General Articles

Labor Listens to Little

BLAIR FRASER December 1 1947
General Articles

Labor Listens to Little

BLAIR FRASER December 1 1947

Labor Listens to Little

BLAIR FRASER

Maclean'» Ottawa Editor

AT THE Quebec City plant of Anglo-Canadian Pulp and Paper Co., of which Elliott Little is president and general manager, there is only one place to eat. It’s a bright, clean cafeteria where you get a good hot lunch for about 35 cents.

Little eats there every day, usually with two or three workmen from the plant—not any particular two or three, just wherever there’s an empty chair. If there’s a line-up at the serving table he takes a tray and gets into the queue.

The men in the shop, most of whom call him Ellie, see nothing unusual in this state of affairs. They like Little but they don’t kowtow to him. They simply regard him as one of themselves, which he is.

This makes it hard to ask the conventional questions about labor relations in Little’s plant; the men don’t seem to know what you are talking about. They have no grievance committee, for

instance, because anyone who has a grievance walks into Little’s office with it. They have no labormanagement production committee, because the whole staff works in close, continuous co-operation that needs no special machinery.

“Get it out of your head that there are two sides here,” said a leader of the papermakers’ union. “We don’t think of ourselves as management on one side and labor or the other. We’re a bunch of guys who work in the same plant and we’re trying to make it produce more paper.”

That doesn’t mean they never have any arguments; they have them all the time, heated ones sometimes. An officer of the pulp and sulphite workers, the other AFL union in the paper industry, described what goes on:

“Little has a great faculty for making quick decisions. We’ll go in with some problem that maybe we’ve discussed in union meeting for hours on end. Little can put his finger on the essential point in five minutes and quite often he’ll show us that our decision was wrong.

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“But although he makes up his own mind very fast he doesn’t try to ram his decision down our throats. We talk it out, no matter how long it takes, until everybody’s agreed. I’ve seen us argue in his office until seven or eight o’clock at night. But I’ll sav one thing, I’ve never come out of that office when I wasn’t satisfied.”

Did the discussion ever show Little wrong and the union right?

“Yes, sometimes. Elbe usually carries his point, though. We’ve come to have a good deal of confidence in his judgment, over the years. We knowr he’s not trying to double-cross us, he’s just trying to work out the best arrangement for all concerned, and he generally knows more about t he over-all picture than we do.”

“Mind you, we talk plain to him,” another man cut in. “Somet imes we get mad and sometimes Elbe gets mad. I got him so mad the other day he cursed me up and down. But the thing is, it never carries over; it’s all forgotten the next day. A man never has to worry about losing his job or losing a promotion just for speaking his mind. Little is a square shooter.”

That’s the practica' effect of the “atmosphere of frankness” which Little regards as the indispensable foundation of good labor relations. In his own plant he has established it to a unique

degree and with complete success. Whether every manager could do the same is a moot point; Little has peculiar qualifications for it in his own background.

He was born 48 years ago in the little Ontario village of Beachburg, the eldest of six children. Mr. Little Senior was a sawmill operator who lost his mill by fire when Elliott was quite young; he then went to work for the Abitibi Power and Paper Co. and moved his family to Iroquois Falls, Ont., site of the company’s woods operations.

Elliott went to work for Abitibi when he was 13 and halfway through high school; he was the company’s first office boy at Iroquois Falls. In that job he came under the eye of the late R. A. Maclnnis, then Abitibi’s manager at Iroquois Falls, who was to be Little’s boss and mentor most of the time until he died about five years ago.

Birth of a Policy

War broke out the year after Elliott left school. When he turned 16 he enlisted, telling the usual lie about his age, but his father came after him and got him out of the army again. He finally joined the Royal Flying Corps in the fall of 1917 and was in training at Camp Borden when the Armistice came. Then he came back to work at Abitibi.

At this point Mr. Maclnnis offered to put Little through college. Litt'e

said he didn’t want to be under that much obligation to anybody. All right, said Maclnnis, suppose the company puts you through?

Little wouldn’t accept that, either. He’d put himself through, he said, and he did—-joined the last class of veterans, took the rest of his high-school course in one year and went on through electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, working at Abitibi during the summers.

At university he met his wife, Dorothy Wilson, and they were engaged before he graduated in 1925. But Little had to help support his family and it wasn’t until more than five years later that they were able to get married.

Back at Abitibi he found his engineering degree gave him a much better job. Then, in 1932 Abitibi went into receivership; Little, along with hundreds of others, was laid off. The Littles had no money, their eldest child was an infant and the second (they now have five) was on the way. Again it was R. A. Maclnnis who lent a helping hand. He had gone to AngloCanadian as general manager and he hired Little to be ci general odd-job man for several months and then to be manager of the mill.

Maclnnis taught Little the fundamentals of his present theory of labor relations. The “atmosphere of frankness” was established in Maclnnis’s day; the old man positively welcomed disagreement, he had only contempt for d “yes man.”

By 1939 Little’s methods in labor relations had become commonplace in his own company and fairly well-known in the industry. That’s probably all the fame they ever would have had if we’d remained at peace. But World War II brought Elliott Little to Ottawa, first as organizer of the Wartime Bureau of Technical Personnel and then as Director of National Selective Service.

In the few months he held the Selective Service job, Little did a remarkable job. The groundwork of the National Selective Service organization which finally, about a year later, began to work with reasonable efficiency was of his building. But he hadn’t the temperament to fit readily into a Civil Service machine; sooner or later it was probably inevitable that he and official Ottawa should part com-

pany. He resigned and went back to his pulp and paper plant.

in 1942 relations between the Dominion Government and the labor unions were badly strained. At the annual conference of the Canadian Congress of Labor in Ottawa, the Minister of Labor was booed for a perfectly amicable speech. Little went before the same convention and gave a blunt, plain talk, with harsh warnings about absenteeism and high labor turnover and warnings that compulsory transfer would have to come. They not only listened, they cheered.

When he talked with equal bluntness to management he didn’t get quite so good a reception.

Little spoke to the Canadian Manufacturers Association in convention at Toronto in June, 1942, appealing for labor-management co-operation to increase war production.

“Get your employees to help you run your job,” he told them. “You must actively go after their advice and the full use of their experience . . .

“I can’t see why such a practice is not followed in all plants, big and small, in Canada today, and yet I do know it’s utterly useless for some employers to tackle.it in their present frame of mind. You know the frame of mind I mean— the kind that says, ‘Nobody’s going to tell me how to run my business,’ or ‘I’ll put the lock on the door before I’ll knuckle under to a lot of agitators.’

“Who’s asking who to knuckle under? . . . Don’t you realize that you form the wealthiest and most powerful union in this country? What’s wrong with any other well-led union?”

Some of his older and crustier colleagues have never forgiven Little for that speech. But in his own plant, at least, his recipe seems to work.

Anglo-Canadian not only has never had a strike, but it also has virtually no labor turnover. The stability of its labor force is so complete that it actually constitutes a problem—the firm has trouble promoting men who deserve it because the men ahead never move out.

Not long ago another employer told me he blamed the high labor turnover more than any other single thing for the rise in production costs that has sent Canadian prices climbing skyward. So maybe the Little slogan of “friendship and frankness” would be worth following. if