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The family enterprise - with kindness in the bargain

By Roderick Nordell / November 13, 1981



Three-children-too late I have discovered the Mother Gompers system of household administration. It is almost enough to make a person want to start all over again. Almost. But think of the possibilities. There I was, innocently browsing through the autobiography of her husband, Samuel Gompers, to get ready for the hundredth anniversary (Nov. 15) of the labor movement he helped to found. Out leaped this sentence:

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''In administering household affairs, my wife and family scrupulously observed trade union principles in all their dealings.''

Is this a family carrying flattery of Daddy's calling a little far? Or is it one of those why-didn't-I-think-of-that reminders of the obvious?

Nobody actually went on strike in our family as the children were growing up. But it might have been a good idea. Any mother could make a case under wage-and-hour laws. And what if the children had insisted on fair pay or even any pay for shoveling snow or mowing the lawn? What if they had been expected to contribute some portion of income for the apprenticeships I gave them in such trades as pounding nails, scrambling eggs, and cluttering the basement?

But I have a feeling these would be superficial questions to Sophia Gompers (''she became Mother Gompers to the whole labor movement,'' writes husband Samuel). When she scrupulously observed trade union principles in household affairs, she probably took the larger view shared by Gompers himself.

To be sure, wages and hours were issues when he became a founder of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1881 and, a few years later, the first president of its offspring, the American Federation of Labor. But, as he wrote in Seventy Years of Life and Labor, his vision went beyond money and higher standards of living. It went to releasing the ''wonderful'' potentialities of each man and woman. ''My inspiration comes in opening opportunities that all alike may be free to live life to the fullest.''

And by this definition doesn't any family follow the principles attributed to Mother Gompers? The collective bargaining between the generations may look like seeking petty advantages on either side. But its purpose is to make the whole family-enterprise work better for all. The requirement placed on a child ''for your own good'' really is intended in that way. All those fair and equitable concessions extracted from parents are probably for their own good, too.

Today's labor movement may be catching up with Samuel Gompers in looking farther than dollars and cents - for example, it increasingly seeks QWL (quality of work life), with all its emphasis on providing the conditions of harmony, democracy, and mutual respect to release a worker's full capacities.

The household equivalent might be QHL (quality of home life), with a concern for maintaining an environment of family solidarity - through recognizing the rights and responsibilities of every member, through keeping the lines of communication open even when there are work stoppages, withholding of services, or other signs of unrest by one party or another.

As in a courtroom, the adversarial system can help bring out the facts in a labor dispute or a family discussion. But the progress of labor and management in seeing that it's a good idea for cooperation to follow negotiation is something for families to keep in mind, too. Maybe all it takes, I mused as I browsed, is a little of the lovingkindness with which Mother Gompers was remembered by her husband, along with her trade union principles.