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The working man blues

The last straw for me was when I read this morning that one of the popular presidential candidates announced that our child labor laws are "truly stupid" and that what we ought to do is fire school janitors (all except one master janitor) and hire the students to clean schools instead. Having grown up in a town where they didn't fire janitors, but named schools after them (that's right -- in Garrison, N.D., there are two schools named after janitors), I reacted. Yes indeed, this would be a much greater country if we paid a lobbyist $1.6 million for a year or two of "historical perspective" and fired our school janitors.

There are a couple of lines in "Workin' Man Blues" that tell the story: "I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use ... I gotta buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes."

Why is it that recently in this country, the powerful are turning against our working men and women? Yes, we have a problem -- advances in technology like computers and robotics make it possible to get more production out of fewer workers. We are in another industrial revolution and the problem will grow and grow as the years go on. But do we solve the problem by blaming the victims -- our working people? Not without serious rumbles.

In the Red River Valley, American Crystal Sugar and the workers' union failed to reach a contract agreement, so instead of continuing to negotiate while working under the terms of the old agreement, American Crystal shut out the workers and hired temporaries. The workers didn't go out on strike, they were shut out. Now, months have gone by and they're still shut out. This looks like a good plan to crush the union. The shut-out workers were able to give thanks over Thanksgiving for two hands fit to use, but not for any new pairs of shoes. Christmas probably won't be much better.

There is more than one way to deal with recessionary economic pressures. In the window manufacturing business, for example, as a result of our house-building depression, demand for new windows has fallen drastically since 2005 and is expected to drop nine percent more this year. Anderson Windows of Bayport, Minn., recently announced plans to lay off 250 workers just two years after 500 earlier lay-offs, and Pella Corp. in Iowa just declared it would close a North Carolina plant with 145 workers and a plant employing 158 workers near Cincinnati in 2012.

But Marvin Windows in Warroad, Minn., and Grand Forks, N.D., has chosen a different approach. Marvin, facing the same problems and pressures as Anderson and Pella, has no plans to lay off any of its 4,400 workers in any of its 10 plants. Susan Marvin, company president, said "Our priority is to keep the workforce on payroll and make sure they have really good health care benefits. We have no reason to think we won't be able to continue doing that... We say people are our greatest assets, so why would we cut our greatest assets?"

In order to keep their greatest assets, they have had to tighten their belts at Marvin. For the third consecutive year, but only the sixth time in 55 years, employees will not receive a year-end bonus. They have also lowered manager salaries, eliminated 401k contributions, student tuition and company travel. Also, the work week has been cut from 40 to 32 hours and overtime, which was great during boom times, has almost disappeared. Further, they have not replaced retiring workers, except for specialized jobs. "We've looked under a lot of rocks to find our pennies, and they add up," said Marvin, but the rocks have not included lay-offs or lower health insurance benefits. Hats off to Marvin Windows.

If we care about our country and about our working people, we ought to be able to find ways to work out our economic problems without the heavy hand or boot.

Before you inquire about my economic expertise, let me confess that I have none. I have much to learn. I am sure there is much at Anderson, Pella and Marvin that we don't know about. But even Scrooge eventually learned that there is more to the bottom line than just dollars and cents.