Representative Seth Howard was due to arrive any minute. Person supposed he should be nervous, but he was not. Sandy had added her warnings to Travis', and now Travis Niles was pacing the floor in Person's office mumbling to himself. Yet, both outwardly and inwardly, Person was calm. After all, what could this politician do to him?
When the lawmaker arrived, staffer, reporter and photographer in tow, Person rose to greet him. The man did not fit the image Person had formed after listening to Travis and Sandy. Howard was not a large ogre with blood dripping from sharp fangs. Rather, he was not very tall and he was slight of build, excepting the paunch hanging over his belt. Furthermore, he did not possess the good looks characteristic of most successful politicians. He was several years older than Person. Overall, he was sort of small and plain-looking, almost homely. Nice suit though.
"Mitchell Person? Seth Howard," said the man, extending his hand. "Pleased to finally meet you."
"Thank you sir."
"Oh, please call me Seth. And you are?" he asked approaching Niles. Introductions were made all around the room and a few minutes of small talk ensued.
Person could now see how the man had gotten to his position. He was just as comfortable as Person, even in these totally foreign surroundings with two other men he was meeting for the first time. Howard was disarming. He had apparently trained himself to ease into control of whatever situation he was in. Person noticed that he had somehow maneuvered himself to a position where everyone in the room would be facing him at all times. Person figured this was a skill polished with years of experience. It was second nature, done without a thought.
The Times-Union reporter was Aaron Teldon. Bearded, somewhat scruffy and dressed out of style, Teldon looked the part of a man ready to fight the big-business establishment at a moment's notice. He had not outgrown the misplaced idealism of his college years. His eyes darted continuously about the room, missing nothing. His photographer was dressed worse and looked bored, casually snapping a picture or two of the shop and the people in it.
Person glanced at Niles and caught his attention. He could tell the former attorney did not like the looks of Teldon. Niles shot back a look of concern.
Howard's staffer was a clean-shaven, professionally dressed man in his mid-twenties who looked even younger. He also carried a camera. Later, Niles explained to Person that the staffer took pictures to be used in newsletters and campaign brochures.
"Well Mitchell, how about giving us a brief tour of your little empire here. Explain how you've created this remarkable renovation," said the lawmaker.
Niles noticed that the politician was not committing to either approval or disapproval yet. Because he used words like "little empire" and "remarkable" rather than "accomplishment" and "fantastic," his comments could be read as either praise or condemnation, depending on the public's reaction to Person. If the man was impressed or outraged, it did not show.
Person showed the men around his workshop, which was mostly empty because the workers were out at various job sites, and a few of the other enterprises on the block. As they strolled back to Person's Fine Woodworking, he began to explain the management philosophy behind the production.
"Each of these companies relies heavily on the labor, the men and women who are committed to their jobs. Because of that, we can't run these operations the same way we would run machines. Instead, we have to keep an open management system where each worker is able to have input into management decisions."
Aaron Teldon had been scribbling notes through the whole tour and was now ready to start asking questions. "How often do they actually make management decisions?"
"Really not that often. We have a small committee of me, Mr. Niles here and a few more of the original employees of Person's Fine Woodworking. We meet regularly to discuss the operations of each business. Our meetings are open to the other employees but we don't require them to attend. We figure that they will come to us if they have anything to add. Sometimes the newer employees will attend just to see what the meetings are like. Other times, people will offer good suggestions that we quickly adopt. But most of the time, the employees trust us to make the right decision. They have worked hard all day and would rather rest at home than stay late to attend a business meeting."
Sensing danger, Niles added, "I think every worker feels welcome. They don't feel shut out of the process at all."
Teldon jumped to the next topic. "You said your companies rely heavily on your workers, but I understand that you won't let your workers unionize." Someone from Howard's staff had fed the reporter background information ahead of time.
"It's not a question of letting them unionize. I don't have that kind of control over anybody. It's more a situation of them not wanting a union. To tell the truth, I don't see how a union would fit in here," answered Person honestly.
Niles was beginning to get nervous. To him, this looked like a set up and Person was walking right into it. He wished his boss would talk in circles or polish his responses the way a politician does. But he knew Person either could not or would not pull punches. His boss had a complete indifference toward others' opinions of him, so he saw no need to sugar-coat anything he said. So far, there were no serious problems, but Niles felt pretty certain things were not going their way. If only he knew exactly where the big blow would come from.
The reporter continued. "For one, your workers are paid below union scale aren't they?"
"That's true. It's what helps us stay competitive. Our work is far better than anybody else in town. I believe that is why we get most of our clients, but we have to offer a competitive price too."
"You think that's fair that they work hard but aren't paid as much as they might be somewhere else?"
"Well, I have never heard a complaint about salary yet. I think most of these people would work for half of what they are earning now just for the opportunity to work where they are respected as individuals and craftsmen. Besides, they are free to leave if they feel they are treated unfairly. There are other companies in town."
Person was still nonplussed. He was receiving a good grilling but didn't look under the gun at all. Howard and his staffer were impressed with Person's cool under pressure. Howard could handle media scrutiny with ease, but most business-types quickly became defensive and gave terrible interviews when the pressure increased. Person, however, didn't view the interview as a grilling. To him it was an honest exchange of views and opinions.
"But a union could offer them a sense of security..."
Person cut him off. "A union would strip them of their individuality. These men and women are good because they are motivated by their own self interests and are guided by their own talents. They are content here because they are allowed to use their skills as they see fit. There is no group or solidarity or anything else to hold them back. If these were union shops then every worker would have his and her duties assigned to them. Every assignment is a limit.
"Sure, they must work together," he continued. "But they work together out of a sense of a respect for one another. They divide tasks and share responsibilities in an effort to complete the final project. There is no squabbling over clean-up being someone else's job, or quality control being the duty of the supervisor. Everybody does everything that must be done and they do it well."
"That doesn't seem very efficient," Teldon remarked.
"It would only be inefficient if the workers did not feel a part of the project. But they know what the project is and what must be done to complete it. The division of tasks is an automatic thing that just happens. Each of these workers is skilled and proud. That is all they need in order to be efficient. What would really bog things down is if I sat down each morning and tried to figure out what each man and woman should do that day. How can I anticipate every action of every person at a job site? I can't, so I don't try.
"If the ACC stuck its nose in here, then we would have to have one crew in to saw boards and another crew in to run wires and another one in to hang windows and so on. God forbid if one of the electricians needed a hole in a floor joist to make room for some conduit. He couldn't just grab a drill and do it, he would have to get the foreman of the hole drillers to assign someone to do it for him. Now that's inefficiency."
Niles noticed that the reporter looked bored with Person's rambling. Howard and his staffer were glazed over as well. And the photographer was starting to put away his equipment.
Teldon flipped through his notebook and acted like he was just planning to check for accuracy of a few comments. Niles didn't buy the act and was bracing himself for the Big Question.
"Mr. Person, I've noticed that, with the exception of you and Mr. Niles, every worker I've seen today is black. Is that right?"
Niles thought, "Come on Mitch. Start lying. Make up something. Don't be so damned honest about this one." But he didn't say anything out loud, or even try to signal Person, because he knew it wouldn't affect his boss.
Person answered, "Yes. With the exception of two other men on the management committee, every other employee is Black. These urban neighborhoods are filled with untapped resources. Strong, bright men and women are trapped here. Many of them have not had an opportunity to find jobs where they are treated as individuals. We looked for the best. We found them. And we have all benefited because of it."
"Haven't you merely taken advantage of their situation to get low-priced workers? You say they are free to leave, but can they really? Do they have access to transportation? It seems as if you have found cheap labor and are hiding it under the shroud of a charitable project in the inner city," the reporter said.
"No. This is not a charitable project. Not at all," said Person.
Niles looked to the heavens. Please shut up, boss, he thought. But he knew this was Person's favorite topic and there would be no stopping him.
Person continued. "I started my business and expanded to these other operations to help myself. I did it for my own benefit. I decided to locate here because I could afford it, and I decided to stay because it is where my profit margin is the highest. If no one else will hire the talented Black men and women in this neighborhood, then I will. Not because I feel sorry for them, but because they will help me be successful. Selfishness is the only sincere charity."
Howard's jaw dropped. He had never seen someone commit suicide before, and he figured this would be the closest he would ever come. It was fascinating. Although he was impressed with the revitalization of Laughton Park, he was glad he had not embraced the man who made it possible.
Teldon scribbled furiously. Finally, he stopped and asked, "The one business you already sold to the Black manager, how much profit did you make on that deal?"
"I'm not comfortable giving you an exact figure, but it was satisfactory."
"It wasn't just Mitch who made these decisions. The entire committee was in on them because we all have money invested in these companies," said Niles. He was determined not to let Person take the fall alone. The amazing thing to him was that Person still seemed completely calm. Couldn't he tell what was happening?
Closing his notebook, the reporter said he was out of questions. Howard, the staffer and Teldon walked back to Howard's car. The news photographer had his equipment back out and was shooting furiously. Howard started directing his staffer to take certain pictures. The reporter re-opened his notebook and started talking to Howard.
When Person and Niles got back inside, Person said, "I think that went okay."
Niles stopped in his tracks and screamed, "You have got to be kidding. They opened the trap door and you walked right in."
Person looked confused. "I thought we had a civil exchange of ideas. I thought I made a pretty good case."
"Like I said before, you need to get out more." Niles calmed down. He didn't like yelling at Mitch when the man was merely being naive. Mitch's innocence and his devotion to his ideal were appealing. It only became annoying when they were confronted with the powers that make things work in the real world. "You need to understand that the glory of selfishness doesn't play well in the media."
"But I'm not going to change what I believe just to appease some reporters and politicians."
"I know that. That's why I didn't try to stop you. But listen, I think they are really going to play up this Black-worker thing. It will be pretty easy to make it look like you took advantage of the neighbors to make a profit."
"I'm proud of our profits, but I didn't take advantage of anyone. It would be a waste of time to take advantage of someone. That would be the same as letting someone else dictate your actions..."
"You're preaching to the choir." Niles looked exhausted. "You asked me to come along and give you my perspective. I'm just saying that they are going to kick your ass in the paper tomorrow. Don't be surprised. You live and die by your philosophy. You may have your chance to prove your devotion."
"Thanks, Travis. I appreciate your insight."
The two men parted and Person went into his office and closed the door. Shortly, the phone rang.
"How did it go?" Sandy asked.
"I thought it went fine, but Travis thinks they are going to rip out my liver and serve it to the vultures."
"I trust Travis' opinion on this one."
"Yeah, you may be right. Want some company tonight?"
"Sure, but aren't you worried about what's going to happen?"
"Not really. What happens happens. I've never been concerned about other people's opinions of me, yourself excepted of course. I'm not about to start basing my actions on how I think it will play out in the paper."
"Unfortunately, public opinion can have a big impact on your opportunities for business."
"I'd rather starve than succumb."
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