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May 24, 2022

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Pay your dues in silence

In April, President Barack Obama signed an executive order forcing federal contractors to allow employees to discuss their pay with one another. Seems pretty basic, but I guess you cannot take anything for granted in the workplace. It reminded me of one of my first jobs where the boss, Big Al — about 300-odd-pounds big — warned employees: “If you discuss your salary with others, you don’t respect your salary.”

He had a point. I did talk to my co-workers about my salary, and it was so low that I did not have all that much respect for it. Al was coming from a different place. He did not want discussion because dissension might flow from comparing paychecks. Employees might learn that there were often big differences in salaries of people doing the same job with the same skills and experience. Discussion might reveal disparities based less on performance and more on race, gender, who was sleeping with the boss and other things best left unspoken. This might generate more discussion and even less respect for our salaries.

I do not wish to seem completely ungrateful. That very same job and boss taught me the value of a college education. During my interview, Al skimmed my application from behind the large gray metal desk that separated us, then announced that my annual salary would be $6,000. I had no dependents, no car and low rent, so I could get by on that. I would not get rich but in those days could support a life like most of my economically marginal 20-something friends.

After he gave me the big fiscal news, his eyes returned to my application, wandered down a few more lines, then brightened.

“I see here that you have college.”

He paused for full dramatic effect, then smiled. I smiled right back in anticipation of good news.

“Make that $6,300.”

So not for nothing had I spent four years at Bloomsburg, a Pennsylvania state college, now university. I persevered there for an extra $300 a year.

It was the beginning of an eventful work year.

I was part of an effort to organize the employees into a union. It succeeded, but only after I had moved on. One of the more memorable moments in that historic class conflict was when I came in one morning to find that someone — probably management goons or gun thugs brought in from the Harlan County, Ky., coalfields — had removed the phone from my work area. A classic failure to communicate.

All good things must come to an end, including that job. When I told Al I was leaving, he tried to conceal his joy and relief. He talked to me man-to-man and gave me a firm handshake — too firm, actually, with a finger crunch — and wished me the very best. He went a little overboard, offering to write me a letter of recommendation. Now Tom and Edna Carroll did not raise any boy geniuses, I’m afraid — I won’t speak about my smart sisters — but neither did they raise a son dumb enough to allow Big Al to send a letter I had not seen to torpedo future employment.

“Tell you what, Al,” I said. “Why don’t you just write up that letter for ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ and I will just take it with me.”

“Eh, sure. OK,” he responded a little green around the gills. “You can pick it up tomorrow.”

The next day, I stopped by his secretary’s small desk and grabbed the sealed envelope addressed to me. As soon as I got to a private space, I tore it open and read the brief statement within:

“Michael Carroll worked here from October 1973 to November 1974.”

Who could ask for a better endorsement?

I never forgot that job or Big Al. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate, if not always respect, my salary, which I am still willing to discuss.

It’s good to know that I now have the backing of the president.

Michael Carroll is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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