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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Wohlman’s Union Problem

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By 1896 Abraham Wohlman, who was getting on in years, was a relatively wealthy man. Originally from Bialystok he was living in Belz, Bessarabia an ancient town going back 1000 years, which at the turn of the 20th century had about 6000 people living within its boundaries. He owned a bookbinding shop and did enough volume that he was able to employ ten workers year-round. In addition to his bookbinding shop he also owned a book store from which he sold text-books and school supplies. He was very lucky to hold a contract with the local school system providing them with school supplies covering the elementary schools to the upper grades of the gymnasia, equivalent to a U.S. high school today. In the late 1800’s Belz, not one of the main population centers in Bessarabia, had no university. (The population of Belz in 2004 was estimated at about 2000 people.)

Though he was living with the hardships and restrictions associated with Czarist Russia, Abraham Wohlman lived a fine life. Married with 3 children (two boys and a girl), he was a very warm and compassionate fellow, who was well respected by and a supporter of his community. He had a nice house located on a side street in town, with a yard large enough that he was able to keep 3-4 cows, some chickens, geese, ducks and to grow vegetables. He provided jobs to others in the community and treated his workers as extensions of his own family, providing them with wholesome meals at his family’s table which they all shared together. When he wanted his two grandchildren to take language lessons, Abraham Wohlman hired a tutor named Benjamin Saltzman, my great-grandfather, to provide private lessons at his house.

A new worker at Wohlman’s, one who had served an apprenticeship as a bookbinder (which was started as young as 11 years of age), but still early career as a craftsman, would make about 8 rubles a month or 96 rubles a year. For some context a small 3 room cottage with dirt floors cost about 400 rubles.  Each worker at Wohlman’s had the right to join any political party that they so chose and a great diversity of political thought among the ten workers occurred, each assuming that their choice was the best and trying to convince the others to see things their way. It was a dynamic, thoughtful environment. But for a worker life was hard and economically in general people were not well off as they struggled to put food on their tables and to survive. Benjamin Saltzman had moved his family to Belz from Brateslav after working as a tutor for a number of years, bought a house on the Klezmershe Gesl or street of the musicians (each trade had it own street name) and opened a small grocery store. The store had dirt floors and it was not unusual for thieves to dig under the walls of the store to steal food, for they were hungry – times were tough for many.

A writer describes a first person account of the street itself in the spring– “The frost subsided and the ice began to melt. And the lovely warm spring sun likewise appeared in all its splendor and radiance. And even the Klezmershe Gesl became alive too, with all its mud and slush. It was impossible to cross the street even in the tallest boots. The mud swelled up so that it literally overflowed its boundaries onto the sidewalk, and it would not take long for it to pour into the houses themselves. I think that no other town in Russia had such deep mud as was found in the Klezmershe Gesl in Belz. The mud had respect only for that person who had boots that reached up to his knees.”

Fear increasing entered the lives of the people of Belz. During April 6 – 7, 1903 the Kishinev Pogrom occurred (Kishinev is the capital of the Bessarabia Province where Belz is located). Forty-seven people were killed, 92 critically wounded, 500 injured and 700 homes looted or destroyed during rioting.  Czarist authorities did nothing to prevent the attacks until the 3rd day. In October of 1905 a second attack occurred with 19 killed and 56 injured. (As a result of the first attack self-defense organizations arose which limited the number of deaths during the second). Those who were fearful for their safety reported that they “couldn’t go to the police, for we didn’t trust them”.

In 1905 as conditions in Russia continued to worsen, union organizers came to Belz and convinced Wohlman’s workers to join a union that they were setting up throughout the province. The union was pitched as a method by which the conditions of their lives, safety, security and standards could be improved. “Our shop also became involved in “the movement”. And six months later a strike was declared. To tell the truth, not every worker was pleased with the strike, because all those who worked for Wohlman respected him and even loved him. He treated the workers like his own children, and not like strangers”.

The new union that the workers had joined came to the conclusion that it was not right for workers to eat their meals in the home of the Wohlman, to be “treated as his own children”. Further they felt that wages should be raised enough so that each worker could decide on their own where they would eat their meals. By treating the workers as “family”, by having them partake of meals at Wohlman’s own table, and not paying them sufficiently for them to be independent of that somewhat feudal system and able to make decisions for themselves, the union felt that the treatment the workers received held an element of disrespect. Wohlman who had welcomed each employee as family saw it differently and refused to accept such conditions under any circumstances. He was able to provide for his workers at a reduced cost than what he would have to pay them for the same ability, for he fed them partly out of the bounty of his homestead. Providing sufficient wages to each worker to take their meals independently would cost him a greater amount.

One worker in Wohlman’s employ stated, “I can safely vouch that the workers did not enjoy as good a home in their own houses as they did at Wohlman’s. It was for this reason that he did not want to pay his workers for their food, since his house was filled with everything of the best, which cost him very little. And so the strike continued ever more stubbornly, so that it became impossible to reach an agreement.”

He continued, “I realized that the strike will not end very soon while the workers were marching around Wohlman’s house. Each striker had to find his own place where to stay and a place where to eat. I knew full well the difficult position of my family who, in their extremity, looked forward to my earnings from which even earlier I could not lay aside enough for their needs. And the union could give us no help at all. It simply had no money to pay out, for it had been organized only a short while before. I saw that if I stayed here longer I would soon be left without any money at all. This was my greatest problem at the time. I was sure of one thing; when and if the strike were settled I would again get work at the Wohlman’s, since he considered me his best worker and he liked me very much”.

While the details of what caused Wohlman’s union problem differ from the more common ones today the underlying issues are absolutely the same. It would be unusual though not unheard of for workers today to take their meals with the owner’s family as a way for the owner to save money on wages, however the underlying issues that it highlights, respectful treatment, sense of equity – fairness surrounding pay, benefits, control over one’s own destiny are very common causes of labor unrest. The uncertainty of the times with extreme violence breaking out, uncertainty about safety and security as well as poor treatment of the citizenry by those in authority, laid the foundations necessary for fertile union organizing. The strike at Wohlman’s, with workers walking the picket lines, lasted approximately one year. It was then settled with the workers receiving enough of a wage increase that they could choose to eat their meals wherever they wanted. While the strikers did come back to work at Wohlman’s bookbinding shop, what I don’t know from the material available to me is whether they were ever welcomed back at Wohlman’s dinner table.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2009 at 11:45 am

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