Thursday, October 12, 2017

It’s Not Just Weinstein and It’s Not Just Hollywood

The Whole Corporate System Is Rotten With Predatory Worker Exploitation, and It’s Going to Get Worse

The Harvey Weinstein story is one that is hard to miss. The movie mogul was revealed to be a sexual predator with a decades-long pattern of workplace sexual harassment in a New York Times story. Weinstein responded with a confusing combination of apology and blustery denial, but at the same time, he also went into hiding. The day that followed was a parade of resignations from his corporate board and among his legal advisers. Then what was left of the board of directors at Weinstein’s company let him know that he was fired. Other journalists had already been working on the same story, and a New Yorker story along with others in other publications gave the situation a darker color. Weinstein’s habits of sexual predation, intimidation, and character assassination were far more pervasive and violent than the New York Times story would lead one to believe. Extrapolating, it is hard to imagine that this one man had not ruined the careers or lives of hundreds of the women who had worked for him. Rumors today say that Weinstein has left the country. Supposedly he is on his way to a residential treatment program, but one has to wonder whether, if criminal indictments follow, he will ever return to the United States. Meanwhile, Weinstein’s credits are being scrubbed from movies he nominally worked on. At the Weinstein Co., the board of directors has said that it will at least change the company name, but the company is said not to be functioning in any meaningful sense at this point and it is reasonable to guess that the office will close down and the company will liquidate. Today the news came that the company’s book imprint, at least, is no more.

Attorney Gloria Allred expanded the issue of Hollywood sexual predation yesterday with an interview on CNN. Weinstein, she said, is not the only bad guy running things in Hollywood:

Harvey Weinstein is not the beginning and the end of this issue because I have been contacted by many accusers who are accusing other high-profile figures in Hollywood as well.

This shouldn’t be too surprising in the town that invented the term “casting couch.” It also shouldn’t be too surprising in light of the recent news that male actors in Hollywood movies earn roughly twice the amount that female actors earn. It is still unsettling to hear, it is a disappointment to those in Hollywood who might have hoped that the scandal would pass quickly, and it points to an image problem that Hollywood now faces. Suppose you’re someone who has just purchased a movie ticket at your local cinema. Where does the money go, you might ask. People know by now that the cinema itself keeps a vanishingly small share, not enough even to keep the lights on. A well-run cinema literally makes more money from soft drinks than it does from ticket sales. If you pay by credit card, the banks get a share of the money, more than the cinema but still small. Some of the money must go to the starring actors, but that is not as much as we had imagined either. Most writers, technicians, actors, assistants, and musicians in Hollywood work for starvation wages if they are paid at all. So if you buy a movie ticket, is the money going to someone like Weinstein? That unfortunate picture is basically accurate. That is not what you think you are paying for when you see a movie, and it is an image problem that Hollywood now has to solve.

Obviously, the problem extends way beyond Hollywood. Donald Trump hardly counts as a Hollywood figure, but the sexual predation habit he described in such disgusting detail in a television interview so resembles the pattern of Weinstein I have to wonder whether Trump had studied Weinstein’s method and taken notes. In the music business, the timing of the way sexual predators meet their victims is obviously quite different, but otherwise the stories and the effects are much the same.

And it is not just a problem associated with creative work such as films and music. It is when the contracts, roles, and bureaucracy of the corporate world make some people so much more powerful than others that this kind of predatory behavior becomes hard to keep in check. You might think corporations would have a way to enforce policies that ensure that workers can go to work with an assurance of basic dignity and security, but the economic incentives point in the opposite direction. Corporations already in a position of power with respect to their workers work to consolidate that power by further disempowering and degrading their workers in any way they think they can get away with.

I have worked, for example, in the banking sector, and I have watched over the last two decades as the sector has been largely taken over by foreign workers. American banks hire foreigners not because the foreigners are more skilled or local workers are hard to find — in fact, just the opposite is true. It is not even that the foreign workers are paid less. Banks hire foreigners mainly because a worker in a foreign land is in a more vulnerable position, less able to object, report wrongdoing, or go elsewhere when the employer is doing something that everyone can see is wrong.

But a vulnerable position is just what a predator is looking for. It is the fundamental nature of a predator to see who is the most powerless. Weinstein’s victims included temporary workers, unpaid interns, and workers who were new in the industry. These were workers who had to succeed where they were, and Weinstein knew this and took advantage. I have no doubt that unscrupulous managers in banking and every other industry are exploiting workers’ vulnerabilities in whatever ways they can think of — certainly having them work off the clock and on cloak-and-dagger activities that a more confident worker would refuse to participate in, but also at times extending to the kind of brute-force sexual assault we read about in the Weinstein case.

This won’t be fixed as long as corporations hold so much power over workers. This imbalance of power inevitably leads to exploitation, including the sexual exploitation scandal now shaking Hollywood. It is important to recognize that the sexual exploitation of workers can‘t really be corrected without correcting the institutional forces that promote all the other forms of worker exploitation. It is the imbalance of power that has to be corrected. Some of the policy fixes are obvious, like raising the minimum wage and reducing executive pay. Unfortunately, a plurality of policymakers disagree with any such solution. “Pro-business” politicians are looking for ways to create an even worse imbalance of power by taking away protections for whistleblowers and unions and creating loopholes so that corporations can effectively ignore labor laws. Even the immigration crackdown can be seen as a way to create a vulnerable pool of workers who can more easily be exploited.

The consensus of social media is that a cultural fix is called for. Men must be persuaded to be less predatory in their approach to sex. I don’t disagree with this approach. If even one sexual predator can be persuaded to change his ways, that is a good thing. At the same time, neglecting the influence of the environment is naive. To be blunt about it, corporations and sexual predators are made for each other. As long as corporations exist in their present form, sexual predators will be drawn to them. To solve the problem in a meaningful sense, the nature of the corporation has to change.

I have no illusion that this is about to happen. Currently in Washington the White House and House of Representatives are not about to take up any measure that would be beneficial to workers. Things are slightly better in some other countries and slightly worse in others. As long as laws define corporations and employment in terms that encourage exploitation, there is no realistic prospect of a solution to the plague of sexual predators in the corporate environment. I am afraid this is a problem that will get worse and will persist for a very long time, changing only after the global political climate has shifted.