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After 18 holes, Maria gets justice if I win


I’m challenging Jack Welch, General Electric’s successful CEO, to a golf match. Eighteen holes, old-fashioned match play. If I lose, I’ll never again play golf. If I win, Welch will have to triple the wages of all GE workers in the factories along the Mexican border.

My chances of winning are slim. Welch is one of the top five CEO golfers in the country, with a 3.2 handicap. I play nine holes a week, mostly in a league at a public course. Although my handicap is an 11, I’ll play Welch even. My hope rests in something other than the eight strokes I would ordinarily get.

Why am I willing to risk giving up my favorite sport, one that I’ve been enjoying since my dad patiently showed me how to whack the ball 40 years ago? Because I promised Maria Elena that I’d do whatever I could to help her, and Jack Welch has the power to help.

During a recent New York State Labor-Religion Coalition tour of free trade zones in and around the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras and Acuna, workers at GE (and Alcoa, General Motors, Zenith, Hallmark and so on) implored: “Just help us get a fair wage from your U.S. companies. We don’t expect companies to solve all of Mexico’s problems. We want a wage we can live on, not charity.”

And what salary do you need to get by in Mexico today? “Triple what we get now.”

Maybe on the second or third hole of our match, Jack will miss a side hill three-footer for par, after I’ve had a chance to ask him why a woman who makes filaments for his light bulbs six days a week has to beg for a company loan to buy clothing for her children.

The GE pay stub she brought out of her bedroom showed that for the week of May 11, 1998, Maria Elena earned 332.60 pesos gross, about $42.50. She worked the normal 48-hour Mexican week, plus Sunday, for which she received overtime pay. Her take-home was 203 pesos or $25 and change.

Can anyone live on 203 pesos a week in Mexico today? Hardly. With inflation and the devaluation of the peso, Mexico’s food costs are increasingly similar to those on the Texas side of the border. I visited a Gigante supermarket in Nuevo Laredo and priced a few items: a half gallon of Borden milk, 15.50 pesos; 20 slices of Kraft cheese, 24.90 pesos; a large jar of Nescafe instant coffee, 34.40 pesos; Kleenex toilet tissue (four rolls), 9.85 pesos; a bag of Doritos, 17.30 pesos.

It all adds up to living on rice, beans, eggs and tortillas. No chicken or fresh fruit. It adds up to more loans and more debt. At GE revenue rose 15 percent last year, to $90.8 billion. That’s close to 727 billion pesos in one year.

If Jack hooks a drive into the rough, I have to admit I’ll try to get close enough to see if he improves his lie (two stroke penalty). Probably he won’t. But when an ethical principle as basic as “a good end [profit] does not justify an evil means [unjust wages]” is thrown out the corporate door, I’m curious to see if there is a carryover to the links.

When Welch recently predicted, at a private electronics industry conference in Florida, that GE’s revenues will climb to $125 billion by the year 2000, GE stock jumped in one day by $1.31. “How high can GE climb,” I’ll ask Jack after he sinks a birdie putt, “before workers share in the windfall that you and stockholders are reaping?”

Why was so much money deducted from Maria Elena’s check? Because in addition to the loan for her children’s clothing, she needed an emergency loan -- to buy medicine for her father, just diagnosed with cancer. The Mexico trip convinced me that GE’s treatment of workers is morally out-of- bounds.

Which is exactly where Welch will have to hit a few of his long irons if I’m going to stay in the match.

Of course, Jack will certainly not allow talking after he hears my first diatribe. He’ll be out to beat me bad, teaching this nonprofit do-gooder the first lesson of competition: Winning is everything.

As one who believes in golf’s code of behavior, I will bite my tongue.

After all, I can live without golf. But Maria Elena’s children won’t live long or well without a tripling of their mother’s salary. Will you break the tyranny of maquiladora exploitation, Jack? GE’s wage scale in Mexico is the handicap that’s breaking the rules of fair play -- and Maria Elena’s heart.

Brian O’Shaughnessy is coordinator of the New York State Labor- Religion Coalition.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998