One of the turning points in American labor history was the Ford strike that began Dec. 30, 1936, and ended Feb. 11, 1937. The strikers locked themselves in the plant, relying on food slipped past guards by their wives, and refused to come out until the bosses relented and agreed to sit down and talk.
Chinese workers have come up with a novel twist on that venerable labor tactic: They lock the boss in his office and refuse to let him out until he agrees to their demands or at least is willing to discuss them.
The advantage of the Chinese method, which would be a felony under U.S. law, is that the boss is a prisoner. In the Ford sit-down strike, the employees effectively took themselves prisoner.
This brings us to the case of Chip Starnes, co-founder of Specialty Medical Supplies, a Florida-based company with a factory in Beijing that makes alcohol pads. The factory did make diabetes-testing equipment, but that production is being moved to India, which, considering how the Chinese have raided other countries for plants, immediately made the workers suspicious.
Starnes, 42, insists there are no plans to close the plant and says he needs at least 100 of the plant’s 110 employees to keep the factory up and running. One is only guessing here, but the workers probably suspected that Starnes was feeding them the same line of bull that the new Chinese owners of plants in the Midwest, Europe and Latin America fed their employees while the head office secretly prepared plans to decamp to Shanghai or Wenzhou.
Rather than show up at the plant one morning to find the lights out, the doors locked and a sign in the window saying, “Gone to Mumbai,” the Chinese workers want their severance packages now, just in case.
Except for the first few nights in Huairou when the workers kept him awake with bright lights and loud noises, Starnes, who has been held since last Friday, says he hasn’t been badly treated. He gets three meals a day of General Tso’s chicken, which is far better fare than what’s served in the average Chinese lockup and — dare one say? — probably far better than what he’d get at a private, for-profit American prison.
Starnes, who can talk to reporters though a barred window, says he’s glad he had the foresight to install a toilet in his office, a point that suggests American schools of business ought to broaden their curricula from tax avoidance, toxic securities, what to say when the Securities and Exchange Commission arrives and the like to include escape and evasion.
Any well-designed Chinese executive office should include a secret passage, equipment for tunneling if it’s on the ground floor or a desk that converts into a glider if the office is on one of the higher floors of those showy skyscrapers.
Trapping a CEO in his American office would probably be pointless because the office, besides being large enough to house a dozen Chinese working families, probably includes plenty of flatscreen TVs, a bar, an executive dining room with well-stocked pantry and a foldout couch.
Indeed, the imprisoned executive might refuse to come out once the workers went away, especially if freedom came on the eve of the stockholders’ meeting.
The front of Wednesday’s New York Times business section had a large story headlined, “Chinese investors are sold on America,” and, considering how they treat their top executives back home, you can see why.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.