In the June 1, 1934, issue of American Nurseryman, we find the following report on a topic that would seem to be more current than eight decades ago. Lest anyone be confused, let’s make it clear up front that the N.R.A. to which this excerpt refers is the National Recovery Administration, an agency established in 1933 under the newly enacted National Industrial Recovery Act. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president at the time. The N.R.A. was created to oversee the drafting and implementation of the codes of fair competition; provisions for minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining were part of the act. Many in business, however, protested – including members of the nursery industry.
Protest Against Salesmen under N.R.A.
Nurserymen at Washington Hearing May 24 Object to Proposal to Give Outside Salesmen Minimum Wage
If outside salesmen are made subject to N.R.A. minimum wages and maximum working hours the nursery industry will be seriously handicapped and 12,000 persons may be out of employment, Paul Stark, Louisiana, Mo., representing the Retail Nurserymen’s Association of the United States, informed the National Recovery Administration in a protest presented in behalf of the association. A hearing on the subject was held at N.R.A. headquarters at Washington, D.C., May 24.
“Our association represents nurserymen who have been in business for many years and have for more than fifty years been selling their products through house-to-house canvassing,” said Mr. Stark. “This is their main business, and they distribute a great deal of merchandise. They depend heavily on this method of merchandising. Practically all of our men are part-time salesmen, chiefly on account of the seasonal situation and because all types of men in local communities represent the different nurseries in these local communities. They are farmers, retired preachers, country merchants and elderly people who have physical handicaps and who can put in only part of the time and are not physically able to do more.
Type of Salesmen
“Further, there are housewives and all sorts of people selling on part time to supplement their income. They sell largely in their local communities and the demand is more or less limited, and at infrequent intervals they sell their merchandise.
“During the period of the depression and unemployment this has been an important thing for many people. It has helped to supplement their incomes and has kept many off the charity rolls, helped to maintain their self-respect and their morale by earning something.
“Most of the companies I represent have tried this many times and I do not know of a single case where the minimum wage plan has been tried and it has been made to work. Experience has shown us that it will not work; where we have tried it the salesmen have lost their initiative. For various other reasons, too, it has not worked out satisfactorily.
“These men do not work every year. They may work this year and next year, and they may not work this month and next. We have about 12,000 men on our list of salesmen, scattered all over the country – part-time workers to supplement their incomes. These people build up in their community a service and have fulfilled the service and taught the public how to prune and spray and care for the trees, and they are regarded as a sort of authority in their respective localities. To be frank, there are 12,000 men that we could not put back, so far as I know now. I could not say we would go out of business, because we would have to find some way.”
Mr. Stark declared it would be impossible to establish a minimum wage for full-time work and pay the salesmen proportionately for the part of the day they actually work, because of the impossibility of keeping a check on their operations.
New York Congressman Protests
Congressman John Taber, of New York, whose district includes a number of nurseries, sent a strong letter of protest against the minimum wage.
“In view of the fact that these people are all part-time people having occasional employment it seems absolutely ridiculous for the N.R.A. to attempt to ruin business by such a regulation,” said the Congressman. “I wish to protest to the best of my ability against additional indication that the N.R.A. is attempting to ruin business. I hope that this proposed regulation will not be put through. These people cannot operate if they are obliged to raise their costs.”
Neosho Nurseries Co, Neosho, Mo., filed a brief pointing out that nursery salesmen are employed only part time; therefore it would be necessary to dismiss them if a minimum wage is fixed. Continuing, the company asserted: “If the theory of this proposed plan is that it will aid employment and recovery, it is fundamentally wrong, since this proposed plan, if put into effect, will throw out of employment a vast army of people who now have part-time employment, as well as many permanently employed whose positions are dependent on the sales of the part-time agents.
“As a whole, the type of part-time commission salesmen who sell nursery stock and various other products is such that most of them could not get other regular employment and it would be a serious handicap to eliminate the source of their income.
“It is impossible to supervise or check up the hours of work which these part-time salesmen put in. All the contacts are through the mail, and they are so widely separated in various rural communities that supervision is impossible, both on account of expense and the widely scattered locations. We have tried it in the past with the following results:
“The results have shown a net loss to the company; the salesman who is guaranteed a minimum wage has been content to take the guaranteed wage without making the usual effort to get additional sales; the part-time salesman is essentially a person who is in business for himself, who works at his own hours and at his own convenience or combines it with other types of work in order to secure enough additional income to support a family.”
Mount Hope Nurseries Protest
Between ninety and ninety-five per cent of the sales persons employed by the Mount Hope Nurseries, Lawrence, Kan., neither profess to nor are required to put in any definite amount of time, that concern reported in a protest against the plan to bring outside salesmen under N.R.A.
“If we were forced to, or elected to insist upon their devoting a specific amount of time or to carry on their work in a regular and systematic way – so many hours a day or so many days a week – we believe that seventy-five per cent would be forced to quit. A minimum wage would necessitate such requirements which, if made, would become destructive at both ends – theirs and ours. Such sales persons do not ask or expect anything of the kind, for the reason that their work is carried on in anything but a regular or systematic way. Some there are who give us all their spare time, when and as they have such. Others there are who work reasonably steady, yet carry and sell the line as a ‘side’ one, this without guarantee or obligation as to the amount of time to put in on it.
“If these people were representing us on a full-time basis, or were able to, then a minimum wage might be talked of and considered, but few there are who would be able to meet the requirements such a program would necessitate. As is, they are able to spend their spare moments and hours at something which interests them; they augment their regular income in measures satisfactory.
“Speaking for our own line and business, a compulsory payment of a specific wage to our sales representatives, operating as they do, would automatically deprive some 150 to 200 persons of further opportunity to cash in on their spare time.”
Marshall Nurseries Tried Wages
Marshall Nurseries, Arlington, Neb., reported that they have tried every known method of remunerating salesmen over a period of forty-seven years in business, and they are convinced the salary method will not work.
“The establishment of a minimum wage,” said a representative, “will mean that we shall be compelled to discontinue employing salesmen, which will cut off the income of fifty or seventy-five of this class of employees. It will mean the cutting down of our field force or nurserymen twenty or thirty men. It will not increase our office employees to any extent, if at all, especially for the next two years. It will also mean a great reduction in the amount of merchandise sold and a severe handicap to business in general.”