Jurgis talked lightly about work, because he was young. They told him stories about the breaking down of men, there in the stockyards of Chicago, and of what had happened to them afterwwards – stories to make your flesh creep, but Jurgis would only laugh. He had only been there four months, and he was young, and a giant besides. There was too much health in him. He could not even imagine how it would feel to be beaten. “That is well enough for men like you,” he would say, “silpnas, puny fellows – but my back is broad.”
Jurgis was like a boy, a boy from the country. He was the sort of man the bosses like to get hold of, the sort they make it a grievance they cannot get hold of. When he was told to go to a certain place, he would go there on the run. When he had nothing to do for the moment, he would stand round fidgeting, dancing, with the overflow of energy that was in him. If he were working in a line of men, the line always moved too slowly for him, and you could pick him out by his impatience and restlessness. That was why he had been picked out on one important occasion; for Jurgis had stood outside of Brown and Company’s “Central Time Station” not more than half an hour, the second day of his arrival in Chicago, before he had been beckoned by on of the bosses. Of this he was very proud, and it made him more disposed than ever to laugh at the pessimists. In vain would they all tell him that there were men in that crowd from which he had been chosen who had stood there a month – yes, many months – and not been chosen yet. “Yes,” he would say, “but what sort of men? Broken-down tramps and good-for-nothings, fellows who have spent all their money drinking, and want to get more for it. Do you want me to believe that with these arms” – and he would clench his fists and hold them up in the air, so that you might see the rolling muscles – “that with these arms people will ever let me starve?”
This is the beginning of Chapter 2 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Jurgis Rudkus, an immigrant looking for the American Dream – opportunity, is confident in his physical strength. He has an ability for stockyard work.
The Jungle is often cited as the catalyst for work reform in the US. It was published in 1905 and the industrial revolution was picking up steam; the transition from an agricultural capitalism into a manufacturing one was well underway.
Here we are a little over a 100 years later and another transition is under way. The economy is moving from being goods producing to services and intellectual based. And we are experiencing a fundamental change in the relationship between employer and employee. For instance unions were an off shoot of what Sinclair set in motion. Unions, or collective bargaining, raised the standards for total compensation for all workers. Health care, vacation, and pay levels all improved.
But in today’s age, unions have a dramatically smaller participation rate and there seems to be a general animosity towards them. I can reason for the low participation rate: they’ve served their purpose and are not seen as needed. But the animosity is sort of bewildering to me. I suppose it’s because of the handling of terminations. There’s a notion that someone in a union can’t be fired. For the most part that isn’t true. But I understand it portrays an unfair situation. We, as Americans, believe the best should be rewarded. And the opposite is true too: those that don’t perform are let go.
As I mentioned before, we are transitioning to a different nature of our economy. In a goods producing economy, unions play an important role because the difference in work performed is small. But in a intellectual economy the difference between someone who designs a new microprocessor chip and someone who monitors the ripeness of apples at the grocery store is vast. Should the two jobs only be differentiated by pay grades? Are health care, vacation, and other benefits a given? At one point they were, but with competition being so tough, they are all up for review.
In the long run, it’s tough to review cuts to benefits without the inclusion of the employee. The job structure of the economy assumes certain consistencies. Skills are acquired based on those consistencies – Wall Street pays well, so Harvard graduates go to work there and teaching doesn’t pay well, but it affords flexibility and continued learning opportunities.
From a business perspective, it’s always better to negotiate. Whether it’s with your suppliers or your workforce. It’s the American Dream.