I often think back to my teenage jobs and wonder how those experiences translated into my current outlook on work, business, capitalism and life in general. One theme I used to encounter frequently as a low-wage unskilled worker was the plight of the business owner vs. the plight of the worker. I recall being surrounded by employees who were continuously criticizing the business owner or corporation as being “cheap” or not treating them right. It was usually the same cliques that had been around for a while, often older and likely to be doing the same type of work throughout their adult life, but sometimes it was a teenager like myself. Occasionally, I’d play devil’s advocate and ask why it is they feel that way or what their suggestions were for management to be more “equitable”. The answers ranged from higher pay to the notion that employees should all “share the profits”. I questioned why the company would do that if they didn’t have to. The employees after all were usually in and out of the place every 6 months to a year, they never put up a dime of their own money to start the business and they had nothing vested in the business. These suggestions didn’t make sense to me, but they made perfect sense to the high-minded 30-somethings working the register. I get that experience and company loyalty should translate into increased pay over time (that’s what a raise is), but the sense of entitlement in the environment seemed over the top when I put myself in the owner’s shoes.
The Feed Store
One of my first jobs was at a feed store which both delivered feed to surrounding farms as well as a retail store in town which catered to all your typical domestic animals as well as farm animals and horses. The owner was a 50-something guy who apparently was an early investor (or co-founder allegedly) in Border’s Books but sold out very early and missed out on a huge windfall. He had parlayed a mild payout from years prior into this feed store. As I recall, I was paid the going rate for unskilled labor which was a bit over minimum wage. I worked probably 20 hours per week and I got a break or two per day. During the summer that I worked, we drove around in a truck, listened to music, ate lunch where and when we wanted and got some exercise to boot – not bad work as I saw it. The owner also threw us a Christmas party at his expense and gave a small Christmas bonus. And he was Jewish.
What I found to be somewhat annoying was the constant jabs employees took behind his back about how rich he was, how cheap he was, how much more they should be paid, etc. It just didn’t sit well with me based on my assessment. I mean, the guy was 50-something driving a crappy car and working around the clock running his store while trying to open another. His son worked at the store too and his wife did book-keeping. I’d been to his house once and it was a typical middle class suburban home. Outwardly, he didn’t appear to be particularly wealthy. And what if he was? Good for him. He had over the years taken substantial business risks with his own money, put his own blood, sweat and tears into his business, and paid his employees the going market rate.
The Grocery Store
Another teenage gig of mine was a ShopRite grocery store. I used to work relatively fast and efficiently. I enjoyed the work, the pace, and of course a paycheck. I recall on certain tasks like inventory, restocking shelves, etc., I’d get a little attitude from some of my co-workers that by working so fast, “management would expect it to get done that quickly all the time”. Reading between the lines, they wanted me to slow down. I was ruining their gig. The cigarette breaks and goofing off would be in jeopardy if they were expected to increase their output. I wasn’t out to be a hero or martyr myself for the local supermarket, but this type of mentality and behavior started to educate me on the thinking of “the worker” vs. “the business”. As a young child I imagined workers and the business existed in some sort of harmony looking to achieve a common goal (textbook naivety), the reality was that many employees viewed productivity as a zero-sum game. The more productive they were, the harder they’d be expected to work – and the more overtime hours would dry up. Thus, slow down and demand more.
Aside from my current workplace, I hear from a lot of people in professional roles – both friends and in comments and posts from around the blogosphere. A lot of people are rightly concerned and annoyed by the financial crisis and the indirect impact it’s had on their incomes. It’s tough not to be frustrated when you hear that your company beat earnings expectations by a few cents, yet there’s no raise this year. On the flipside, what’s the competition doing? If your company’s competitors are doing the same thing or your industry is facing increasing pressure from various forces (overseas manufacturing, declining product relevance, whatever), while the current quarter’s profit may be front and center, perhaps company leadership is looking more strategically at just how difficult things are going to be for the company years down the road and they’re making tough choices to stay competitive now and avoid layoffs outright. Some people view what’s going on as the unfortunate by-product of another boom-bust cycle with the inevitable casualties ranging from layoffs to decreased real wages, bonuses and benefits in the present with the expectation that during the next boom, jobs will be growing, competition to retain workers will result in increased compensation and things will improve overall. To the contrary, some people, even in relatively high positions voice surprisingly negative views on how their company treats their employees. In many cases, they’re right. In some cases, it just doesn’t seem to reflect reality.
In these various relationships and interactions, I’ve started to view people as being in one of two camps – pro-worker or pro-business. If you’ve followed me for a bit, you can tell I’m pro-business. I get why corporations do what they do. I sometimes don’t agree, but I see where they’re coming from. I don’t mean to belittle or chastise the opposing view. I mean, if I’m a miner at Massey Energy I probably wouldn’t be feeling very pro-company these days. In some businesses, nepotism runs rampant. And how could an ex-employee of Enron not be cynical about corporate America? I think a lot depends on historical and personal perspective. That leads to my question:
Are You Pro-Business or Pro-Worker? Why
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