Thursday, January 3, 2013

Work + Ethics, Then and Now

This is a story about work and ethics and labor and management.

One of the nicest compliments you can pay someone is to say that he or she has a good work ethic. When I speak about my children in prideful tones, I often discuss the great work ethic that each of them demonstrates. They take their jobs seriously and deliver even more than is expected of them. I would like to think that I have shown a positive work ethic over the years, too. However, I have a confession to make: In my first job I found a way to separate work from ethics. It was on a very small plane, mind you, and I felt justified in my unethical actions.

When I was 15 or so, I was hired to bag groceries on Saturdays in the supermarket in which my father was an assistant manager. The work required a little bit of planning (determining the most efficient and safest way to load the groceries into each bag), a little bit of strength (since we offered customers the service of carrying their bags out to their cars or even to their homes if they lived nearby and loading the sacks into their trunks), and a little bit of hustle (since we hoped to receive tips from the customers for fast service, and more customers meant more tips).

The hustle part is where the ethics came in. The store had a policy regarding tips and salary for bagboys. Our salary was the minimum wage of the time—either $1.15 or $1.25 an hour, as I recall. That would have added up to a good take-home amount when combined with our tips; however, we were not allowed to make that combination. We were expected to report our tip total at the end of each day, and that number would be deducted from our paychecks. We didn’t actually have to turn in the small coins; just write the total on our time card. In other words, our final salary was not to exceed the minimum wage, whether we hustled or not.

Why did the store management follow this practice? Was it for the workers’ good? I doubt that seriously. We would have welcomed an extra few dollars each day. Did they save enough money to offer even more teenage boys employment? Another doubtful notion, since the tips turned in by all of the bagboys (usually 3 or 4 worked on a Saturday, and we never received more than a quarter from any customer we assisted) probably totaled less than $30 a week. I would explain the store’s policy this way—they did it because they could. They were management, and we were labor.

Now my father was a man of integrity. As I began my job, he said he expected me always to work hard and to be honest, just as he always was. I met the first requirement. I would like to think that I was the hardest-working bagboy at the Henry Street store on those Saturdays. I hustled, but I was careful. I was polite and friendly. And I tried to seem just as grateful for a nickel tip as I was for a quarter, though we bagboys got to know the “small-change” tippers and tried to avoid them if we could.

I might have objected if Mitt Romney had tried bagging
groceries in my store and hoped to beat me out for tips.
Now, for the confession about honesty (and I have kept this secret for nearly 50 years) – I discovered early on that I usually pushed myself a little harder than most of the other guys and often made more tips. This did not qualify as intense work or high finance, however. I might rake in $9.25 for the day while the other guys were in the $6.50 range. And they didn’t appreciate my writing a number on my timecard that might make them look bad, especially since they often declared only $5.50 of their $6.50. So, I would usually write in $7.25 or so, which was high enough to show my positive work ethic and make my father happy but low enough to pocket a little cash and “stick it to the man” at the same time. I was not some wild-eyed radical fighting for justice; I just wanted to make a little more money, even if I wasn’t exactly playing by the rules.

I thought of this story a few weeks ago when the Governor of Michigan discussed his reasons for pushing legislation that would make Michigan a “Right to Work” state. He was doing it for the workers, he said. Why should they feel any need to join a union or to pay union dues? They could now save that money. Besides, unions just get in the way, after all. And what if union bargaining helped to raise salaries? Didn’t those higher salaries actually hurt workers in the long run by discouraging employers from hiring as many workers? Like the management of my grocery store fifty years ago, the governor of Michigan pushed for the change in labor rules because he could. And he was hoping to reduce the power of any group or institution—such as a union—that might oppose his action.

One more newsworthy item on this front: I signed a petition a few weeks ago to protest the actions of restaurants such as Applebee’s that were planning to cut back on employees’ hours just to avoid Obamacare insurance costs for workers. The protest has been effective, and the restaurant backed down from its plan when its profits went down significantly. In one of the articles I read, it was noted that Applebee’s has not raised its base hourly salary for wait staff (approximately $2.15/hour) since the early 1990s. If servers are making more these days, it’s because you and I have agreed to raise our tip level from 15% to 18-20%. We’re the good guys here, not management.

This started out as just a stroll down memory lane, inspired in large part by my visiting Savannah last week and riding by the building in which I had worked, which is no longer a grocery store and does not feature teens hustling to earn dime or quarter tips. The neighborhood around it is still a little rundown, but, like most of Savannah, it’s going through a positive change. And I hope change comes positively to those workers in Michigan that the governor is looking out for so diligently and that Applebee’s workers don’t lose their healthcare coverage or their jobs. And I wish that 2013 will be a happy new year for us all.   

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