Compromising Situations: Episode 10

Coleman sits behind his desk, ~~ fuming ~~ but trying not to show it. The notorious Debree has asked him for a private interview, and of course with diplomatic immunity Coleman can't even have anyone standing by to grab him. What gall.

Coleman furthermore can't figure out what Debree wants to get out of him by this interview, specifically, and that only makes him more annoyed. He ~~ steels himself ~~ for Debree's arrival.

Nick arrives, dressed in his new Sat'htine dress livery, which at least looks both official and foreign. He hopes that this will help Coleman see him as Nick ambrov Sat'htine, amateur diplomat, rather than Nick Debree, former worker at the Coleman mine.

Nick goes up to the receptionist.

Nick: Nick ambrov Sat'htine to see Mr. Coleman.

Flossen: I'll tell him.

Flossen taps on the boss's door, determined not to take any verbal abuse personally.

Coleman: What?!

Coleman doesn't mean to be abusive particularly, it's just a habit.

Coleman: Hurry up, hey? Don't waste my time.

Flossen opens the door a little.

Flossen: Your appointment is here, a Mr. Sateen.

Flossen knows that the man is also the Notorious Nick Debree, but doesn't like to get vented upon.

Coleman: Send Debree in, and make sure the door is shut!

Flossen: Yes, sir.

Flossen turns to Nick.

Flossen: You can go in now.

Nick: Thank you, Ma'am.

Nick smiles charmingly and sincerely at Flossen, then enters the hippo's pond.

Flossen closes the door firmly after him.

Nick: Good afternoon, Mr. Coleman.

Coleman looks Nick up and down in silence.

Coleman: Well. The notorious Nick Debree.

Coleman whistles the tune to the best-known of the songs about him.

Coleman: So what do you want?

Coleman pointedly says nothing about sitting down, in hopes of keeping this short, if not sweet

Nick: I thought it might be helpful if we could discuss some of the issues honestly and privately, without having to worry that our words might be misinterpreted by others.

Nick takes a seat uninvited.

Coleman glares but grudgingly nods his assent.

Nick: I'm still not quite sure how I got dragged into this, but since I'm here anyway, I am hoping that I can help you and your workforce reach a truce that will allow you to live with each other.

Coleman: See here, Debree. I don't need this workforce, I just need some workforce, and there's a sucker born every minute.

Nick: But this workforce is already trained. It would cost you two months' production to replace them. And that's if you had no problem finding as many new people as you want.

Coleman: I don't have to replace 'em all. Just the leaders, as you ought to remember.

Nick shakes his head.

Nick: About two thirds of the families here have sufficient resources to leave, and are prepared to do so if current conditions continue.

Coleman hrrmps while he takes in that figure. ~~ surprise ~~

Nick: As they search for new positions, they will be talking with other workers. How many people will accept your offer of employment when they already know that your system makes it impossible for them to break even?

Coleman: Those who prefer working to starving.

Coleman is no longer roaring.

Nick: But they are starving. Hajene Katsura and Hajene Seruffin have found quite a bit of malnutrition, especially among the children.

Coleman: But, I repeat, what do you want? Surely you can't hold me responsible for the workers' improvidence. Ample food is available on easy terms.

Nick: The wages you pay, less the rent you charge, does not leave enough to feed and clothe a family properly at the prices charged at the company store. Nor does the company store stock sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables to provide good nutrition.

Nick: There isn't a family here that isn't in debt. That's not improvidence that could be solved by thrift. The only solution you've left them is not to work for you in the first place.

Coleman: Okay, beat up Coleman, hey? But what does it get you? If I can't replace the workers, the mine closes. No jobs for anyone then, and the price of coal on the outside goes up. Workers starve and city folks freeze. What good is that, hey?

Flossen winces. The boss is shouting again.

Nick: You agree, then, that the labor your workers provide has value?

Coleman: Bah. I wouldn't pay them if it didn't, hey?

Nick: You don't pay them, actually. As I pointed out, most of them have been effectively paying you.

Coleman waves that aside.

Nick: This is important, if you want to stay open. It's the one non-negotiable demand they have. If you can't address it, they will leave. Almost all of them. And they'll spread the word that taking a job here is effectively selling one's family into slavery.

Coleman: So what is this one demand, exactly? Spell it out for me. Assume I'm stupid.

Coleman sneers.

Nick: It's nothing terribly unreasonable. They simply want to be able to make enough in wages to pay their rent, feed and clothe their families, and set a little aside to cover the occasional emergency.

Coleman: If I pay them more, I have to raise coal prices. If I raise coal prices, I sell less coal. If I sell less coal, I have to cut wages.

Coleman explains as if to a not-very-bright child. Again, he isn't trying to be insulting.

Nick: So don't raise wages. Cut their expenses, instead.

Coleman: You think that makes any difference? The result is the same. Higher costs to me mean higher coal prices which mean lower sales which mean less money to pay the costs.

Coleman shakes his head at Nick's ignorance of elementary economics, not considering for the moment how much to his advantage it is to keep people in general ignorant of precisely that.

Nick: It actually makes quite a bit of difference, looked at properly. The workers need to make more of a profit, but they do not insist on any particular method.

Coleman: Neither do I. My concern is to stay open, and if my costs go up, I can't.

Nick: So, don't solve the problem by raising your costs. The company store, for instance. You spend a great deal of money protecting its monopoly, and you can't make a profit with it because everybody who shops there is in debt.

Nick: If you break the monopoly, your employees will be able to get their supplies more cheaply, so the wages you are currently paying will go farther towards meeting their needs. And you won't have to hire extra guards to watch for people trying to smuggle in vegetables.

Coleman: Why do you think my dad set up the store in the first place? Because nobody wanted to come and do business out here. And why was that, young man?

Nick: Because at the time, there was no reason to believe that the mine would stay open long enough to make the trip worthwhile. That was before the rail lines were extended, of course. And before the mine inspired a few families to set up farms hereabouts. You have been spending a lot of money chasing away people who want to come and do business out here.

Coleman is taken aback by the extent of Nick's knowledge. Apparently he hasn't been wasting his time since the old days.

Coleman: Well. Hrrm. I suppose old Si could stand to do with a little honest competition at that, hey?

Nick: It might make him a little easier to live with.

Coleman: Well, I'll tell you what. I'll stop, as you say, spending money keeping the competition out. That should reset prices to the market price. No guarantee that's a reduction, I got to say. Si's got first-mover advantage and the advantage of scale.

Nick: Very true. So he'd have no grounds for complaint, right?

Coleman: Oh, Simon doesn't need grounds to complain. He just does. Talk to any of the men, hey?

Coleman is actually smiling now at the thought of saving money.

Nick: Yes, indeed.

Coleman: You've got a deal, Debree.

Coleman holds out his hand for a shake.

Nick shakes, then settles back in his chair, ready to resume the horse trading. He's ~~ happy ~~ that Coleman has agreed to opening up trade.

Nick: Now, even at best, less expensive food will only make up part of the gap between what the miners earn now and what it costs them to live here. They will require some increase in their earning potential.

Coleman: Then they will require some increase in their productivity. How do you propose to accomplish that?

Nick: My thoughts exactly. I've been making some inquiries, and it seems that most of the miners average several days a month when they are too ill or injured to work. Since they must work or starve, it is fair to assume that they are working when sick even more often than that. Would you agree that this represents a major inefficiency in your operation?

Coleman: Hrmp. Go on, hey?

Nick: A healthier workforce would be worth something to you, don't you agree?

Coleman nods cautiously.

Nick: Have you noticed that such absenteeism has decreased greatly in the past few weeks, since Hajene Seruffin arrived?

Coleman yells: "Flossen!"

Flossen cringes, grits her teeth and opens the boss's door.

Flossen: Yes, sir?

Coleman: Absenteeism the last month, up or down, hey? Ask Beank.

Flossen: Yes, sir. As soon as he's back.

Coleman grits his teeth.

Coleman: I need it now. Ask that assistant of his, Vor-whatever-his-name-is.

Flossen: Yes, sir. Right away, sir.

Flossen escapes, closing the door behind her.

Coleman: Well, let's say it's true, hey? What about it, hey?

Nick: You may be unaware of it -- most people on this side of the border are -- but regular access to a channel does a great deal to improve the general health of a Gen.

Coleman: What, just by being in the same town? I don't think so.

Nick: No. But donating selyn makes a Gen much more resistant to disease, which in turn cuts down on injuries to people who are sick and working anyway. When injuries happen anyway, channels are very good at healing them.

Coleman: Not bad, hey? And what's the charge for healing, as you call it?

Nick: Nothing. But getting the Tecton to send a channel here to provide such services would require some effort on your part. And it wouldn't necessarily happen quickly.

Coleman: Really? Tell me who needs greasing.

Nick: Hajene Seruffin can provide you with far more information on that than I could. However, it would provide a long-term solution to a great many things. Your workforce would be healthier, which would increase your productivity. And the additional income your employees could earn by donating selyn would made up the difference in income required to make working for you profitable again -- without costing you a cent.

Coleman hatches a plan to arrange to split the donation fees with his workers -- after all, they wouldn't be able to donate if he didn't provide the channel, hey?

Nick: As an additional bonus, having a channel here would also pretty much eliminate berserkers among the children who become Sime.

Coleman nods slowly.

Nick: That's another security man or two you won't have to pay.

Coleman: Naah, the workers mostly take care of that themselves, and keeping Simes out of the mine isn't much different from keeping saboteurs out.

Nick thinks its typical that Coleman wouldn't bother to protect his people from berserkers.

Nick: Still, wouldn't it increase your efficiency if you don't have to replace those who are killed each year?

Coleman: Trivial. Trivial. Flossen! What's the story, hey?

Flossen cringes and opens the door again.

Flossen: Mr. Ountar is back and he says that he can't give you the exact numbers until the month-end processing is complete.

Flossen is sure the boss is going to take his dissatisfaction at the accountant's reply out on her, and braces herself.

Coleman rubs his forehead wearily.

Coleman: Well, kindly ask Mr. Ountar to give me his BEST POSSIBLE GUESS!

Flossen: Yes, sir.

Flossen flees, wondering how she's going to get the accountant to do that. Maybe she should insist that he tell the boss himself, because she's going to tell the boss he said he would. Let the boss pin down Ountar's weasel words himself.

Nick: Now, while you're waiting for the figures, I should point out that you can get many of the health benefits I've mentioned by allowing your workers to travel once a month to donate at the Sime Center two stops down the line.

Coleman: What? That's a whole day down the drain! Health is fine, but a day's work is a day's work!

Nick: It's not a perfect solution, I agree. But if giving them one day off prevents them from taking two or more off due to illness, you gain overall.

Coleman: If.

Nick: Plus, the money they would earn would be sufficient to meet the primary condition necessary to avert a strike. Or worse, having your workforce simply move elsewhere.

Coleman makes a face.

Coleman: I suppose.

Coleman sucks air through his teeth.

Coleman: You people will be the ruin of me yet.

Nick smiles.

Nick: I devoutly hope not.

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