$84,000 A Year – To Sweep Floors?!

I’m a big fan of capitalism and meritocracies – the latter defined as “… society rewarding, via wealth, position, and social status, those who show talent and competence as demonstrated by past actions or by competition.”

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Essentially, if you do a good job, you get paid; and if you don’t, you go hungry.

That’s why an experience I had last year really got my attention. I was doing a presentation in Detroit which was being held at the training facility for one of the “Big Three” domestic auto manufacturers. This particular facility was the result of a joint venture between this company and the United Auto Workers union.

The program was scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m., so, naturally, I was there around 6:30 a.m. that morn­ing to set up and make sure everything was ready when the first of the “early birds” started showing up at around 7:30 a.m.

The guard let me in and showed me to the room we were using, but things went downhill from there. About half an hour later when I asked where I could find the person responsible for the A/V setup, I was told that he didn’t start work until 8:00 a.m.

Oh, he was in the building, and actually came to the room to see what all the fuss was about, but he didn’t start work until 8:00 a.m. It didn’t seem to faze him one bit that the program was supposed to start at 8:00 a.m.; no one told him about this and no one authorized overtime for this, so 8:00 a.m. it was going to be.

By the way, I later found out that this guy’s salary was over $100,000 a year, to do A/V in a training building. Why so high? Because he was a union em­ployee and had been doing the job for over 20 years. Never mind the fuzzy distinction between having 20 years of experience and having just one year of experience… repeated 20 times.

When I discussed this with my client-a salaried “management-level” employee with an MBA (making less than half the A/V guy’s salary, by the way) – she told me about a woman she knew at that very same company who drew a salary of $84,000 a year as a “sweeper”-30 years ago.

I naturally assumed this was a highly technical position on the assembly line-perhaps the person who was responsible for the final inspection and approval of the automobiles as they completed the manufacturing process-“sweeping” the line, so to speak.

No, she was an actual sweeper-sweeping dirt off the shop floor. Imagine what that $84,000 salary would be in today’s dollars!

I should mention here that I have no philosophical objections to unions. My grandmother was a la­bor organizer in her native Poland, and later in the United States in the early part of the 20th century when working conditions were oppressive and dangerous.

My mother was in the NYC teacher’s union for many years, and we have a very good friend who is a long-time member of several trade unions. For that matter, our daughter, who wants to be an actress, hopes to get her “SAG” card-signifying that she is a member of the Screen Actors Guild-a union.

Compensation can take many forms in addition to straight salary: flexible work hours, benefits, working environment to name a few.

But there has to be a relation­ship between the salary paid to an employee and her measurable con­tribution to the company. It’s really nothing more than another form of “return on investment.”