September 17, 2018

 

What Do I Know 05

 
 
 

I have undertaken the task of writing a related series of essays that perhaps shed a little light on the person that I am. The essays are "unresearched," that is to say I don't look up any of the information that I present, rather I use only my memory as my source. In other words, what you read here is what I have gathered from a lifetime of looking at the world around me, and what I know may or may not be correct. I guess that should not come as a shock to anyone.

I recently heard, for example, of a study conducted by some group where people were asked what they thought was true, and then their perceptions were compared to the reality. Britons were asked what they thought was the percentage of Muslims in the British population. On average, they believed that 25% of the British population was Muslim. The real number is something like 5%. There can be serious implications because of this type of thing, and one only need to look for example at the current political climate in the U.S. to see that the government is nearly paralyzed by the astonishing hyperbole of the public debate. So my information may not be entirely accurate, but then again, that in itself should somewhat revealing.

I remember back in the day when I was a somebody, or at least a local somebody, and I was promoted to the position of Plant Manager. I was determined to use the opportunity to break the adversarial relationship that existed there between workers and management. My view of the workplace had been largely shaped by my father who was a blue collar steelworker. I had had the fortunate experience of having worked along side him for three summers when I was in college. The mill in which we worked was one of the hulking giants of the heyday of steelmaking. At its height it employed 10,000 men and women. It sprawled across hundreds of acres of land on both sides of the Monongahela River on the south side of Pittsburgh, and even had its own railroad bridge over the river connecting the two sides. The mill always hired summer help, mostly the kids of the full-timers. It paid steel workers' wages, and back in those days, a summer in the mill was just about enough to pay for a year in school.

The men I remember the most were the older ones, men who had worked their whole lives in the mill, with the exception perhaps of some time spent in the military during the War. They had built lives for themselves in the mill, and that enabled them to build lives for themselves outside the mill -- cars, homes, wives and kids. One man particular had spent fifty years in the mill, having started working there when he was fourteen.

I don't want to attribute to these men with any preternatural greatness, but there was an attitude about work that this group had that was admirable. For them the operating and maintaining of machines, the handling and the transfiguring of ore into metal was a vocation, a calling. There was a sense of mastery that came from working in such a dangerous and alien environment where the tapping of an open hearth furnace with its molten metal could unleash the fires of hell and burn the pigeons from the rafters, and where the machinery towered five, ten or fifteen stories into the sky and workers crawled in and about it like ants on peony plants.

They knew hard work and did not shy from it, but their work was smart and safe, and not insignificantly, there was an awareness of the reality that they would need to work until they were old. Many of their fathers, and even some of them, had lived with the daily muster, where having shown up at the factory gate, you hoped that you would be called to work for that day; these men however had a reasonable expectation of having a job until they were old enough to retire with a pension. If a person was to be expected to work for thirty or forty years, the job had to be one that did not exact a terrible toll on the body.

A sports analogy may be appropriate here. Football as a neighborhood tag game is something someone can play as a child and well into maturity, but the more serious one gets about the game, the shorter the career. No one would expect a professional player to be able to work for more than a dozen years or so, though some of the exceptional players make it to fifteen. If a player is in their thirties, they are nearing retirement, and those that make it to forty are very, very rare. The game of professional football would be entirely different than it is today if it was expected that the players would have to play until they were in their late sixties before they could retire.

There is a place for sport in our society, even professional sport, but business is not sport. Business is about providing the goods and services that allow life to occur. Business is not about making money, it's about making a living. Money is a tool to be used in business, and money is one way of measuring the health of the business, but it should not be a goal.

That said, it is fair to point out that the steel industry of the workers I so admired is now a shadow of its former self, and the plant where Dad and I worked, the one that used to employ 10,000 people, atrophied, then was closed and shuttered, and finally was torn down to make way for housing, stores, and ironically, the practice facilities of a professional football team.

As a plant manager, I understood my job to be the facilitation of information dissemination, that is to say, I believed everyone needed to know what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, and what their role was in that process. If we all had the same information, then there would be no conflict about the direction we took as they (labor) would understand my plan, or they would present me (management) with an acceptable alternative.

Things went swimmingly -- grievances went down, productivity went up, we all felt better about coming to work. There were still a few people that got fired, but even then, there wasn't a lot of disagreement about that. It was not utopia, but it was better, and significantly enough that I think the old guys at the steel mill would have approved.

But my superiors were not nearly as comfortable with my approach as those who reported to me, and indeed in the end, when they asked me to move along to a position as Discredited Toady, to their relief I told them I would just move along down the road. That company atrophied, was sold, and then closed and shuttered. (I do not mean to imply that either the steel mill or this company went out of business because I left them, incidentally. Purely coincidence, just like it was coincidence that I worked for the only assembly plant that Toyota ever closed.)

I mention all of this because the other day I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain's television show Parts Unknown. The subject was the city-state of Singapore. A former British colony, in a little more than thirty years, Singapore has grown from a Third World backwater to one of the wealthiest, most commercially successful places in the world. At the same time, it has created a society in which there is universal healthcare, free education, and a generous and effective social net. More than ninety percent of the people own their homes, the streets are spotlessly clean, and public areas carefully maintained and safe. Singapore has an extremely low crime rate. Religions and foreign cultures coexist peacefully under a strict and legally enforced policy of tolerance. By most standards of measuring a modern culture, Singapore works, and works well.

Yet there is a cost. There are no elections in Singapore, and no dissent is allowed. There is no right to free assembly. The press, entertainment industry and the internet are all carefully controlled and censored. There are many, many rules, and punishment for breaking the rules can be draconian -- possession of an ounce of marijuana can get you ten years, and use of hard drugs carries the death penalty.

Is the order and security of a society worth giving up those things that we in the West consider to be fundamental rights?

I was reminded (oddly) of the pilot movie for the Star Trek television series. It was entitled "The Menagerie." An advanced alien race happens upon the wreckage of a space ship from Earth. There is only one survivor, a badly injured human female. They take her and heal her to the best of their abilities, but since they had never seen a human, they don't know precisely what it should look like, so that while the woman survived, she was scarred and deformed. Fortunately, the aliens possess the technology to allow her to imagine and project an alternate reality that is fashioned after her wishes. Although she could live well, she is predictably lonely, and so the aliens secure for her a companion, Captain Pike of the star ship Enterprise. Pike is captivated by her (the lovely projected image), and she hopes to convince him to remain with her. Despite her beauty and the paradise provided, Pike can not overcome his abhorrence of being caged, and fights to escape.

At the time, being an adolescent with no girlfriend, I was not entirely supportive of Pike's "don't fence me in" attitude. Three squares and a gal seemed like a reasonable deal, but I wouldn't be American if I didn't have at least some degree of reluctance about being controlled, would I? Our country was founded by those didn't want to be dictated to, and that country was a beacon to my ancestors who left (fled) Eastern Europe not for the security of America, but for the promise of freedom and opportunity that it represented.

As liberal as I was in my management style, I remember clearly addressing a shift meeting and reminding the people that while as Americans we were willing to fight and die for our democratic way of life, and while I valued their input, the workplace was not nor ever would be a democracy. In my small, benign autocracy, there were strict limits to freedom.

So it may be that I simply have been inculcated with a world view that closes me to alternatives, but it seems to me that all organizations, from primitive tribes to modern nation states, have a goal, a set of rules, and limits to how much deviation they will allow from the rules. One conforms, or one is removed from the group. I can look at my success and see that it came as a result of being able to set clear and reasonable goals, and fairly enforce the necessary rules. I can also see that my superiors were uncomfortable with me because I questioned their goals and challenged their rules.

From all accounts, there can be no denying the success of Singapore's system -- I fancy that it's the type of system I might developed if I had been given the opportunity to fashion a modern city-state. That still doesn't answer the question of whether or not I could live in that system. If I am to be totally honest with myself, I believe the answer is that I could, as long as I was the one in charge; otherwise, I don't think so.

I'll check my e-mail again, but as far as I know, nobody has offered me a position as an autocrat, so for now, I'll just keep my head down and try not to piss off anybody in authority.






Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-04-16
Image(s) are public domain.


1 Reader Comments

Ralph Bland
04/16/2018
02:26:18 PM

Bernie, this essay was right down my strike zone, since lately, as an old retired dude, I have spent a lot of time remembering and reexamining my work history gone by--44 years in the grocery business,38 with big corporate bully Kroger and 6 with an independent store in the deepest part of Nashville's hood, where I was a manager and the resident token honky. Like you, I came up through the ranks at Kroger, somehow assumed a position I didn't really want, but tried to create a workplace atmosphere where both management and labor would flourish--which did happen, but the truth was either side couldn't stand to see the other side happy and content, so the workplace war began, and I soon assumed the mantle of being the one who had started it.I suppose I too was attempting to create my version of Singapore, and I soon discovered that no one much cared to be that happy while pursuing a living. I am still a trifle amused and bewildered as to why something so simple as greet the customer, perform a service for the customer, take the customer's form of payment and thank them should have become grounds for hostilities. I like it a lot better up here in the grandstand above the sidelines, where I can watch what's going down and comment on it to my three dogs, who grin, wag their tails, and agree with everything I've told them (as long as I keep that Pupperonie coming). We gotta have that beer(s) one of these days, bro. Off to Ireland Friday. See you in May!Hopefully you'll have another think piece on here by then.

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By Bernie Pilarski: