Thinking this morning about the principles my family passed down to us about work and working. As a descendant of field slaves and sharecroppers, both sides of my family survived the more brutal side of American slavery. We have no freedom papers or photographs of Negro accomplishment in our memories. My family celebrated every academic milestone as if it was your last. And most of our lives were spent working in often physically challenging and/or dangerous environments.
I was no different in my early years. I started off working as a cashier who regularly hefted 60 lb boxes of meat with ease, and later I put price tags on clothes in sub freezing temperatures while dodging rats on the way up from the bowels of the warehouse to thaw my hands out. When I moved up to union work, I started off soldering cables whilst climbing through steel infrastructure, and only occasionally tasting the metal in my mouth when my arms grazed live contacts. Later as an electronic technician, I alternated between transporting sometimes five to six 50 lb units a night, to installing, removing and repairing said units over and over again on a single night. It was physically grueling work, but the pay was close to $30 an hour in the eighties.
The truth of it, however, was that I was very proud of my work. I was following a family tradition of brawn with brains. Although we admired our collective intelligence, we were most proud of our physical strength and stamina. It is like my Dad use to say, “Respect or fear.” We would be respected for the quality of our work and/or feared for our abilities and strength – and we preferred both reactions as a matter of pride.
There were two other principles that drove our working life, pride in our craft and insolence toward incompetence in leadership. My Dad loved to tell stories about how he found and repaired problems that had stumped his colleagues. He also shared how all his coworkers respected him, even when he was joking around – because he was the best at his craft. My Dad especially was proud of his standing among his peers. His most brutal commentary, however, was always saved for management. Every once and awhile, he would be supervised by someone he respected, and he would speak of them like a colleague.
My own working world mirrored my father’s in many ways. My colleagues eventually respected me in my union world for the quality of my craft. But first I had to get past all their reluctance because of my race and gender. Once they realized that I could not only do the job, but was better at it than most of them – my work life improved somewhat.
When I look back at my career, the part where I had the most satisfaction was when I worked as a technician and later as an engineer. Like my Dad, I joked around a lot, but still earned a reputation as a master technician. Later in engineering, I again won the respect of my colleagues and clients. I was rated the top engineer several years in a row.
I also found it difficult to stomach incompetence in management, especially as I moved up against the entrenched incompetence caused by the “social” promotion of white males over blacks and women. Many of these white men were way beyond their competency levels, managing people with more education, higher technical skill levels and in some cases more managerial experience and training.
Some realized the insanity of the situation and abdicated leadership of their work groups to the more qualified people who worked for them – often focusing their attention on acting as buffer to the bureaucracy. Others simply left people alone, and allowed folks to do their jobs. The worse, however, were those who believed that their promotion was somehow deserved. They micro-managed in an attempt to justify their existence. And these were the ones I routinely punished. It did not take very long to demoralize such fools, and they would eventually abdicate and retreat to their desks. The best were those select few who actually had skills as a technician or manager; these men usually became my friends. In later years as promotions became based on skill, ability and experience, I had less cause to abuse management.
Pride in your craft and a strong distaste for overseers -- two principles of a working person’s life; and two strong threads within my family’s tradition.
©2006 Katrina Messenger