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Monday, September 5, 2011

The American Laborer

Today is Labor Day.  I love this holiday.  It's the end of summer, my least favorite season (too humid in the midwest when I was a child, too hot to breathe in the desert as an adult).  It's a quick break after the teaser of school starting.  It signals the beginning of fall, my favorite season (perfect no matter where you live). 

I also am a graduate of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  My primary focus being labor economics.  Before you start yawning, let me tell, in today's economy, an intimate knowledge of how labor markets work is a plus.  When I listen to candidates talking about cutting corporate taxes to stimulate the economy and promote job growth (which worked sooooo well the past 12 years... no), I roll my eyes.  There's much more to it.  And on that note, I must stop as I am governed by the rules of FINRA.  So back to Mama Bean's World...

I am the granddaughter of a coal miner.  My grandfather worked diligently in the mines in West Virginia.  For his service, he developed black lung.  After my grandmother passed away, he moved his family- five young boys and a new wife to Ohio to work in the factories in Akron.  I don't know all the details of it, he was retired before I came along. I  know he also smoked, so I'm sure that didn't help, but I do know that most of memories of my dad's father involved an oxygen tank (which oddly was near as he smoked... I think that's a bad idea...).

I am also the granddaughter of a former steel worker.  My mother's father suffered an industrial accident at the steel mill, lost his teeth and eventually lost his job.  My grandmother's version of this story is somewhat full of intrigue and since I cannot verify any of it, I won't repeat it. 

And as for me, I've worked since high school for a variety of bosses, some good, some not so good. I remember working at a restaurant and the boss convincing my fellow waitresses if they didn't clock in, he wouldn't pay them our base of $2.10/hour, but they could keep their tips and not report them.  They all thought that was great.  I was 17 and went nuts.  "And if someone slips and falls?  Then what?"  This is the same jackass that made us fill the ketchup bottles with expired ketchup he had bought from a restaurant that was going out of business.

I also worked at a fast food place that sold chicken out the front and other, um, items out the back.  When the owner got busted for drug trafficking when I was in college, my mom was stunned. I just laughed and waited for my subpoena.  I didn't get one.

Not so shockingly, this lead to a degree in labor relations and after realizing I did not want to be an economist, I started working in the field of human resources, specializing in employee relations.  This was not a great choice for me.  I will say, my three positions in HR were with very good companies and I had some wonderful bosses.  I will also say, that in my two last HR jobs the words "don't forget who signs your check" were spoken to me when I advocated on behalf of employees. 

Clearly, not the career choice for me (although I would like to add that I had a VP who put his neck out for me on one of these issues-- he ended up suspended-- a rarity for someone in his job-- and even though it was after I left, I heard about it and was very impressed.  We were right and the company was out of line and we saved them a gigantic lawsuit.)

Now on the flip side, a career with unions was not to my liking either.  I'd seen horrible employees reinstated due to paperwork errors.  I will say, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I saw a lot more crap on the managerial side.  By far.  I would never work in an unskilled job, especially in hospitality, without union representation.  And it's not a reflection on the companies-- it's a reflection of a lot of mid-level supervisors who work their way up through the ranks and don't know what they are doing.  I want to be clear on that.  By the time it reached a VP's desk, they were usually stunned and horrified.  But without the unions, it never would have made it there.

And in my personal experience, I was told to not bother to apply for a management position because I had" no natural leadership or training skills."(I would like to point out that I am now a contracted national trainer for the firm).  It was straight out of an EEOC "What Not to Do" video.  They gave the position to a lesser qualified male colleague- who they interviewed at a strip club- dead serious.  He lasted 9 months and was replaced by a very competent woman.  The hiring manager left the firm, came back and recently hired me as a consultant. No sh*t.  He even told my office partner that he had handpicked me to be a manager.  What???  How different my life might have been had he actually done it.  Oh well.  My life has turned out much happier and for the better.  Oh, and there was a $32 million class action gender discrimination lawsuit.  I guess it wasn't just me.  And the men in the office bugged me to sign on since I had, to quote a colleague "really gotten screwed over."  I used the funds to pay for graduate school.

So at the end of the day, when people ask how I could ever be a Democrat or support unions or workplace legislation, I hope this explains it.  It is there for a reason.  A company's sole purpose is to create a profit, not provide you with employment.  A third party helps to make sure they do it without harming or risking people's lives.  Yes, some companies do this without union representation, but ask people who have given their lives to companies only to get a pink slip and 6 weeks severance.  There are a lot of people to poll out there now. 

The world is not a fair place.  Not even close.  The labor movement helped to create a middle class in the United States.  In an era where CEO's have outlandish compensation packages, workers are being let go and companies have record profits, we might need to rethink how labor rights are protected.  Without a thriving middle class, our country will fail. 

I am a capitalist.  I am a business owner.  I am as American as apple pie.  I am also a realist.  I think people need to be treated as more than an ID number.  I think it ripples across into the economy and benefits all of us.

So today, thank you to the labor movement.  You have provided me with so much more than a three day weekend.


debby said...

That stuff about the unions and management is fascinating to me. I was an RN who was vehemently anti-union. My beef with them was that they LIED. They complained about how management spent money, and yet they were not forthcoming about how they spent the millions that they collected from us (unwilling) employees (fair-share law,) and their whole purpose in life was to make you unhappy with your employer. That is not an enjoyable way to spend your work life.

Anyway, very good for me to hear an intelligent conversation from the other side! But you had me at the "extremely passionate about returning the shopping cart to the corral.." Very funny!

(I came over from Helen's blog)

Deanne M. said...

Amen. As someone who represents American workers for a living, I absolutely agree. It still suprises me that you worked in HR. You have far too much character and integrity. Most of the HR people I have been up against are "yes" people and do everything they can to protect the company from litigation. It has nothing to do with the employees. (which is obviously why you didn't last!!) Last year while trying a large case, the HR manager for a very large automobile manufacturer actually testified the following way. The whole company's defense was that "we cared." When asked whether she cared, the HR manager replied, "oh yes, I cared; I didn't want anything to happen to the company like that $34 million dollar class action like they had over at Mitsubishi." So we know what she cared about. I still thank that HR lady though because she helped us secure a $4.2 million dollar verdict against the large automobile manufacturer.

As for Unions, I agree that Unions have protected our workers and changed the way businesses in our country treat their workers; so have labor and employment laws, of which I'm proud to have made some of that law. I am a proud member of the UAW and although I know many unions suck, I have been well-protected by mine.

Thanks for posting this.