During her junior year of high school, Genevieve wrote the winning essay for a career day presentation about Bickering Plummet and was chosen to deliver it at the ceremony to honor Bickering’s president, Clayton Bickering. He was there to award the school a STEM grant. The essay focused on Bickering’s global presence and philanthropic endeavors. Abigail and Rhiannon planned to be in the audience with Rosalind.
Her father had always tried to teach Genevieve a healthy disdain for corporations, in particular with regards to workers’ rights and environmental impact. His advice to her was, “If you scratch the surface of any corporation, you’ll find the slimy underbelly beneath. It’s usually pretty ugly.”
When they’d have adventures outside the home, they never ate at chain restaurants, choosing instead to seek out small, privately-owned cafés or diners, and whenever possible, he’d take her shopping at farmer’s markets or local grocery stores not affiliated with large retail chains. This left her with a critical eye to multinational corporations, especially those that outsourced labor to countries where the rights of workers weren’t as protected as in the United States.
While researching Bickering Plummet for her essay, Genevieve came across many news reports outlining Bickering’s dealings in Latin America, and in particular, subsidiaries which had a history of exploiting workers and resisting efforts to unionize. She discovered an article detailing the efforts of board member David Cairo, whose company merged with Bickering in 2001, imploring the company to distance themselves from these exploitative entities, without success. She set about crafting two essays, one singing the praises of Bickering Plummet, which she entered into the competition, and a second, which highlighted most of the negative information she’d dug up online about the company’s practices South of the border. She worried about using this information and consulted her mother.
“Mom, if you know something isn’t right, is it wrong to reveal it? Hypothetically.”
“I suppose that depends on what isn’t right and the consequences of revealing it,” Rosalind said.
“Expand on that, please.”
“Okay. For instance, if you feel someone is in imminent danger, you’re almost obligated to say something about it. If, however, you know of some slight irregularity that’s not directly affecting anyone, the cost of revealing it may be out of proportion to the damage that’s being done. You have to weigh each option individually.”
“What if there aren’t likely to be any consequences for the one causing the problem, but there might be for the person revealing it?”
“I believe what you’re describing is whistle blowing. That always carries a risk, particularly if you work for the entity causing the problem. There are laws against retaliation, but it’s sometimes difficult to prove.”
“And if there might not be serious consequences for the person blowing the whistle. What then?”
“Then it comes down to how important it is to reveal the truth,” Rosalind said.
The morning of the presentation, it was the negative one she brought with her. Genevieve met with Clayton Bickering and other officials from the company and had her photo taken with Mr. Bickering. At eleven-o-clock sharp, the assembly began. First was the check presentation, then Mr. Bickering made some remarks, and at last, the principal introduced Genevieve. She took a deep breath, then removed the report.
“Bickering Textiles, the parent company of Bickering Plummet, was founded in Atlanta in 1868 by Wordsworth Bickering. In the language of the day, Wordsworth was a carpetbagger, which was a person from the north who went south to exploit the people of the south in the wake of the Civil War.”
A rumble went through the audience and company officials on the dais exchanged curious looks.
“This established a pattern for Bickering throughout its growth during the 20th century.”
Abigail would later report that Rhiannon leaned toward Rosalind, asking, “Is this the essay she submitted?”
“I don’t know,’ Rosalind said. “I’m guessing it isn’t.”
“Today, Bickering Plummet has a global presence, with offices on every continent. This makes it easy for them to exploit workers worldwide. Nowhere is this more evident than in South America, where they have a documented history of working with companies that pay their employees slave wages and use brutal policies to keep them from unionizing.”
She glanced at the officials on the dais, every one of them shooting daggers at her with their eyes, except Mr. Bickering, who seemed enrapt by the presentation.
“Ernesto Rivera, a union organizer, has been jailed for six months with no contact with his family or coworkers. He’s just one of hundreds being held for opposing the company.”
Bickering’s security chief removed his phone and held it up, as though recording the speech.
“In 2002, David Cairo, whose company merged with Bickering the year before, urged the board to divest itself of several of these Latin American subsidiaries with the worst human rights violations. He was voted down repeatedly and was later forced to resign from the board.”
Just offstage, Genevieve’s faculty advisor was scanning a copy of the essay she had submitted and showed it to the principal.
“This hasn’t stopped workers from resisting, however. In Venezuela, massive strikes have resulted in violent suppression on the part of the government, resulting in thousands of arrests and other intimidation tactics. Still, the workers bravely continue to challenge authorities.”
She sang a few bars of a rather derisive protest song she claimed the workers wrote, then said, “I conclude with the rallying cry of the striking workers.” She raised her first and proclaimed, “Victoria sobre nuestros opresores!”
She was met with dead silence, the officials from Bickering fuming and the student body not sure about what they had just witnessed. Genevieve’s faculty advisor buried her face in her hands, shaking her head and the principal was staring at the officials on the dais with a frightened look on his face.
Just when it seemed the silence would overwhelm everyone, someone began to clap loudly. It was Mr. Bickering, who not only clapped but also rose with an impressed look on his face.
“Bravo!” Mr. Bickering shouted. He looked at the officials from the company and said, “Come on, everyone. That was magnificent.”
The rest of Bickering’s officials reluctantly stood and tepidly clapped and were joined by the student body, who erupted in thunderous applause and cheered. Mr. Bickering went to Genevieve and placed his hand her shoulder.
“Wasn’t that a fine presentation?” he said into the mic. “If Genevieve is an example the sort of student our contributions are helping to educate, then it’s obvious we need to increase our commitment to this program so more can take advantage.”
He took out his checkbook, wrote in it, and motioned to the principal.
“Sir, in addition to the STEM funding we’re providing, please accept this personal check for an equal amount, in honor of this wonderful presentation.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bickering,” the bewildered principle said.
Genevieve later learned that Bickering’s Chief of Security was preparing to email video of the presentation to a contact at the FBI to launch a full investigation on her. Mr. Bickering’s reaction stopped him. When the student newsletter came out with the photo taken before the presentation, Genevieve is making a sour face as she shakes hands with with Mr. Bickering.
“I feel kind of bad, now,” she told Abigail. “He turned out to be such a nice guy.”
A week later, Genevieve was called to the office where she expected to be disciplined for the stunt. Instead, the principal presented her with a large box from Bickering’s headquarters in Atlanta. Inside was a treasure trove of promotional material: coffee cups, water bottles, sweats and T-shirts, brochures about the company, and coupons for discounts on merchandise from local subsidiaries. Accompanying them was a hand-written note from Mr. Bickering, once again praising the performance and inviting Genevieve to visit if she’s ever in town.