Could we have a discussion about people and their labor on Labor Day?
I am biased. I think that too many companies are led by people who view the people who work in those companies as truly expendable.
And, yes, I know the arguments. A company has to make a profit, if for no other reason than to stay in business.
But, this tension, between making a profit, and treating people well, is ever-present.
I think of so many things I have read…
What would fix the world — what would suddenly create worldwide peace, global wellbeing, and the next extraordinary advancements in human development, I would say the immediate appearance of 1.8 billion jobs — formal jobs. Nothing would change the current state of humankind more.
Or, the book I just presented, Uncontainable by Kip Tindell, the CEO of The Container Store. He/they did everything they possibly could to avoid laying off people in the 2008 crisis. (By the way, they succeeded, and had no layoffs.):
With sales falling sharply, layoffs would certainly be the easy way out. I knew they would also be emotionally devastating, a betrayal of everything we believed in, everything that made our company great. You can’t go around saying you’re an employee-first culture and then start laying people off.
And, he/they kept their workers employed in spite of the “pressure” to do otherwise. Here’s how he described what he heard at a conference packed with the “nation’s top CEOs”:
But rather than offering words of inspiration or encouragement during a tough time, they began bragging about how many people they had laid off. It seemed to me like the biggest exhibition of braggadocio, a real testosterone overdose, to see who could lay off the most people. “A recession is a terrible thing to waste” was the rallying cry.
It was as though each one of them was trying to outdo the others, the winner to be determined by how many thousands of people he had thrown out of work.
And Mr. Tindell sums up his philosophy this way:
Contrary to the popular view of business, we don’t seek profit for its own sake. Our company doesn’t exist to make a profit; it makes a profit so it can exist. And it exists to bring happiness and prosperity to every life we touch. That way, in the end, everybody wins.
I have just discovered the books of Lee Child, and his Jack Reacher stories. In the introduction essay written for the paperback version of his first volume, Killing Floor, Mr. Childs describes the creation of his character. Why does he engage in problems as a “do-gooder?” He writes:
So, why does he get involved in things. Well, partly because of “noblesse oblige,” which is a French chivalric concept that means “nobility obligates,” which in other words mandates honorable, generous, and responsible behavior because of high rank or birth. Reacher had the rank and has the skills, and he feels a slightly Marxist obligation “from he who has, to he who needs.”
So… it’s Labor Day. And we live in a time of growing inequality. And the ones who have – at least a number of them – view those who have-not as though their have-not status is all their fault. And, more importantly, the ones who have feel no obligation towards the folks who have-not, or have-much-less; no internal drive flowing from something akin to the beckoning call of “noblesse oblige.”
If for no other reason, we should applaud the Labor Unions for reminding us that real people work in these big companies that we all do business with. And, maybe, we should send more of our business in the direction of the companies that treat their workers with dignity, human attention — you know, “fairly.”
In 1948, and 1949, brothers Walter Reuther and Victor Reuther were both shot, through the windows of their homes, with shotguns. If you know the history (and, you should know such history), large corporations (like Ford) hired thugs to threaten Labor Organizers and leaders like the Reuther brothers. (read this blog post about Walter Reuther).
In other words, the progress brought through the effort of Labor Unions (and it is a long list of accomplishments) — progress that benefits all working people — came at quite a struggle, and great price.
So, on this Labor Day, celebrate the American worker. And, even, think about the people outside our country who assemble our iPhones and televisions and make our clothing, working for far less than an American counterpart would.
Have you eaten lately? Maybe, for this Labor Day, let’s end with quotes from a couple of folks who helped make it possible for us to eat what we eat: