June 28-July 4, 2006

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Open Mic

Hearth Truths

By John Rose

Obviously, bakers tend to wake up earlier than everyone else. It's 4am on a Monday in Larkfield, and the vending racks are just being filled with newspapers. The first pot of coffee is brewing, and I'm mixing the muffins for our morning crowd. Mondays are usually slow, so we won't need that many. I'm listening to the radio, while the Danishes slowly rotate in the oven.

The news is all too familiar. Some executive is on trial for defrauding investors, gas prices are on the rise, the morgue in Baghdad is at capacity and an Iraqi is grieving over the loss of his brother. Only a few months ago, the insurgency started targeting my own brothers, the bakers of Iraq who help keep their communities fed. My heart goes out to these people whom I do not know but with whom I share a common bond.

These men are targeted for attack for the very reason I bought a bakery in the first place: bakers are the cornerstone of civilization. If not for bread and circuses, Roman citizens would have overthrown their government in centuries past. The Egyptians developed bread around the same time they began to construct their great monuments.

In our own neighborhood, my community entrusts us with the ceremonial foods for the milestones in their lives: cakes for baby showers, birthdays, graduations, weddings, retirements and to comfort grieving families upon death. Customers break our bread with those who are close to them. They visit us to celebrate a son's first day at school and after little league games. Often, we are the first people they greet in the morning, when they buy a doughnut to start the day. We are blessed to have a good clientele, but it is rare to find a customer in a bakery who is in a bad mood.

My reverie is interrupted by the oven. It is about 50 years old and shows its age by creaking and moaning as it turns. It was installed in a simpler time, when this bakery made all the bread in town. Now every supermarket is our competitor, and we focus on making cakes and cookies. Even the Wal-Mart up the street sells doughnuts, Danishes and bread. Though our product is fresher and better, they sell more. We just can't compete with their prices, because we pay our employees more and make things from scratch.

I can barely hear the radio now, the oven is so loud. I form bread loaves as the announcer says something about another company off-shoring jobs. My last job was in high-tech, where I helped coordinate the transfer of my neighbors' jobs to Malaysia. I eventually resigned in disgust with management and myself. I tried to rally employees to protest the job losses, but everyone was fearful of reprisal. I had to file a charge with the labor board over my management's questionable actions, and it was over a year before it was settled in my favor.

Most corporations simply disregard the labor laws that protect our right to associate, because they know the penalties are minor and enforcement weak. And because of that, they keep wages lower and my former colleagues are forced to compete with people in India and China, even though our cost of living is much higher.

The croissants have proofed and are ready to put in the oven, which is loudly complaining. I've got to get it fixed. Legend says that the bakers of Vienna invented croissants after thwarting an invasion by the Turks. The enemy was secretly undermining the city's defenses with tunnels. The bakers heard the noise in the early morning and alerted the city. Together, the citizens successfully fought off the invaders before their city could be sacked and looted. The entrepreneurial bakers formed the croissant to resemble the crescent flag of the Turks, and sold them by the thousands to the grateful public.

My brother-in-law has just arrived to open up. He is 57 now, with a degree in economics. The most important economic lesson he has learned is that when you are laid off at age 50, no one wants to hire you. He was able to find occasional work as a substitute teacher and did odd jobs until we took over the bakery. Now we are both employed, though not making as much as we used to.

A few people are waiting when he opens the doors. It looks like it will be a nice day as the sky begins to brighten.

I can't wait to shut off the oven--it's making such a racket! The radio says that there is a shareholder initiative to limit executive pay. The oven makes it hard to hear, but the CEO is making a record salary even as the company loses money. I don't understand how these executives can justify such high salaries to their boards. Most of the directors are executives from other corporations, so they know that one person is not critical to the success of a company. For most companies, employees are their greatest important resource. I would rather have a thousand employees get a cost of living adjustment so they can afford the luxury of an espresso with their doughnut. Sometimes I wonder if there is something else afoot.

The president has declared war on terror, and some commentators claim there is a war on the middle class. But the enemy seems to be an intangible ideology. There is hope. A bipartisan bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, will restore the balance of powers between employees and management that for decades allowed America to have the greatest economy in the world with a strong middle class and equitable executive wages.

But the bill has been in committee for over a year, and a similar bill died in the last Congress. Some members of Congress are preventing the bill from being voted on. Maybe they've become more loyal to corporate donors than to the ideals of democracy and their constituents. But that is unthinkable. After all, we all love democracy and are patriots. They probably think it's just not a priority, with the upcoming debate over amending the Constitution to ban the burning of the American flag.

The oven now sounds like a jackhammer. I finally shut it off, and instead of relief from the noise, I realize that it is directly underfoot! Enemies of America and individual rights are undermining our constitutional defenses at this very moment. Somehow we have to wake up everyone, before it is too late! Please pass my tale to your friends, and ask your congressman to demand a fair up and down vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. We need to know where our leaders stand before the next election. Either they are with us or against us.

John Rose is the founder and CEO of Liberty Cookies, Inc., in Santa Rosa. His vision of America is individuals working together for the common good. The Byrne Report will return next week.

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