The headline on an article on the front page of our Outlook section on Sunday asked, "Does Anybody Labor at the Labor Dept.?"
The article had first appeared in The Washington Monthly and was excerpted from that publication.
The thrust of it was that the Department of Labor permits its employes to watch TV and listen to radios and tape decks during working hours, to suit their own convenience about when they'll show up at the office and when they won't, and in general to goof off in a country-club atmosphere. Nobody seems to be at his desk when he's needed, secretaries don't know where their bosses will return to the office, nor even whether they're in town, out of town, on sick leave or enjoying a three-martini lunch.
By Sunday evening, I had heard from two friends who work at Labor. Both disapproved of the article and charged that it gave a distorted picture of Labor's labor contract.
"I put in as hard a day's work as you do, probably harder," one friend said.
"The woman who wrote the article suggested that government employes are lacking in productivity because they aren't driven by the work incentives that exist in the private sector. That's hogwash. There are people in the private sector as well as in government who are expert at doing as little work as possible. The difference between productive and unproductive employes is in the people themselves, not in whether they work for the government or for private business."
Both viewpoints have a degree of validity. It's true that some people are workaholics and that others are masters at avoiding work. But I think those in the private sector have a somewhat greater incentive to be productive when their company is struggling to keep pace with its competitors and there is danger of layoffs and even a complete shutdown of the business.
To get an expert opinion, I phoned a friend who retired from Labor after working his way up to a sub-Cabinet post. Philosophically, I suppose he has a pro-labor bias. But his judgment is excellent, he knows management's problems and he is fair.
His comment on the article was: "The writer injected enough extraneous material into her article to indicate anunbecoming bias.The fact that some offices have no access to natural light has nothing to do with productivity at the Labor Department, nor has the design of the building, or exhaust fumes from passing automobiles.
"There was no excuse for bringing flextime into the discussion. Flextime has long been viewed both here and abroad as an interesting and possibly useful idea.
"I have no doubt that the author saw empty offices along one corridor, but those offices may have been empty because a staff meeting was in progress at the moment. I don't know, and the article didn't tell me.
"Two points made in the article bothered me greatly. The first was the report that in many offices, secretaries didn't know where their bosses were, or when they would be back, or if they would be back. That is an indication of poor management. No organization can operate in that manner and expect to do well. The second thing that bothers me is the practice of permitting employees to watch TV or listen to radios and tape decks in a work area during working hours. This is an obvious distraction to everybody within earshot. I don't know why the Department ever permitted this, but of course once any benefit has become an established practice, the union will not permit it to be taken away in any future contract negotiation."
"Why do unions traditionally stand firm on everything they've won in the past and demand more in the new contract?" I asked. "Why can't management occasionally ask for a rollback on a benefit that has proved to be a serious mistake? In this case, the Department could say, 'We tried to be nice guys, but we found that watching TV and playing radios has had a very bad effect on productivity, so in this next contract we want to withdraw the permission previously granted to you.' Why wouldn't that be a legitimate point for bargaining?"
I could sense that my friend was smiling at my naivete. "Union officials are elected," he said simply. "They like the money. They like the perks. They want to be reelected. And in order to win they must have an answer for the age-old question. 'What have you done for me recently?'"