Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Manny Can Ya Hear Me? Manny, Can You See Me?


Deke's Note: Driving a city bus can be entertaining and enlightening one moment, terrifying and tense the next. We deal with every known or imaginable personality type, requiring us to think fast and act accordingly. One missed signal from a passenger could land us in the hospital or in hot water with management. We play a finely-tuned balancing act that is heavily-weighted against us. One topic we're discussing in Portland right now is whether to allow management to record audio and video of drivers in the seat. Here's my take.

Every so often, I see footage from a bus in a locale other than my own. It invariably shows some sort of assault, or a heart-warming story of a bus driver rescuing some wee lil' one from certain disaster. In my city, this is not (currently) possible, for the cameras pointed toward the operator's seat are turned off. By agreement with my union. No spying allowed. For now. But what if they were activated? Would I be spied upon while driving my daily run? Should such intense scrutiny of my performance be allowed? I am, after all, a "public" servant. Those who pay taxes think they pay my salary. In some small part, they do make a contribution to my paycheck. Not enough to tell me how to do my job, mind you. Nevertheless, they do have every expectation that I diligently abide by transit code and transport them safely to their bus stop. If they believe I stray from "the rules" as they perceive them, a quick call to "Customer Service" is their likely weapon. One that is held above my head as a constant threat by the ever-watchful riding public, and supported by a management that is extremely overbearing in its oversight of frontline workers.

The abuse of video and audio of our daily interactions with passengers is a very real possibility. Our management often drops the ball in its relations with us. Complaints which should never fall anywhere but into the trash bin are routinely filtered down to drivers. Untrue and unsubstantiated, many of them reach us in interoffice mail. They can be as petty as "he didn't smile at me when I boarded" to "she was too cheerful." It's extremely demoralizing to people who carry a large swath of humanity to wherever they need to go for a scant $2.50 (or less). We're highly-trained, vigilant road warriors, who by pure chance also happen to be fallible. Prone to mistakes, members of your community, human to the core. Some minor indiscretions should never land in our personnel files, but they do, even when largely untrue.

We are expected to be better than perfect. I've covered this before, so let's just say we're held to a much higher standard than our fellow beings. Maybe in 100 (or less) years, our job will become automated, but for now it's just a regular Joe or Jane just trying to earn a living. A decent one these days to be sure, but still just a job. We don't consider ourselves above reproach. We just try to get through the day with as little mayhem as possible. Sometimes though, (sh)it happens. And without much training for the perils that can pop up, we do our best. Unfortunately, that "best" just isn't enough to satisfy the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who run this transit agency.

A question was posed to current Portland operators recently, asking if they support audio and video of the operator's seat being activated. The response: about 60-40 against.

Let's explore why operators here are so opposed to being recorded. First, we heartily distrust our management. That is a sad fact. Why? Management should be focused on the safety and comfort of those who do the nitty-gritty work of transit, from the operators to the maintenance workers, supervisors and everyone else who interacts with the public we serve. Instead, it focuses on spreadsheets rather than reality, sometimes at the expense of safety. Over the past decade or more,  corporatists have overtaken us. Our dim view of those entrusted with our safety is relatively new, considering Portland has had transit for over 100 years. Once upon a time, I'm told, management and union members worked hand-in-hand and cooperated with one goal in mind: safety.

Sure, there were some disagreements. But then our right to strike was legislated out of existence, which is un-American in my view. Gradually, our benefits eroded during a media onslaught portraying us as greedy when management mismanaged and mangled our pension funds. They blamed us for their failure to fund a pension they promised in lieu of raises over the years. Secretly gave themselves raises while a bored Board of Directors sleepily nodded agreement and ignored management's misdeeds. Remained silent as assaults on frontline workers dramatically-increased, while laying the blame on our feet like an anvil of disgusting weight. Instead of screaming to an abusive public that assaulting/slandering us is unacceptable, they upped the ante of blaming operators by making it even easier to file falsely-scurrilous complaints. Suspended us for defending ourselves, even when operators suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Allowed the local media to air one-sided assassinations of our character, while dispatching its media spokesman to add insult to injury by failing to support us in a typically-corporate speak statement implying our guilt: "We don't condone this type of behavior... we are actively investigating the complaint."

Why then, would we trust management to not abuse recordings of our passenger interactions? Their training regarding abuse is limited to shielding our faces from impending punches we can't usually see coming. We're told to "diffuse" situations by keeping calm and not provoking violence. Human biology itself denies management's weak stance on operator safety. "Fight or flight," the result of millions of years of human evolution, takes over when danger is imminent; we're often unable to react as management insists we should. Instead of supporting an operator's authority on an agency vehicle, we are undercut by impossible standards dealing with the mentally-ill without proper training. Hell, even someone with a PhD in psychology would have trouble dealing with the vast array of dysfunction we encounter in one 10-hour shift!

We're expected to show up for work, no matter
the conditions, so we can get YOU to work.
Whenever an "incident" occurs on or near our bus, the data pack recording every press of accelerator or brake, interior and exterior video, turn signal activation and speed (in addition to a myriad of other functions of the vehicle) is pulled from that bus. Every action we take is then subject to intense scrutiny by committee. Although we act instinctively, we can be disciplined for doing what we think best in the moment. Sure, we make mistakes. Some can be over-zealous in our actions, others less so. Either way, we're stymied in the moment wondering what micro-managers will do to us when all is said and done. Based on its past dealings with frontline workers, we often don't know what the right thing to do really is. It comes down to the moment, when there's no management telling us what to do, or a library of precedent not readily available.

An operator's decision in the moment should be respected. If we make a mistake, we know what the consequences could be. Not having the benefit of adequate psychological training, it's a crap-shoot whether we choose the "right" solution to any problem. Unless our actions are outright bullshit, we should be supported. Instead, we're trained after-the-fact and expected to know ahead of time what the hindsight professionals will tell us. It's pure bunk, and any level-headed individual would likely agree.

The other side of the equation? There are some who believe recording us could support our explanation of a given situation. The possibility of management "spying" on us is relatively impossible with current staff capabilities. One Station Agent explained there are but two people charged with the duty of reviewing data packs pulled for any number of reasons. Since there are hundreds of buses/trains in service at any given time, the thousands of hours of data would be impossible to review unless a few hundred more people were hired to monitor us daily on a full-time basis. It's just not cost-effective, nor is it morally-acceptable to pay for such intense scrutiny. Many in management actually do appreciate us, even though it's hard to believe given the pressure we feel to be perfect in every aspect of a very difficult job.


Having an accurate digital record of a violent incident perpetrated against us would help prosecutors convict our aggressors. Instead, they're faced with trying a case without much evidence. Anyone with a basic understanding of our legal system would agree this is a conundrum. Additionally, we might win an argument against a false accusation in a complaint if digital evidence upheld our account. There are many instances where recordings could support us in this often unforgiving profession.

We scream about the injustices we face, yet our refusal to be recorded sometimes acts against our best interests. If we do our job as honestly and diligently as humanly-possible, we shouldn't fear constant recording of our actions. Yet, we do.

Management itself is the major stumbling block in Portland. It remains so, despite its plodding attempts to appear supportive of us. Next month, it will roll out a 70% effort to show us its support in its "Lame Attempt at Transit Operator Appreciation Day." Night workers are largely ignored on this annual dog-and-pony show, while day shifters are treated to praise and on-the-ride appearances by the top brass. Big deal. Want to show us you truly do appreciate your frontline workers? Drop the bullshit and start picking up after yourselves, because you're missing the biggest piles. Then maybe we'll trust that you wouldn't misuse the recordings of our actions in the seat.

Trust us to do the right thing, and show us honest respect. Quit giving the public unfettered access to a faulty complaint system. Defend us in the media, and encourage positive coverage of the good deeds we do daily for those we serve. Drop the obvious falsehoods instead of allowing them to reach us after a long day dealing with those who create them. Train your customer service reps to filter out the white noise. Properly investigate any reported incident before summoning us to face the music that is too often an off-key rendering of a recurring tune. Entrust operators to review some of these complaints before they reach operators, to see if they pass a smell test. We can employ common sense to any scenario people call in about. Most of all, we should be afforded the benefit of the doubt; a great majority of us try to do what's right, even on a bad day.

Show us respect, or we'll continue mistrusting you, Management. Until then, no video, no audio. The rest of the nation allows it, but you're failing at the job of supporting frontline workers. Until we can trust you actually do have our best interests at heart, you're not worthy of watching me fart in the seat.

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