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“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”
This phrase came back to mind on a recent airline flight, as a bright young man regaled us with hard-earned wisdom about the pizza pie business. I grew up hearing this phrase from my rock-rib conservative father, whose conservatism is shaped by his Calvinist Christian faith and by growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. I just learned its origin, worth a brief reflection at the outset of Labor Day Weekend.
The tall, but thankfully lanky, younger man sat down in the middle seat, because that was what was left on the Southwest Airlines flight. He clearly did not do a lot of air travel, but was excited about the trip. I helped him sort out the link on his smart phone to the free flight tracker and streaming TV. As he settled in, he began to regale me, and the woman in the window seat, with his story.
His company was flying him and his girlfriend (asleep several rows back) free to the city of their choice in the continental United States, where they would be stay for four nights in a four-star hotel, all paid by the company. This was a reward for his outstanding performance, running a shop in a large pizza chain.
The 32-year-old had taken a very poorly performing shop and established a track record of improving sales to consistently performing in the top three in his midwest region. He started as a driver. Showing a basic interest in the business, being early for his shift, performing above standard, he caught the eye of management. In short order, he was asked to take a supervisory role and rose to store general manager.
Remarkably, the corporation gave its store managers some wage discretion, in addition to responsibility for performance. In a college town, were his drivers seasonal, constantly turning over as college students moved along? No! His drivers were mostly over 50. He offered them one dollar an hour over the required starting wage. “I do this to show respect. These people have a lot of experience. They are choosing to come back to work in this entry job.”
What about turnover? The corporate average for driver retention was 47 percent, but this shop’s retention rate was over 70 percent. “I even have drivers give me 90 days notice, and they are apologizing to me.” His decision to take a risk, to pay more than the corporate policy book requires, to take on increased labor cost, has paid off for everyone.
Think about it. You order a pizza by phone or on-line. The only face you see is the driver, when he or she shows up on your doorstep. This young manager, who got his knowledge of the business from the ground floor up, knew how it felt to be a driver, and saw his customers’ faces. He recognized that the driver, the pizza delivery guy, is the face of the business. His drivers outperform the competition, so his store outperforms his peer stores.
Instead of getting a minimum day’s work for a minimum day’s wage, the young pizza shop manager was getting at least a fair day’s work from his drivers, because they perceived him as treating them with respect. The wage isn’t minimum, and it isn’t “living;” it is seen within the shop as “fair.”
This brings us back to the origin of the phrase. While it sounds biblical, it is not. It comes from the late 1880s, and the early days of the American Federation of Workers. Their view was challenged by the truly radical “Wobblies,” the International Workers of the World:
Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”
The cartoon here was drawn by IWW supporters, claiming that “industrial unions,” versus “craft unions,” would lead to a bright future with the abolition of wages. We have seen this play run a few times, most recently in Venezuela. The “conservative motto” did invoke a basic sense of fair dealing and a Biblical injunction:
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
— 1 Timothy 5:18 (English Standard Version)
The second saying, as is frequently the case with the New Testament, is not an exact quote. Rather, it points to Leviticus:
You must not defraud your neighbor or rob him. You must not withhold until morning the wages due a hired hand.
— Leviticus 19:13 (English Standard Version)
To the extent that both employers and employees operated within this moral framework, they tamped down the revolutionary fires across Europe and America. Why go for pie-in-the-sky, if you are getting enough pay to support yourself, and have prospects of a brighter future for yourself or your family? Conversely, why chisel wages when you have good workers who do a fair day’s work for you on a consistent basis?
We can be thankful this Labor Day Weekend. Our constitutional system, and our property and labor laws, have avoided the extremes of underemployment, due to government regulations strangling the economy, and revolutionary violence. Have a great weekend!