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- Youth Challenges - 6/62 -
day?... Vaguely he recognized his incompetence to administer anything of importance. Probably, little by little, detail by detail, matters would be placed under his jurisdiction until he was safely functioning in the family groove.
His dreams that night were of a reluctant, nightmarish passage down a huge groove, a monotonous groove, whose smooth, insurmountable sides offered no hint of variety. ... As he looked ahead he could see nothing but this straight groove stretching into infinity. Always he was disturbed and made wretched by a consciousness of movement, of varied life and activity, of adventure, of thrill, outside the groove, but invisible, unreachable. ... He strove to clamber up the glassy sides, only to slip back, realizing the futility of the EFFORT.
He breakfasted alone, before his father or mother was about, and left the house on foot, driven by an aching restlessness. It was early. The factory whistle had not yet blown when he reached the gates, but already men carrying lunch boxes were arriving in a yawning, sleepy stream. ... Now Bonbright knew why he had arisen early and why he had come here. It was to see this flood of workmen again; to scrutinize them, to puzzle over them and their motives and their unrest. He leaned against the wall and watched.
He was recognized. Here and there a man offered him good morning with a friendliness of tone that surprised Bonbright. A good many men spoke to him respectfully; more regarded him curiously; some hopefully. It was the occasional friendly smile that affected him. One such smile from an older workman, a man of intelligent face, of shrewd, gray eyes, caused Bonbright to move from his place to the man's side.
"I don't know your name, of course," he said, diffidently.
"Hooper," said the man, pleasantly.
"The men seem to know me," Bonbright said. "I was a little surprised. I only came yesterday, you know."
"Yes," said Hooper, "they know who you are."
"They seemed---almost friendly."
Hooper looked sharply at the young man. "It's because," said he, "they're pinning hopes to you."
"Labor can't get anywhere until it makes friends in the ranks of the employers," said Hooper. "I guess most of the men don't understand that--even most of the leaders, but it's so. It's got to be so if we get what we must have without a revolution."
Bonbright pondered this. "The men think I may be their friend?"
"Some saw you last night, and some heard you talk to Dulac. Most of them have heard about it now."
"That was it?... Thank you, Mr. Hooper."
Bonbright went up to his office, where he stood at the window, looking down upon the thickening stream of men as the minute for the starting whistle approached. ... So he was of some importance, in the eyes of the workingmen, at least! They saw hope in his friendship. ... He shrugged his shoulders. What could his friendship do for them? He was impotent to help or harm. Bitterly he thought that if the men wanted friendship that would be worth anything to them, they should cultivate his dead forbears.
Presently he turned to his desk and wrote some personal letters--as a distraction. He did not know what else to do. There was nothing connected with the plant that he could set his hand to. It seemed to him he was just present, like a blank wall, whose reason for existence was merely to be in a certain place.
He was conscious of voices in his father's room, and after a time his father entered and bade him a formal good morning. Bonbright was acutely conscious of his father's distinguished, cultured, aristocratic appearance. He was conscious of that manner which six generations of repression and habit in a circumscribed orbit had bestowed on Bonbright Foote VI. Bonbright was unconscious of the great likeness between him and his father; of the fact that at his father's age it would be difficult to tell them apart. Physically he was out of the Bonbright Foote mold.
"Son," said Bonbright Foote VI, "you have made an unfortunate beginning here. You have created an impression which we shall have to eradicate promptly."
"I don't understand."
"It has been the habit of our family to hold aloof from our employees. We do not come directly into contact with them. Intercourse between us and them is invariably carried out through intermediaries."
Bonbright waited for his father to continue.
"You are being discussed by every man in the shops. This is peculiarly unfortunate at this moment, when a determined effort is being made by organized labor to force unionism on us. The men have the notion that you are not unfriendly toward unionism."
"I don't understand it," said Bonbright. "I don't know what my feelings toward it may be."
"Your feelings toward it," said his father with decision, "are distinctly unfriendly."
Again Bonbright was silent.
"Last evening," said his father, "you mingled with the men leaving the shops. You did a thing no member of our family has ever done-- consented to an interview with a professional labor agitator."
"That is hardly the fact, sir. ... I asked for the interview."
"Which is worse. ... You even, as it is reported to me, agreed to talk with this agitator at some future time."
"I asked him to explain things to me."
"Any explanations of labor conditions and demands I shall always be glad to make. The thing I am trying to bring home to you is that the men have gotten an absurd impression that you are in sympathy with them. ... Young men sometimes come home from college with unsound notions. Possibly you have picked up some socialistic nonsense. You will have to rid yourself of it. Our family has always arrayed itself squarely against such indefensible theories. ... But the thing to do at once is to wipe out any silly ideas your indiscretion may have aroused among our workingmen."
"But I am not sure--"
"When you have been in this business ten years I shall be glad to listen to your matured ideas. Now your ideas--your actions at least- must conform to the policy we have maintained for generations. I have called some of our department heads to my room. I believe I hear them assembling. Let us go in."
Bonbright followed his father mechanically. The next room contained some ten or twelve subordinate executives who eyed Bonbright curiously.
"Gentlemen," said the elder Foote, "this is my son, whom you may not have met as yet. I wish to present him to you formally, and to tell you that hereafter he and I share the final authority in this plant. Decisions coming from this office are to be regarded as our joint decisions--except in the case of an exception of immediate moment. ... As you know, a fresh and determined effort is afoot to unionize this plant. My son and I have conferred on the matter, but I have seen fit to let the decision rest with him-as to our policy and course of action."
The men looked with renewed curiosity at the young man who stood, white of face, with compressed lips and troubled eyes.
"My son has rightly determined to adhere to the policy established many years ago. He has determined that unionism shall not be permitted to enter Bonbright Foote, Incorporated. ... I state your sentiments, do I not, my son?"
At the direct challenge Bonbright raised his eyes to his father's face appealingly. "Father--" he said.
"I state your position?" his father said, sternly.
Against Bonbright's will he felt the accumulated power of the family will, the family tradition. He had been reared in its shadow. Its grip lay firm upon him. Struggle he might, but the strength to defy was not yet in him. ... He surrendered, feeling that, somehow, his private soul had been violated, his individuality rent from him.
"Yes," he said, faintly.
"The first step he has decided upon," said his father, "and one which should be immediately repressive. It is to post in every room and department of the shops printed notices to the effect that any man who affiliates himself with organized labor, or who becomes a member of a so-called trade-union, will be summarily dismissed from his employment. ... That was the wording you suggested, was it not?"
"Yes," said Bonbright, this time without struggle.
"Hangar," said Mr. Foote, "my son directs that these cards be printed AT ONCE, and put in place before noon. It can be done, can it not?"
"Yes, sir," said Rangar.
"I think that is all, gentlemen. ... You understand my son's position, I believe, so that if anyone questions you can answer him effectively?"
The department heads stirred uneasily. Some turned toward the door, but one man cleared his throat.
"Well, Mr. Hawthorne?" said the head of the business.
"The men seem very determined this time. I'm afraid too severe action on our part will make trouble."
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