Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Choices - Part 5 (Work -conclusion)

That job interview 40 years ago was the last one I ever had. I took the job because I was desperate, and the employer hired me because they were getting a lawyer for what they paid clerks. They told me they did not have any need to hire, but wanted to give me the opportunity - you know, I could work into a job in the legal department and maybe some day even become company President. Employers like to make new hires feel like the boss is doing them a special favor in hiring them, even for the most lowly jobs, whereas the truth is usually that each needs the other.

I had never heard of the title insurance business, but starting like I did at the bottom, I got the opportunity to learn firsthand what everyone at the company actually did. I also worked as a peer with workers at those lower levels, forming the basis for good working relationships when I later did get promoted. I learned that the title business, like many enterprises, is a perfect fit for some workers and a miss for others. Talented ability for a particular job is only marginally related to educational level - for some people it is inherent. Our society needs to do a better job of determining what individual talents and abilities young people have and then guide them in that direction. Job dissatisfaction prevails in large part because people choose jobs for reasons other than talent and ability.

An opportunity in the legal department opened up sooner than I expected. I appeared to be the obvious person to fill the position - except to the head of personnel, who gave the job to an attorney who had left the legal department for private practice some time ago and then decided to come back. I told the personnel chief that I could understand why they gave the legal opening to the more experienced attorney, but I had a problem with not being told ahead of time, before I was embarrassed by being introduced to him in front of my co-workers, who like me thought the position was mine. A perfunctory apology confirmed what I had already been gathering, this employer did not really care about its employees.

A short time later, another legal opening occurred [which should have told me something], and this time I got it. With a new position and a new wife, things looked set, but Lyndon Johnson had just figured how to get a troop surge for the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, by using the seizure of the USS Pueblo as a pretext to call up the reserves, and I was yanked from my job and into Air Force service for what turned out to be 18 months. Remember in life, stuff [euphemism] happens.

What I did in the Air Force for those 18 months is a story for another time [did I hear a “whew” of relief?]. Federal law guaranteed my rehiring within a few months of return from active duty. A couple of those months got used for a European tour before settling back to work and starting a family. Traveling when young is so much more beneficial than waiting for retirement years. The young are more adventuresome and physically capable, and enthusiastically open to seeing life in new ways. A lot of George W. Bush’s failure on the international scene is rooted in the defect of his personality that caused him to shun such travel during his privileged youth.

The title company did not want to take me back. They had hired an older attorney to take my place and they tried to discourage me by relegating me to a semi-clerical job examining court files at the courthouse. [I suspect this story is being repeated today in the lives of many reservists returning from service in Iraq, but is not being reported in the media. Employers are patriotic when it comes to getting defense contracts, but not when it comes to re-hiring reservists they have already replaced.] Valuable learning sometimes comes from unexpected places, and the file examining job was one of these. In a few short months at that job, I was able to see the paperwork involved from start to finish in many hundreds of cases of great variety. This was experience that would have taken me twenty years to acquire in a law office. The main thing I learned from the files was that lawyers and judges were very often quite unconcerned about fastidious paperwork, and just did what needed to be done in whatever way worked. I no longer had the fear of a need for perfectionism that had driven me from the practice of law.

Workplace mentors may have mixed motivation. In the law office, Mr. Greenlee taught me about practicing law, not just to be of help in his business, but also because he wanted me to learn from his experience. The older lawyer who had taken my place at the title company also mentored me in a way. He taught me that taking on new challenges is essential to a career, like learning to swim - if you don’t get in over your head, you’ll always just be treading water. Good advice, but since he was sort of burned out and had no particular talent or interest in the title business, his encouragement for me to take on more tasks might have had a selfish motive. Anyway, I took his advice and accepted every challenge the job had to offer, quickly becoming Mr. Indispensable. [I still haven’t learned to swim though - maybe later]. Buddha correctly said everyone is a teacher. We should be able to learn something from everyone we encounter. The motivation of a teacher is not as important as the subject matter of a lesson, and perhaps as the talent of the teacher, if that talent is being used. Sometimes what we learn from a teacher is not what the teacher thinks is being taught.

George Bush could have handled employee relations for the title company, because they operated on loyalty and fear. Loyal employees did what they were told and were too afraid to ask for raises. I was loyal enough, but not fearful. My supervisor, the head lawyer, loved having me do everything and was actually a pretty easy touch for raises, which I persistently pursued. I was on friendly terms with everyone in the company, and especially with some of the better workers. I started hearing stories from some more senior workers about how junior ones were being underpaid, even in the face of raise recommendations from the seniors. Employers often try to drive a wedge between senior workers and junior ones, as a tactic to undermine collective bargaining, but they fail to appreciate the genuine bond between good workers of all ages. Eventually a group of senior and junior workers, including me, met to consider organizing a union. I was designated to talk to the National Labor Relations Board to determine what our rights were, and was told by the attorneys at the Board that this was not the 1930's and we had every legal right to do what we were doing, so we decided to proceed to organize our fellow employees.

My supervisor was a nice enough man, and he had just got a raise approved for me. It had been especially hard to work on him this time, even though he highly praised my work, but I worked especially hard in getting this one, because I figured once the union drive was above ground, I would not be getting any more. So as a courtesy, I gave him a heads up on what we were doing and told him a letter announcing the campaign had just been deposited in the mail. Operating out of the loyalty and fear conditioned by over 20 years employment, he ran down to the company President with the news and within half an hour, Mr. Indispensable had been fired for lousy work [ignoring the fact the President had just approved my raise based on excellent work].

The amazed lawyers at the NLRB quickly got my job back for me with a written apology from the company President. The company fought the union campaign like George Bush runs his campaigns and administration. Fearful loyalists were turned on the messengers. Promises were made but never kept. Threats, some more veiled, were made. Pay raises to women as a result of a sex discrimination case were portrayed as magnanimous gestures by the company. Ultimately, the company chose to irreparably damage itself rather than fairly bargain with the union that eventually did get certified. Good workers gradually left, replaced by mediocre ones. The company eventually was sold and the employer got out of the title business. “In order to save the title company, it became necessary to destroy the title company”, they seem to have said.

I considered seeking labor law work with the government, but Nixon becoming President nixed those thoughts. I did not like the idea of working for someone else, so I decided to give law practice another chance, this time doing it on my own, applying what I had learned at the title company. Tightening my belt and taking advantage of a generous offer from my brother for initial free space in his real estate office helped me get started, and I spent the next 25 years in solo law practice.


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