Deacon Who?

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(Note: Ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily shared by the transit agency I work for. This is simply an expression of free speech while describing the work bus operators perform.) I have been (and called) many things in this life. Most of all, I'm a writer who happens to drive a bus. In May of '13 I thought it would be fun to write about my job. As a direct result of this blog, I published a book in November of 2017 called "JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane" that is available on Amazon. I write to provide insight as to what it's like on a bus... From The Driver Side. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, February 18, 2021

How to Be A Transit General Manager - Part One

Deke's Note: I have wrestled with this series for a few months now, my mind fighting itself for the most effective way to present it. Instead of using some set form of outline (procrastination) I have decided to just go for it (decisiveness), see what comes out. You never know what my mind will write.


I feel like Forrest right now in many ways. Trying to be an optimist in a pessimistic world. Everything is upside down and turned around these days. You all know what I mean. There is no guarantee life will return to "normal". I'm not sure that's possible. Going backward is something Ma warned me against, and I finally understand.

Progress means to forge ahead with new ideas. Maybe all this upheaval will wake up the slumbering bumbling masses from its cellphone daze. I doubt it. The one thing I have learned over the past year is that humans (especially Americans) are spoiled so bad we smell like all the food I just tossed out after being without electricity for 72 hours. Rancid. In our lust for "information" we sort it not by truth (who knows what that is any more), but by what we want to believe. Common sense is no longer a common denominator. Only a desire for more of what we cannot have is what drives us. Until and unless someone can race ahead of the herd of lemmings to stop the chaos and division, we're doomed to roll off into oblivion. 

I'm not that guy. Evidently, a bus operator is not worthy of even a sliver of respect. However, I am racing the pack to block us from that steep cliff. This series of posts is designed to stop the plunge. The current one does not, never did, and never will, work effectively. The "Bored" of Directors will echo the definition of insanity if it makes the same mistake by plucking our new General Manager from some LinkedIn puff baby with a self-aggrandizing résumé. I have a better idea: hire me instead.

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Management is too big for its britches. It is discipline happy, downright abusive. Intimidating. Inconsistent. Infuriating. Insulting, Inept and Inefficient. I believe the new General Manager should be connected, concerned, and completely invested in the collective health of all who make transit work. Instead of reigning from a lofty perch at Harrison on High, I would move my office to all garage locations, transparently guiding onsite rather than dictating from afar. Encouraging, listening and supporting those with whom I have toiled going on nine years now. By remaining in touch with those who do the work, I could more effectively manage transit's most imperative functions.

I do not believe being an effective leader involves isolation from those who depend upon you for their collective well-being. Unless you are intimately-associated with those doing the work, you cannot expect excellence. Distance instills a severe lack of respect, a system-wide demoralization and lack of enthusiasm. With me at the helm, each employee would know I have their back, because I have been where they are. I have never operated a Light Rail Vehicle, but many of my friends and classmates do. My respect for them is equal to those with whom I roll rubber on roads. Rail ops are subject to the same ridiculous discipline as bus operators, and I'm sick of hearing about the disrespect by those whose mission is to support frontline workers above all. It's a disease for which only common sense and mutual respect can eradicate.

Road and rail and maintenance supervisors, dispatchers, station agents, trainers, vehicle cleaners, yard workers... ALL ATU members, in no particular order but equally, should come first in every consideration. It seems the past few decades here have centered around capital projects which do little to nothing in improving the system with the frontline workers FIRST. Instead, workers are considered obstacles rather than part of the overall solution. Rather than improving conditions for those who provide the service, management thinks of more ways of pampering an already-spoiled ridership. It sides with the problem-causers rather than uplifting those who serve them. It's a disgustingly-insulting management model which must be replaced immediately if Portland transit, or that of any local agency worldwide, is to move forward. It's a new world operating on wobbly legs soon to buckle and fail.

People who feel valued will contribute mightily; those who are treated as begging peasants are disregarded. Our "family" is worthy of love and respect. Just this past year, we have persevered through a deadly pandemic, choking smoky wildfires which threatened our homes, and just recently a prolonged icy/snow which shut down our transit system for the first time in modern history. Many showed up for work as our loved ones suffered through power failures at home, risking our safety just to provide the service our community depends upon.

As your General Manager, I would immediately change that title to "JCMP (Just Call Me Patrick)". Why? Because I am you and you are me. Instead of simply "working from home" I would commission an all-terrain vehicle as a Command Center and work all hours of every day of such a weather or other event to ensure my ESSENTIAL workers are supported and connected to the mission upon which we are all devoted. I could not rest easily knowing many of my frontline workers are braving the worst conditions if I were cozily snuggled up to my Beloved next to our warm fireplace. This would be my final career, folks, and I would dedicate my time to the collective health of all who provide the service we have for over 100 years.

Effective discipline at least shows respect for its subject, not ridicule and shame. It teaches more than punishes. It forgives rather than insisting on the punitive. A well-disciplined work force self-regulates the collective heartbeat. Management's objective should be to keep the beat steady, calm and healthy. A broken model causes its staff to shrink and bristle with indifference. This causes disharmony and ill health. Unless the model is reformed and re-defined, just dig a giant hole and bury all the LRV's and buses along with those who make them work. Why? Because we're so low at the moment we've already started digging.

Portland Transit today is the typical corporate model. It consists of a hierarchal chain of command, with the GM on top of the heavy pile of bureaucrats. Our current GM has no idea what happens on the streets, nor does he seem to care. He does not have his finger on the pulse of transit as it exists worldwide. He just smiles to the wind, indifferently leaving contract negotiations to his "Laird" of HR, who seems hell-bent upon making the lives of his minions unbearable. Mr. GM is evidently quite content to allow the heavy hand of insult full reign while he smiles at the cameras and assures everyone "management is doing its very best to ensure the safety of everyone". Bah. Humbug. That's blissful bullshit, bulbous buffoonery at its best. Or worst, I should say. But well, "b's" are big at the moment.

Think of spokes on a wheel, radiating from the outside toward an inner core, wherein lie the "lug nuts of transit" (RIP, Operator Thomas Dunn of Florida). Each spoke should take its cue from the hub, providing support and encouragement. Strength of the core should be the most densely-focused, as it provides the strength of the whole. Where the rubber meets the road, management should be constantly pressuring local governments to remove the potholes which jar our spines into paralysis. Its main focus should be from the outside in, giving its all to the benefit of those who do the true work of transit. 

Sure, there is need for paper-pushing regulatory gurus, budget planners and such. A General Manager doesn't necessarily need to have governmental or administrative experience to lead. He/she should instead have the desire to encourage staff to do its best for everyone involved. A true "team" has no "I" in it, or so I told my youth basketball players.

My first month would involve replacing corporate resumes with transit workers with similar backgrounds. Those who want to stay would have to take a leave of absence from their current position, go through Driver Training and pass. They would then be required to drive in-service for no less than a year before re-applying for their former positions. Each applicant would be screened like other frontline workers for time loss, safety and performance. If they make the cut, they would be placed under their replacement to learn the new psychology of the position. Only then might they actually understand the importance of empathy and compassion for frontline workers. Hopefully, when a supervisor arrives at their vehicle to settle a dispute and interrupt an attack might they realize the dangers we face every day on the job. Only then, will they be truly qualified to lead. Upon returning to their department, their new boss will be a former Operator. Hey, life can be ironic and payback a Rampant Lion's bite on the butt.

Pretty drastic departure from today's reality, you say? Yeah. Walk a mile in my shoes, and you'll be shocked at what you see, oh ye who haven't a clue what I now do.

* * * * *

Harry Truman was kept out of the loop as Vice President. When he became President upon Franklin Roosevelt's death, Harry was largely unprepared for the top job. However, he applied his own knowledge as a Senator and motivator of people to become one of our nation's most respected leaders. Abraham Lincoln rarely attended school as a child, and self-taught himself into being an exemplary attorney. Elected to only one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, losing his bid to become a Senator to Stephen Douglas, he still rose to become our most-revered President beside George Washington. Abe was not "qualified" for the job, as his detractors sullenly lamented. His vision and compassion won him the respect of those who once belittled him. Instead of denying the voices of his opponents, he trusted them with Cabinet positions so he could keep his "enemies" close while simultaneously picking their brains. In the end, he mastered them all, winning their support and acclaim.

While the position of Transit General Manager does not remotely compare with the U.S. Presidency, it therefore need not be bloated into something unattainable to a blue-collar worker without a college degree. At 60, I have worked many service-related jobs and come away with valuable insights into human interaction and the means of motivating people to do their best for the common good. One of my favorite role models was Mary Gallagher, President of Intergroup of Arizona where I was an IT Desktop Support Tech before transferring to Health Net of Oregon in 2002.

Every Friday morning, Mary pushed a trolley through each department, dispensing coffee, tea, sodas, pastries and fruit to her staff members. She took the time to speak to everyone, listening to our ideas and concerns. If we told her of our children, Mary remembered and upon encountering her in a hallway, she would ask "How is Baby J doing these days? Starting to teethe, I bet." I always felt connected to her, and busted my butt double when she requested our department achieve any number of deadlines. She not only heard us, but acted on what she learned from the people she led. Each one of us openly wept when she died suddenly in her 40s. Mary truly cared about and valued those who were the lugnuts of the company, and we exceeded each challenge she requested. 

I am most comfortable amongst those who have no pretensions of greatness. Honesty in oneself and an ability to laugh inwardly are my strongest traits. Whenever presented with someone in a position "above" me who I feel required to address as "sir" or "ma'am" I am immediately distrustful; they are the most dangerous personalities in leadership. If they demand respect, they are usually not worthy of it. If they show me respect, I am more apt to listen and respond overwhelmingly positive. The moment I shake another's hand, my instincts tell me whether they are trustworthy; I hope my soul is true when people look into these eyes.

One "senior vice president" I dealt with in Corporata was the prime example of piss-poor management. His example reminds me of one of our "leadership". As a member of a team managed by a California-based chief, local VP Seth felt it his duty to ride our asses like the champion rider he was not. Just because Seth didn't like our relative autonomy, he complained to our manager we were not doing our jobs, and prompted Ben to fly up to check on us. Ben was very supportive of us, and truly pissed that a Veep was unnecessarily pulling his chain, but he dutifully took the assignment. I remember Ben apologizing to my co-worker and I for "investigating this bullshit". He knew our track record and had recently upped our pay by 17% that year because of our exemplary job performance.

Ben interviewed Seth, other VP's, the President and department heads as well as a various assortment of staff workers. What he found was in direct conflict with Seth's complaints. He told Seth to go straight to hell, stop harassing his team members and wasting his time on "bullshit". Then, he took us to lunch to congratulate us on making "the team" look good. 

Working for Ben was one of my favorite professional moments. I felt valued and respected, and I busted my ass for the awesome team I was part of. We all worked together and it was blissful. I still have many friends who worked with and "above" me. When my department was outsourced in 2009, it felt like a management-forced divorce; I felt discarded but still love those I served; they in turn missed our timely, personable and friendly service, begging us to come back as "temps" to save them from the severe disconnect from those who replaced us. I still mourn losing that job, but keep in touch with those I served. It was a position in which I respected those who in turn respected me, and we did wonderful work together. Today, I love driving bus and meeting new people, but hate having to second-guess a management that is inconsistent and hell-bent on making our lives miserable.

"This is the best job I've ever had," one operator told me as a newbie, "but the worst company I've ever worked for."

We need more folks like Ben and Mary to run transit, not Seth. It's an irresponsible management model that has led our agency into unprecedented and constant battles with ATU757. It has devolved into a shooting match, with each side poised to take the other down. 

It need not be so.

Our current situation can only accurately be described as an abusive relationship. Leadership's only mission seems to split our union, to cause disharmony. It encourages non-union busy bees to degrade us with anonymous complaints when we dare lower our face mask to take a drink or breathe fresh air while on break. It suspends or terminates experienced workers who have earned value as veterans for the silliest of "infractions". Its irresponsible and confusing edicts cause us to pause in real-life dramas where our physical safety is an immediate concern.

Will I be suspended for acting in an entirely-human manner? This is a question no operator or other frontline worker should have to ask oneself. Yet we do.

That is a position many of us are faced with every day. We don't have the luxury of examining past precedent in the moment while dealing with a crazy person screaming spittle into our faces. One "false" move (as defined by those who have never held the wheel of a 20-ton vehicle in their hands) could result in heavy-handed "discipline". It's easy for them to Monday Morning Quarterback our defensiveness, but human biology over millions of years overrule some managerial misinterpretation of "professionalism" when fight-or-flight is the immediate biological response.

Take too much time to recover from surgery or a life-threatening health event, and you're fired. Just ask my buddy Dan, who came back to work two months early after two shoulder replacements. All he wanted to do was get back in the seat and serve his community; eight years of dedication and countless commendations from the public he served was not enough to circumvent the current reign of terror under which we endure.

It's time for a change. I am one who can revamp a failed model. I believe I will be the General Manager you would be proud to work with, rather than against. Let me hear you, loud and clear. Share this post, consider it, add your suggestions and ideas of what can work rather than what does not. It's time for positivity to be the literary twin of: SAFETY FIRST!

* * * * *

NEXT UP: How to move forward into a positive work culture, keeping frontline workers safe above ridiculous public whining, and educating a horribly-pampered riding public. Stay tuned.

It's time transit workers could sing along with James Taylor
 to his song "You've Got A Friend"

1 comment:

  1. "The best job I ever had, but the worst company to work for." That describes my employer so perfectly!

    With you running the show, I'd definitely love to come out and finish my own career there, working my way over to the rail side. There's a lot I'd lose from the railroad that I accumulated over the last 25 years, but it would be worth the change!

    Patrick for GM!!!

    Now to read Part 2!


Sadness BusBits

Deke's Note: After the fright, stress and flashbacks of the violent incident on my bus just over a week ago, I have ached to reach back ...