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More firms are trying nice approach

November 03, 2005|By TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

McDonald's offering nutritional information on its foodstuffs? Wal-Mart offering cheap health insurance and lobbying for a hike in the minimum wage? Starbucks offering inspirational, religious passages on its coffee cups?

What in the name of C. Montgomery Burns is going on here? Has the corporate world gone soft?

Boy, am I conflicted. No one gets madder, no one gets more righteously indignant than I do whenever The Man puts the screws to me, which at last count is about 3.3 times a day.

This summer, I called my cell phone carrier to report a problem and wound up arguing for half an hour with a sweet young thing who insisted that I was not one of their customers - even though I was calling on their plan on one of their phones. Try as she might, she just couldn't noodle it through.

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I went full-Vesuvius on that one, writing a letter to the corporate headquarters in which I gave them a nutritional breakdown of my own, speculating that the brains of their customer reps were 80 percent cabbage and 20 percent worms that were busy eating said cabbage.

All told, it was a reasonably good effort on my part, although nothing compared to a long time ago when a doctor refused to treat a family member for strep throat - and then sent us a bill for an office visit. My momentum carried me through two layers of AMA bureaucracy before exhaustion kicked in and I paid the stupid bill just to keep the doctor from hell from turning it over to a collection agency.

My credentials as a corporate warrior are beyond reproach. I pride myself on taking big business to the mat in the name of justice. I have seen the evils of the conglomerates and I have loudly called them on it, whether they are fattening up our children on cheeseburgers the size of sofa cushions or walling their janitors up inside utility closets.

And now they want to make nice?

I don't know if I can stand it. Getting mad at a company that sells carrot sticks and yogurt is hard. Almost as hard as it is to actually eat carrot sticks and yogurt. Truth be told, I haven't been back to McDonald's since they stopped Supersizing things. Yes, you can eat a wallet-sized serving of fries - but why?

And if I could swallow a $3 cup of coffee, I'm not sure I can swallow a soothing Bible message that's coming along for the slurp. If I wanted to be calmed down, I wouldn't be drinking coffee in the first place. I need a jolt, not a horse tranquilizer.

I'm sure the coffee quotes will be uplifting and clever ("Brew unto others ...") and I suppose there is the off chance they will make some people feel better about their lives. But somehow, Starbucks' idea that God's Plan involves a daily grande mocha latte doesn't compute. The thought of a nonaggressive coffee bar where weepy customers are holding hands and learning to grieve depresses me more than I can say.

If they're going to go with full-frontal moralization, at least they could cut the price. But then, ticket prices aren't any lower just because they call it the MCI Center, so it's unlikely we'll get cheap coffee even if God does get naming rights to the cups.

Must be a tough call for Wal-Mart employees, though. "Let's see, do I want three cups of coffee a month or do I want health insurance?" Bet you get all kinds of frills under that $11-a-month plan. Laser eye surgery? No problem! You're paying 37 cents a day, nothing's too good for you. Unlikely. Instead, they probably send you to some Civil War surgeon, or worse.

Of course, something went terribly wrong in Wal-Mart's Evil-Mitigation program, namely the publication by The New York Times of an internal Wal-Mart memo stressing the need to hire only healthy workers who won't need health care. So the good news is that health insurance is available; the bad news is that everybody's being replaced by maintenance-free robots.

But the best part was the suggestion that, to promote better, noninsurance-using health, each Wal-Mart job "include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart gathering)." So maybe we'll see a manager telling a 76-year-old greeter named Beula to "drop and give me 20."

Ah, that's better though, isn't it? Just in my darkest hour, I can feel the warm, anti-establishment bile rising in my craw once again and I feel a renewed sense of purpose. It's better for me, it's better for them, if businesses realize they are there to make money, not to be nice.

Fact is, we need each other.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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