My grandfather - my mother's dad - was proud of his 40-year pin from General Electric.
There were a few years when he didn’t work, during the Depression. My grandmother served up food to the desperate men who showed up at the door, despite her family’s own hard times.
But mostly, over more than four decades, Arthur Jones walked a long block down Lansdowne to the Davenport Works each day, came home for lunch, and went back in the afternoon.
There was an implicit deal - do the job well, and GE’s managers would do their job well so you would continue to be employed.
I thought about my grandfather this week, when a National Post headline sounded a familiar theme. “CP Rail shares climb on CEO's plan to cut 23 per cent of workforce,” it said.
I like the psuedo precision, and neutrality, of phrases like “23 per cent of workforce.”
While shareholders were bidding up CP Rail stock, about 4,500 families - that’s the number of jobs to be cut - were coping with very bad news. People learned they would be unemployed, losing a good job a time when finding any work can be challenging.
I know CP Rail isn’t in business to provide jobs. That if managers didn’t cut these positions, then customers might go to a more efficient railway, and more jobs might be lost. And that shareholders deserve to have managers who run the business effectively and prudently on their behalf.
And I know that no one is being malevolent. CP Rail CEO Hunter Harrison and the management group are charged with - and rewarded for - increasing shareholder value. If they can run the railway with a fewer people, they have an obligation to do so. I’ve been a manager, and made those decisions.
But it’s troubling that we don’t see, or talk about, those 4,500 people and what’s ahead for them, as we talk about the share price. Can government help them, or should there be policies that protect the jobs, or support retraining?
I saw a lot of newspaper stories about Harrison’s plan to cut costs and jobs. But I didn’t read any stories about the family dead terrified by the prospect of unemployment, wondering how they would tell their kids that they had to move because they couldn’t make the mortgage.
Who does speak for those people?
And how did the social contract between good employers and good employees change so dramatically, without a public discussion?
My grandfather’s tenure with GE came at the end of an era. Celebrity CEO Jack Welch won great praise for chopping more than 100,000 jobs at the company in five years in the early 1980s.
It’s quite a contrast. My grandfather built giant transformers, as a worker and a foreman. When he was getting older, the company moved him into the guardhouse at the entry to the works, instead of eliminating his job. (He died too young, of lung cancer. You might wonder about the PCBs in those transformers. Or the roll-your-own cigarettes he smoked for 50 years.)
GE wasn’t an anomaly. Employers considered it correct to look after the people who did the work.
That’s changed. Global competition, reduced unionization, tremendous pressure on managers to produce better results every quarter - the social contract has been rewritten.
What’s troubling is that we haven’t talked about the change. We haven’t tallied the cost, or considered policy options, or discussed mitigation strategies. We’ve just adopted policies that resulted in millions of lost jobs. And millions of damaged families.
I doubt the CP Rail jobs could be saved.
But attention must be paid. (Yes, it’s a quote.) People’s lives should not be so casually altered for the worse.
And our public policy debate should be based on more than share prices.