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Blog Bernard Letendre

Corporate culture, Business ethics, Social responsibility

The value of the work we do

My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, pictured above with his daughter and some of her friends, was born on the last day of 1891 in the small town of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Qc. He was a bus driver as well as a volunteer firefighter and together with my great-grandmother, would raise four children. One of their sons became a cab driver; one would become a butcher as well as a part-time cop in their small town; another went on to work for Canadair (now Bombardier). As for my grandmother, she also went on to drive a bus after her father – until family responsibilities pulled her off the road and back into the home.

My great-grandfather would have been twelve years old when the Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and twenty-two when Henry Ford introduced the assembly-line revolution in 1913. Ford’s innovation, of one mind with Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management (also known as Taylorism), may have been great for productivity and the bottom line but it wasn’t exactly grounds for celebration for employees of that generation and later ones.

As David A. Hounshell wrote in Harvard Business Review in 1988, “Rather than seeing workers as assets to be nurtured and developed, manufacturing companies have often viewed them as objects to be manipulated or as burdens to be borne. And the science of manufacturing has taken its toll. Where workers were not deskilled through extreme divisions of labor, they were often displaced by machinery. For many companies, the ideal factory has been—and continues to be—a totally automated, workerless facility.”

As is happens, the year that article was published in HBR was also the year I started dating my wife. Her father, who would become my father-in-law a few years later, left his small village in rural Quebec as a young man to attend trade school in the big city. He became a skilled tradesman—a toolmaker—and went on to work for General Motors; first making cars at the Boisbriand assembly plant, then—you’ve guessed it!—transit buses at the GMC plant in St-Eustache.

Making transit buses in Quebec in the eighties wasn’t a great business for GM. The St-Eustache plant was struggling and in 1989, GM sold it to MCI (which later changed its name to Dial Corporation).

It was clear from dinner table conversations back in those days that the firm was struggling. Those were dire days and it seemed like the plant was perpetually on the verge of closing its doors. Whenever I visited my in-laws, I would hear about how the bus’ undercarriage was prone to corrosion and how the plant was struggling to get orders. Employees knew about the numerous issues—design issues—but they seemed powerless to address them. Morale was evidently low but my father-in-law—always the optimist—did his best to remain positive about the future.

I had a front-row seat to some major changes when a few years later, in June of 1993, Dial announced that it was getting out of the bus manufacturing business and selling its St-Eustache plant to Novabus Corporation.

Novabus? What’s Novabus?

Novabus was a brand-new company, created with the help of a Quebec-based labour-sponsored fund—The Fonds de solidarité FTQ—for the purpose of acquiring the plant—a union shop—and preserving the hundreds of good jobs that were at risk of disappearing forever. The picture below shows the plant and the workers on the day that the first new bus rolled off the Novabus assembly line that year. (My father-in-law is part of a group of proud workers in the bottom right corner of the picture. Clicking on the picture will take you to the newspaper article.)

Over the years, the family went through many ups and downs with the plant. Things were not always rosy. I can recall at least one labour strike; the agonizing debate that led to it and how it tore apart workers on opposite sides of the debate. But gradually, my father-in-law’s loyalty and optimism were rewarded and things started to look up.

I remember attending Family Day at the plant one day when our children were young. Our entire family was there. I got to meet my father-in-law’s friends from work and he took us for a tour of the plant. He showed us his workstation, and the bus he was working on at that time. He showed us his tools and the parts he was making with his own hands. I can’t recall ever seeing him so proud as on that day, with the exception maybe of when his children got married and his grandchildren were born.

I’m not one who thinks of work in overly romantic terms. Work can be hard and it definitely has its highs and lows. As I’ve written before, I’m also concerned that so many people are being left behind. As in 1913, it’s being done in the name of productivity and the bottom line. It’s also the result of the consumerist notion of freedom that throughout the 20th century has gradually displaced the contributive ethic of old. One of my favorite authors, Harvard University’s Michael J. Sandel, articulates the issue like this:

“If the common good is simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences, then market wages are a good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution, by producing goods and services that consumers want.

But this is not the only approach to the common good. What might be called a civic conception rejects this consumerist notion. According to this view, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. Nor can it be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires reflecting critically on our preferences, and deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society.

The civic conception also suggests a particular way of thinking about work: specifically, that the most important role we play in the economy is not as consumers but as producers. It is as producers that we develop and deploy our abilities to provide goods and services that fulfill the needs of our fellow citizens and win social esteem. The true value of our contribution cannot be measured by the wage we receive; it depends instead on the moral and civic importance of the ends our efforts serve.”  (Michael J. Sandel, What Liberals Get Wrong About Work, The Atlantic, September 2020)

Today, my father-in-law is retired. Volvo Bus took a stake in Novabus in 1998 and became sole owner in 2004. The company is still manufacturing buses in Quebec and added a facility in Plattsburgh, NY in 2016.

My grandfather on my mother’s side never drove or built a bus. He worked as a grocery store butcher all his life, first with Dominion Stores and then with A&P, and none of his children went to university. My mom, now retired, was a nurse. My wife’s two younger brothers became respectively a firefighter and a natural gas technician for a big utility. My brother and his wife are both high-school teachers. None of them are, by any stretch, among “those who make the most money.” But since the beginning of the pandemic, people who do what they do have all been referred to as essential workers and also, occasionally, as “heroes”. I wonder where they would stand on Sandel’s question.