When I was about eight-years-old my grandfather took my brother and I on board a grain ship. The boat was a monster and my grandfather a titan, able to control the mighty beast through his efforts, and through his ability to generate effort in others. He was a supervisor.
Armed with three days of grade one and a wonderfully absent exposure to corporate mission statements, strategic initiatives and key result areas Grandad did what he did best … unload grain ships, lakers as he called them.
At one point I noticed a group of men wielding what looked like huge wrenches, prying clamps off giant steel lids.
“What are they doing? I asked, pointing in their direction.
“Son, those men are workers and they are helping us get to the grain.”
‘Workers?” I knew my father worked in a mine and my mother for the government, but aside from them it hadn’t occurred to me there could be so many people working.
“Yup,” my grandfather pointed out, “they take the hatches off the ship so we can get at the grain in the ship’s hold. It’s an important job and they work hard, after which they go home to their wives and children.”
I let it drop at that point. Later, on our way home, we stopped at a local confectionary. My brother and I entered single file in front of my grandfather. Once in, my grandfather stopped us.
“Boys, see that rack of bread?” He asked, nodding toward the bakery section.
“Yes,” we answered in unison.
“Well, people around here wouldn’t be able to buy those breads if I and the workers you saw didn’t do our jobs.”
While my grandfather’s point didn’t explain all the connections from the ship’s hold and the bread rack, this eight-year-old heard two powerful messages. First, Grandad, as a worker and a supervisor, saw himself and his crew as important parts in a much larger community process, which interestingly enough didn’t include the corporation itself. (It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he worked for the CPR.) Second, he took his obligations seriously. He wasn’t working for the fun of it, nor was he just counting his money. He was feeding his family and his community.
Today I reflect on that moment and wonder how many workers are able to tie their efforts directly to a practical, community purpose – like my grandfather’s? I also wonder why we rarely hear the word worker, except perhaps as a noun modifier on a union logo. (Even unions call their workers members, for me abstracting people and underscoring the essential corporate nature of their organizations.) Over the years I’ve seen the women and men assigned to perform tasks called by other, more abstract names.
The word worker seems less significant today, essentially giving way to other descriptors of what human beings do – especially for a wage. In the next five sections I’d like to trace my experiences with each concession. I call it the work saga, not an academic study so much as personal observations over my past forty-year work history. In the next section I’ll look at a moment when workers became employees.