Perkins opines on employee benefits

CBQ 33 1880 4 Decade Subject File-Legal

As if the Interstate Commerce Commission wasn’t enough of a thorn in C.E. Perkins’ side, meddling in railroad affairs and trying to ensure fair business practices (see previous posts here and here),  now they wanted to get involved in employee relations. After the ICC sent a circular to railroad presidents asking them to “cheerfully render any assistance that may be within your power to facilitate the gathering of information” regarding employee treatment, Perkins quickly forwarded it to CB&Q Solicitor J.W. Blythe.  He directed Blythe to think it over and be ready to discuss a response upon Perkins’ return from a trip to Burlington. You can practically feel Perkins’ measured annoyance and disdain from 120 years past seeping through the paper: “I am inclined to give them a screed of doctrine on the subject,” he writes.

CBQ 33 1880 4 Decade Subject File-Legal

In the company’s letter to ICC secretary Edwin A. Moseley, Perkins gives some fairly standard and predictable answers to questions about promotions (“Our aim is to take men into the service only in the lowest positions, and fill all the better paid places from our own ranks”), and staff areas (“…the company does not provide lodging houses, eating houses, or reading rooms for employees. We pay full market wages, and expect men to provide these things for themselves”), while passing on  insurance-related questions to J.C. Bartlett, Superintendent of CB&Q’s Voluntary Relief Department (more on this later).

But it’s the issue of superannuation, or pension programs, that really gets Perkins going: “If men felt they were too old to work, or were ill, or thought they were ill, (that) they would be taken care of, they would make very little effort to lay up something for themselves for their old age, but would be satisfied to live along and eat and drink and smoke up all they could earn from day to day. The necessity of old age is a spur which induces men to do better work than they would do without it.”

Devoting the bulk of his letter to this issue, Perkins continues by stating that such programs are inefficient, as they would cause insolvency and bankruptcy, and demoralize and degrade employees as well. “Independent American citizens should and will insist upon being paid full rates for their services; and they will prefer to provide their own pension and superannuation fund out of what they themselves earn, either by a monthly contribution to some system of insurance, or otherwise.”

Perkins, a staunch opponent of government regulation, organized labor, and paternalism, had only grudgingly and gradually accepted the need for CB&Q’s Voluntary Relief Department in 1889, something former president Robert Harris had proposed in the 1870s. The company finally decided that an insurance program would be far cheaper than dealing with personal injury litigation, but was also making a good faith effort to improve employee relations after the strike of 1888. A pension system, however, would not become part of CB&Q company benefits until 1922 — a cost offset perhaps by the general reduction in manpower as operations became more efficient.

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