Where are the Workers of the World?

by Michael C Kelly

When I was eight, my grandfather, Charles Latondress, took my brother and me on a tour of a grain ship. The boat was a monster, and my grandfather was a titan, best able to position the mighty beast through his ability to motivate action in others. He was a deck supervisor at a grain elevator.

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 from giant steel lids.

“What are they doing?” I asked, pointing in their direction.

“Son, those workers are getting to the grain.”

“Can we see?” My brother asked.

“You sure can. Just hang on to me to be safe.”

With that, my grandfather introduced us to the dunes of grain in one of the ship’s holds.

“Interesting, eh?”

“Yes. There is so much grain! But how does it get there?”

“Workers?”

“Yup,” my grandfather pointed out, “workers in Thunder Bay unload grain carried by trains from the prairies into these holds on the ship, then covers them with large metal hatches. The ship sails to this grain elevator, and the workers here take the hatches off so we can get into the holds. They unload the grain and store it in the elevator building. It’s an important job, and they work hard, after which they go home to their wives and children.”

Later, my father, brother, and I stopped at a local confectionary on our way home. My brother and I entered first, and once in, Dad stopped us.

“Boys, see that rack of bread?” He asked, nodding toward the bakery section.

“Yes,” we answered in unison.

“People around here wouldn’t be able to buy those bread loaves if your grandfather and his workers didn’t do their jobs.”

“Really?”

While my father’s point didn’t explain the connections between the ship’s hold and the bread rack, this eight-year-old heard two powerful messages.

First, as a worker and a supervisor, Grandad played an essential role in a much larger community process, which interestingly didn’t seem to 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 fun, counting his money, or enthusing expectantly on shareholder value. He was feeding his family and his community.

Today, I reflect on that moment and wonder how many workers can tie their efforts directly to the life of a community — like my father and grandfather. I wonder why we rarely hear the word worker anymore. Instead, I’ve steadily listened to the word give way to corporate substitutes, starting with ‘employee,’ then, in degrees of abstraction, from asset to liability, and finally to its cruellest, a term I’ll reveal in the last part of this series.

And to answer the question in the title? Well, workers still exist, and they’re everywhere. It’s just that, given the brand nonsense of so many of our corporate, union and even not-for-profit organizations, it can be difficult to see and appreciate workers.

Section two? Let me introduce you to the employee.

Note: This article was originally written in 2017.