SeaSol and the Sanctity of Small Businesses

By Walter Winslow of Why We Win:

Small businesses in America are holy things, like motherhood and apple pie. Obama and Romney alike sing their praises on the campaign trail because to do anything else would be to spit in Uncle Sam’s face. Small businesses supposedly bring us innovations, jobs, and most importantly hope that anyone can succeed if they are only willing to milk enough sweat from their own brow. Small business owners are at least heroes, if not saints. These ideas about small businesses are so dominant in popular culture that it feels downright blasphemous to say otherwise.

Even many on the Left who are critical of “big” business reserve a special place in their hearts for “small” businesses.* They would never deny the fundamental goodness of this sort of old-timey capitalism where everyone knows each other’s name and the owner works too, or at least has an office right upstairs. Some even make a special effort to shop locally for precisely these reasons. They seem to think that it is only massive corporations that are the problem in this county and that if we could only rein them in while privileging smaller enterprises instead then everything would be ok. In fact, these were exactly the sorts of sentiments that were expressed by many of the Occupy movement’s liberal supporters last year.

The problem with all of these popular ideas surrounding small businesses is that they completely fall apart if you spend any time with the workers whose hard work actually allows them to succeed. If my time in SeaSol has taught me anything, it is that the only meaningful difference between the horrible exploitation and other crimes of big business around the world and those of the small businesses right down my street is scale. The fact of the matter is there is no inherent difference between big business and my own neighborhood bakery: Borracchini’s.

Borracchini’s is a historic Italian bakery at the bottom of Beacon Hill that opened in 1922. It is a small family-owned business and a Seattle institution. It is located in a pretty old building right on Rainier Avenue South and on most days you can spot old man Remo Borracchini (whose father founded the bakery) himself hobbling around. People are crazy about Borracchini’s cakes and it’s old-fashioned feel. It’s the kind of place that gives some people those warm feelings about small businesses. Some SeaSol members had similar feelings about Borracchini’s themselves and had been going there for years, that is until they found out what it’s like to work there from a member named Gladys and other former workers earlier this year. SeaSol has now been in a conflict with Borracchini’s surrounding Gladys and Borracchini’s break policy for over four months (take the time to learn the whole story and view video testimonials from former workers atnobreaksnocakes.com).

It turns out Remo flaunts the law and refuses to give his workers their legally mandated ten-minute breaks. If a worker ever tries to make a phone call, run to the bathroom, or just wants to take a break from being on their feet for hours running around the shop floor they have to risk being screamed at and disciplined. Even the immigrant bakers upstairs who work ten hour shifts in the hot kitchen actually producing the cakes that make Borracchini famous don’t get all of their breaks. Worse than that, the wages at Borracchini’s bakery are low and stagnant. Gladys worked there for nine years not only without breaks, but also without a raise. Hispanic workers like Gladys also have to put up with racist verbal abuse from some of their managers, especially from Remo Borracchini’s right hand man, Danny Ulrich, who is known for mocking them in his faux Spanish accent. At SeaSol’s first picket outside of Borracchini’s Bakery members of the Borracchini family and their supporters screamed racist, sexist, and homophobic hate in our faces. One member of the Borracchini family actually sucker punched a woman of color a quarter of his size in the eye knocking her to the ground and sending her to the hospital. The list of abuses goes on and on, and even extends to the substandard housing the Borracchini family rents out next door to the bakery. Borracchini’s Bakery may be a small family-run operation, but that doesn’t make it good.

In practice in SeaSol, we have actually gotten far more contacts from people living in properties owned by small time landlords or working for smaller businesses. Admittedly, I did not have any affection for small businesses before I became involved in SeaSol, but now I have been directly exposed to the misery they put people through. I know their names. It’s a funny thing how almost everyone knows about Nike’s sweatshops on the other side of the world but so few people in Seattle know about the sorts of things that go on at Borracchini’s Bakery, Pegasus Pizza, Thriffty Janitorial Services, Chesterfield Healthcare Services, the Delridge Cottages, Lorig Associates, and too many other small businesses to list here now. The fact of the matter is Remo Borracchini was born into owning a bakery that makes him a small fortune from other people’s hard work. Even if he treated his workers well there is nothing about this situation that should inspire reverence and much that might inspire disgust.

The problem with small businesses is the same as the problem with big businesses: the incredible power the owner has to exploit his workers. If an owner loses a worker, then the worker can generally be readily replaced from the growing mass of desperate and unemployed people out there. But if a worker loses his job, then his livelihood, his very means of survival, and (in America) even his family’s health are in jeopardy. The difference between small and large businesses is simply how many lives they hold in their hands. Nike can ruin hundreds of thousands while Remo Borracchini can only ruin hundreds. Both can hypothetically treat their workers like family, but there is little to stop them and much to motivate them like dogs instead. There can be no justice when there is a power differential of this magnitude between owners and workers. No matter how large or small the business may be, the fundamental nature of the relationship between workers and owners remains the same. Small businesses are not part of the solution to America’s problems. They are part of the problem.

* It is very telling that people refer to “big business” in the singular and “small businesses” in the plural. The language here clearly demonstrates that in our culture it is acceptable to treat “big business” as one homogenous mass that acts in a consistent manner while “small businesses” cannot have their basic uniqueness/humanity revoked in the same way.

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