Classic Culture Clash

In the 1700s, machinery began to appear in mills and cloth factories. The objective was to reduce manpower (work content) as facilitated by technological advances, thereby reducing cost and increasing production and uniformity in the products. Those objectives were achieved. In fact, the human work content was reduced dramatically.

All competing mills had to respond in kind or face serious consequences. What a great accomplishment! The mills prospered, the buyers of the goods got lower prices and higher quality and an industry progressed to a new, higher level of efficiency. Everybody wins, right? Wrong! The mill owners did not feel as though they had any obligation to the workers beyond their pay, and they were fired with little hope to recover employment in their repressive society.

So what happened? The angry workers, called Luddites, responded by destroying machinery, burning factories, and probably worse. It was a primitive reaction, but it was probably their only way of being heard.

Luddite: One who opposes technological change. In early industry, Luddites rioted and destroyed labor saving machinery that they thought would diminish employment.

Were they able to stop progress or, in their eyes, the only thing that mattered, save their jobs? They did not and could not stop progress.

Secret societies were formed. They recruited all who might be affected, some by intimidation. Their purpose was to preserve their members’ jobs by attempting to slow progress and technological advance and the resulting reduced work content. Governments eventually recognized those societies and labor unions were born.

If we could turn back the clock, do you think we could convince the mill owners that a way could be found to save those jobs? Maybe they could expand in other areas, or reduce the workforce through attrition over a period of time, accepting reduced profit in the meantime. Not a chance! Maybe we could find a way to stall that technological advance and the work content reduction indefinitely.

This is another conundrum: A paradox whereby progress was not possible without major disruption and hurt for the workers directly involved, even though there would be countless individuals and generations who would benefit greatly.

At the threshold of the twenty first century, nearly 300 years later, these same issues are important factors in the relationship between management and labor. While we cannot turn back the clock and fix a problem of the past and cannot stop progress in the future, we should be able to fix that problem for the future now.

To have a chance, we first must understand the problem and get it into a perspective that allows it to be viewed from all sides. Technological progress will always be a reality. It will even accelerate, and by definition, it reduces human work content. In viewing human progress over those 300 years, would anyone have it any other way? Consider future years for our children and grandchildren as well. Would we stop progress now if we could to avoid the problem for the future? Not a chance, and for the same reasons! Change is here to stay.

Since the days of the secret societies, slavery has been eliminated, world wars have been fought to protect and free entire races and populations, apartheid has been eliminated, and democracy prevails in much of the world. Liberty and self-determination are common. Humanity to people today, while a long way from perfect, is in a different arena than in those days.

But our conundrum is still there.

In a modern business environment, the workforce, those who actually perform the work content, likely has a good overall understanding of what is required to accomplish tasks. It will be from a different perspective from those directing it. Many times those same people will have thoughts on how to improve what they do and how they do it. In many cases they have not really been encouraged to make them known. In fact, the “suck up” mentality and its environment discourage it.

The $64,000 question is: Will they enthusiastically volunteer those thoughts and ideas with the notion that their work becomes more effective and helps all involved, including their company’s competitive position, and thereby their own job security? Will they be able to realize the W3 rewards? Is it a “turned-off” organization, or is it “turned-on?”

Diagnosis: The harder we work to find better ways of doing our job, embracing new and more effective technology, reducing work content, and increasing product dynamic value, making our company more competitive (contributing to progress), the higher the likelihood that we will no longer be needed. Company success is supposed to create job security!

Naturally, this is a complete and total turnoff. Someone has it backwards. It is a reverse reward or recognition system and that is the basis of the problem in a nutshell.

Prescriptions: Business management has the responsibility for its organization to be at least as effective as its competition. That cannot happen without the enthusiastic contributions of its people, the human element. If you don’t believe it, you need to understand what is going on in other companies and other countries - the competitors.

  • The organization must be assured that their own contributions will benefit themselves in the improved company effectiveness and that job security will result for all involved, not the opposite. An atmosphere of mutual trust and one where the promises of the reasons we work can be fulfilled must prevail.

  • Organized labor has a responsibility to protect their member’s jobs. Without the threat of job loss due to reduced work content, job security can best be defined as success of the company and effectiveness at the employee level in the global marketplace.

  • Company success (job security) is achieved by the enthusiastic contribution of all the people involved, the human element. That is best achieved in an atmosphere of mutual trust and one where the promises of the reasons we work can be fulfilled.

The technological advance that is fostered by those directly involved, along with its effect on work content discussed above, also has other very beneficial side effects. One of the basic forces driving technological advance is the objective of the reduction or elimination of dangerous and just plain drudgery type of work that must somehow get done. It is more than just work content (labor hours) reduction; it seriously upgrades the overall character of work. Let the robot or other machinery do the dangerous and dirty work. This requires an enthusiastic and mutual embrace of technological progress and its side effects by both management and labor.

In a “turned-on” organization where teams work together with all contributing to produce better ways of doing things, the atmosphere transforms drudgery to rewarding life’s work. It may be hard for some to believe, but even on the production floor of an American auto plant in the 1990s, TGIM could be found. From its beginnings, management and organized labor agreed on principles that facilitated that kind of atmosphere at the G.M. Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. It was unheard of in American auto companies.


  • Best possible job security

  • Character of work is upgraded

  • Drudgery is minimized

  • Work becomes truly rewarding

  • TGIM becomes real (looking forward to going to work – can you imagine it?)

(It was hoped by many that the Saturn philosophy could spread to other G.M. divisions. Unfortunately, the promising early successes lost their meaning as the paradigms of both the UAW and G.M. came home to roost. It seems as though the typical auto plant mentality has spread to Saturn and for the most part it is now just another G.M. division.)

Organized labor in the U.S. has had a very significant impact on labor itself, but also on management’s attitudes and philosophies. It has even had significant impact on non-organized work environments by association and by patterns developed over time from negotiated agreements. The natural resistance to do or contribute any more than has been negotiated in an adversarial environment is often present.

There can be no doubt that labor unions have been an absolute necessity. Workers were taken advantage of more times than not, even into the middle of the twentieth century. The workers were viewed as a distinct lower class and needed a champion.

Today, an atmosphere of openness and freedom of expression and devotion to life’s work seems to exist in many modern companies. The promises of the reasons we work can be fulfilled and the culture of Yankee ingenuity prevails. That atmosphere is different from some in the so-called “rust belt industries,” where the tension of fragile labor agreements and mindless drudgery can make eight hours seem like twelve.

“Work” in the modern industrialized countries has evolved to the point that protection to a large extent is built into the national systems. As a matter of fact, it appears that the reason for management to withhold more favorable treatment may be because of the defensive and contentious relationship that exists with organized labor. More favorable benefits may be traded for something management needs to be more competitive at the next collective bargaining session – certain work rules, for example.

Could it be that the very reason for the existence of organized labor has now become an obstacle for the realization of even better conditions? Consider that major non-union work forces in the U.S. auto industry are doing at least as well or better and have a spirit about their work that does not exist in comparable closed union shops.

Many modern companies have found that being able to harness the ideas and energy of motivated team members is mutually rewarding, and not just in financial terms. They are “turned-on” as opposed to “turned-off” in unenlightened organizations. Small to very large companies of all kinds, including automobile companies, operate very successfully in this way.

As this book was beginning, the newly elected President of the Teamsters Union, James Hoffa, vowed “militancy” to achieve union goals in his acceptance speech. Will militancy cause the many organizations involved to become “turned-on?” Will they be better able to compete, survive, thrive, be secure in their jobs and realize the many benefits of their life’s work? Or is it a wedge to be pushed deeper between management and labor, in reality, endangering job security?

Labor unions fill the role of protector of their dues-paying members. The basic premise is that each member must meet the negotiated minimum job requirements. They then have the full protection of the mother union and gain the top objectives of seniority and retirement at the earliest possible time.

Sweet and Sour Grapes
Sweet & Sour Grapes: The Story of the Machine Tool Industry
ISBN: 1587620316
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 77
Authors: James Egbert © 2008-2017.
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