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Service Is Our Business chapter 12

A Basis for Agreement

once, it is told, the workers of ancient Rome arose and went on strike. Declaring that they would no longer toil for their masters, they withdrew to a nearby hill. Rome was paralyzed, and the patricians waited apprehensively as Menenius Agrippa went to persuade the strikers to return. He told them this fable: “The members of the human body once mutinied against the belly and accused it of lying idle and useless while they were all laboring and toiling to satisfy its appetites. But the belly only laughed at the simplicity of those who knew not that though it received all the nourishment into itself, it prepared and distributed it again to all parts of the body.”

Just so, said Agrippa, stands the case between the employers and the strikers. He won his case. But the argument has continued to this day. Millions of man-days of production and billions in wages are lost through strikes. Incalculable injury is suffered by others. Shortages and rising prices caused by strikes stoke the fires of inflation and add to the threat of depression and dictatorship.

Yet, the real nature of the crisis in labor relations is not revealed by detailing its disastrous consequences. Strikes are like a thermometer which indicates that the boiling-point has been reached. They disclose the situation. They are not the situation itself. Just as you cannot reduce the temperature of a room by applying an ice-bag to the thermometer, so making strikes difficult will not relieve the tensions of industry. You have to get the temperature down by finding the cause of the excessive heat and removing it.

Surely Rotary should have some answer to the problem of labor conflict. The interest of its members as business and professional men is involved. Their influence is not inconsiderable. The deeper relation of the crisis to the personal attitudes of workers and employers challenges their professed ideals.

It may be helpful at the outset to dispose of the defeatist notion that the conflict is inevitable. This notion stems directly from the interpretation of history as a class struggle proposed by Karl Marx, though it is often shared by people very far from being Marxists. Whoever assumes that workers are concerned only with getting the most pay for the least work or that employers have no other thought but profit, consciously or unconsciously, subscribes to the doctrine of Marxian materialism. On this basis alone does conflict between them seem irreconcilable.

Nor is the idea of inevitable conflict any longer supported by the modern biologist who has abandoned the Darwinian description of “nature, red in tooth and claw” in favor of one that attributes the survival of species to co-operation. “Co-operate or die” is the law of life, according to Professor Alice writing on Animal Sociology in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Discredited theories die hard. There is a time-lag before they are abandoned. Repudiated in principle, the theory of the class struggle often survives in practice and crops out in the strangest places. How many employers, for instance, approach the bargaining table as rigidly determined to battle for their class rights as the most impassioned agitator. The single thought of both parties to the dispute is the desire to dominate.

The desire to dominate lies at the very heart of the system that produces strikes. Where each party is out to win, to impose his will upon the other, to prescribe his own solution whatever discouragement or frustration it may cause – conflict is indeed inevitable. Even if the weakness of one party prevents open strife, a sullen spirit of resentment sours the relationship. The cooperation essential to survival becomes impossible. What degree of efficiency or initiative or loyalty could an employer expect who dominated his employees without regard to their welfare or respect for their rights?

Domination rarely succeeds in any kind of a situation. In a labor dispute, the result is usually a compromise. Each side renounces a part of its aim to dominate when the struggle has become too painful. This kind of solution is often hailed as a victory for moderation, and such it may be. But too often it represents merely reluctant concession and appeasement in the worst sense. Its consequences may be no less disastrous than the choice of the man cycling home after dark along a country road. He saw two lights coming toward him. “Sure, and I’ll steer between them’,’ he said. Unfortunately they were the lights of a truck. Too often a compromise merely confirms the will to dominate eventually. It encourages stubbornness and insincerity. The sterile issue of much haggling, it leaves both combatants with the feeling that they have been beaten and with the determination to renew the struggle when they have gathered new strength.

Obsessed by the conviction that conflict is inevitable, employers and employees and their representatives ignore completely the possibility of an alternative procedure to one based on the desire to dominate and ending in compromise. Yet a definite and distinct alternative does exist, and with it the chance for leadership out of the barren wilderness of labor strife.

The key word is combination. It describes a procedure which seeks to absorb the conflicting interests in an overriding common interest.

One such common interest might be simply a mutual recognition that conflict is costly and sterile. Everyone loses in a strike. Or it might be the common fear of both parties that their conflict would lead to govern­ment controls and bureaucratic interference equally distasteful to employers and unions. These negative interests, however, do not point to any particular solution. They do not release the energies which conflict diverts from the useful side of life. A common interest that was positive, rather than negative, would have greater creative force.

A British industrialist, Sir George Schuster, formulated such a positive basis for agreement when he told the London Rotary Club that “the goal of both labor and management should be to increase the size of the cake rather than quarrel over how it should be divided’.’ Increased individual productivity, lower prices, and expanded sales were the positive goals that he suggested.

Still more comprehensive as a basis for agreement is the formula expressed in the concluding words of the second phase of Rotary’s Object – “service to society’.’ Translated into practical and specific proposals for any given business or industry, these words are revolutionary in their import. They suggest that instead of basing their demands on near-sighted selfish considerations, labor – and management, too – should relate them to a common interest in expanding business, higher living standards, and general prosperity.

Would the intractable problems, the sullen discontents, the accumulated bitterness that have encompassed labor conflict, yield to such an approach? Could tough-minded, horse-trading negotiators be persuaded to try it instead of retracing with hopeless doggedness the dreary paths of domination and compromise? How much persuasive skill would be required to convince cynical or obdurate minds that this inspirational phrase – “service to society” – offers real hope, not merely for preventing strikes but for impairing a new spirit of real co-operation? There is no foretelling until the attempt has been made.

Rotarians who decide to make the experiment, whether in a store with half a dozen employees or in a factory with several hundred, whether in negotiation with previously estranged labor leaders or in conversation with the new girl at the notion counter – will be aware that they are attempting something of great significance.

Each problem will invoke a different style of approach. But in every case, three steps are essential:

(1) The basis of agreement – “service to society” – must be explained and perhaps rephrased to convey all its implications in concrete, tangible terms so that the individual employee or labor representative will see clearly his relation to it. At the same time, the Rotarian will frankly set forth what he conceives to be his own relation to this common interest.

(2) The special interests of both parties must be considered in the light of the common interest. All the cards must be laid on the table. There should be no shrinking from the fighting words, the belligerently expressed demands, nor suppression of any accumulated grievances and mistrust. But once these have been stated, both parties should try to re-evaluate them in terms of “service to society.”

This critical step in the procedure calls for a little elaboration. The aim is to find out what each party really wants, and to see how these private goals can be reconciled with the common goal. Suppose, for instance, a dispute in which the workers demanding increased take-home pay are met with the objection that the employer has to make a profit in a competitive market. Break down this demand and this objection in terms of what each party really wants. Translate those real wants in terms of “service to society’.’ Compare them. Could they not be reconciled? Combined? Almost identified?

the employees really want—

A fair day’s pay

Security

Real incentives

Recognition

A share in policy-making

the employer really wants— A fair day’s work Loyalty and goodwill Increased productivity Initiative and ideas A fair return on investment

Are not these the real wants that underlie the haggling over wages and hours, welfare funds, vacations with pay, and a thousand other issues? Are they not quite reasonable and honest desires that can be satisfied—not compromised—through a common agreement of service to society?

(3) The procedure is not complete without action. Agreement on a common goal, the most satisfying talk, will only end in disillusionment if tangible results do not follow quickly. The extent of the action is dependent on many circumstances, but its nature should be such as to reveal plainly the reconciliation of the separate interests of the parties to the agreement. Immediate action—looking forward to continued action—is an earnest of good faith.

Rotarians who undertake these three steps as an alternative to the procedure of domination and compromise can expect results only over a period. This application of Rotary is a slow process. It extends far beyond the immediate crisis produced by strikes until it embraces all employer-employee relations.

What specific contributions Rotarians and Rotary clubs can make to develop this much-needed understanding is something for individual determination. That the spirit of “service to society” is already at home in the labor relations of many Rotarians is apparent. Yet the idea could be expressed more openly and directly. Even in the smallest business it could become the theme for discussion at meetings with employees. Even professional men could give currency to the idea by frankly presenting it to competitors, colleagues, or clients as a basis for agreement. Through education, influence, and example, the opportunity existing everywhere for “combined operations” could provide a powerful antitoxin to the prevailing class conflict.

A special opportunity exists in relation to trade-union leaders. Like the men whose vocation is management, these professional trade-unionists are sensitive to any threat against their own particular status and prerogative. There is nothing discreditable in this. It is perfectly natural. When labor leaders express a zeal to share in managerial functions, when management through interest in human engineering seeks ways to win greater efficiency, the other party is likely to exclaim: “Production? Service? Yes, but not over my dead body!”

Anyone who feels professionally insecure is likely to look around for ways to stress the importance of his function. The employer does this, sometimes, by means of distance and secrecy. Let no one penetrate the “holy of holies” where he is mystically managing to meet the payroll on Saturday night. The trade-union executive, on the other hand, may feel impelled to justify his position by assuming the role of an Oliver Twist. His prerogatives will be respected by dues-paying members so long as he is continually “asking for more.” No sooner has he negotiated one set of labor gains than he begins to hint about the next series of demands. How else is he to justify his existence?

Would it not contribute enormously to the professional security of the trade-union executive if a Rotarian employer would invite him to general consultation on their respective roles as seen in the light of “service to society”? In the course of consultation, the opportunity for combined operations between them could be explored. As partners, rather than rivals, each could benefit. Or a Rotary club at one of its meetings could present a trade-union leader with the same question, and work out with him a program for expanding this project throughout the labor movement. Or the same club might consider the possibility of filling the classification officially described as “Labor Organizations” with an intelligent and statesmanlike representative who would make it his business to promote combined operations.

Who can tell what may be the wide repercussions from such contacts. Eight years ago, the vocational service committee in Auckland, New Zealand invited two trade unionists to attend its meeting. They came hesitatingly, but enjoyed the discussion and brought several of their colleagues to subsequent meetings. The upshot was the formation of a labor-management group which prepared a joint statement of principles similar to those which have been considered here.

In 1951, a very serious situation arose on the waterfront of Auckland. A strike threatened to become an attempt to overthrow constitutional government. Police measures could not deal with the disorders, but the attempt failed because responsible union leaders, many of them members of this group inspired by Rotary, were able to convince the rank and file of the employer’s sincerity. It was their own conviction obtained through personal acquaintance and experience.

Has your club considered the possibility of inviting a trade unionist to become a member?