Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ch..Ch..Chains and Devastation

My chariot awaits in the desolate, frozen wasteland.

Oh, how horrific the damage from our first "major" winter storm! Tens of dollars of damage, snow drifts up to at least 1/32" deep, wind chills harsh enough to make Midwesterners laugh scornfully!

The dire predictions of 4-6" of snow topped with a layer of freezing rain failed to show. It was almost as cold as my first wife, and nearly as windy as she.
Half-inch icicles... how much damage can we endure?

My thanks to the tireless efforts of our mechanics who chained our buses the night before, then had to un-chain them the same day when the storm pretty much fizzled in most of the district. It's brutal for them to battle wind, traffic, and everything else to do an outstanding job.

But the question remains as blase as a FaceBook meme... will we ever recover?

A poor tree buried in a snow "drift".

Signs on the Bus


Ever wonder why your operator gets irritated, or sighs in frustration? Even though you might think "riding the bus" is as simple as just boarding at a stop, it isn't.

Buses operate on schedules. Along each route are "time points", which are specific points where an operator is scheduled to be at certain times. If people board at their leisure, are texting in the shelter and don't look up until you're stopped and THEN gesture they don't want your bus or simply just look back at their phone, it eats up precious schedule time.

You might not think this is a problem, but lately it's epidemic. People operate at their own pace; operators  are often saddled with unrealistic schedules. If circumstances create time loss on the run, it means our break at the end is cut short. The average rider doesn't ride the entire route. We do. If we're late at the end, our break is cut by the amount of minutes we're late. Traffic, inexperienced (or rude/indifferent) passengers, construction delays... they can all wreak havoc on schedules.

If you'll notice next time you ride, there are countless signs on a bus which help riders make boarding quick and efficient. Problem is, most folks are focused solely on a tiny screen upon which their entire lives seem to revolve. Reading signs on a bus is not nearly as exciting as whatever meme FaceBook is featuring at that moment. So here's a few you may have missed, and what operators think (see comments in italics) whenever they're unseen or ignored.

***********************

We've all seen this guy: far down the street he awaits the bus. Just standing there, Larry Loitering, looking at the sky, glancing at his watch. Not a care in the world. As the bus ("finally," he sighs) pulls up, he takes his sweet time navigating the six-inch step up and in. Gee, doesn't appear immobile; step up the pace, Ginger Toes. Then, as he gives the operator the "stink eye", which is paid back his way in spades by the patient driver, he looks around. Can he go just a bit slower?

"How much to ride downtown?" Larry asks.

"See the sign up there?" Ollie Operator replies with a finger pointing above his head. "It says $2.50, unless you're under 18. If you're under seven, it's free." Perhaps he's capable of understanding that bit of information. Not even mentioning the other fare... he looks as "Honored" as that goober who just paid a buck and smells like yesterday's puke.

Then he begins to dig in his pockets. Out come the rubbers, Safeway receipts, video game cheats, one used butt plug (Gee, maybe that's a spare plug... no wonder he's so friggin' slow), then the money. Of course, it's wadded-up in numerous denominations; a grand total of about $8 Ollie estimates. As he fumbles for the right combination, Ollie lets out the world's most impatient sigh.

"You know," Ollie says, "it would truly be helpful if you had sorted through your detritus for the fare while you were waiting for the bus, rather than taking two minutes to find it now that I'm sitting here. Just like it says on that sign telling you how much the fare costs."

Larry takes offense. Who's this simple operator to tell him how to ride a friggin' bus? For the next several minutes after getting his receipt he's badgering Ollie. Rudely. Questioning his ancestry, nastily trolling anyone who isn't plugged in and tuned out. If you're not careful, butt-breath, you'll be early for the next bus. Ollie begins to whistle Don't Worry Be Happy and it drones out Larry's incessant insults.


When he finally leaves, he can't wait to get off the bus. Unfortunately, he makes a rookie mistake. Ollie has hit the first downtown stop at rush hour, and there are about 250 people waiting. Larry, of course, saunters toward the front door where the hordes are coming aboard.

"Please exit in the rear (Hmm... perhaps I phrased that wrong...) sir," Ollie tells Larry.

Larry gestures a "whatever" and heads to the back door. But Ollie forgets to push the door handle as he takes fare from the boarding hordes.

"Hey BACK DOOR, driver!" Larry yells impatiently. Yeah, and your mother inserted that plug for ya there, eh? Ollie twists the handle, but before he can, Larry has started slamming the door. Of course, it won't open yet. The green light hasn't appeared overhead, and now Larry is angry. Again.

"I said, BACK DOOR!" Larry shouts impatiently.

Ollie points at the mirror. "Read the sign, sir, and it will instruct you as to the proper door-opening procedure." You can read, I hope.

Now Larry stands at the door, having failed to open it prior to the green light, which is now illuminated so brightly the sight-impaired lady across the street can see it.

"WELLLLLL?" Larry brays. He's standing there with his palms outstretched, waiting for the door to open. By itself.

Ollie can't take it any more. "Push the door, it will open!"

Larry complies. The door is stuck now, due to improper operation.

"You'll have to exit the front then," Ollie says, turning to hide a gleeful smile. The bus is now packed, and rather than Ollie getting out of the seat to "fix" the problem, he'd rather see Larry fight his way to the front of the bus. Perhaps so he can kick the inbred dolt in his impaled derriere on his way out.

Uh oh, light's green, buses piling up behind me and I'm in first position. Guess Larry's outta luck.

Larry is jostling and shoving his way forward as Ollie closes the front door and takes the green light. He steps on our previous heroine Lady Guttersnipe's foot as he passes and gets a cane-cruncher in the groin in return.

"HEY!" he shouts as he painfully reaches the front.

"Sorry sir," Ollie says. "Procedure dictates I can't loiter in the first position on the transit mall. Gotta go. We'll let you out next stop." If you can manage, pendejo.

Larry doesn't like this, and stands up at the fare box, yelling into Ollie's face. "You let me out RIGHT F*****G NOW!" he bellows, his spit spraying the windshield and Ollie's glasses.

Ollie puts his arm out and points to the sign above the windshield. "See that sign? You'll need to move back behind the yellow line, sir, I can't drive with you there, plus I can't open the door while the bus is moving."

"You stupid prick! I wanted out at the last stop!"

"Bummer. You need to learn how to read signs." Ollie motions Larry back. Downtown traffic is heavy with all the skateboarders, bicyclists and cars cluttering up the bus lane and the person crossing against the light in a mobility device directly ahead of the bus, for whom Ollie must brake so they don't become a bloody bike rack ornament. After a few blocks of Larry's illiterate linguistics, the next stop looms.

After a ration of obscenities, Larry finally manages to exit. Ollie's a few seconds early, so he waits until Larry turns the corner and gets out of his seat. He casually walks off the bus to the rear door, pushes it firmly closed, gets back into the seat, turns the door crank and has a passenger push it open. Ahh, worky fine now. On with the show, sans Loudmouth Larry.

A few stops later, Barry Bicyclist (successfully) exits the rear door. Ollie hasn't noticed his helmeted head exiting, and prepares to depart on the impending green light. Just as it turns green, Barry hops in front of the bus.

"WHOA THERE BUDDY!" Ollie bellows. He opens the front door as he says this.

Barry shrugs, pointing a finger at himself in a "Who, me?" gesture.

"Yeah, you!" Ollie roars. "Come here for a second, eh?"

Barry shakes his head, annoyed a simple bus operator would have the nerve to yell at him. After all, he saves the climate by riding his bicycle three blocks from bus stop to home again, the world should bow to him! He takes his time, carefully removing his $3,000 bicycle from the rack, and pops onto the sidewalk, near the open bus door.

"What?" he says to Ollie.

"You didn't see the sign that clearly states 'Alert Operator before removing bike'? Ollie asks gently.

"But I did!" Barry says. "You just didn't hear me, I guess."

"Well," Ollie replies, "good thing I saw you before I hit the accelerator or you'd be bouncing down the street by now. You need to make sure I hear you, please. I don't want you to get hurt."

"Yeah, whatever," Barry says with a dismissive hand gesture. After all, he has an MBA in Obnoxiousness and who the hell is a simple bus operator to tell him how to behave?

"Hey buddy, come here for a second, will ya? I wanna show you something." Ollie gently gestures for him to get back on board, smiling reassuringly. Barry hesitates yet complies, even though he's embarrassed to note all the riders are watching this exchange.

"See this?" Ollie points to the sign showing the Gross Vehicle Weight of the vehicle. "It should paint a graphic picture in your mind of what happens to someone who steps in front of a moving bus," Ollie quietly tells him. "With all these people aboard, it's more like 50,000 pounds of moving steel and glass, you know." Bet they didn't teach common sense at your universidad, cabron.

Luckily for illustrative purposes, a fly lands on the window next to Ollie. He deftly swats the buzzer flat, bug guts oozing down the glass.

"This could happen to you, and I don't think all the king's men could put you back together again. Okay? Got it?"

Barry's not satisfied. "Then you should be more careful before you move this bus!" he shouts at Ollie. He starts to step off.

"Good thing I am careful, buddy," Ollie says to Barry's departing back, "or you woulda been the bug."

Later, the passenger load having thinned a little but still full, a little old lady with her full shopping cart awaits Ollie's ride. The Priority Seating area is jammed with 30-somethings staring into their tiny device screens, ear buds blasting their cochlear nerves to shreds. Ollie tries to prepare them for what awaits.

"We're going to need a few of these front seats," he declares as he rolls to a stop. A middle-aged man who appears down on his luck politely obliges and moves into the aisle. The other two squatters don't  hear him, or they're artfully ignorant.

Granny Gilmer boards after Ollie deploys the ramp to make it easier for her to cart $300 of groceries into the bus. Still, nobody seems to have noticed Granny.

After all he's been through the past hour, including passengers wanting to know detailed schedules of a bus route he doesn't drive, teenagers obscenely arguing amongst themselves, Larry and Barry's antics, and a host of other annoyances, Ollie is now almost nine minutes late to a 12-minute break at the end of the line. His last straw is sucking air.

Turning in his seat, he bellows at Ichabod I-Phone and WannaBeARapper Wanda, "Please MOVE from the Priority Seating Area so this dear lady can have a seat!" Wanda somehow gets that Ollie is addressing her, and moves her head so she can see Ollie past Granny's rain-soaked head.

"Say what?" she asks loudly, removing one earplug. "You talkin' to me? Whatchu want?"

Ollie is beyond words. He gestures toward Granny.

"I was here first," Wanda whines.

Ollie is now 13 minutes late. He covers his face and rubs his aching temples. He unbuckles his seat belt, stands and excuses himself as he steps past bewildered Granny. He walks up to Wanda, bends over and motions her to remove her other ear bud.

"PLEASE MOVE FROM THE PRIORITY SEATING AREA SO THIS DEAR LADY CAN SIT!" he roars.

"Sheeit mister, you don't gotta yell! Fine!"

Evidently, Ichabod hasn't paid any attention, or doesn't care. He hasn't budged. Ollie reaches under the seat and heaves upward, interrupting Ichabod from his How To Get Rich In One Illegally-Easy Step video.

Ichy (pronounced "icky") indignantly glares at Ollie.

"Hey dude, watch it!" he cries, still refusing to move his enormous gluteus from the seat.

"Move, please!" Ollie bellows, and motions for Ichy to unplug and tune-in.

"What, I gotta move? I was here first!" Ichy whines even louder than Wanda had. Ollie points to the sign directly across from Ichy.

"I got an Honored card too!" Ichy complains.

At this point, our earlier heroine, Lady Guttersnipe, has had enough. Ollie is her favorite operator. Even though she's sight and hearing-impaired, she knows what's what. Stiffly rising from her seat across the aisle, she raises her cane. Ollie shakes his head (not just yet, dear warrior), Lady lowers it, but addresses Ichy in a very threatening manner.

"Either you mind your misplaced manners and make room for this sweet lady," Lady growls, "or you'll find I've discovered a new dance move, and it ain't gonna be pretty. Now, UP, you ungracious sloth!"

Lady G again raises her cane, and Ichy immediately responds. After a few seconds of oomphing and aw-helling, he manages to rise. Ollie wastes no time raising the seat, and it's settled. Granny thanks him and glares at Ichy, who now stands trembling in front of Lady G. For good measure, Ollie makes sure to displace another discourteous rider so Granny's overloaded cart remains out of the aisle.

*******************************

Ollie finally reaches the end of the line. He's three minutes past his departure time. His bladder aches dangerously, his sphincter muscle is approaching maximum capacity, and his nerves are shredded.

He pushes "Restroom Delay" on the computer and exits the bus, wincing with each step. Two hours-plus in the seat is strenuous, and his legs complain painfully. Fifteen minutes later, he emerges from the break room, somewhat relieved. His shift has another six hours to go, but Dispatch will have to deal with scheduling him back into service.

Ollie slowly makes his way back to the bus. Darkness has set in. The transit center swarms with characters of dubious intentions. As Ollie prepares to enter his bus, he's threatened by a knife-wielding transient demanding to know why he's so late.

Ollie remains calm as he deftly breaks the assailant's wrist, bashes his skull into the front of the bus and kicks him in the groin on the way down. There's no sign warning people to "Beware of Driver".

Guess he's still just a simple bus operator, but now he's grown an attitude.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Question to Settle

Time to ask you, dear readers, for your opinion.

When I first began writing this blog, I promised not to deluge you with ads. I abhor them. Whenever I try to read something of interest on the web, ads seem to pop out of nowhere. As if I fuggin' ask for them. Like most of you, I make it a habit of killing them as quickly as they appear.

Last spring however, I've seen my readership explode. In one day, my hits went from 25-30 to over 600 in a single day! Not sure if it was Al Margulies or a ton of FaceBook friends sharing it, but FTDS's popularity took off. It is humbling, and very exciting, to have enough people interested enough in the subject matter to actually read what I write. My words haven't had this much exposure since my early adulthood adventures in small-town journalism.

As of this post, I am averaging 2,650 hits per month. As of today, the ninth of November, there are 708 hits. Last year, the entire month of November scored a scant 78. It truly boggles my mind.

Of course, I hope to be able to continually produce decent material and further grow these numbers. Yet when I first began, I had no idea it would come this far in such a short period of time.

So here it comes. What say you, my beloved readers? Would I be a horrific eel if I allowed ads on here? Given my promise to not do so, would you be less likely to read in the future if I changed my mind on this issue? The lure of extra money is a major factor in this question. At the moment, I am the lone earner in my family. We could all use a little more dinero in the bank. If this blog continues to grow readership, it's fiscally irresponsible of me not to allow advertising.

Because of my stubborn reluctance to alienate any of you, the folks who have made this explosion possible, I will leave it in your hands. If you read this on a traditional computer, you will find the poll "Ads Yes or No" on the far right-hand side of the page in a hidden block of "gadgets".

For those of you who use electronic devices, for some reason these gadgets don't appear when you visit. So you could just tell me on the FaceBook post. I don't want any arguments between people as to whether I should or should not. I just ask you to speak up and tell me your thoughts on the matter.

So what say YOU, my dear readers, yay or nay? I eagerly await your response.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pains in My Butt

My butt hurts. Had back spasms last week, now my knees hurt. Bowels not responding well to circadian rhythm changes. Head to toe, and I ended up at the butt again. Just part of the job, I reckon.

This time, let's examine what it takes to be a good "bus operator". No, we're not "drivers" in the typical sense. Moving a bus down the road is much more than that. Once again, I mention Lars Larson's foolish comment that driving a city bus is "easier" than operating a school bus. From experience on the city bus side, I do not mean to diminish the professionalism or importance of a school bus operator, but my job is extremely more difficult and stressful. Their passengers are precious, to be sure, but there are far fewer of them and the routes are much shorter. Nor do their charges pay a fare. Regardless, my hat is off to those wonderful people who transport our children to and from school. Even as a parent of three, I wonder if I could keep from being too distracted by their joyful noise.

To be a "good" operator of a city bus takes many years to accomplish. My own tenure has taught me that there is something to be learned each day. I have always had the greatest respect for my trainers, but much more so now that I have a few years behind the wheel. Each day presents new challenges. We constantly need to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Maneuvers I once thought toughest to master are now second nature. Yet, I'm often presented with challenges requiring split-second reaction. One slip could result in somebody's injury or death. It is the same with school bus operators, true. Yet a city bus operator is usually in-service for eight to 14 hours as opposed to two to six.

I do not want to even hint at disparaging my brothers and sisters who operate school buses, so we'll leave them at this point.

At least once a week, a passenger will insinuate they know more about bus operation than I do, simply because they ride daily. Once upon a time, I thought so too. Having been a passenger both to school and work, my favorite operators made it look easy. On my first day behind the wheel, I realized how difficult a bus is to maneuver. Having driven a tractor-trailer rig across country, I believe a bus is harder to drive. There is only one "pivot point" on a bus, and that's the dual wheels at the rear. A truck has two: tractor and trailer axles. It is challenging to back a trailer into a dock around several obstacles, but the extra pivot point allows greater rear visibility. Bus operators cannot see behind a bus, and it's not advisable to even attempt backing up without a spotter. A friend of mine noted that tractor-trailer operators have cargo that doesn't talk back or offer driving advice.

While some operators navigate the same routes each day, others have different routes every day of the year. As an extra board operator, this is my life. I've done it long now enough to learn 52 lines. Even if you're familiar with a route, road conditions or construction can present constant challenges. Delivery truck drivers habitually park in the worst possible spots, and often make terrible decisions while driving. Marvin Mercedes and his buddy Beavis BMW are impatient so and so's. Pedestrians rarely look before darting out into traffic, especially if they want to "catch" my bus.

Recently I winced as a teenager darted in front of a pickup to cross the street so he could board my bus. The pickup driver had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting the kid and his girlfriend. These juvenile jaywalkers were oblivious to the stupidity of their actions, and were miffed when I chastised them. They were indignant, yet I would be haunted forever by the sight of their bodies being hurtled through space in broken and bloody pieces. Normally, I would let them get safely to the sidewalk, then drive off without them. I couldn't this time; maybe my bitching them out will make them think before they try this maneuver again.

So just because your operator makes it look "easy", don't be fooled. If their uniform is adorned with Safety Award patches, they deserve your utmost respect. If they bitch you out when you board, rest assured you did something that scared the shit out of them.

Now do you know why my butt hurts?



Monday, November 3, 2014

Early Board Gets the Prize

...and now I'm working early AM's! Didn't I just write about the yo-yo effect? Of course I've been called one many a time, and deservedly so, but I digress.

Spent my weekend sleeping a lot, recovering from last week's midnight sojourns. I went to bed last night to prepare for my early run, was too restless. I tried counting sheep, but they morphed into scantily-clad Roald Dahl characters hell-bent on robbing me of sleep. So I just drove eight hours by noon today, time for a nap then a three-hour tripper. Eleven seat hours today plus an early 9.5-hour run tomorrow equals a lucrative start to my week.

Odds are I'll be on PM's again in two days, but I'll take what OT crumbs they leave me.

Z-zzz-zzzzzz-zzzzzzzzzzzz.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bouncy Boppin' Board


My bus drivin' buddy John gave me some good-natured ribbing during a recent phone conversation. He tends to enjoy my posts about driving, but when it comes to politics we disagree. John's a great guy, and I love him like a brother. But one thing I learned during the last election cycle was that nowadays, friends can be quickly lost in the fiery arena of politics. I'm not always right, he's not always wrong. We agree on many things in the middle, but on other points we are at odds.

Our union recently ratified a new contract, so I waxed political. This blog wasn't originally meant to cover politics, but sometimes it just slips out, like an elevator fart. So let's just say I've taken John's hint, and a bit of literary antacid as well. Back to business at hand...

*******************************************

Driving the extra board lately, I feel like a yo-yo. Mornings, then nights, back to mornings again. In the span of four days. It's rough on Ol' Codger Deacon, to spin my circadian rhythm in drunken circles. Our bodies work best on an orderly schedule. Humans want to sleep when the sun don't shine. Just when you've achieved a rhythm on the board, your seniority and position sway-drop-roll like Dolly Parton's bosom on a roller coaster. You have to adapt, or find someone willing to trade your work. Sometimes, people don't want your work, so you're stuck with it. Lately they're hiring so many "newbies" who go full time and end up on the board, it's always a game of chance.

I sign the board because A) I don't have enough seniority for good runs; B) Working overtime is good for a healthy bank account; and C) Constantly driving the same runs is about as exciting as the first day of a stomach virus. Lately, I haven't had enough of Part B. I've noticed that PM work seems to allow more overtime work, so I'm tempted to stay on the dark side. Only problem with that is I won't see much of my family. It would give me more time to write and sleep though. So it's a conundrum. In night mode, I have to call in for the next day's work before I even begin the current day's schedule. It's odd, and it's a tough row to hoe. I'm tough too, but my hoe is getting dull with age.

It would be nice if they had one extra board roster for AM reports, and another for PM's. The district is reactionary rather than visionary. They revised hours-of-service rules in a supposed attempt to give operators more pillow time, but it cut into the overtime extra board operators desire. This came after the scandal-hungry media "exposed" a few drivers who dared make $100k a year by working up to 20 hours a day. Some were found to be overly-tired, which is not safe. But there are hundreds of operators who are in uniform 12-14 hours and only get paid for 10 or less.We're certainly not making $100k; considering a majority of board operators are relatively new, the average salary range is more like $40k.

The glut of board ops is so heavy, there's also little opportunity to work on your regular days off. The board is no longer lucrative, and it would seem it's this way by design. Rather than trimming the amount of new hires, the district would rather pay thousands of dollars more to train new drivers than pay veterans overtime. It defies the "safety first" credo the district feeds the media, to have inexperienced operators clogging the board.

The board should be staffed by operators who have driven long enough to know more than a scant handful of runs. A new operator is often unprepared to drive a new route with usually no more than 10 minutes preparation. It makes them nervous, concentrating on turn-by-turn instructions rather than constantly scanning for possible hazards. An experienced operator, when faced with an unfamiliar run, knows how to balance scanning with reading instructions two or three turns in advance. I read route instructions while stopped, so my attention is on the road. When I first signed the extra board, I had been off probation a few months and had completed my first three-month full-time signup. Although I was still "green", I had at least some confidence in my abilities. Perhaps more importantly, I knew our union would represent me at the accident review board if something happened on the road.

A newly-trained operator is on probation for six months once they go in-service. For me, it made sense to stay part-time while in this precarious no-man's land. As a probie, the union cannot fully defend you if an incident occurs. If you get two PA's, you're fired. All those thousands of dollars the district just spent to train you are wasted if you slip up. I recently heard that of the 20 new hires put in service, about 25% of them don't pass probation. Part of the reason lies within their rush to go full-time and earn a decent living. Just a few years ago, new hires had to wait up to three to five years before they went full-time. Nowadays, they're brought up only a few months into their probation. Believe me, the jump from 30 hours a week to 40-45 is huge. The stress of driving as a newbie is hard enough, but when you add another 10-15 hours a week, the odds of making a mistake rise substantially.

Scanning the new "block system" of run selections available, my seniority left me with slim pickings. So I'm on the board again once winter signup begins. Many operators dislike this new way of signing runs. After years of earning their seniority, many have said this new system doesn't work for them. I'm resigned to working the board because what's available by the time I sign is not attractive to me. At least on the board I only have to drive the less desirable runs on occasion. As with any new system, this one needs work. Those union reps charged with making these changes are certainly aware of the problems and will work hard to improve it. If after four signup periods it still has problems, perhaps it will go back to the original system. As long as it fairly rewards those with seniority, the operators who have devoted their working lives to this job, I have hope that someday I will reap the same benefits they deserve.

We'll see what happens. For the next several months however, you never know where the Deacon's wheels will roll. See you 'out there'.





Sunday, October 26, 2014

20,000th Hit Today!






In the span of 18 months, my beloved readers have visited my blog 20,000 times! It's more than I had imagined, and I thank you all for reading and sharing.

Lately, the comments have been coming in bunches. I apologize for not replying to you all. Usually when I see them I'm in bed preparing for the next day of driving. Please keep them coming, because I love hearing how these posts affect you. Your shared stories of the road or experiences as a rider are great!

Most of all, I want to thank my wife, Lady Blue. She helps me avoid great blunders, and has always been supportive of my efforts as a driver and as the guy who writes about it.

Thanks again, folks. The Googlers are wondering why I still won't allow their ads on FTDS, but a promise is a promise. Even when the 100,000th hit is reached, the blog will remain... AD FREE.

Peace, and be well my friends.

Affectionately,
DiB

A Battle Hymn for US All


(Deacon's Note: Please note my use of "operators of buses and light rail" does not intend to omit  service workers, mechanics, trainers, station agents, supervisors, dispatchers, spotters, and other dedicated co-workers. It's just expedient to do so. These brothers and sisters are all vital to our operations; and as such, will hopefully forgive me for including them under the "operator" label.)

Battle Hymn of the Republic -- Herbie Mann

So we have a contract. Amalgamated Transit Union 757's TriMet employees voted yes this past week by a majority of 82.7% to approve the contract terms, effective two years ago.

It has been a contentious battle. Retirees believe the terms give away what they were promised decades ago: health care provided in lieu of no raises in pay for active union employees. Nothing is truly "free". Like a coal miner who breathes toxic air his entire working life and dies penniless, a bus operator faces health crises and a fixed income with shaky financial security in retirement. An increasingly vocal public sector erroneously minimizes our skill level and health risks, simultaneously demanding we pay a "fair" share of our health insurance. It's this "class warfare" which endangers all workers, blue or white collared.

Our service is considered so vital to the local economy that our right to strike was legislated out of existence in 2007. Ridership in 2014 is up 10%*, with about 322,000 people riding MAX or bus daily. Imagine the scenario if we could strike: another 100,000+ vehicles on our roads creating hopeless gridlock, people without alternate transportation unable to get to work. However, without the right to strike, our bargaining position is tenuous. If we disagree with terms presented by the district and vote to reject, our fate lies in the hands of a state-appointed arbitrator. If our terms are deemed not in the best interests of the public or TriMet's financial stability, we are bound by the district's last "best offer". Fighting a battle with our collective fists bound behind us, negotiations are heavily weighted in favor of the district.

As an operator, it is easier to lose the job than it is to keep it. Standard operating procedures are often so ambiguous, they can often be a loose-fitting noose around our necks. With each misstep, it tightens. There is very little wiggle room. In a "fair" world, there would be counterbalances. We can be blamed for incidents that may not be our "fault", yet should have prevented because we're professionals. A growing portion of the general public, however, does not view us as such. We're actually trained to predict the future, based on constantly varying traffic. If a delivery truck smashes our driver-side mirror, we can be assessed a "Preventable Accident" (PA) if the bus is not completely within lane markers. Rack up five PA's within a two-year period and you're fired. Not many occupations are as stressful, yet we perform our jobs admirably, 365 days each year.

We're also expected to remain professional through situations in which we are pushed, spit upon, slapped, punched, stabbed, and verbally abused at gunpoint. Assaults on operators often don't even make (what passes for) the news these days. When one sister's attacker was brought before a judge last Christmas Eve, nobody from management was present. However, when a rider makes a complaint against an operator, it usually makes the news. Management will act very "concerned" and state it is "investigating the incident". The complaint review process can be insulting, especially given the fact people making these accusations purposefully omit accurate descriptions of what happened, let alone their own behavior. Another aspect of media coverage is the bruising lack of coverage regarding the countless good deeds operators commit each day. It's dirty laundry the corporate sector forces onto the airwaves and newsprint, and a hungry public gobbles it with greedy abandon.

It was highly insulting to read a recent comment posted by a local shidiot. This poster had the gall to state that transit operators are basically "low-skilled workers and their compensation should be commensurate with their skill set". This intellectual midget goes on to equate us with a "shuttle bus driver at the airport". He continues with "If you dont (sic) like your level of compensation than (sic) get a college degree or go into a skilled trade that compensates people at a higher rate based on what they command in the market. It really is a simple equation." When you consider a full bus or rail car transports a significant mass of people whose jobs make our economy tick, it is logical to assume our passengers are intrinsically more valuable to the local economy than one ignorant's luxury SUV.

The "simple equation" actually is the math describing the shrinking middle class. The blue collar worker was once an American hero. Largely consisting of the veterans who liberated Europe and stopped imperial Japan from controlling the Pacific theatre, the American middle class was celebrated. Unions were respected by workers who appreciated representatives negotiating with corporate powers. And the unions got the job done. Better working conditions, respectable wages and the hope of a decent retirement were the results of hard-fought battles unions waged for the benefit of millions. These millions produced the goods which American consumers purchased with their hard-earned money. The economy flourished until the greedy upper crust found a way to split the middle class and turn it against itself. Now, untold millions have been convinced it is somehow our own fault the middle class is shrinking toward extinction. Instead of fighting the corporate monster which created economic disaster, we've been tricked into fighting amongst ourselves. All the while, the puppet masters giggle gleefully at our self destruction and continue to stack the cards against us. Instead of fighting each other, we need to band together to fight the puppeteers.


The minimum wage argument is a prime example. If allowed to increase with inflation, the current minimum wage would now be around $22 per hour. The fact it remains at a paltry $7.50 is staggering. The Great Recession saw a massive loss of middle-class jobs. Many who made respectable salaries six years ago now fight for whatever low-paying jobs they can find. Those who do obtain college degrees are mired in a lifetime of student loan debt, with little prospect of employment paying enough to survive and make the loan payments. Interest on these loans is ridiculously high. Chances are, recent graduates won't be able to work long enough to pay off their loans, let alone achieve a salary level commensurate with the effort it took to earn these expensive degrees. The minimum wage job is no longer the exclusive domain of Joe or Sally Teenager. It's now held by Charlie the former computer tech trying to hold three such jobs just to make the rent because his decent job went overseas to ensure his former employer's shareholders can afford an extra maid whom they pay... you guessed it, minimum wage.

There is a heated debate over raising the minimum wage. Small- to medium-sized companies complain they can't afford paying higher wages. They're already squeezed by payroll taxes, over-regulation and shrinking markets. If the wage had been raised on a regular basis, the economy would have absorbed and grown with it. Plus, consider there is no maximum wage. For every action, reason demands a counter reaction. Those criminals who caused the Great Recession were "bailed out" because they're evidently "too big to fail". Too big to fail, or too rich to jail?

Were we the people given equal treatment? No. Instead, we were blamed for a mess we didn't create, and were left to fight over whatever crumbs remained. The auto industry paid us back for their bailout; the banks have not. Corporate executives have seen their salaries and bonuses increase to the point they make 331% more than the average worker. It's time the entire middle class got a raise, not to mention securing the retirement income of those who paved the way for the rest of us.
 
A bus or light rail operator is highly-trained. He or she has passed rigorous and grueling courses that would flummox the common driver. Over the course of several years driving a 20-ton, 8.5-foot-wide, 11-foot-high, 40-foot-long vehicle, even more valuable training is acquired through experience. We get so road-savvy we can accurately guess a driver's reaction to any number of situations. Our passengers' safety is of utmost importance to us. If you consider the millions of people who enjoy safe journeys because of our hard-earned professionalism, our contribution to the local economy is invaluable.

Which leads us back to this local ATU 757 vs. TriMet battle. Could we have done better for our retirees? Unless we reverse the trend of legislating against our own best interests, retirement is equated with extreme poverty. The once sacred promise of security after a lifetime of dedication may soon be a thing of the past. Someone who is promised a secure retirement, should not have to fear poverty due to the breaking of said promises.

This contract was voted upon by a scant 57% of active union employees. This is a pathetic display of apathy. That 43% which didn't bother to cast a ballot is too complacent to fight for its own best interests, or for those who came before us. We owe our retirees the respect they earned as operators who worked under harsher conditions than we endure, using equipment not nearly as advanced as what we operate today. We also owe future hires a commitment to fight for their benefits as well, in the hope they will someday fight for ours. It is also imperative we require TriMet to fulfill its commitments, rather than allowing it to make excuses for its financial shenanigans.

Whatever your opinion about the contract, a bigger fight looms. It's not about Democrats vs. Republicans. Instead, it's American Workers fighting each other, rather than collectively working toward a better future for all of us. We make the collective economy's wheels roll. Unless we learn to work together, we're all doomed to a fate beneath these wheels.

***************************************
*TriMet's Monthly Performance Report, September 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Clean Buses or Dirty Deacon?

A spotter once told me a grand total of three (out of 200+) buses at our garage get "cleaned" each night. This would entail wiping down every surface and washing the floors. Normally, a bus is emptied of garbage and sent back out into service the next day. But "cleaning" a bus at this rate, it takes about 10 weeks to get to each of them. Given that, you could say each bus is in-service nearly three months before it gets cleaned again. Taking it even further, that would mean each bus is cleaned an average of four times a year. Considering the personal hygiene habits of many of our riders, that just adds to the "yuck factor".

I'm not saying this is entirely true. Questioning my fellow drivers, however, revealed there are a grand total of six bus cleaners district-wide. Each is reportedly given eight minutes to clean a bus. When doing so, they are dressed for it, unlike the operators who spend 8-12 hours driving the germy monsters. Most buses seem to make it through the wash rack on a regular basis, so they appear clean. But that's only aesthetics; the interiors are often mold-infested, bug-crawling germ factories.

One driver reports, "The sickening reminder comes as I'm walking back to my car, after a long day's work, and I see the brother and sister cleaners wearing full gloves, respirator masks, and practically dressed in hazmat suits just to get, safely, though their eight minutes!"

My trainer suggested using wipes to clean surfaces an operator touches as part of the pre-trip. This made sense, because the first time I sat in the seat, my first reaction was "eew" when I first gripped the greasy steering wheel. I took this wise advice, and I routinely wipe not only the operator controls, but the rails, stanchions, door handles and stop buttons near the back door. Each time, my wipe comes up black with grime. Some days, it takes two or three wipes before I feel relatively "safe", and even then I still seem to catch every bug that walks through the doors.

Other operators take their pre-trip to elevated heights. Several wash the interior windows (at their own expense). In one video, a driver shows a clean wash rag prior to washing one interior passenger window. After he's done, it's black with grime.

There's simply no time, or personal finances available, for drivers to clean all surfaces. The seats are usually the dirtiest. While older buses have cloth seats, the dirtiest, the district touts plastic seats on the new models as cleaner. This has long been an issue. But if each bus is cleaned only a handful of times each year, bacteria will build up when not properly sanitized. This 2011 news report gives an example of just how dirty bus seats can be: Dirty Seats Report.

Our district cut the number of cleaners at some point, while later granting non-union employees generous raises and working to charge us for health insurance. Dirty laundry here, but it's abusive to expose us to long hours in unhealthy working conditions, then making us pay for going to the doctor when our very job makes us sick.

I wonder what our passengers would think if we donned haz-mat garb to protect ourselves from germ-laden "offices" while we work? We're already exposed to whatever pathogens our customers bring with them. Another fellow operator states, "I have never been as sick as many times since I started working here".

It isn't the fault of those dedicated, masked souls who try to clean up after the hygiene-challenged who ride public transit. But next time you ride a bus, you'll wonder, "when was this bus last cleaned?".

Eew, indeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Punching Bags to Olive Branches

Another driver attacked. I don't know the details, but that's irrelevant for what I'm about to state. Of course, the attack itself isn't irrelevant. But there have been so many the past few years as to make it a top priority for our agency and union to seriously address.

Our Standard Operating Procedures merely state "Do not respond physically when confronted with threatening, violent behavior or unstable customers unless it is absolutely necessary to defend yourself or a passenger and the degree of physical force is only that which is minimally necessary." This is pretty vague. We're taught to "stay in the seat", unless we need to protect ourselves. Some believe this means I'm to wait until Joe Jerkoff punches me before I can jump up and slam his fist up his rectum, or risk suspension. Of course, common sense dictates using calm, rational customer service techniques to avoid physical violence. An assistant manager once told me the rationale behind the "stay in the seat" rule is to avoid escalating a situation, and also to stay close to the radio, which is our biggest safety device. The trick is to know if and when you need to leave the seat. If we allow our anger to rule, we can make mistakes. Being calm in a tense situation is a tough thing to do, especially if one is scared. Some violators cannot be "talked down".

As I've said before, I don't want to be caged like a zoo animal, cutting me off from the majority of my customers. Sure, there is that fraction of freaks who make a habit of attacking us, but most people are respectful. To simply throw up a cage might be construed as insulting to those who enjoy friendly banter with their regular operators. I don't think this type of barrier can stop a bullet, or a knife wielded by an experienced combatant.

Other transit agencies around the country have opted to install cages around the driver's seat. Miami-Dade Transit in Florida has barriers on a small percentage of its buses, but I can't seem to find any statistics as to their overall effectiveness. The cost is approximately $1600-1900 per bus (From Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District Staff Report). Other means of "protecting" operators, as practiced by Alameda-Contra Costa (SF Bay/Oakland, CA area transit) include random yet frequent boarding of buses by sheriff's deputies or uniformed and plainclothes police officers, operator training in non-threatening customer service techniques, and public outreach. In addition, surveillance cameras are becoming more of a presence in an attempt to deter criminal activities on transit vehicles.

In my time as a driver, only once have any officers ridden my bus. In fact, the route they did ride was a neighborhood commuter run serving a quiet nest of professionals who never gave me any guff. I asked the officers why they chose that particular route and their response was, "it was just random". It seems not much thought has been put into ride-alongs. Since then, I've driven many more dangerous routes. Most have been without incident, but a few tested my customer service skills to the hilt. In fact, I've had to re-evaluate my approach to difficult customers. You see, I'm a dog of Irish descent. When someone growls at me, I have a tendency to bite. Normally, I'll give someone a warning... once. Then, they either leave my bus willingly, or else. (I won't say what "or else" means, but I've had to stop myself from "leaving the seat".)

After a difficult situation, I'll evaluate how I handled it. Luckily for me, I haven't been severely tested or attacked. However, I'm constantly thinking about possible scenarios, asking other drivers their "horror stories", and combing the web for information. It could save my life someday, if I'm prepared for the worst. Some are simply not able to adequately defend themselves against a sudden, unprovoked attack. Take our sister Pam for example: Line 4 Assault.

Portland's transit agency, named TriMet, is either woefully ignorant of what we face as operators, or they simply don't care. Having met our GM, who appears a decent man in person, I doubt he doesn't care. He just doesn't know how to. He's never driven a bus in service, so he has no firsthand experience or working knowledge of the situations we routinely face. When Pam was severely beaten last winter, nobody from our management showed up at the accused attacker's pre-trial hearing. Several union officers and about 25 drivers showed up to support our fellow operator. TriMet's initial response was the usual bluster about offering a reward for information leading to an arrest, but my feeling was echoed by others... do they actually care about our safety? If they can talk the talk, why don't they walk the walk with us, rather than bemoaning how we're a bunch of money-hungry whiners with "Cadillac benefits"?

In addition to the threat of being assaulted, this job takes its toll on our bodies. Maneuvering a 20-ton, 40-foot long bus through traffic is stressful in itself. I've touched on this many times, so to do so again is overkill. I found an interesting article which deals with the stresses operators face. Over time, these stresses take a heavy toll on the average operator.

Our morale suffers every time one of us is assaulted. Each time this happens, it feels like we've all been beaten, because it could happen to any of us. The public is largely ignorant of the problems regarding our safety. What if our union, in cooperation with TriMet and local law enforcement, began to educate the public? Explain that the Federal Transit Administration reports assaults on transit operators has increased 144% since 2008, and what penalties people face for this crime. In addition, punishment for assaults needs to be more harsh.

There is a disconnect between the union and the agency we work for, largely due to contentious contract negotiations the past few years. Now it appears we may have reached an agreement, the time has come for us to work together.

Community outreach is severely lacking in Portland where transit issues are concerned. Whenever there's a news article about something good about operators, you can count several negatives which offset the positive. One local newspaper, The Oregonian, has a nasty habit of over-using the "Cadillac benefits" phrase. Its reporters don't seem to have a clue what we face out there. We are more prone to work-related injury and health problems than an overwhelming majority of other professions. Issues concerning driver comfort and fatigue are being addressed, which is a positive note. But the disconnect between US and those we serve needs to be bridged.

Educating the public about how to ride transit is also needed. Public Service Announcements, with operators explaining basic rules and procedures, would be worth consideration. Giving transit operators a face, highlighting the deeds of decent people who work a tough job every day of the year, might bring about a more positive work environment and more pleasant ride for all. Other agencies around the country do this (see Riding a Bus in Burlington, or this interesting tutorial from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN). You'd think Portland, which boasts several options for transit, would do this on a regular basis. It's an opportunity for our union to promote the positive things we do daily for people who use transit. It might just give people a better idea of what we do, in addition to teaching them the basics. It could also help folks understand why buses can be late sometimes by explaining what goes on "in the seat". Perhaps then we wouldn't be vilified so often on Twitter and other web tools. Even the nicest rider is often ill-informed.

There will always be bad-asses out there who don't care about penalties. There are also good people who have come to the aid of an operator in trouble. Our supervisors are widely spread and it can take several minutes for them to arrive at the scene of a problem. While it is impossible to end all assaults, it is possible to work toward drastically reducing them.

Portlanders largely depend on TriMet. We take this city to work, and we get them there in terrible weather conditions and horrific traffic. Routinely avoiding dangers on the road, our operators are truly some of the best in the world. We were once considered the No. 1 transit agency in the country. Officials from transit agencies far and wide once marveled at our efficiency. Now most comments are negative. We've slipped to No. 10 or worse, depending on which reports you read.

While no transit agency can be perfect, we don't deserve being beaten up. Literally or figuratively. We're good people, we work hard, we care about our neighbors. The good deeds we do on a daily basis far outweigh the negative publicity we've endured. The fight must end, so the healing may begin. There are many operators with great ideas, who are supremely more intelligent than I am. There's a wealth of possibility to make transit better for both customers and operators.

Cages make people feel like animals, and they further restrict our movement. It's time we come together, think "outside the box", and regain our No. 1 standing.

What say you?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Priority Battles and Honored Antics

Gee there are a lot of "Honored" citizens in Portland. Many could run the length of a bus backward and hop-skip back to the front quicker than I can get out of the seat. Methinks they just don't want to pay the exorbitant Adult fare, but who am I to judge?

To me, it would seem right that to truly be "Honored" means you are elderly (over 65, even though many people who fit this category are in much better shape than most of us "juniors"), or that you have some  disability that limits your movement or intellect. You should also have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, if under 65, that you fit specifications of the Honored Few. But in this day of absurd political correctness and "anyone can claim disability" social atmosphere, that's but a pipe dream.

There are also many, surprisingly, who either can't read, or just can't be bothered by, silly rules. The "Priority Seating" area of buses and trains are reserved for "seniors and people with disabilities". Sure, it's a pretty vague statement, but many abuse these terms because, well, they're assholes.

Let's take, for example, a crowded bus meandering its way toward downtown. In the "Priority Seating" area are two seniors with bulging shopping carts. The bus is their only means of transportation, and they compete with "standees" in the aisles. The right side of the priority area is dominated by a dangerously obese man in an equally large mobility device, displacing three seats. Squeezed into the two remaining spots are Smelly Shelly the Senior Streetwalker and Larry Loudmouth her "handler" (who drones on about his own supposed "disabilities").

Pop hops on board with Lil' Sally in the stroller. He demands one of these seats, after arguing with Ollie Operator as to whether he should remove Snoozin' Sally from her comfy Stroller SUV. In order to comply with transit agency rules, he's to remove Sally and fold up the stroller. Today's strollers have many handy spots to store the 150 items necessary to transport small children, making them nearly impossible to fold up. Ollie informs him the next bus is just a few minutes behind (and gaining every second this bozo argues), and perhaps he'd be more comfortable on that one. Ollie's follower is enjoying a relatively empty bus because Ollie's so late he's picking up the extra passengers. Pop continues to argue until one stately gentleman stands and offers his seat to this rude young father, just to get the bus rolling again. After all, Aging Arnie is on his way to an important doctor's appointment that took weeks to schedule.

So with that incident settled, Ollie rolls on. At the very next stop, his buddy Madame Guttersnipe awaits her favorite operator's overloaded Gillig. Legally sight and hearing impaired, she is also unsteady on her feet. She's also very well-versed in disability directives. She will blatantly tell Pops to "MOVE" if she determines he is unlawfully taking a seat reserved for her. One look at Madame and they usually move without comment, especially if she raises her cane. Only problem is this time, most of those sitting have fairly-valid reasons. Except Smelly Shelly, who defiantly refuses to budge.


Operators often have to deal with these delicate situations. If not handled properly, they can result in one or more complaints. Usually, the pissed-off customer ends up pissing on the hapless operator. If passengers cannot resolve the conflict on their own, Ollie's only recourse is to call Dispatch and ask for a supervisor to come sort it out. Or, he can pivot in his seat, roar in his impressive lion voice for someone to make room, "or else". Which makes him sit, clock ticking.

Other passengers become irate, and start badgering Smelly to move. Arnie nervously checks his watch. Franny Follower zips past Ollie, who can only hold his hands up in a "sorry, I got problems here" gesture. Meanwhile, Madame begins reading Smelly the riot act, because her back is hurting and she needs to sit. Terry Teenybopper in the seat behind Smelly unplugs and re-engages to ask "whattup?". Upon learning of the ordeal, he (surprisingly) offers Madame his seat, who thanks him profusely and accidentally thumps Smelly with her cane (muttering "sorry, dumb ass" as she sits).

Feigning indignation, Smelly makes a terrible decision. She starts berating Madame in guttural pidgkin English. Ollie smirks in spite of his growing headache, because he knows what comes next.

"Stifle," Madame hisses, "or suffer my wrath, you odoriferous waste of precious oxygen."

Smelly pauses, trying in her drug-induced confusion to decipher Madame's obviously insulting command.

"Hey bish," Smelly complains.

"You don't even know the definition of bitch, let alone have the ability to competently pronounce, or even spell the word. Now back off or you'll be sporting a rectal-cranial inversion brought on by my trusty mobility device." Madame waves her cane menacingly in Smelly's angrily-contorted face for emphasis.

An experienced street-dweller, Smelly understands a threat. She may be messed up, but she believes herself certainly tough enough to handle this hobbled geezer. Her final mistake is to clumsily reach in front of Madame in an attempt to grab the cane. Sensing the move, Madame has positioned herself so that Smelly's arm brushes against her, initiating the contact allowing her to "reasonably defend herself".

The first strike is a sharply-upward thrust of the cane's curved handle, which breaks Smelly's nose. Second, the tip makes contact with a knobby knee, which bends Smelly over in order to receive a third "thunk" which connects with the top of her head. Smelly melts into a fetal position in a pool of blood and urine.

She's still screaming when the police haul her off the bus in handcuffs five minutes later. Ollie, having predicted the outcome of Smelly's abuse of Dearly Beloved Madame, has alerted Dispatch to have a supervisor and police meet the bus en route. This allows him to avoid losing even more time waiting for help to arrive. He manages to avoid chuckling as he gives his report, but thoroughly enjoys retelling the story later at the end-of-the-line break he's managed to salvage.

There is no moral to this story. People make up their own morality, and act accordingly. While this may be a work of fiction, Madame Guttersnipe is a real person wholly capable of ruining your day if you refuse to yield to someone who truly needs Priority Seating. And don't be surprised if you join fellow passengers applauding her when she teaches another Smelly a much-needed lesson in humility.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Operators the New Punching Bag

Dawn reveals most of our buses are already "out there", with operators safely delivering passengers.

Once again, one of our operators was attacked while de-boarding a woman described as "crazy". Apparently unprovoked, she punched, pulled the hair and scratched a driver's eye.

Crazy Rider has reportedly done this before. The road supe said she'd hit him recently and the police had arrested her five times in the past month! As for our victim operator, she reportedly continued on route. I wish she'd been removed from duty and transported for medical care, for her sake. It is a common mistake for injured people to bravely decline medical treatment. I truly hope she's okay.

This MUST be dealt with. But how?

Operating a bus is much more than it appears. We're tasked with taking fare and dispensing receipts, keeping watch over our passengers for their own safety, in addition to keeping those around our bus safe. As for me, I don't care whether someone shows me a lottery ticket or a bus pass when they board. I'm a fare informer, not a fare inspector. In fact, I'm told that breed of district employee is extinct. Since the position was eliminated by our unwise district management, I have not had a single authority figure check fares on my bus. Not once in over a year. If I give, on average, over 300 people a ride each day, then about 70,000 people have ridden my bus in that time period. Given the propensity for some people to cheat the system, you can bet at least 1,000 (or more) have shown me expired or otherwise invalid fare.

I don't care, either. Since I began driving a bus, several of my brothers and sisters have been attacked. Some have been critically injured. Do I think a simple bus fare is worth arguing over? Absofreakinlutely not. This latest attack on a sister, however, was reportedly unprovoked. Evidently, the passenger (I hesitate to use a more profane descriptor) was deboarding when she turned around and attacked the operator.

Luckily, I have never been attacked. Some people I know, not so lucky. How would I act? Male bravado dictates I'd open a 5,000 gallon barrel of whupass on the freak. I'm not so sure how I could do that while facing a knife, gun, brass knuckles or any other weapon. Chances are good the attacker would strike when I'm least prepared to defend myself. District operating procedures dictate we not leave the seat during an "incident". I suppose it's better for them if we're sitting ducks. Public punching bags. Fist targets. Spit receptors. Hair donators. Blood donors.

Are we poised for a fall, like this log?
Which leads me to the disgust I feel for the district's inaction when it comes to driver attacks. Sure, the media relations people spout off about how they're "very concerned with the operator's well being, and are conducting a thorough investigation". Usually, it seems they're investigating us rather than Joe Scumbag. When our sister Pamela was brutally attacked last December, my fellow ATU757 members were at the court hearings to support her. Where was anybody from the district? Nowhere to be seen. On my day off, Christmas Eve, I dressed up in my uniform blues and drove downtown with many of our fellow brothers and sisters to stand beside Pam in court as she faced her attacker. Where was our GM? Probably drinking eggnog and admiring his new light rail bridge. While they may wax eloquent to the press, mouthing "outrage" without actually expressing it, they let us down when it comes to enforcing our safety.

Evidently, it's a minor felony to assault a transit worker on the job. The district offers a piddly $1,000 for "information leading to the arrest" of suspects accused of assaulting us. It should be more like $10,000, and then perhaps people would pay closer attention. There should be an automatic jail term of at least 60 days for the guilty one, permanent exclusion from using public transportation, and lengthy probation and counseling. The district has repeatedly been asked to display photo posters of those excluded or charged with assaulting us. The most normal in appearance could be driver beaters in disguise.

If someone were to assault me, resulting in my beating the living shit out the attacker, the tables would turn. The media would headline "Bus Driver Assaults Innocent Rider". I could be fired, arrested, and sued in civil court. Except for union representatives at my side, I'd be alone, having to prove my innocence rather than the district backing me up. The "outrage" would be turned toward me, not my attacker.

Yes, we're very angry right now. The district is disrespectful of us, misrepresents our contract philosophy, and works harder to terminate than protect the very people who diligently make the wheels roll. They hire more managers while eliminating vital operations positions.

It's a dangerous job. We don't "just drive a bus", as Lars is want to say. It's brutally hard work, and deserves the community's utmost dignity and respect. We save lives, deliver people safely to their destinations, and show acts of kindness thousands of times each day. Yet out of 100 calls to customer service, it's estimated that less than five are complimentary.

I don't want a cage around me while I drive. Most riders are friendly, polite and respectful. They thank me for the ride, and wish me safety throughout my shift. I love 95% of the people who ride, and I don't want to be shielded from kindness. I just want to feel as if my safety actually means something to those whose salary is quadruple mine. And, I want to feel as if district management has my back, rather than being poised to kick my backside.

My hat is off to the Line 9 driver today. May you heal wholly, both physically and spiritually, from this horrible attack.

Peace be with you all.
DiB



Thursday, September 18, 2014

An FTDS BC

The Deacon has been leaving these in random spots around Portland!
You just never know where you'll find one... please share it when you do.

Hint: I lurk in bookstores quite often. You'll find them in some of my favorite books.

The State of Our Union



"Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 
― George Orwell, 1984


Prime example of union workers' excellence!
While this blog's regular intention is not to explore union politics, current conditions call for a frank discussion of issues facing us all. This past weekend, our drivers were invited to take part in a "bus roadeo", largely coordinated by volunteer employees but sponsored by our district. Our union's executive board passed a motion declaring a boycott, which I support.

An estimated 65 operators, and/or retirees participated and the consensus was they all enjoyed it. Given there are over 1,000 operators, it would appear the boycott was a success. Sure, this was meant to be an ice breaker in the midst of all the strife related to contract negotiations. Under a fair and reasonable contract, this would be a positive way to show our solidarity while also having fun. However, our management has not shown us respect when you consider its union-busting tactics and general shadiness the past few years.

Since the Reagan administration, corporatists have diligently attempted to dismantle worker protections battled for by our country's unions. These detractors have unleashed infinite rhetoric to support their tactics, encouraging their supporters to believe propaganda painting unions very negatively. After President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in the 1980s, unions were targeted for ultimate destruction. Corporations as well as public entities have attempted to paint union representatives as "thugs", and label union proposals as "socialist". Good people who support the Republican party have been led to believe that unions are something to be distrusted, or "bad for business". By doing so, they convince the very people unions work hard to protect, to rally against their own best interests. This is a very shrewd, yet effective, tactic. If we could somehow convince lemmings jumping over a cliff is suicidal, would they still do it? Some would, and perhaps this is a trait that cannot be changed in one generation. In our case, it's time to stop emulating lemmings or face outright economic bondage.

In the past few decades, we've seen an all-out war against the working middle class. A frightening number of Americans, however, do not understand how the powerful elite have conspired against unions. Union workers largely paved the way for corporate success the past 100 years. Many do not realize what valuable benefits were secured by union "thugs". The 40-hour week, overtime pay, sick leave, holidays, work site safety laws, Social Security, and military leave are just a few of dozens of protections fought for by American unions. Regardless whether you support unions, it is a high likelihood that you have benefited from them.

According to Business Week, 2013 corporate profits increased five times more than wages. In the past 30 years, the minimum wage has not even kept up with inflation; if it had, it would now be about $22/hour. Corporations greedily outsourced and off shored millions of jobs once held by hard-working Americans, thrusting their loyal employees into poverty. These interests supported politicians who helped shift power from the masses to the corporatists. They further solidified elitist power by encouraging wars based on outright lies, which fed billions into the industrial war machine. Simultaneously, they also waged war upon the military veterans who fought these battles, by refusing to fund veterans benefits. Many who voted for the cuts beat their pseudo-patriotic chests, having never served in uniform, while heartily supporting sending our troops into wars we could not afford. They also voted to deny benefits to those most affected by the Great Recession. Considering that for the first time in our history, half of all Congressmen are millionaires, it's no secret whose interests they serve.

The actions of the monied elite, through their purchased politicians, have nearly erased the ability of unions to protect American workers. People are so happy to find any job, they fear reprisal for joining a union. The propaganda war has convinced millions that unions are corrupt, not to be trusted. It's akin to the Big Bad Wolf convincing Goldilocks that her sweet Granny is the true villain. Fortunately, Goldilocks grew wiser and fought the Wolf's attempts to steal her goodies. Unfortunately, the gallant woodsman who comes to her rescue has been reduced to a sickly kid with a dull axe.

Our plight in Portland mirrors that of transit workers across the country. Thirty years ago, the union and our transportation district agreed on a generous, yet necessary pact. In exchange for large raises, employees were guaranteed a fully-funded pension and health insurance paid by the district. For reasons the district hasn't directly answered, the pension wasn't fully funded. Last year, since we had no contract, it began charging us a percentage of insurance premiums. Even though we successfully sued on the premiums issue, the district has not reimbursed us. It collects interest on the money owed while dragging the issue through the appeals process.

After the Great Recession hit, the district found itself in dire straits. While it pushed forward a controversial and expensive new light rail project, bus routes were cut. It also forced hefty fare increases on the very people hardest hit by the economic crash. Passengers, many of whose jobs had drifted overseas or simply disappeared, were understandably frustrated. Assaults on operators increased dramatically while the district hid behind carefully-crafted press releases designed to put the blame on "Cadillac benefits enjoyed by union employees". The corporate media, seizing a golden opportunity to further demonize unions, repeated this phrase at every opportunity. They even singled out a handful of operators who, simply by working tons of overtime, made over $100k a year. Curiously, the district's GM secretly gave raises to non-union employees. Union employees, however, haven't even had a cost of living adjustment in several years.

Meanwhile, contract negotiations languish in mediation. Union employees are frustrated, but hopeful. We hope we're able to hold off the Wolf so he only gets one butt cheek rather than our whole ass. Many are resigned to a sobering reality that we may have to pay for medical insurance even though the nature of our jobs guarantee a decline in our general health. The pension plan was replaced with a 401k, which is no security blanket given the volatility of the stock market. Our retirees, many of whom dedicated their entire working lives to this district, face poverty or worse due to increasing premiums.

Overall, from all I've seen, morale is bleak. People are frustrated because they feel uninformed, while others are simply misinformed. Opinions about current leadership range from "okay" to "useless". Nobody I've spoken to has 100% confidence we can secure an acceptable contract. Some wonder why our union doesn't cast off the other entities it represents to form their own charters, giving ours the ability to concentrate solely on our own plight. Several people support a vote of no confidence in the district management. Without the ability to threaten a strike, we are left without the benefit of ultimatums.

Union officials encourage our members to participate, attend meetings, and speak up. Scheduling conflicts often make it impossible for members to actively participate. Those good souls who volunteer their time to represent us, without extra compensation, often burn out due to the long hours they give us.

The majority of union members seem to like the idea of representation, but are unsure how to participate. Many are simply apathetic. In previous generations, unions packed a mighty punch. Today, we are fighting to survive.

While I'm unsure just how the public stands on our union, one man told me at a layover that "this country is a union, something your GM needs to realize".

There are many among us with strong opinions about current leadership. I've met some eloquently brilliant brothers and sisters who have excellent ideas. Some speak up, others say their input "wouldn't make a difference". Quite simply, we've arrived at the point the district management has worked so hard to achieve: in complete chaos. If we cannot put aside differences, roll up our collective sleeves, and plunge into the fray as a united front, we're doomed.

In light of our current plight, I cannot in good faith support my union and also participate in a district-sponsored dog-and-pony show. Sure, you say, the roadeo sounds "fun", a way to showcase our skills as drivers. I prefer to be properly respected with an honorable new contract. Once this district treats us with respect, I might be more amenable to participating. Until then... the good fight continues.

By supporting our union and participating in the contract process, we're helping ourselves. Putting my actions to work along with these words, I hope to see many of my ATU 757 brothers and sisters at the next meeting. I will be there, if at all possible!

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Deacon's Note: In the interest of fairness, I've asked union officials to respond to a questionnaire regarding current issues facing our union. The next part of this series will address their responses.

Friday, September 5, 2014

TESTing Our Compassion

Portland skyline one stormy afternoon.                                                                                Photo by Katy Philp           
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It's rare to find people who actually care enough about others to do something. This week, I met such a person in Mike Luce. I know his son, and have both father and son as FaceBook friends, but had never met the former.

Mike Luce created TEST (Transit Employee Support Team) to help transit employees who are either injured or fighting a disease, and are unable to work. Spending thousands of dollars of his own money, he made his vision into reality in the form of a non-profit organization. Affiliated with United Way, TEST offers local transit employees the chance to contribute via paycheck deduction or cash donations. It has also partnered with Fred Meyer and other businesses so that a portion of each purchase by a registered participant goes to TEST.

In the past year, its notable achievements include providing financial support to a few of our own operators battling life-threatening diseases. It has also helped another who is recovering from injuries sustained in a horrible motorcycle accident last winter.

While TEST focuses on Portland transit employees, anybody can donate. We've had drivers stabbed, beat up and even threatened at gunpoint the past few years. These incidents are quite traumatic, often physically debilitating, for the victims. It is refreshing to know there is a group created by, and for the benefit of, Portland transit workers.

This is certainly worthwhile. Who among us hasn't asked "What if" when driving people of unknown emotional states? I shudder at the thought of my family trying to make ends meet if something catastrophic happened to me. So little as it may be, I am setting up a payroll deduction contribution.

The other day, I was speaking with a nice gentleman who happened to be standing with the younger Michael. We were discussing TEST, and he asked what I knew of it.

"Well," I stammered, quite off-guard, "not much except it was started by Mike Luce, Sr. and it's designed to help employees in need."

Having seen the cool hats sporting the TEST logo, the ads on some of our buses, and talk around the bullpen, I had made a "note to self" to find out more. Eventually. You know how that goes... life gets in the way and six months blow by. A minute later, Mike's son reminded his father he needed to get to his road relief, and realization struck me like a bus wheel bouncing off a streetcar platform. This guy was Michael's father! Another note to self: DUH.

While it was a tad embarassing, it was nice to meet this man whose dream has helped  his fellow operators in need.

Thanks Mike, for dedicating a large portion of your savings to creating this wonderful organization. May more of us donate with the same spirit of comradery, so that your devotion pays homage to the fact we are all family.
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For more information, please visit www.ourtest.org, and like the TEST FaceBook page.