I was welcomed back from a canoeing trip by Rob the senior apprentice ‘Two Suited Critters to see you, Simon”. Insurance salesmen I thought--they never give up--but I was wrong: The ‘suited critters’ were agents from the Federal Department of Labour following up an allegation that I had a furniture-making business in Putney, several employees and was in violation of state and federal employment protocols-insurance, records, workmans comp & all that.
It was the early days of the Vietnam war and I had an eager applicant faced with an immediate problem-- the draft. After a bit of research I decided to register my program with the State of Vermont so he could apply for an apprentice deferment. That got him off the hook but got me into serious and unexpected trouble. It took two years but the wheels turned and some suited critter in Montpelier decided that an apprentice program could not be approved unless the apprentices were paid an hourly wage. A half year later I had the visitation described above. At this point I realized that I needed legal help.
So I got in touch with Mr Potter Stewart, son of the distinguished high court justice, who had recently joined a Brattleboro law firm. After considerable research Potter found what he considered a compelling precedent. It involved trainee brakemen on a New York railroad who worked for a month, unpaid, while learning the specialized skills they needed for the job. Potter put it all together and then we marched off to Boston to meet with the deputy director of the Labour department. I remember rhe director looking at us tiredly and saying “I wish Mr Watts’ File had never crossed my desk but since it has... “ He accepted Potter’s argument on the trainee brakemen and there the matter ended. I learned later that they had totted up a reckoning of wages not paid since I opened the shop in 1965. This came to over $20,000--considerably more than the place (including the tools) was worth. There was no way I could pay Potter for the work he did on my behalf so I made him a handsome mahogany desk--which I expect he still has. I actually made a pair of desks and gave the other one to Richard's wife, Allison Cleary.
I heard later that the American Crafts Council had been watching the case with interest since the outcome was likely to cast a shadow over anyone involved in the training of future craftsmen and women. I had first raised the matter with the ACC but they had declined to get involved claiming that there was “Nothing in our budget to …etc, etc”.