization, and offers their executives Westmoreland’s training retreat-seminar series.
Westmoreland runs a similar program for first- and second-line supervisors called the Labor Forum. Here his goal is slightly different — he wants to help those supervisors understand that their job is not to be a “bull in the woods,” doing the actual work for people, but to help them be more productive on the job by helping them solve work- and non-work-related personal problems.
PML and Labor Forum serve as pseudo-unions in Westmoreland’s view, even though employees have no negotiating power. For him, it is enough that a company comes to the workers three or four times a year to inform them about changes to be made and any improvements in benefits and pay. He sees that meager offering as quid pro quo for productivity, attendance and loyalty.
While all of these programs run semi-independently of one another, they all exist within the framework of the Chamber’s anti-union position. Through these vehicles, the Chamber maintains the social experiment. Leadership Greenville maintains the Chamber’s image as the “most progressive organization in the community,” obscuring the Chamber’s position regarding an organized work force. PML provides businesses in the area with the tools to keep their workers unorganized and happy, and the Economics of Freedom for Employees and Teachers ices the cake, making business’ goals everyone’s goals.
If one thinks this judgment harsh, he or she need look no further than the Chamber’s Board of Directors, a veritable who’s who of people and companies opposed to workers organizing and bargaining collectively. Freshly elected are Dr. John Johns, President of Furman University, which provides ongoing management training in how to keep unions out, and Harold E. Addis, the new vice president of Industrial Relations for the Manufacturing Division of J. P. Stevens. Present and past directors include people from J. P. Stevens, Texize, Riegel Textiles, the Greenville News- Piedmont, Sloan Construction Co., Celanese, Michelin and Daniel International.
With the help of the Chamber, these companies are now keeping up with the latest anti-union techniques. A few years ago, only about a dozen management consulting firms were involved in helping companies defeat union drives; today there are more than 100. Using an adaptation of various psychological theories, these consultants all recognize that people have different values and that those values must be addressed in the work place if the worker is to be satisfied with non-union status.
Charles Hughes of Executive Enterprises, for example, has argued that there are seven different levels of value systems. Most workers (and many managers) fall between value systems two and six. Hughes writes in his book Making Unions Unnecessary that only when you reach the seventh level have you crossed the bridge from “animalism to humanism.” Hughes clearly believes that most workers live with subhuman sets of values. When he talks about constructing a work environment for people, he is not concerned with helping all the people become human, but with responding to their value systems in such a way that they will not want a union. Neither will they obtain any notion of a bargaining process at work in their factory. Hughes likens bargaining with workers to feeding bears in Yellowstone Park. When they beg food and you give it to them, they will return again wanting food, and again and again, until you have no food to give them. Then, he says, they will attack you.
Closer to home are the seminars offered in the Carolinas by Penton, Inc., which employs Walter Imberman and lawyer Robert Valois to travel through the South helping companies avoid unions. Imberman handles the psychology, Valois talks about the legal and quasilegal steps the employer can take during a campaign. Valois should know: he is the attorney for the Stevens Education Committee, a workers’ anti-union committee in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Valois and Imberman appeared at Furman University last spring to run one of their courses for local managers.
A new wave in the “positive management” movement is the use of behavior modification techniques in the work place. Behavior modification is a technique descended from Pavlov and his dogs and B. F. Skinner and his pigeons. It presupposes that people, like animals, are nothing more than a series of behaviors that can be triggered (i. e., conditioned) with the correct stimulus. In the world of therapy, it is used generally on people who are severely retarded or brain-damaged to help them function at some level of comfort. In the work place, “behavior mod” is applied without consent to manipulate people. In Greenville, behavior modification is used by J. P. Stevens, which teaches it to supervisors at its management training center. Stevens hires juniors and seniors from Furman University’s psychology department to help staff this program. Almost all the management consultants recommend that the first-line supervisors be responsible for carrying out the policies of management — to the point of writing the maintenance of a union-free environment into their job description. If a union wins a representation election, it is the supervisor, who is neither management nor labor, who bears the brunt of the blame.
Thus the battle against workers organizing takes on a bizarre dimension as it becomes literally a battle for people’s minds. In the work place, the social experiment sheds its subtlety, using techniques designed for healing troubled minds for the crass purpose of maintaining a union-free environment. It depends on a view of workers as something less than human or nothing more than conditioned behaviors which, with the proper stimulus from management, will increase productivity and reject unions.
A State Chamber of Commerce report provides the perfect summary for the experiment being conducted in Greenville: “South Carolina’s favorable ranking in providing an attractive business climate did not just happen. It was because state and local government, civic and business organizations, and the citizenry as a whole dedicated themselves to making economic development a priority issue.”
Michael B. Russell
Mike Russell is Associate Director of Southerners for Economic Justice and, like many leaders described here, is a member of Christ Episcopal Church. (1979)