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19th Century Business Philosophy Revitalized

Updated on November 6, 2009

Why are companies returning to industrial age management?

If you were a worker in almost any kind of business in the 19th Century, expectations about what a boss could expect from you were high and uncompromising.  You took a job with the notion that your life during working hours belonged to the boss, factory manager, or foreman.

The average work week was 72 hours, over six days.  There were no coffee breaks, sick leave,  or compensation if you got injured on the job.  A worker was expected to be on the job until they were carried out in old age.  There were no pensions; the elderly lived with and were dependent on grown children until death.

Conditions on the job were harsh, with difficult to meet quotas.  There was no communication from workers to management.  Even if a worker could bypass the omnipresent floor manager, a worker would not be heard by management.  All information  flowed from top to bottom.  There was little interaction among workers.  After working 12 hours with a brief break for lunch,  who felt like socializing or complaining about job conditions after work?

A manager could physically strike an employee without cause, berate and intimidate in front of co-workers for no other reason than to make an example or to show the worker who was boss. Some jobs were particularly cruel with inhuman conditions permitted by owners and top managers.  Upton Sinclair, around the beginning of the 20th Century,  wrote a shocking expose about the deplorable conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry.  His book, The Jungle, earned him the title of "muckraker" but eventually he won vindication, as reforms swept the industry.

Coal mining and the garment industry were especially hard on workers.  The author's grandfather bore scars from serious inujuries received  while working underground with a pick and shovel,  The only light in the mine was from a carbide lamp worn by each miner.  Larger mines used pack horses to bring the filled coal cars to the surface on rails. Otherwise, the cars were pushed by the miners instead of pack animals.

Miners were subject to fires, cave-in, and hidden gas that could and did kill without warning.  Canaries were carried to the digs to give the miners a warning of dangerous gas.  Sometimes whole families would decend into the mine to dig coal.  The pay for the work of one miner often was barely enough to support a family.

Only the rise of organized labor world- wide would bring about tolerable change for workers in the mines.  Intolelrable conditions that resemble slave labor still permeate the garment industry, almost everywhere.

The irony for workers today is that competition in world markets is helping to create conditions very similar to those that existed  100 or more years ago.  Benefits such as retirement and health care are routinely eliminated.  Low wages for higher and higher quotas push company earnings into the stratosphere, guaranteeing wide interest in the stock and bond markets.

Consumers are greeted in stores or markets by lowered prices for goods.  Company balance sheets impress bankers and wholesalers as increased cash flow and sales improve credit ratings and  market status.

Meanwhile, the worker is doing the work of two and sometimes even three workers as owners push them to the limits.  In an atmosphere of scarce jobs, workers push out more products in fear they will be replaced by a better worker just waiting for a job to open.  Unions are powerless as owners close factories rather than bargain collectively with an entity that can only hurt their bottom line.

Benefits once considered a right aren't even on the table in these changing times. Workers who cannot or will not change to the changing labor requirements wil be left behind.  The jobs that provide good pay and benefits almost always require some college or a certificate of completion from a college.  Jobs once performed by  unskilled labor are diminishing or pay so low that a breadwinner cannot take the job.

The executive in the White House has traditionally shown contempt for the unions.  In 1980 Mr. Reagan fired all air traffic controllers and replaced them with those who held a low opinon of unions or didn't belong to a union at all.  His extraordinary bias against a legitimate union sent a message loud and clear to brothers everywhere.  " this is what i think of collective bargaining. If you don't like it, take a hike!"  

His previous attempt to dismantle the fine University of California system while he was governor almost succeeded.  The consequences of his attacks on the university system are stil felt in the state  at several levels.  Prestige was lost along with the notion that higher education is key to training skilled workers.  International students and faculty went to universities elsewhere  to learn engineering and mathematics, computer programming and management, and politics and administration.  

Universities were slow to predict the end of the industrial age and the beginning of the information age.  Professors saw their wages cut along with teaching assistants who lost jobs altogether.  For months elimination of tenure was discussed in public sans university invitation.  Now when budget cuts are on the table, universities are the first to bear the brunt of the knife. 

California began an ambitious prison construction program,  under Reagan, that gave prison guards  huge pay and benefit increases, including one of the most generous retirement plans in the nation.  As those guards retired, the full impact of their favored status has become clear.  The state will be hard pressed to pay for other necessary programs as the guards realize almost full pay at retirement, with little or no contribution on their part to the retirement system.

Study after study showed that over half of prison inmates were there as a result of drugs.  Nevertheless, a punishing legislature went along with the governor's zero tolerance slogan and everyone in the court system was locked up.  No diversion or probation.  No treatment programs or home confinement.  Today California is paying healthcare costs for keeping  locked up old men and women who were deemed not a risk years ago.  

With the increasing complexity that has ushered in the 21st century, problems waiting for resolution are piling up.  For political reasons, government  and legislatures are slow if not downright obstructionist when it comes to fixing some of these problems.  Instead of dealing with critical issues like global warming and the crushing burden of health care,  from out of nowhere, suddenly everyones' attention is on gay marriage or something else that could  wait.

Quibbiling and invective have replaced honest debate and dialogue in the political  process. The tired, old political messages that were of questionable value are still questionable.  The new voters will not be as easily fooled into believing dressed up political lies as those who came before.                    .                                                                                                                


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