All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1984

Big Lessons for a Little Boy

Mr. Peterson of East Greenville, Pennsylvania, is a free-lance writer interested in studying and explaining the benefits of the free market,

Labor disputes are occurring somewhere in the nation almost constantly. One can read or hear about some type of dispute somewhere on almost any given day. If railworkers or garbage collectors are not on strike, hospital workers or teachers are. Some group is always striking, walking out, sitting down, or threatening to do one or more of these things.

Much of this conflict could be eliminated by following principles of good labor-management relations. Whether one is an employee or an employer is insignificant, for the principles remain the same for both.

My father, a self-employed brick mason, realized the importance of such principles and tried to teach them to me. From the time I was big enough to cause trouble for my mother at home until I left for college, he insisted that I go to work with him. It was on the job that he began teaching me the common-sense principles of labor and management.

While other kids were playing on Saturdays and during summer vacations, I was mixing mortar, carrying bricks, rodding joints, and building or removing scaffolding for my father. I certainly did not enjoy the work at the time, but it taught me many valuable lessons. I frequently recall them and wonder where organized labor would be if we all followed those simple princi ples.

First, let us look at a few principles dealing with the responsibilities of employees to their employers.

Use Time Wisely

Wasting time on the job is a common complaint made of many workers. When an employee uses the boss’s time wisely, he helps not only the boss but also himself.

My father taught me to never be found sitting down on the job. If I completed an assigned task and was caught “loafing around,” he quickly gave me another assignment. I remember cleaning out his cluttered toolbox countless times when there was “nothing to do.”

When there is no incentive to work hard, such as in the case of hourly workers, there is often a tendency to do as little as possible and to waste time. Why should one go out of his way to find more work when he gets paid the same hourly wage for doing as little as possible?

For this reason, my father seldom paid his workers by the hour. Instead, he paid by piece- work: the more bricks or blocks we helped him lay, the more money we earned.

As a little boy, I remember working for twenty-five cents per hundred bricks. I could only carry three bricks at a time, but I kept an almost hourly account of the money I was making. I counted how many bricks I carried and compared that number with how many Dad was laying. It made me work harder and helped Dad complete his jobs faster.

Samuel Smiles wrote in Thrift, “It is the idler, above all others, who is undignified and dishonorable. No idle or thriftless man ever became great. It is among those who never lost a moment that we find the men who have moved and advanced the world.”

Be Loyal and Obedient

Today’s workers are transient creatures. Few of us stay at the same job for any great length of time. Whenever we hear of a worker retiring after twenty or thirty years with the same company, we are amazed. A constant shifting of jobs often results in a lack of loyalty.

Staying with the same job for many years creates in a worker a sense of pride in his job and in his employer. Athletes would call it team spirit. Soldiers would call it company morale. Without such loyalty, it is easier for disobedience and disrespect to occur.

My father has worked as a self-employed mason for over twenty-five years. Most of that time he has worked for the same contractors. He has been consistent in his pricing, attendance, and work quality. During that time, however, he has had many different employees. Although many of them were good workers who retired or young workers who advanced to better jobs, others were simply job-hoppers. They wanted good pay for little effort. They did not want to show up on time. They wanted to quit early. The workers who worked for Dad longest were also the most respectful, most obedient, and most diligent. Their years of work gained them not only a good income but also a good reputation.

John Ruskin once said, “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.”

Do Your Best

“An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” used to be an unwritten motto of American laborers. A return to this philosophy would do wonders for the U. S. economy.

But honesty in labor goes far beyond hard work in return for a wage. It encompasses quality, truth in advertising, and a desire to do one’s best.

In recent years, the quality of foreign products has surpassed that of American manufactured goods. Whereas the stamp “Made in Japan” used to be synonymous with “shoddy,” the opposite is true today. Consumers know this and are buying the high-quality foreign products. In response, American industry has attempted to restore confidence in the quality of its goods by advertising a return to quality.

Are American factories really improving in quality as a result of their advertised quality- consciousness? For the answer, at least in the automobile industry, study the “incidence of repair” charts in the automobile issue of the latest consumer magazine. The Japanese do not talk quality; they produce it. Americans, however, have developed a reputation for talking it but seldom producing it.

The root of America’s lack of quality can be traced to the individual workers’ attitudes and daily efforts. To try to get away with producing poor quality products while advertising quality is less than honest.

I vividly remember my father teaching me to rod joints. He emphasized the importance of getting them smooth and straight. He warned of rodding them before they had had a chance to dry and of letting them get too hard. Despite these admonitions, I would sometimes try to finish early, making an unsightly mess on the bricks, or I procrastinated, making dark, ugly marks in the joints. It took a while for me, childlike as I was, to realize that my ineptness and procrastination or hastiness could affect my father’s reputation as a mason.

Many workers have the idea that they have fulfilled their obligation if their production is good enough to get by. “That’s good enough for government work,” I’ve heard some say, implying that government employees are frequently guilty of this attitude.

Samuel Smiles pointed out the danger of this attitude when he wrote in Thrift, “’It will do!’ is a common phrase of those who neglect little things. ‘It will do!’ has blighted many a character, sunk many a ship, burned down many a house, and irretrievably ruined thousands of hopeful projects of human good. It always means stopping short of the right thing. It is a makeshift. It is a failure and defeat.”

The old Newport-News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, prior to being taken over by Tenneco, tried to combat the “It will do!” mentality. Their slogan was, “We shall build good ships here—at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must—but always good ships.”

Be Patient

The present generation of American workers has grown up in an “instant” age. We have instant coffee, instant tea, instant potatoes, instant winners, and instant pain relief. We have become so accustomed to receiving everything “instantly” that we have great difficulty waiting for anything.

When workers today want a wage increase, improved working conditions, or an additional benefit, they are too impatient to make known their desires and then wait for the employer to study it and eventually “get around to it.” Instead, they present “demands” and an ultimatum. They expect instant compliance or they will initiate a work slowdown or go on strike.

They fail to realize that perhaps the employer sees a problem in their demands that could be solved in time but which will only complicate matters if the demands are granted immediately. They fail to recognize what their belligerence is doing to their reputations as employees or the harm they are doing to young people soon to enter the labor market. They are actually developing a subconscious association with their employer as an adversary rather than as the co-laborer he is.

What if an employee has a legitimate complaint against the employer? The employee should diplomatically let his views be known, suggest changes that need to be initiated, and then patiently wait for results.

What if the employer continues the undesirable action or refuses to make the suggested changes? The employee then has several choices. He can “grin and bear it,” ignoring the problem and continuing as though there is no difficulty. He can once more approach the employer, repeat his opinions and suggestions in a more convincing but still civilized manner, and give more time for the changes to be incorporated. Or he can exercise the most valuable right of any free worker: he can resign and search for a position where the conditions, wages, benefits, and the like, are more in keeping with his needs and desires.

Most people are generally reasonable creatures, even bosses—if approached in the right manner and with the right attitude. Any who are not reasonable in the face of such an approach will soon realize their error when workers begin to go elsewhere for employment.

The workers, however, must be patient with their bosses, good ones and bad ones alike. Employers also have responsibilities to their workers. The principles that make for a successful labor-management situation are built on a two-way street.

Deal Justly

Justice is a very broad subject when it comes to labor. It involves not only the proper payment for work done but also the general manner in which one treats employees.

The phrase “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” applies to employers as well as to employees. If one expects to obtain quality work he must be willing to reward the laborer.

It should go without saying that the wage one receives should be the wage agreed upon before the work began. But how often do disputes arise over the agreed-upon price after the job has been completed?

What should employers do when workers present complaints over wages, hours, benefits, or conditions? Deal justly. Listen to the complaints, try to understand the workers’ viewpoints, and, if possible, do something to alleviate or reconcile the problem. He, as well as the workers, is to be patient.

Pay Promptly

An employer has an obligation not only to pay his workers properly but also to pay them promptly. The agreed-upon payday might be daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, upon completion of the job, or a variety of other times. Regardless of the method agreed upon, pay must be given promptly at the designated time.

I remember several times when my father would wait several months for a paycheck to come in payment for a job completed. He would have to call, pester, and almost beg to get payment from the contractor. The contractor, who had received what he wanted, seemed in no hurry to fulfill his end of the bargain. To say the least, he was not one of Dad’s favorite accounts.

Don’t Threaten

Some employers are very hasty to tell employees what will happen if things are not done “according to Hoyle.” The sole incentive for workers becomes keeping their jobs or avoiding penalties. The whip is constantly being cracked just above the workers’ backs. The boss yells and demands and threatens and snarls.

Under such circumstances, the newly-hired, timid, or dull workers will “knuckle under” to these threats. The others, however, will begin to develop a negative attitude not only toward their boss but also toward their work itself. They will soon answer threat with threat and snarl with snarl. The quality of their work will suffer. Their demands will increase. Job dissatisfaction will spread like a cancer.

One employer and his supervisors tried to “encourage” loyalty and quality by threatening. Workers were repeatedly fed a diet of threats, criticism, and negativism. It seemed, to listen only to the boss, that no worker could do the job right. Whenever someone offered constructive criticism or suggested a different approach to improving job quality, they were told, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The result: mass resignation. The workers got out of the kitchen. And what of job quality and loyalty? It was worse than ever.

There is a place for threats and negative action in labor relations. In fact, some workers deserve more of it. But generally a more reasonable and positive approach will work better.

These principles of labor and management are very simple yet so infrequently applied. If incorporated on a regular basis by workers and bosses alike, the labor movement would practically cease to exist. There would be very little need for it.

Everyone would benefit from the application of these principles. The results, however, are not in question. The question is whether or not we as Americans are really willing to apply them.