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.