Saturday, August 29, 2009

Labor Day 2009: The Work of a Father (Part 1)

“Twenty years of schoolin and they put you on the day shift”
- Bob Dylan

Work \werk\ n: an opportunity for discovering and shaping; the place where the self meets the world ( David Whyte)

“Make your prayer your work and your work your prayer”
- Pope John Paul II

Years ago I was called to visit a prospective client in Bayonne, NJ. It was the little unusual city not too urban, not too suburban, no real commercial retail or business center. It was a quiet unknown peninsula across from Manhattan and Staten Island. On the other side one could see Newark and Elizabeth across Newark Bay. This oft ignored place was home to a few famous faces such as Frank Langella, Sandra Dee and Barney Frank . It’s been the focus of jokes by Jackie Gleason and many others, I’m sure. It’s also the place where I spent the first eight years of my life. My paternal grandparents settled there after immigrating from Poland in 1905. I would return to Bayonne regularly to visit grandparents and relatives until the last one either died or moved away. It had been years since the last time I ventured for into the city for a funeral or visit. On one trip during my later adult years to Bayonne it seemed like nothing had changed except for the growth of the trees and the elimination of the old train line down to Eighth Street. An abundance of ghosts surrounded my Saab as it slowly traversed block to block. The flood of memories could fill a fleet of Saabs. I finally made it to my appointment at a caster oil plant, blocks from where I played stickball in the street and next to the mayonnaise and margarine factory where my dad had worked and served as a union president for almost his whole adult life.

When I introduced myself to my prospective client, a VP of Human Resources, he muttered my last name under his breath. He looked up and said, “When I was younger I used to work at the company right next door. There was a union president there by the name of Sobecki. He was truly one of the most honorable men I have ever met and though I am part of management he was probably the best union president I have ever encountered.”

Before he could finish his last words of his sentence I was wiping a small slow stream of tears meandering down my face. “That was my Dad, I said softly.” We shared a number of stories about my father, unions and the good ole days until we finally moved on to the business at hand.

On my way home that day I recalled my father saying that he never solicited a worker to join the union. He said management’s behavior did that for him. When I became a management consultant I based my service on the premise that if one would focus on treating employees with respect and dignity the enterprise would be productive, healthy and successful. My premise was often tested!

When I worked at my father’s plant one summer during my college years, my immediate supervisor made sure to give me the dirtiest most unwanted jobs at the plant on my first day. I cleaned out old rancid mayonnaise and corn oil from garbage trucks and steamed and scraped the inside of an oil tank car. The work clothes that the personnel department had issued me earlier in the day had to be placed in the garbage as I was told they would never get them clean. I ruined a good pair of work shoes and could not remove the grease from under my fingernails. On our way home my dad asked about my first day on the job. I didn’t think anything of it and explained in detail what I did. As I drove the family car he quietly recorded some notes in a small little spiral pad and slipped it into his chest pocket without saying another word. That day was the last time I had dirty jobs at the plant.

My father had led a successful strike in 1962, which had an interesting positive significant impact on labor relations in the plant for years to come. About 18 years after that strike the union membership was grwoing tired of some of the new technology coming into the plant and streamlining the manufacturing processes. My father wanted the members to participate in some way in stock ownership and profit sharing. The members thought he was crazy and voted to strike, an action he did not endorse. My dad tried to explain how the world had changed in 18 years and if they didn’t change with the world their jobs could be gone. This community of hard workers whom my father had supported and who had once honored him as a great leader decided to shun him. Local plant management saw how the employees were treating my dad so they promoted him to a staff and supervisory job to get him away from that crowd and protect him. The shunning became worse and my dad became more and more depressed with each shift he worked. Within a few weeks he died of a sudden heart attack. My mother to this day believes that he died of a “broken heart.”

That plant eventually became a “just-in-time” manufacturing facility. Who would have thought that technology would streamline the making of mayonnaise so much that the company would decide to consolidate production and close the plant? I don’t believe it is really a coincidence that I spend much of my “free” time now helping the unemployed find meaningful work. Furthermore,on a more out of the box association, I think it extraordinarily coincidental that my girls decided to attend St. Joseph’s University. (Of course there is another story about that decision for somewhere in the future.) I am always wearing their university's apparel proudly posting “St. Joseph” across my chest like some high scoring athlete. I used to say that wearing these t-shirts, wind shirts and sweatshirts was a way for me to remain close to my girls . Maybe …just maybe though it is a subconscious effort way of honoring and thanking St. Joseph as the Patron Saint of Workers… and fathers (for - my work , my father, my being a father of my girls .)

“Without work, all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.”
- Albert Camus

“A tree give Glory to God by being a tree. For being what God means it to be it is obeying Him .It consents, so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.

The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore would give him less glory.”

- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

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