Robert A. Stanton, a Parkside native and Camden High graduate, has published several books about Camden and other subjects.
BLUE COLLAR WORK
During the summer of 1942 I worked as a laborer at a large factory, and my experience there has affected my opinions on labor relations ever since.
The J. R. Evans Company Leather Factory at 2nd and Erie Streets in Camden, New Jersey was established in 1858, and employed many men to remove wool from sheep skins and tan them into leather. It was a smelly, gloomy, hard working, no-nonsense place, but a lot of men made their living there. My job, along with several other 18 year olds, was to hang tanned wet skins on hooks in a dryer, and bundle them up as they came out dry at the other end. The skins had previously been treated with a sulfur compound, the wool scraped off, washed and sold, and then tanned.
There was some razzing of "Little Joe" the general Foreman, who spoke several Slavic languages in order to deal with his many foreign-born workers, but there was no outward hostility. In fact, I classified this company as an old-time Patronial firm where the owners looked out for their employees. In addition to a medical office with a nurse on duty, there were graphic signs on every wall showing what an Anthrax infection looked like and what to do about it immediately.
We came to work before 7 a.m. and started things going. At 9:30, the whistle blew and we all went to the cafeteria for cheap coffee and breakfast. At 12 noon, work stopped for lunch, then we stopped again at 2:30 for another snack break, finally going home at 5. I think I made less than a dollar an hour, which wasn't too bad for those pre-war days. However, late in the summer word was passed around that an attempt would be made to unionize the factory. We were all invited to a meeting elsewhere in the city, and Brother Goldberg from Union Headquarters in New York spoke to the many Evans workers.
I will never forget his impassioned speech, which sounded like it came right out of the Karl Marx handbook. He said, "You men work, you work, you work your selves to death in a lousy stinking place. And what do you get? A few lousy dollars a week. And what do your rich bosses do? They eat all the best food off of silver plates with their gold knives and forks, and drink champagne from crystal glasses and enjoy all the money you made for them." This continued over and over in the exact same vein for forty minutes, and then he shouted, "We want a strike!" Some hollered, "Yes!" but that wasn't enough. He kept ranting the same thing until finally most of the men in the hall hollered "Yes!" because it was late and they wanted to go home.
The next week they went out on strike and the factory shut down for a long time. My buddy and I left for good because school was starting in a few weeks and we could go back to cooking hamburgers somewhere, but the factory was never the same. The men probably got a few more dollars a week, with fewer hours per day, but it was a long time before they made up for those lost weeks.
Since then, I have had many men working for me in chemical plants and I have always been concerned for their safety and welfare, as well as compassionate for the people who actually do the hard work. I still agree that unions were needed to protect workers from heartless management. However, I despise professional union organizers who generate class hatred in order to increase the size and prestige of their national union.
Present day socialists and liberal writers continue to condemn successful business men as "Robber Barons" and "Cut-throat Capitalists" (See Smithsonian Magazine, January 2011. ) and are equally prejudiced against people who risk their money to start businesses. There have, of course, been many company owners who have misused and neglected their workers, but no union or political party has ever built a factory and created jobs for "blue collar' workers.
Concern for the health and welfare of working men has been a controversial subject for centuries. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, democracy was still a new concept and the welfare of the working man wasn't even considered. Factory owners assumed that people were glad to get jobs and would work in any condition. Unfortunately, as businesses grew, that attitude persisted.
People now agree that the men who build the machines and things we use should have a safe and healthy place to work and there are many laws to insure that. But what about the man who invests his money to start a business? Shouldn't he also be allowed to make money by selling a product?
A small business with a few employees is much like a family. The workers know the man who started it, work hard to make it succeed, and if paid well, do not resent the boss when he gets a return on his investment. After all, what other reason would a man have to invest his money to start a business if he didn't want to make money?
Suppose his company grows bigger with many employees and foremen and supervisors to manage them. Fewer employees remember the man that started the company, but if their pay and working conditions are good, they have no reason to hate him. A man with a family to feed and a job with steady pay might wish for more but doesn't want to risk his family's welfare. This is probably the level where labor relations are not a problem.
However, as companies grew bigger with stockholders and multiple factories, a disconnect between management and labor began to develop. Management began to consider labor as just one of the costs of doing business, and the laborers felt like unimportant cogs in their machine. Even small gripes turned into major problems if not handled properly. Poor management practices that ignored the welfare of the workers soon invited problems and were the exact reason that unions were formed.
Today, it almost seems that we have come full circle. The treatment of employees by large companies is now fairly well controlled by health and labor laws, while large national unions seem to be in decline. The high cost of union labor has probably driven much of our manufacturing overseas. The unionizing of government employees seems particularly unnecessary, because the heartless management that oppresses them is none other than we, the American people!
Time will ultimately sort out the correct roles of workers and investors. Less government control of business and more cooperation between Management and Labor should be of value to both sides.
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