Friday, February 01, 2013

The Worker and the Cartels

My friend Steve is from Rochester.  This comes a surprise; I had thought he was from Buffalo. No,  no, says Steve, Rochester.  Kodak.  If you got on board at Kodak at 18, you were pretty much set for life.

Which prompted me to reflect back on a theme I've explored before: the 47-73 years as a time of sleekly well-protected semi-cartels, where management could make their deals with unions because they could charge prices above marginal cost.   Thing is, there is a flip side: as Steve suggests, the worker who wangled his way to the protective bosom of the appropriate cartel, his life might have been boring and in some ways constrained but it was pretty safe.  Oddly, we tend to think of this sort of corporate welfare as an artifact of the glory days of Japan.  But consider: AT&T (there's a reason why they called it "Ma Bell"); IBM, General Motors, and yes, Kodak, and more.

I can relate in a small way.  I worked for the none of the above but I spent a decade in Louisville, in the warm lap of one of those newspaper monopolies against which we used to fulminate until they all began to crumble or wither away.    I'll grant that Louisville might have been a little special: unlike the seed, feed and dry goods merchants who refashioned themselves as press lords in so many communities, our Corporate Masters in Louisville actually fancied themselves friends of journalism and expended some effort to make it happen.

This doesn't mean they paid well; nobody ever earned a decent paycheck in journalism outside the celebrity class.  But they were willing to give you some scope; if you sold them on the notion that you had a viable project, they'd give you the time and the backup and you didn't need to worry about being canned for time-wasting (nor for any other reason; they were notoriously reluctant to fire anybody).   

Needless to say, these comfy little boltholes are mostly gone now, attendant upon the decay of the protective structure that supported them. This protective structure certainly had its downside, but we may lament the demise of its virtues.  

A corollary: as I guess I've said before, I suspect we observe here one important reason why so many are so mad at public employees: those who remember how they or their parents flourished in the realm of the semi-cartels are bound to get a little shirty when they see public employees continue to enjoy some of the protections these private-employer folks no longer enjoy.  Disclaimer, this is not an endorsement of the Kasich/Walker platform,.

Pay footnote:  I suggested that the newspaper pay was lousy.  Actually, the pay in Louisville might have been a smidgen better than among its competitors.  The reason would be that our Corporate Masters, notoriously liberal on their editorial page, fought tooth and toenail to keep the unions out of the city room.  One way to do it was to make the pay just enough better than the union competitors that we would regard ourselves as blessed to go without.  And come to think of it--I said they were slow to fire and they were.  But one guy who did find himself unceremoniously squeezed out of his job was the feckless chap who actually tried to organize a union,.

Journalism Footnote:  One index of how much our Corporate Masters wanted to be thought of as real journalists: in 1965 I won a modest but satisfying prize from the American Bar Association for some reporting law issues. To receive the prize, the publisher sent--not me, but himself, the publisher, who for aught I could tell didn't even known the stories were in the paper until after news of the bauble arrived.  I honestly didn't mind: I never much fancied this kind of ceremony and as I recall, it would have meant  trip to Miami in the summer. But I took it as an index of how desperate he was to be thought a real player and not some glorified bookkeeper.

Kodak footnote:  Actually,Steve's parents were not part of the Kodak family.  They subsisted in the treacherous no-man's land of the retail carpet business.  But Steve is happy to report that it saw them out: they were able to sell it for a satisfying price as they moved into retirement

[For added verisimilitude, I tried to scare up a cut of the old "carpets from the looms of Mohawk" commercial, but apparently not everything is on the web.   Búm búm bàbabàba búm búm.]


marcel said...

This doesn't mean they paid well; nobody ever earned a decent paycheck in journalism outside the celebrity class

My uncle was a photo-journalist* for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the entire period (47-73), he and my aunt living for the last 20 years of that time eriod quite comfortably on the upper east side of Manhattan, vacationing in Wellfleet for 6 weeks many summers and traveling to France for a couple of summer vacations in the 1950s. They had no children, but they sure as hell looked comfortable to me as a child (and until the end of that period, my natal family did quite well as my father moved back and forth among academia, consulting firms and think tanks: my point of comparison was not one of any deprivation).

My uncle was not a celebrity, but I think certain papers, or rather publishers, took pride in paying a decent salary, the PD (and Pulitzer) being among them.

*He was primarily a photographer who wrote copy for his own articles, though he occasionally accompanied text reporters on big stories to take pictures.

Buce said...

Fascinating, Marcel, all new to me. I did know of the PD as a desirable place to work in those days but I figured it was like Louisville: genteel poverty. I did have a friend who worked as a photojourno for the PD from I guess the 60s to the 90s; he did not vacation at Wellfleet.

Not to contradict you--I suppose a nuance would be that both the UWS and the Cape were more accessible to working stiffs then than they would be today.

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

Ahh, the good old days, where silly employers thought that they needed to pay workers decently to keep unions out. We are more enlightened now--employers only have to pay the lawyers decently to keep the unions out.

bjdubbs said...

Still 9 people in public relations, even in bankruptcy. Hard to imagine what there is to relate . . . The old Kodak still isn't dead.