Two men shaking hands in front of the company building.

Making Good, Honest Labor Better

It wasn't that Kurt and I didn't have anything in common. We were the same age, approximately. The same height, give or take a few strands of hair (I still had hair, Kurt didn't -- and my hair made me taller). We both cheered passionately for the same college football and professional basketball teams.

We were even the same weight. But even though we both tipped the scales at about 240 pounds, Kurt carried most of his weight in muscular arms, massive shoulders and a strong, powerful torso. I carried most of my 240 pounds... uh... well... you know... lower.

See what I mean? We had a lot in common even though we were so different.

The problem was, the differences between us were pretty divisive -- different religions, different educational backgrounds, different political perspectives, different lifestyles -- the kinds of things that don't HAVE to separate people but often do, especially when you pile them up on top of each other.

The fact is, even though Kurt and I worked for the same company we probably wouldn't have ever met had we not been thrown together into an adversarial situation. Kurt was blue collar through and through, and was involved with his union in labor negotiations with the company. My collar was not only white, but I usually wore a tie around it. I didn't exactly sit on the other side of the negotiating table, but I worked for the company behind the scenes to coordinate communication efforts to employees, customers and the media.

To say there was a certain amount of tension around the company during the period of labor negotiations is like saying there is a certain amount of tension these days around Jon and Kate. So the timing wasn't right for a new friendship to take root. But as Kurt and I interacted during the course of the weeks of negotiations, we found we could do so pleasantly, if not completely comfortably. He had a gruff exterior, but a quick and affable sense of humor, and I enjoyed the give and take of our brief conversations. At first we limited our comments to sports. That led to mention of our own respective athletic histories (his was impressive, mine was not). Which led to talk about our growing up years, which led to discussion of our families and eventually brought us full circle to the very subject we had been most steadfastly avoiding.

"So what brought you here to the company?" I asked.

"My Dad worked here," he said, simply. "My older brother still works here. I never really thought of working anywhere else."

"Do you like it here?" I didn't intend it as a leading question, but given the circumstances, it sort of came out that way. He looked at me, as if he was trying to decide if I was trying to trap him. I guess he figured I wasn't smart enough to do that.

"Yeah," he said. "I like it a lot. It's hard work, but it's good, honest work. Good pay, good benefits. The company's been good to us."

I hesitated. I wanted to ask: Then why are you and your union brothers trying to cripple this company with excessive and unreasonable demands? I think he saw the question in my eyes.

"Look, we all know it's a good company," he said, plainly, directly. "But it can be better. That's all we're trying to do. We just want to make it better."

I think about Kurt every year at this time, when talk of Labor Day inevitably turns to a discussion of labor unions and whether or not they are still relevant in today's society. I'll leave that discussion to people who are a lot smarter than I am.

But I'll always remember my experience with one devoted union member who sincerely appreciated having "good, honest work," and whose only desire was to make a good company better.

Which, come to think of it, is one more thing we had in common.

~ Joseph Walker ~
Copyright © 2009

Joseph Walker began his professional writing career as a staff writer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, eventually becoming that newspaper's television and live theater critic. Since 1990 he has written a weekly newspaper column called ValueSpeak, which has appeared in more than 200 newspapers nationally. His published books include How Can You Mend A Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World for Deseret Book, The Mission: Inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Warner Books and three ghost-writing projects.  Please take a minute to let Joe know what you think of his story:  Joseph Walker
[ by: Joseph Walker Copyright © 2009 ( ) -- {used with permission} ]

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