History is my thing. I find truth more fascinating than fiction. Recently, I found a miniseries about the construction of the RMS Titanic. I enjoyed it in spite of historical inaccuracies (oops) but was most intrigued by its approach to the business end of Harland & Wolff. In 1910-1912, Ireland was in an uproar between warring Catholic and Protestant fractions, as well as shifting into a unionist state. Jim Larkin, a successful union man, was in Belfast stirring up members for the union party. This left local businessmen in conflict as they chose how best to deal with union strikes, while trying to make their deadlines with their contractors.
Harland & Wolff was one of the largest businesses in the city and employed over 15,000 employees: riveters, foremen, steel workers, architects, copyists, secretaries, designers. Shipping lines such as White Star commissioned them to build ships, and Harland & Wolff did everything from construction to outfitting and interior design. The chairman at the time was Lord Pirrie, the former mayor of Belfast, and a well-respected businessman, family man and advocate for “the working man.” Lord Pirrie worked with the union strikers to ensure fair wages on their part and that his ship would be completed on time.
One of the most poignant scenes comes early on when Jim Larkin meets Lord Pirrie outside Harland & Wolff. He’s handing out union pamphlets to employees going through the gates but is reluctant to give one to Pirrie. In turn, Pirrie asks, “Am I not also a working man?”
It’s a question that resonates, since we see different varieties of workers in the social classes: the riveters, who do back-breaking work and are paid by the rivet, men such as Thomas Andrews, who worked their way through every department in Harland & Wolff and whose priority is the safety and cost-effectiveness of the work, and Pirrie, who deals with the contracting, financial backing, government legalities, and task of keeping the business afloat for the sake of its many employees and their families.
What defines “working class”? By the standards of Jim Larkin, it doesn’t include Pirrie. Does it include Thomas Andrews? Or is it just the lower class riveters?
Without Lord Pirrie, none of the characters would have a job. He needs them to succeed, and without his success, none would profit. Both benefit the other. The series ends with the sailing of Titanic. What it doesn’t tell us is that Harland & Wolff is still in business today, in large part thanks to the management and wisdom of Lord Pirrie. Yes, he profited from his business, but so did everyone else.
Being successful at business is not bad. Getting rich is not a sin, but indicates sound financial investments that profit the economy and employ millions.
Isn’t it time we have someone in office who knows what’s best for “the company”?