October 3, 1997

Ira Pilgrim

By The Clock

Time was made for slaves.

J.B.Buckstone, 1850

If you were told that a certain group of people were well paid, a reasonable question to ask would be, "compared to whom?" If you compared them to executives in a large industry, not many people would be considered as well paid. Compared to someone working for minimum wage, most working people are well paid.

I remember reading that if you see a theoretical physicist sitting at his desk, with his feet up and his eyes closed, don't disturb him because he is working. And he is fairly well paid for his efforts. At the other extreme is a woman working in a garment industry sweat shop, who is virtually chained to her sewing machine, and has to get permission to pee. She is very poorly paid for her efforts.

To a person who owns a business that manufactures automobiles, workers are a part of what goes into the manufacture of a car, just like the steel and plastic. The bottom line is the cost of manufacturing an automobile. Multiply the cost of making a car by five, and you have the approximate price that you will end up paying for that car. That is why Chrysler can go from bankruptcy to rolling in dough in 10 years.

We hear a lot of talk about productivity: how many people does it take to make that car and how long does it take? With computers and automation, the amount of labor needed to make a car is continually going down. It seems strange that with the cost of making the car going down, the price of cars keeps going up and wages remain relatively stable, or go down.

Before the industrial revolution, a large segment of the working class didn't have the 8 hour day or the 5 day work week and paid vacations. Store owners kept fairly regular hours, as did their help, but the limits were set by the storekeeper himself, which in turn depended on his competition. If the store was the only hardware store in a small town, the owner might decide to take a day off in the middle of the week, if the fish were biting. If someone needed something at 9 p.m, the storekeeper would usually oblige. A farmer did what he had to do even if it meant starting work before sunrise and working far into the night. If a harvest had to be gotten in before it rained, and there was a bright moon, he might take a cat nap and work through the night. Labor was negotiated by the employee and the employer for the day, the hour, or the job.

Housewives usually had meals at regular hours because it was necessary to know when a meal had to be on the table, and everyone had to be there to eat it. If a person was so inclined, she or he could have a pot of stew on the stove all of the time and forgo regular meal times.

Basically, the more people involved in any operation, the more regular its hours have to be. A manufacturing plant that employs hundreds or thousands of people, or one that has work shifts, has to run strictly by the clock.

For the vast majority of people, virtually everything is done by the clock. Even recreation has to be by the clock. A golfer can't just decide that he is going to go to the golf course on Sunday and play 18 holes. Almost all entertainment is by the clock. A person without a watch will find it hard to live in this modern world. The days are past when only the rich had watches and everyone else had to depend on the town clock. Schools carry the process to excess with hourly bells.

I think that I would like to let my appetite regulate my eating times; my body its sleep. Yet, I doubt if, after all of these many years of living by the clock, I would be able to manage it.

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