Help us identify this historical (?) labor contest story
January 26, 2021 2:53 PM   Subscribe

We are trying to remember an event which may have really happened, or might just be an urban workplace legend. Some manual workers, maybe in the 19th century, are offered a cash prize for doing the most work in a day. (Shoveling coal? Chopping trees?) They work hard to win the prize and... the end of the day, are surprised when the bosses tell them, "welp, that's how hard you should be able to work every day." The workers' daily workload then goes up.

Does this story sound familiar to anyone? This is definitely not John Henry or Paul Bunyan that we are thinking of.
posted by johngoren to Work & Money (12 answers total)
I recall a related story about a worker who made a more efficient knot (possibly a variant of the Miller's Knot) and this effected a change from pay-for-piece to hourly, to the worker' detriment. Having difficulty finding a source to it, however.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:08 PM on January 26, 2021

I’m pretty sure this is tied to Taylorism. I want to say it was actually loading railroad cars?
posted by rockindata at 3:08 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

I thought it was Andrew Carnegie, although I can't find the reference right now.
posted by H21 at 3:13 PM on January 26, 2021

Best answer: Yup, pig iron into cars in the Bethlehem Steel yards.
Taylor and his team set to work with laborers loading pig iron onto railroad cars. They chose 10 of the best workers and had them load a car as fast as possible. This rate turned out to be the equivalent of 75 tons per day, more than five times the typical rate of 13 tons per day. But, after one car, the workers were exhausted. The management team then set the target amount that “first-class” men should be able to load at 45 tons per day, deducting 40 percent for rests and necessary delays. As Nelson points out, the figure of 40 percent seems to have been completely arbitrary.
posted by rockindata at 3:14 PM on January 26, 2021 [7 favorites]

I think this story was mentioned in Bullshit Jobs.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:44 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Grain of salt and all, but there was a very similar story in the Louvin Brothers episode of the Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast. Here’s the relevant section of the transcript:
“Charlie Loudermilk and his big brother, Ira, hated every day of picking cotton except one. That was the day Colonel Loudermilk took the three oldest kids out to the field, right at sunup, and showed them all a $5 bill. He said whoever picked the most cotton that day would get to have the money. $5 might as well have been $500 to these kids; they hit the cotton rows at top speed. They’d have spent the entire day in the field anyway but the idea of that $5 bill had them too busy to think about the aches and pains of picking cotton as fast as they could. At the end of the day, Charlie had picked the most. He was shorter than the other two, an advantage when it comes to picking cotton. Charlie got the money and then all the kids got a lesson in how dumb their father wasn’t. Colonel said, now that he knew how much cotton they could pick in a day with the proper motivation, they’d better pick that much every day or they’d get a different type of motivation come sunset.”
posted by outfielder at 5:51 PM on January 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

For completeness, since I couldn't figure out how to blockquote fast enough, here's a link to the podcast page with the transcript.
posted by outfielder at 6:01 PM on January 26, 2021

Probably not what you are remembering, but a Holocaust survivor relates a similar story in the book Schindler's List.
posted by seasparrow at 8:12 PM on January 26, 2021

Yes. There was a similar scene in the Schindler's list movie as well. The guards asked a slave to make a ?hinge? as fast as he could. They then looked at his output for the day and calculated how many he could have made, which was of course much more than he'd actually done. They declared he'd been slacking. He was taken out back and shot, and the others were encouraged to work faster.
posted by Hatashran at 9:31 PM on January 26, 2021

Best answer: Also sounds like it could fit into Soviet Stakhanovite movement stuff, or other attempts to motivate workers in ways that didn't involve too much entrenched unequal pay or benefits.
posted by XMLicious at 12:18 AM on January 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Came in to say Stakhanov but XMLicious beat me to it.

The story as related to me was that Stakhanov mined a record amount of coal in one day, and the Soviet propaganda machine lauded him as a hero of the Soviet Union. This in turn led bosses at other mines to encourage the workers to beat Stakhanov's record, for the glory of the state (and their own quotas of course).
posted by citands at 2:32 AM on January 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yeah, there are actually a bunch of these kinds of horror stories in the "scientific management" space over the course of the last century. Amazon does basically this in their warehouses today, as do many other companies.
posted by rockindata at 6:01 PM on January 30, 2021

« Older Vegetarian cooking from the pantry   |   Vaccine-positive information for reluctant... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.