Sunday, June 24, 2018

Management's Unhealthy Attitude Threatens Transit

Deke's Note: Self-promotion is painful. It's the only way, unfortunately, for an author just getting his fingers wet. Wait, that sounds perverted. But writers do it with their fingers. I'll stop there, before I step in even deeper. Instead, I'll direct them elsewhere.

The book, as if you don't already know is, JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane. It was published last November, and so far book sales are in the hundreds. A rather slow start, but with the help of many -- mostly YOU, dear faithful readers -- it needs to reach a wider audience. The reason I compiled this tome of blog posts was to give the Average Joe/Jane a deeper understanding of what it's like to live in the operator's seat of a city bus. The perception of us is extremely biased in some cases, and truly uninformed in most. Here's a taste of what affects us.

Our transit agency, and those elsewhere, want to control the message. They portray us as unskilled, uneducated goofs who get more than we're worth. It's time we blast holes in that shrewd propaganda and become a force to be reckoned with. We are transit; they are overpaid bean counters bent on beating us into submission.

Transit agencies today are largely staffed with corporatists who have never been behind the wheel of anything larger than a BMW. Their attitude toward us is eerily similar to how ordinary motorists treat professional drivers all over the globe. Transit workers are a melting pot of experience not only in transit, but in scores of other careers. We've built things, organized, managed and excelled in other fields prior to becoming operators. Many who have operated in transit for years are often more qualified to manage our agencies than those doing it. In fact, it would be logical if management positions required applicants to have practical experience, but many of them would be lost behind the wheel. A construction foreman who has never driven a nail or textured drywall would not garner the respect of his co-workers.

Why do transit-novice management wonks think we should believe in them? They certainly don't "have our backs" when a largely-unforgiving public assails us on every front. In fact, their behavior suggests and supports the fallacy that operators are the "bad guys." Passenger complaints  often lack a basic understanding of transit procedure, filled with untruths and even sometimes passed on to the wrong operator. Because management spends very little on public education, we become targets for those who believe they know our jobs simply for having "ridden transit for years."

This push for "on-time performance," while maybe logical to the outsider, is a pressure-cooker for operators saddled with congested routes fraught with obstacles of many kinds. Traffic signals are often ill-timed and don't change to maintain a logical flow of traffic. They're on the same timer no matter the time of day. State officials punished an engineer who pointed out that lights are configured using 100-year-old algorithms. Perhaps they should hire some mathematicians and task them with bringing our traffic signals into the 21st century. Too much to ask, I suppose.

Schedules are now more important than safety or passenger service. If I'm late, that "runner" is out of luck. Why? Because I'm not willing to sacrifice my scant break time at the end of the line to pacify someone who is late to the bus stop. It might hurt my "OTP." If my stats show me late too often, I could be called on the carpet. So the runner is, unfortunately, shit outta luck. It's considered heartless, but also the nature of this beast. We can't achieve perfection, and feel lambasted for not doing so. Management coddles its "customers," who are simply passengers on a public conveyance that cannot be perfect.

Given management's lax attitude toward assaults on front line workers, it seems we're more a nuisance to them than one of the most important lug nuts on the wheel. Last count I saw was 45 incidents so far this year, in which Portland transit workers have been beaten, spit upon or otherwise assailed while simply doing our jobs. If we dare defend ourselves, we're "investigated." Some have been suspended, even when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ruled their biological response to an attack. In some cases, operators are harassed for time loss due to physical ailments from attacks. One operator was brutally stabbed, nearly died, and no longer works with us because he said he felt little or no support from management. His physical wounds were severe; his psychological scars will remain for life. This operator was highly popular with the community he served. Passengers still ask how he is, a few years after he retired. He had a powerfully-positive impact on many of them, and they miss him. In any logical environment, his impact would have had value with his employer. Logic insists this be truth. However, transit management has become anything but logical. Instead, it's devolved into a firestorm of contradictory policies and union-busting techniques which add to the incredible stress we already bear.

It's utterly ridiculous, yet we've allowed it to happen. Our ATU 757 election results bear witness to this. Despite the fact that perhaps hundreds of union members didn't receive a ballot in time to cast it, a mere 42% responded. Over half of us are so apathetic, we don't see the MAX train bearing down on us as we lie prone on the tracks. Unless we rise up and form a human chain of decency to fight the beast plotting our demise, we're doomed. Strength comes in loud and powerful numbers, not in individual whispers. They will be drowned out by the stronger voices of those in power.

Transit operators across the USA are experiencing much of the same treatment as we are here in Portland. It began with our right to strike being legislated out of existence, with apparently little or no resistance. Then we found that three decades worth of pensions had not been funded. Instead of taking responsibility for its decades-long deception, our "greed" became the focal point of blame. Management then secretly gave itself millions in raises, and the political puppets of a board wagged a limp finger but meted out no punishment. The GM who presided over this retired this year, but not with "Cadillac" benefits. He will live comfortably for life with Rolls Royce bennies including $15,000 per month and free insurance. I'll likely retire into the back seat of a rusty Pinto on the banks of the Willamette River, management's blade-tipped boot implanted in my behind for daring challenge it.

With unchecked power and no retribution for its clumsy misdeeds, management has grown in number. It says it wants to "improve efficiency," but it doesn't understand many of the basic concepts drilled into every trainee. It's flexing muscle it shouldn't have. We have a HR manager who is openly anti-union and a General Manager who, even though he was fired from his last job as head of a Canadian transit agency, was appointed by the board despite a healthy outpouring of objection from the union and the community-at-large. Transit managers in Portland have run roughshod over a hundred years of honorable service. We are dedicated public employees subject to daily abuse from those we serve in every element thrown (or spit) upon us.

As unions are assailed by a strong arm of the ruling corporate interests which currently run this country, it's time we stop taking punches. With some unity and decisive action, we could develop our own arm and throw a few knockout jabs of our own. Figuratively rather than literally, of course. I wouldn't want some over-sensitive passenger to read this and call in a complaint that I'm "aggressive." Yet, it would be fitting if management suffered a collectively-symbolic educational punch in the nose. Maybe they'd realize we all bleed the same color, and learn some empathy for those who keep them in a job.

It's time each of our individual 800-plus daily passengers learn to use their phone to appreciate us more often. That would sure be a nice departure from the hundreds of their petty whines we find awaiting us after long hours in a poorly-designed seat. Oh, but to dream...


  1. Hey would you mind letting me know which web host you're working with? I've loaded your blog in 3 different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you suggest a good web hosting provider at a reasonable price? Thank you, I appreciate it!
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    1. Please send Deke an email at:

  2. Yeah Deke, I'd like to see more riders down there in Trimet land do the following:

    1) Thank your transit operator. Period. Full stop.
    2) Read your book and demand their local library get it.
    3) Get ahold of the Trimet Board and give them a piece of their mind & heart...

    1. 1) Yes, please. I’ve noticed many of my passengers DO thank us, but I appreciate your support.
      2) Multnomah and Clackamas County Libraries do offer it, an incredible honor to me!
      3) Yes, but do they listen?
      Thanks Joe!