I seem to have touched a bit of a nerve with yesterday’s post. Comments after it jumped from the usual average of about 15 to over 60. Clearly people are interested in the idea of some sort of Smokers’ Army. Which suggests that it could be an idea whose time has come, or whose time is coming.
But I was thinking this morning that I’m the last person anyone should consult about armies. I’ve never joined one. I’ve never been a member any military or quasi-military organisation. I was never even a Boy Scout. I like to say that the last club that I was a member of was the Richmond and Twickenham Chess Club (Match record: won one. lost one. drew one) back when I briefly lived in Richmond.
I’m not sure that I’m very ‘clubbable’. I’m a bit of a natural loner. An outsider. And all my thinking is generally ‘outside the box’: i.e. outside the club. I like to start off thinking about anything by asking myself what I think about it, before I go asking other people what they think.
It’s not that I don’t like people. I tend to like everybody I meet. But that doesn’t mean that I want to think the same way they do.
I’ve worked for a few large companies (and I suppose they are armies of a sort) but I was seldom an employee. I was mostly a contractor brought in to solve one problem or other that the companies didn’t have enough people to cope with internally. And once the job was done, I’d leave. Someone once asked me, “When are you going to get a proper job?” But I never had any need of a proper, steady job. Somehow or other I just got by on a stream of short-term contracts. I was never a company man like my father, who joined the same company his father was in, and rose up it to senior management. I’ve never managed anybody.
But maybe my experience of never having joined an army, or even any company, allows me to think about things like armies and companies with fresh eyes. On the other hand, maybe my inexperience is a terrible liability.
One little company, one little band of companions, that I was a member of was the one I mentioned yesterday: Control G. We were all freelance computer programmers, and I was the least experienced one. And freelance computer programmers are independent minded people: they have to be. They have to look at computing problems and come up with answers, usually on their own. So how did four independent-minded young men come together? And why did we come together?
We all knew each other. We were all friends. Occasionally we’d even worked together on the same job, or for the same company.
And we came together because we all felt we were being underpaid. Our employers in the west of England would say things like, “We can’t pay you London rates for doing the job, because we’re a long way from London,” and offer us pay rates which were half what anyone would get for doing the same job in London.
So we got together quite naturally, griping about this (even though we were being highly paid).
And then one of us had the idea of us forming our own organisation or union. Mightn’t we be more effective in raising our pay if we all banded together? Wasn’t that how unions worked? Didn’t coal miners and factory workers have to form unions to push for higher wages and better conditions?
I’m also reminded of something else that happened around that time. We freelance computer programmers weren’t paid regularly, like other company employees were paid. They’d all get their regular pay cheques, and we’d get paid with whatever was left in the kitty. And very often there was nothing in the kitty. So we didn’t get paid. And so after I’d started working for a new company as a freelance computer programmer, I was rather dismayed to find that although I’d been working for them for a couple of months, and had nominally made quite a lot of money, I hadn’t actually been paid a single penny. I asked the other freelance programmers if they’d been paid. And none of them had been paid either. And they’d all been at the company a lot longer than me. And they all seemed to be resigned to not being paid. They were all rather apathetic. There was nothing they could do about it. In fact, they didn’t really want to even talk about it.
But I thought about it. And after a while I decided I’d take a calculated gamble. I’d been working at the company for about three months (unpaid). And I was working on one particular aspect of the product they were building (a visual display unit, or VDU), and I’d come to be the expert on that bit of it, and people would come to me to ask whether it would be possible to add in this or that sort of new capability. I was, in short, a valuable person to have around. So I decided to gamble on myself and my worth to the company. And so one day I went to see the managing director of the little company, and told him that if I didn’t get paid by the end of the month (which was less than four weeks away), I was going to stop work.
All hell then broke loose. The managing director said that they simply didn’t have the money right now to pay me, but they hoped to have it in a few months time. The agency that had got me the job rang me and asked me whether I really meant to stop work. My co-workers were dumbfounded. How could I do that? But I was adamant: what was the point of doing all this work, if I wasn’t going to get paid? I mean, really, what the hell was the point? And then I went back to doing my job, just as before. And watched the clock tick slowly down towards the end of the month.
Over the next few weeks, I had a variety of approaches from the management of the company. And a number of phone calls. And towards the end of the month my resolve was weakening a bit. Was I really going to down tools and walk out at the end of the month? Mightn’t they just call my bluff? What if the managing director showed up on the 30th of the month and said, “Okay, Mister Davis. You think we need you, but we don’t. We’ve got your replacement already lined up. He’s due to take over tomorrow when you’ve left.” I was wobbling pretty badly as the last few days of the month arrived, but I tried not to show it.
And then, two days before the clock had reached the end of the count, somebody came down from the managing directors office, holding a cheque. And it was a big fat cheque for everything they owed me.
I’d won. My gamble had paid off.
My unpaid co-workers then got angry and started demanding that they get paid too. And, in fact, they were also paid shortly thereafter. So I won not just my pay cheque, but I won theirs for them too.
Maybe that’s why, a few months later, when Control G was formed, all the computing companies were alarmed. They knew what we could do, because they knew what I had done.
And the situation of smokers is a bit like the situation of us programmers back then. We weren’t being treated well. We were being treated pretty badly. None of the programmers liked it, but they couldn’t see what they could do about it, and didn’t even want to talk about it. And that’s just like most smokers today.
It’s not that we want higher wages. It’s something else that we want. And maybe there’s not very much we’ll need to do to get it. Because I didn’t actually have to do anything to get what I wanted all those years ago. All I did was set a deadline. I gave the company a deadline that was far enough away for them to be able to meet it. And then I just had to hold my nerve. And maybe that’s all that smokers will need to do.
Anyway, I think that having a name for some organisation is an important first step. I think when the four of us sat around tossing around ideas for a name, we weren’t wasting our time. And I think Control G was a great name (and I wasn’t the one who thought of it). And maybe just having a name was enough to frighten the employers, and push pay rates up nearer London levels.
And of the many suggestions so far, my favourite is SteveL’s “Phoenix”, rising from the ashes. But I also agree with Barry Homan that you need to have a name which is a bit mysterious, a bit enigmatic. And it must be dangerous. Control G was a bit enigmatic. What did it mean? It wasn’t very dangerous though.
So I’ll leave the question open: what should a Smokers’ Army be called?