Pity the traveling salesman

It's hard to get a word in edgewise with Congress these days, considering the political preoccupation with presidential nominations and presidential brothers.

Still, America's traveling salesmen conducted their own national political meeting in Washington recently with the hope that in the midst of bandwagons, bailouts, bureaucrats, and Billygate, politicians actually might welcome the diversion of talking to us little guys.

Well, we talked, all right. Now, we're hoping they listened.

What we talked about was how the people who form the pipeline between thousands of small manufacturers and hundreds of thousands of small retailers are invisible -- and how, because of that, our livelihoods are being threatened.

There are a lot of us around the country -- 800,000 by one estimate -- known variously as traveling salesmen, wholesale sales representatives, or commission salesmen. The problem is that, for the most part, we're loners -- each man and woman working individually for manufacturers usually located hundreds of miles away from his or her sales territory.

That makes it difficult to get our message across -- which simply is this: without us, those small manufacturers of apparel, shoes, toys, furniture, electronic equipment and more, as well as those small retailers, would go under.

From the manufacturers' standpoint, we're needed because we work without salary and pay all our own expenses (which currently average $18,000 a year for gasoline, automobile maintenance, hotel accommodations, food and the like during the 159 nights a year the typical salesman spends away from home while traveling his territory). The income of these men and women is based solely on commissions resulting from sales made and delivered.

From the retailers' view, we're relied upon to keep the stores stocked with the latest consumer goods without which they couldn't compete with bigger, richer outlets that can afford to send their own buyers to manufacturing centers on a regular basis.

Still, it took us two years to persuade the Department of Energy that, because the typical commission salesman drives 40,000 miles a year with 1,250 pounds of samples to show his customers -- and does so without employee benefits , reimbursed expenses, or guaranteed income -- he ought to qualify for supplemental allotments of gasoline in the event the standby gasoline rationing plan is activated.

We hope it won't take that long to convince Congress that these men and women ought to have reasonable protection under the law -- protection they don't have now because they made the mistake of being self-sufficient and of relying for their livelihoods on income earned precisely in proportion to their efforts and achievements.

We're pushing for action to encourage written contracts between salesmen and the principals whose products they represent. It's a bill called the Sales Representatives Protection Act.

The bill would provide something like severance pay to commission salesmen who are fired or stripped of their territory without good cause. But -- and this is the crux of the matter -- there would be no payment of any kind if a manufacturer entered into a written contract with the commission sales representative and both parties abided by the contract.

Sound simple? Two consenting adults agreeing to a working arrangement in writing? Not when it comes to traveling salesmen. In some industries, two-thirds of the salesmen can't get contracts; they rely on "handshake" agreements. Why? Because manufacturers know they can retain a commission salesman without any financial obligation, pay him his commission as long as he develops the territory -- and then cut him off without a nickel while they turn the new customers into so-called "house accounts."

We're not talking about all manufacturers being bad any more than we suggest all commission salesmen are good. But the sweat shops of 50 years ago were not figments of anyone's imagination. And it wasn't the salesmen who operated them at a profit.

All we're after is a piece of paper, something that once and for all might bury Willy Loman who, in the classic drama "Death of a Salesman," had a "handshake" agreement -- and was fired summarily nonetheless. He said it for us all:

"There were promises made across this desk. . . . I put 34 years into this firm. . . and now I can't pay my insurance. You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit."

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