Cafe Gena

Cafe GenaLucy and I were sitting outside a little corner cafe (Cafe Gena, pictured right) in the eastern backstreets of Florence, Italy on 6th August. Elated at our purchase of a day-old copy of The Guardian, we were both eager to digest as much news as the flimsy international edition could feed us. Typical then, that we should settle upon a small news item on the front page to debate for hours upon end, leaving little time in the day of two busy tourists for all that news.

Katie Allen’s article of 5th August 2006 announced the intentions of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to publish details of boardroom salaries and bonuses on a new website, allowing employees to compare their below-inflation pay rises to some of the 25%-plus salary hikes experienced by their bosses. Lucy sparked our lunchtime conversation by asking how one could possibly justify the expansive difference between boardroom salaries, and the salary suffered by the bottom rung employees. Never one to shrink from such a challenge, I suggested the responsibilities of a manager were so much heavier than those placed upon the shoulders of the average employee, and the influence she could have on the fortunes of the company though poor performance so much more significant. Poor management can lead a store into the ground within weeks, but a poor till clerk is replaced without any real impact upon the branch performance.

Despite this somewhat obvious attempt at justification, Lucy and I proceeded to consider an alternative world. Companies could theoretically operate with flat, or at least flatter, heirarchies resulting in evenly spread responsibilty, and more balanced pay packets. I consider this to be an eternally fictional world – the heirarchy of a company is inherently present due to the manner in which companies develop. Tescos was no doubt a single store once upon a time, and when a new store opens, the owner of the original store is pushed further away from the individual stores, and higher up this fledgling heirarchy. Maybe the answer is simply to legislate such that large companies can never form. What if, as a shop owner, I was only allowed to open one shop?

Three weeks ago Lucy and I attended the Northcote Road Action Group meeting at the Eagle pub in Clapham. This group was formed to fight the injustices suffered by the shopkeepers of Northcote Road, as their greedy landlords seeked (and are seeking) to increase rent payments beyond the mean average of other retail units on the road. A rather pushy lady led the group of over 200 people away from the point when she raised the issue of multi-nationals replacing the lovely independent family businesses enjoyed by Northcote Road regulars. “What can we do about them?”, “Why can’t our MP do something about this issue?” (Martin Linton, MP for Battersea was present), “Surely the government can do something”. As an aside, I feel such empassioned bullshit as the heckling of authoritative figures such as Mr Linton degrades the quality of discussions like this meeting. Several members of the crowd with a little too much belief in their own voice and opinions felt that our Labour MP must be the cause and solution to all the problems faced, and Mr Linton was harassed for the rest of the night while three empowered county councillors remained silent and unbothered sipping on their pints in the back. I do think multi-national bullying is a problem, and it will the point I take on to the rest of this blog, but it was not the focus of this meeting. Northcote Road should be very proud of its status as one of the few retail centres retaining an identity not dominated by highstreet brand names. Starbucks has moved in, Somerfield has a branch here, and our local post office was lost to a Jack Wills fashion store, but the independent shops remain dominant.

This little story is leading somewhere, I promise. After this action group meeting, our discussion was rekindled, and focused on what exactly the law could do to empower independent shops when challenged by global corporate giants. This tied back into our previous discussion, regarding the concept of laws preventing large corporations ever forming. At present legislation exists actually preventing the law from discriminating against large multi-branch companies, leaving independent shops with little weight when battling against the greedy multi-national who wishes to buy them out. When one of these independents feels the need to branch out, and open a new store across town, are they not being a little hypocritical? Why branch out? Is this another symptom of the greed dominating our society?

For now I am unsure where this train of thought is leading – check back later. For now some questions relating to greed dominating society which are bothering my head.

  • How does a corporation actually form?
  • Would legal restrictions on the size of a business work?
  • Would technological development be stifled with small companies taking the place of Microsoft?
  • How could current monopolies be removed?
  • Would legislation to restrict businesses extinguish personal ambition, leading to economic collapse?
  • Why is the lottery jackpot £2m instead of 120 winners of £100,000? Would we still play for a better chance at a smaller sum?
  • Would Lucy and I have ever stopped at Cafe Gena and had our initial discussion if it were just another Starbucks? (I think I know the answer to this one)

Localworks is a website run by a group hoping to pressure the passing of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which aims to give more power to local groups and councils with respect to the management of local community resources. Please help prevent the further spread of carbon-copy chain store high streets by joining their campaign.

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