The United States enjoys a system of representative government that seems, nowadays, to command little respect. We think the critics should keep in mind that our system, almost uniquely, does give the electorate -- us -- a recurrent opportunity to tell the people who make the laws what sort of laws we want. Problems arise when well-financed groups with catchy slogans popularize demands for the government to do what no human institution can, like guaranteeing health and prosperity. The system works well when the goals of the majority are attainable.
The workplace service industries, like business in general, became accustomed to a fairly predictable legislative and regulatory environment during the nearly three decades starting the late 1970s. It is easy to forget that the two decades before that saw a dramatic transformation of the relations between business and government. It was an era in which many trade associations relocated their headquarters to Washington with good reason, and in which many industries found it necessary to retain lobbyists not because they wanted favors, but because they feared being put out of business.
There may be reason to hope that this chapter in our history is coming to an end, but we must not get ahead of ourselves. The immediate task at hand is to work to elect people who do not regard business either as the enemy, or as a goose that lays golden eggs. Back in 1972, then-NAMA chairman Patrick O'Malley had a famous keynote speech that began, 'The engine of free enterprise is a mighty one -- but there's dynamite on the track!' The truth and relevance of that warning has become evident.
The last presidential contest was held amid a global financial collapse, which naturally distracted the electorate. This one, if the current situation continues, should be less frenzied. This ought to provide a renewed opportunity to establish good working relationships with elected officials who have a realistic understanding of the limitations of government.
The modern vending industry's origins, in the decades bracketing World War II, were characterized by widespread misunderstanding of the business by regulators and legislators, mostly at state and local levels. This turned out to be a valuable formative experience, since it made the vending pioneers keenly aware of the need to organize and communicate. They established the National Automatic Merchandising Association in 1936, as well as state and local trade groups, the latter often set up in response to an imminent threat. The resulting structure is very well-suited to grassroots campaigns and, when necessary, legal action in defense of fair treatment. It is time to mobilize this structure again.
An important first step for operators is to join NAMA and their local associations, and (at least) attend the meetings. We began to suspect, as the millennium turned, that people who became involved in the industry during the1980s and '90s did not perceive association membership as essential to their survival, the way the earlier generation of pathfinders had done. It seems very likely that they do now.
The second step is to read the mail that will result from these memberships. If asked to write a letter or make a phone call, it is important to do those things. Attendance at events providing the opportunity to meet with legislators -- and, this year, candidates -- also is very valuable.
Third, it is essential to support the candidates who understand the importance of the rule of law in maintaining a free market system. We once heard a chilling speech delivered, amiably enough, by a popular big-city mayor who pointed out that, when dealing with government, you cannot join the discussion unless you have a seat at the table. Campaign contributions, he emphasized, are the purchase-price of that seat. We did not, and do not, think that this was what the nation's founding fathers had in mind. Nevertheless, it is the system we have, and will have unless something happens to change it.
The payoff, of course, is the election itself, and the vote. Six months of hard work can go for naught if the wrong candidate wins by a slim majority.
None of these prescriptions is new, let alone original, but we may have allowed them to slip out of focus. That is a luxury we no longer can afford.
It is, of course, equally important for operators whose primary interest is coffee service to take heed of these things too. Back in the mid-'90s, when membership in the National Coffee Service Association was declining, some of its leaders observed wryly that the industry's main organizational problem was that it never had faced real legislative nor regulatory threats. It certainly does now.
We all learned in school of the encounter between Benjamin Franklin and an elderly woman who met him in the street at the conclusion of the constitutional convention. She asked what the delegates had given her; and he replied, 'A republic -- if you can keep it.' We believe we can keep our republic, and it's worth the effort.