On the morning of his birthday, my great uncle Alsberry lost his job at an Arkansas wood-working factory. They fired him due to his "inability to operate machinery with one hand". Mind you, he had shown up for work that morning with two good hands, and only lost one of them while "operating the machinery" in question. The day he lost his hand, and his job, he turned all of 13 years old. He would rely on the charity of his family for the rest of his life.
Seeing his stepbrother's predicament would be the first thing to push my grandfather to become a lifelong union man.. My grandparents and much of their family moved from Arkansas to California -- to "where the weather was better", both in terms of climate and in their search for a more perfect union atmosphere ... and a better life for the family.
Poppy soon found work as a carpenter at California's famed Angeles Furniture Factory. He would work there until his retirement many years later. One of the people who shared his belief in unions was the owner of the factory, a kind man of whom my grandfather often spoke fondly. Once a month, the company owner would come down to talk to each of the workers, ask about their families, about their jobs, and about working conditions. Many times, he would change things for their comfort -- put in a cold water drinking fountain, put in a tissue dispenser in the bathroom, etc. A happy worker is a good worker, he always said. Beside, he said, it was simple compassion and compassionate was the "right and Christian thing" to be.
There was never any company theft ... no one would have thought of stealing from the Big Guy. If a thief had entered their midst, he would have been forced to quit due to being ostracized by the other employees. The shop was an extension of their home and they cared for it as they did their own households. Everything was always finished on time. And the shop was neatened and cleaned up on Friday before the weekend.
If you have a copy of "Executive Suite", check it out -- it was shot in my grandfather's factory. When William Holden walks back to confer with an employee and there's a guy behind him on a big lathe-like device, hit the pause button. That's my Poppy. You'll see, even then, he was a happy man, even in the middle of the workday. And he even got to have lunch with William Holden.
Many was the time Poppy came in on a Saturday to finish an Angeles project. He didn't ask for payment, but his boss always saw he was compensated. That was the level of trust they had. They knew they could count on each other. They weren't enemies -- they were parts of a team.
All the people there considered their boss one of their best friends. The boss was always invited to weddings and birthday parties. He attended more than a few funerals. When one of his former employees (with whom my grandfather worked), Carl "Alfalfa Schweitzer" was murdered, the boss sent a huge donation to the survivors. He sent it on behalf of the whole factory. The boss' name was only one of the names on the card. "It was an act of charity", he said, and "charity was the right and Christian thing to do".
When the boss died, everyone attended his funeral. Everyone cried. Even grown men, in public, and that was a time when grown men didn't cry. The pastor had said that Mr Big had been a "rich man" and not merely in terms of money. He had a life filled with many luxuries and not all of them material ones.
How times have changed, the corporate voices say. Compassion and charity are now "against company policy". Yes, that's right, time has changed and my grandfather saw the times changing ... "Arkansas is creeping into California" he would say. And even then, the tides had moved into Arkansas from other places.
Where had they come from? The very notion that this is some act of "liberal ruin" is ludicrous, when the facts are known. It has nothing whatsoever to do with society at large, but very much to do with the corporate establishment the Republican-led government tends to and nurtures.
"Bad company heads hate the working man," my grandfather said, "just like a bad father resents the children he's supposed to care for and support."
As usual, Poppy was right. More right than I would want him to know.
Just as he said, gone are the days of humane shops and friendly bosses. The age has passed of caring employees. Workers are all seen by the corporation as enemies now, vying for resources. We work longer for less money. We have far less free time, little available health care, shorter vacation time, and we're much less happy with our lives.
Despite dropping wages, eroding job opportunities, imploding hope for advancement, and all the other corrosive attributes of being a modern working person, CNN's Money column has figured out the real problem -- yes, Americans have become lazy! That's right, we poor and middle-class are not working hard enough! Oh, we're working hard, but we're less productive. We need to tote that barge, lift that bale . It's time for that Straw Boss to crack his whip again. The workers are getting shiftless. Oh, but isn't this beginning to sound familiar?
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