The Quiet Shareholder

Short Fiction by Koda
January, 2001

The Chairman of the Board stood at the makeshift podium inside the dull, blue and grey striped warehouse. Before him nearly five-hundred factory workers, men mostly, and a few dozen hearty women, sat uneasily on the neat rows of rough cut wooden shipping containers. He knew they were squirming under the threat of what he might say, and a part of him he didn't like to admit was relishing the power. Yet as he cleared his throat and the reverberating conversation in the room fell to a few muffled coughs, his vocal chords were as tight as the tension in the room. High over head the heating boxes rattled rhythmically.

"Ahem . . . We have called this meeting, on company time I might add, in order to dispel an innocuous rumor about a potential layoff and to end all this ridiculous talk of a walkout.

"You men, and dear ladies, have performed exceptionally well these last months, and we have no desire to let a single one of you go. Our production is up 17% from last year and quality has never been higher.

"The sad truth is, however, that we have been forced to lower our wholesale prices due to competition from a similar plant in Mexico-" He flipped to a new 5 x 7 card and paused, tapping the stack on the crate before him. "-and in order for us to retain the same profit margin, even with the higher production level, we must all make some sacrifices in order to keep ourselves and our friends employed."

A brief murmur rippling through the vast warehouse was called to order by the light taping of 5 x 7 cards. Slivers from the wooden boxes found their way through the work pants of many of those seated.

"And so there will be a modest cut-back in wages and benefits-" A groan filled the room followed by restrained, unintelligible bickering. "But let me make it perfectly clear: Absolutely no one will lose their job, at least no one willing to pull together with the company so that we can all continue working together profitably."

The low tremor of hushed voices became quickly louder, the question as to the size of the pay cut was audible to every ear. The CEO slammed the card stack hard against the crate several times. "The pay cut, effective immediately, is twenty percent across the board from grade five down-" "You're cutting me back ten years!" squawked a voice from atop a renewed surge of angry voices swelling through the room.

"Twenty percent effective immediately, along with discontinuance of the employee stock option plan, all dental coverage, and all non-job-related medical benefits." Above the sea of groans he added, "Another ten percent should be all we need to cut next month-" He could feel the anger in the crowd rustling the cloth of his suit. "-but we will still insure that all job-related accidents are covered."

He allowed them to complain to one another, knowing he could not do otherwise at the moment, but his eyes scanned the bodies looking for those with the loudest voices and most dramatic hand gestures. With a brief glance he would catch the eyes of the supervisors standing in a half circle behind him, and with a nod, point out the suspects of potential revolution, then check to insure the supervisors had noticed his target and were scrawling down the names. Only one man in the audience noticed this covert procedure.

Near the center, toward the back, ever so slowly, he stood.

They, the workers, knew him as someone no one really knew well, a quiet man with a quite smile, and the silence of his unexpected motion ebbed across the room till only the ceiling fans could be heard.

"What is your name, sir," asked the confident boss, straining to hear the soft reply.

"My name is not important," said this thin, balding man in his forties, who watched as his name went down in at least three notebooks. "I simply have a few questions to ask."

"Go ahead, shoot," said the Director, his favorite blue-collar-friend-smile beaming a convincing sympathy. The quiet man stood with his hands in his pockets and took a long, deep breath before speaking just loud enough to be heard across the carpet of expectant faces.

"If we accept a thirty-percent cut in pay, won't that put those in pay grades one and two below minimum wage?"

"It would, but we are not like our competition in Mexico and will of course adhere to the minimum wage laws of this country. And let me point out that those in pay grades one and two will not, repeat not, have to accept the full thirty percent pay cut. I'm sure the rest of you realize how hard it is to live on minimum wage. I'm confident that you will not hold it against these people if your pay cut is of a greater percentage than theirs."

A few grumbling heads nodded in disillusioned acceptance. The thin man raised a hand and waited for silence.

"Isn't it true," he said slowly, "that the plant in Mexico is our only competition in the Western Hemisphere?"

"Yes it is. And the free trade agreement means there is no longer a tariff added to the cost of goods coming into this country from either Canada or Mexico. You can see then, that the Mexican factory, having no minimum wage laws to contend with, no stock option plans provided free to employees, no medical insurance or Workman's Comp to pay, and endless potential workers willing to work at one-fifth the going rate in the U.S., well, they are in a position to drive us completely out of business in less than six months. It doesn't take a genius to see that we must cut our costs in every way possible or none of us will have a job a year from now. Thank you for bringing up this essential point, which proves why we must accept these cuts with our chin up. Yes, thank you again, Mr. . . what was your name?"

"You may refer to me as a shareholder, Mr. Bunion. All of us here are shareholders in this company as a result of the stock option plan we accepted in lieu of a pay raise three years ago. That was before you came on board, with your $300,000 a year salary, following the hostile takeover by the now defunct Lemon Brothers, who, as you well know, purchased the competing plant in Mexico with 86% of the cash reserves in our employee pension fund. After last months deposition in the Lemon Brothers bankruptcy case, this company is now the principle shareholder in the Mexico plant, in spite of your personal 20% interest in that operation."

The Chairman, caught off guard, attempted to interrupt but was slow to formulate his words.

"This company," continued the quiet man, "owns the Mexico plant, and you, Mr. Bunion, are looking at the owners of this company. This is an authorized assembly of the principle shareholders, and I propose a vote to shut down all operations at the Mexico facility."

A great cheer rose from the crowd.

"You can't do this!" yelled the boss.

"All in favor say aye."

A roar filled the room.

The CEO covered his ears with his hands. "You can't do this!" screamed a shrill voice from behind a flurry of 5 x 7 cards.

"The ayes have it," said the quiet man, though few could hear him. The workers had jumped to their feet and were practically dancing with one another.

"Granger! Get my lawyer! Get the police over here and have that man arrested for inciting a riot!" He banged his fist on the crate repeatedly, oblivious to the slivers pushing into the side of his palm. "All of you, sit down! Sit down this instant and shut your blubbering mouths or you will all be in the unemployment lines tonight!"

Fear pressed down on the crowd with an underwater-like weight. No one seemed to know what to do. Everyone looked to each other for some clue as how to react, then the voice boomed again--

"I said, SIT DOWN!"

And they sat.

Except, wouldn't you know it, for a tall, thin, balding man who stood with his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels, whistling quietly through a hard to suppress grin. "Well!?" yelled the boss.

"All in favor of removing Mr. Bunion from the Chief Executive position on the board, say aye."

Outside a small flock of birds were startled into flight by a roar that shook the walls.

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