One of the most interesting consequences of the recent Big Business Day was the reaction to it by corporation and trade association officials.
First, these groups refused all invitations to discuss the role of Big Business in this country. Along with civil rights leader James Farmer and William Hutton of the National Council of Senior Citizens, I wrote to about 500 top corporate executives requesting that they consider participating in any of the various public discussions, media programs and debates on April 17,— Big Business Day. Not one executive replied affirmatively. By contrast, the business-sponsored Growth Day invited no-one from an opposing view to its functions.
Second, while the essence of the concern expressed by the Big Business Day sponsors was based on massive amounts of evidence reported by the media over the past decade about corporate crime, pollution, consumer fraud, corruption of government, work place hazards and other excesses, the Growth Day backers chose to deal in epithets and distorted generalities. Their tactic was to generate a huge outpouring of paper to their favorite columnists and commentators who responded like a leg tapped lightly on the knee. The trade, press and business house organs, of course, performed their mimeographed tasks dutifully.
What was their message? That Big Business Day was a bunch of “extremists,” “zanies,” “crazies,” “lampoons” and “no-growthers”—to select a few of the milder descriptions. All these appellations certainly would be news to the millions of elderly people, the thousands of constructions workers who marched in Boston, the many unions, consumer groups, neighborhood, church and civil rights groups represented on the Big Business Day masthead.
United Technologies—which feeds off billions in government contracts—poured thousands of dollars into newspaper ads vilifying Big Business Day. Joy Manufacturing in Pittsburgh, Pa., took out full-page ads for much the same purpose. James Kilpatrick, the normally business- fawning columnist, displayed some irritation with the business community’s response. “Don’t dignify the crazies,” he counseled, adding that “Alas, my brothers have taken Big Business Day very seriously. My desk runneth over with press releases and speech texts proclaiming, in the stuffiest possible language, the virtues of industry and the follies of its critics. These handouts sputter and harrumph; they cry balderdash and humbug…”
There was much intellectually disgraceful about the response to Big Business Day that transcends mere disagreement. Typified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there was a 100 percent unwillingness to recognize any of the abuses which big business managers themselves have admitted in places around the country during the past 20 years; or, the predatory practices which small business has credibly charged giant corporations with perpetrating. Heaving with effusions of self-praise and trotting out their front groups like the Heritage Foundation, the leaders of the big business world seemed bent on denying the front page headlines of their offenses year after year. As a result, they were not interested in exploring any constructive solutions to these nagging conditions.
The conformity among executives of large businesses is rapid. An unwritten code of behavior spells a variety of sanctions for any would-be mavericks to stay in line. Interlocking directorates, multiple business arrangements, and skeletons in closets are some of the restraints which make free speech for potential critics an unused luxury.
There is a deep need for an alternative business organization — one that will recognize the facts of business misdeeds and help consumers and other citizens do something about them. The new Council for a Competitive Economy is opposing government subsidies of business. While its positions sometimes may be considered ideologically rigid and unfeeling, the fact that it is challenging — by name — those large corporations that are on welfare in Washington has a refreshing ring. Here is a wish for more such dissent within and against the iron curtain of Big Business.