English: American Federation of Labor charter ...

English: American Federation of Labor charter for the Cigar Makers International Union of America, 1919. Published in American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book, photo plate between pages 48 and 49. Published by the American Federation of Labor, 1919. Published in USA prior to 1923, public domain. Digitized by Tim Davenport for Wikipedia, no copyright claimed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first Labor day in the US was celebrated September 5, 1882.  A “Workingmen’s Holiday” as it was called.

Living in Indianapolis, you run into Labor Unions that have slowly but progressively disappeared.  Sure, you still have the Teacher’s Unions and many others but workers in Unions represent about 11.8% of all wage ans salary workers.  This number has dropped over the years.

Yet, even with this small percentage the unions are often a target and sometimes these fights affect the average worker – union or not.  Having grown up in a family that despised unions, it was a long time coming before I realized that this inclination spilled over into laborers in general.  So, like most, I went to college to “be better than that.”

However, when you look at the engine that makes things run it is truly more the workers.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what Steve Jobs did to make my life easier and no doubt he was handsomely rewarded.  But Jobs and others are a rarity.  Most people don’t aspire or care to achieve  or just stating a plain fact – 99.999 % of us never will.

I don’t mind the Steve Jobs of the world getting their due.  Yet, most CEOs today did not build the companies the lead.  Some were genetic marvels where the business was handed to them.  Others came up through the hierarchy and achieved leadership positions, a combination of education, good fortune and occasionally savvy.

The salaries these folks command and the disparity to workers has come under increasing scrutiny.  The ration was 24-1 and now is a whopping 243 -1 according to a 2010 survey.  The fact is that such disparity is sometimes deserved, but more often it is not.  Yet, unions and the worker have come under more scrutiny than CEOs, unless of course . . . you break the law.

The US has become a swinging pendulum between too much labor or too much management.  The strength of labor unions was considered to be socialistic or even communist.  However, many were not necessarily out for power, they just wanted better working conditions or fair wages and benefits.  Some perceive this to be an entitlement issue.  If you work your whole life and don’t have enough to retire was it just the choice of the worker or does the company have an obligation?  Nowadays that argument has been settled as defined contribution plans have replace defined benefit plans.  Retirement is clearly an individual responsibility in the US and the problems with Social Security make it more so.

W. Edwards Deming marked the decline of the US starting in 1968.  Some blame unions and some blame management.  Dr. Deming placed the blame on US management.  From what I have seen in service and manufacturing, I agree.  Many countries have unions and are beating are heads despite the “handicap.”  We just haven’t gotten better as labor and management have found so few areas to connect on – something that has to stop.

The work designs in service organizations lend to depressing cultures and worker discontent.  Workers trapped in these designs and than wrapped into them with information technology.  Better designs mean better profits and a more motivated workforce.  Isn’t this really good for all, if we forget the labels?

Labor day gives us a chance to reflect on the year ahead.  Different and better thinking may be worth exploring.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Read his articles at Quality Digest and his column for CustomermanagementIQ.com.  Learn more about the Vanguard Method for service organizations.  Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt.

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