NO Irish need applyI would like to take you back to 1900. Imagine that you are a blue collar worker*:

  • Your odds of dying on the job are more than 2500% higher than today.
  • You likely don’t have heating in the winter or cooling in the summer – unless your job involves heat or cooling.
  • You are working 10-12 hours a day, six days a week.
  • You are likely a farmer (80%)
  • If you are a woman, you are likely spending 42 hours a week in the kitchen.
  • You get no paid vacations.
  • You are not likely to have piped water, hot water, indoor toilets, electricity, and separate rooms for each child.
  • The company’s management has all the power.

*From Stanley Lebergott is an emeritus professor of economics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. (http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/WagesandWorkingConditions.html)

Compared with the conditions the average worker experiences today, 1900 was a brutal time. Very few people would want to return to those conditions, but are we?

In my earlier post, Thank You, George Westinghouse I commented:

“Modern leaders and managers would do well to study this man and his philosophy of management – if they don’t, they will find that they are the instruments that will create the monsters they dread so much.”

What were the monsters that were created in the early 1900’s? For industry leaders they were: unions, government regulations, and social movements granting rights to the masses that previously had been under the dictate of industry leaders.

Let’s look at each one separately:

Unions were the direct result of industry leaders failing to care about their workers. The prevailing view, today called Theory X, was that workers were lazy, ignorant brutes that had to be controlled with force and strict rules. Workers could be fired without cause and, in many cases, not even hired because of their skin color or ethnic origin (‘No N****** or Irish need apply”). As cited above, your chances of dying on the job were insane – and there was no compensation for your family if you did die.

So workers united and began to demand better conditions, including wages. Industry leaders responded with dogs and thugs to intimidate the workers. And while the tactics worked at first, they eventually became ineffective. And the power of unions rose as victories were won against the industry leaders.

Government regulations were a result of the public becoming aware of the problems in the work place and demanding that something be done. And politicians have always jumped on the bandwagon when it helps them get elected or reelected. Despite money talking, the ultimate currency in politics is votes. And when the people get behind an idea, the politicians will listen to them rather than those with money.

The results were anti-monopoly laws, OSHA, EPA, and the host of laws, rules and regulations that business has to operate under today.

Finally, society was becoming more liberal and social minded. We don’t think of the 1900’s as liberal today only because we have reaped the benefits of the work done by our forefathers and mothers. Today, the universal idea of a women’s place being in the home is laughed at by nearly everyone. Yes, there are those who still preach that concept, but, even they usually acknowledge that women must be prepared to work outside the home for their own support before marriage and in the event of life changing events. And any hint of discrimination in hiring would bring swift legal action against the offending party.

These and many other forces resulted in the changes that produced the world of today. But one universal truth is that nothing stays the same. From industry leaders having supreme power to the 50’s and 60’s where it seemed they were equals with organized labor, we have once again swung back to industry leaders having most of the power when dealing with workers.

Consider: Union membership is declining; a sizable portion of the workforce is working part-time without benefits; and the rise of free-lancers. Multi-national companies are shifting work from union states to non-union states; health benefits are being shifted to government run exchanges; and companies dictate workers conditions including reducing work hours to avoid providing benefits.

And it appears that the trend will continue for the foreseeable future. However, there are signs that change will come. The Occupy movement is considered a radical notion, but so were unions when they first were conceived. What’s radical today, will become the accepted tomorrow. And in the age of information with its nearly instant reach, movements can generate in very short times and in places unimaginable.

To quote Bette Davis, “Fasten your seat belts, It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.