A few weeks ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Deborah Cadbury promoting her book Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers. As much as I love chocolate, what struck me about this interview was her description of the founders’ “Quaker Capitalism,” where the goal of the business was to benefit its employees and community.
“As soon as they were able,” Cadbury told NPR, “they were doing things like raising the wages of their workforce, introducing Saturdays off, introducing pensions, introducing unemployment benefits and sickness benefits, and even free doctors, free dentists and vitamin pills for staff.” This was in England in the mid-1800s. As I was driving around listening to this, I had to wonder how Cadbury Brothers’ ideals had been received in the land of Oliver Twist. Surely they were mocked.
The business was successful enough that in 1879, Cadbury opened a larger factory out in the countryside. This unusual location was chosen to benefit workers. According to a BBC News article on the topic, “George [Cadbury] was driven by a passion for social reform and wanted to provide good quality low cost homes for his workers in a healthy environment – giving an alternative to grimy city life. So he set about building a village where his workers could live.”
I’ve kept thinking about Cadbury Brothers while studying the history of U.S. labor law this week. (I’m preparing for the SPHR certification exam.) It’s easy enough to drop a reference like Oliver Twist and malign the societal and working conditions of an entire country, but conditions weren’t much better on this side of the pond. The Industrial Revolution was a brutal time and United States workers were treated deplorably, with the full backing of our legal system.
Only after years of violence, death, fraud and (gasp!) the obstruction of commerce did the federal government take action to formally codify and improve labor relations in this country. Thanks to the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, and all of the federal employment laws that followed, the United States has the working conditions we enjoy (and continue to complain about) today. This federal interference in business – still lamented by some in 2010 – was necessary, because whether in London or New York, the sweatshops outnumbered the philanthropic chocolate factories 25,000 to 1. Industry on its own would never have made these changes.
Our current system is flawed and there are days I would love to throw collective bargaining out the window, but whatever its present state, the labor movement’s shaping of our nation’s employment experience is enormous and enduring. And as I take two days off to spend with my family each week, and work in a temperature-controlled environment with regular lunch breaks and the expectation of health benefits – even as I bite back unkind words about some recent action of our Local – I am grateful.
Holly is our Women of HR Featured Contributor this week. Click over to meet her and see what she has to say about herself, her career, and her views on the workplace and the women in it.
Photo via Washington Post courtesy of Publicaffairs