The Freedom Foundation Is at It Again

Once again, the Freedom Foundation has submitted a public disclosure request to my city to get all my contact information, and every other city employee’s, for that matter, who happens to be a member of a union. If you’re not familiar with this organization, it’s a highly funded union-busting hate group. I’ve blogged about them before, and strongly urge you to read that post.

But rest assured, if these people contact you, they do not have your best interests at heart. Yes, you’re well within your rights not to pay your union dues. You’ll even still be covered by the union, but you’ll be weakening it by getting something for nothing. And that’s exactly what the Freedom Foundation wants to happen.

As this New York Times Op-Ed by Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute so aptly states,

“As compared with non-right-to-work states, wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower on average, or about $1,500 less a year. Workers in right-to-work states were less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension coverage. This does not just apply to union members, but to all employees in a state.

“Where unions are strong, compensation increases even for workers not covered by any union contract, as nonunion employers face competitive pressure to match union standards. Likewise, when unions are weakened by right-to-work laws, all of a state’s workers feel the impact.”

I’ve worked in both Florida, a right-to-work state, and Washington, a union state, so I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Unions vastly improve living conditions for everyone, so it’s very important to support them. Why would anyone want to get rid of their ability to collectively bargain? Why wouldn’t you want to have strength in numbers? Stay union strong!

If the Freedom Foundation contacts you by e-mail, unsubscribe. If they send you junk mail, recycle it. If they show up at your door, take their flyers, tear them up in their presence, and tell them to get off your property, and to never come back.

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Human Resources

I am unbelievably, incredibly, outrageously gullible. Even though it does not serve me well, I tend to think the best of people and of organizations until I’m proven wrong. And I’m proven wrong with distressing frequency. You’d think I’d learn, but this lesson gets thrown in my path over and over again, and all I seem to do is trip over it and fall flat on my fool face.

Case in point: It has finally dawned on me that there’s a reason that Personnel departments have changed their names to Human Resources. These departments are not there for the benefit of the person, the employee. They never have been. Their sole purpose is to protect their organizations from litigation. And if they have to throw you under the bus to do so, they will, without hesitation. I have the tire tracks on my back to prove it.

We humans are their resource. Resources, by definition, are there to be used up and exploited to benefit an organization. I now place HR staff on the same shelf with used car salesmen, politicians, and lawyers. A necessary evil, perhaps, but better to avoid them whenever possible.

If you are being sexually harassed, abused, or otherwise threatened at work, you won’t get satisfaction from HR. You’re much better off approaching your union, if you have one, or unionizing if you don’t.

There’s a reason Corporate America is trying to demonize unions. It’s the only power most of us have left in the working world. And even their powers are limited.

The working world is like the wild wild west, and the bad guys have taken over the town. If you’re ever in doubt who wears the black hats, try dealing with your company’s HR department. Then pay your union dues and hole up in the school house with the rest of us who are under siege, pardner.

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Drawbridge FAQs

So, there’s actually a person making the bridge open and close?

Yep. I get that a lot. Nice to meet you. While there are some automated drawbridges out there (mostly railroad bridges in remote locations with little or no pedestrian traffic), the vast majority of drawbridges have a human operator. Safety is our primary concern, and they have yet to invent a computer with an algorithm to adapt to the unpredictable behaviors of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and boaters. Every few years some fool decides to spend a taxpayer’s fortune to do a study about automating bridges, and it always turns out to be a really, really bad idea.

Don’t you get bored? What do you do between bridge openings? Don’t you go stir crazy? Do you sleep a lot?

I can’t speak for every bridgetender, but it’s a point of pride with me that I never sleep, and it frustrates me when people assume that I do. It’s insulting. I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more to the job than simply sitting there and waiting for a boat to come along. There’s more paperwork than you’d expect. Opening statistics. Accident reports. Long opening reports. Maintenance requests. Log books. Safety lock outs. Supply requests. Many of us are also required to do maintenance, such as the greasing and/or cleaning of various pieces of equipment, the constant battle with pigeon poop and rat abatement, general cleaning, and inspections.

But yes, there’s plenty of down time, too. If you are the type to go stir crazy, you won’t last long on this particular career path. Everyone has their own way of keeping entertained, and every bridge has different policies as to what’s allowed. Some provide TVs and DVDs and/or allow you to bring your laptop to work. Some bridgetenders read books or newspapers or do crossword puzzles. Some of us are writers. I once knew someone who knitted a king sized blanket while listening to the radio. I sometimes sit here and pay my bills.

I also used to know of a bridge that didn’t allow its employees to do anything at all. That, to me, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and those bridge operators slept all the time. I think it’s much better to keep busy and alert, and continually scan the waterway for approaching vessels.

How do you know when someone needs an opening?

Generally they will call us on the marine radio or give us a horn signal. Others will just come up to the bridge and sit there, but since we’re not mind readers, they will most likely sit there for quite some time. If you have a boat, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the Coastguard Federal Regulations, particularly as they pertain to communicating with drawbridges.

Is the bridge manned 24 hours a day? How many hours a day do you work?

That varies from bridge to bridge. The Coastguard regulates when each bridge is not required to open for vessels. Some bridges do not have a graveyard shift. Some bridges share one employee who drives from bridge to bridge to do openings as each vessel transits the waterway. Some bridges over water that ices up are only opened seasonally, or by appointment only. Most of us work 8 hour shifts, but I do know of a few who work 12 hour shifts. Some bridges only allow part time employees to avoid providing benefits.

How much money do you make?

It’s unbelievable how much variation there is from region to region. Some bridgetenders only make minimum wage and get no benefits whatsoever. I’ve known some railroad bridge operators who make 45 dollars an hour and have retirement and every benefit under the sun. The primary difference seems to be whether you have a union or not. I strongly urge unionization to every bridgetender. Power to the people!

How do you get a job as a bridgetender? Do you need special training?

Let’s face it. This isn’t rocket science. If you can read and write, and have functional arms and legs, and good hearing and eyesight, you can be trained on the job. Some important skills to emphasize in an interview are taking safety seriously, customer service, and reliability. Since some bridges are operated by states, some by counties, others by cities, and still others by subcontractors or railroads, it’s best to just approach a bridgetender on the job and ask them who to contact. (Just don’t sneak up on us. We hate that.)

How often do you open the bridge?

That varies greatly from bridge to bridge, and from season to season. Some bridges only open a few times a year. Here in Seattle, I can go several days without an opening in the dead of winter, and then get 15 openings in a shift on a summer holiday weekend. My alltime record was opening for 225 vessels in an 8 hour shift in Florida. Granted, I let several boats through each time, but still, I didn’t get to eat lunch, and  had to get kind of rude just to take a bathroom break.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Witnessing suicide attempts. And it happens more often than you might think.

Why is there such a long delay between the time the bridge closes and the time the traffic gates go up to let cars through again?

Patience, grasshopper. Once the bridge is seated, a lock has to be driven along the underside of the structure so that the bridge doesn’t bounce open while you drive over it. From the point of view of a car, it may seem like nothing is happening at that time, but we cannot raise the gates to let you through until those locks are driven.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!

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Could You be a Bridgetender?

Within 5 minutes of meeting a new bridgetender, I can tell if he or she is going to last. And I’m never wrong. Opening drawbridges isn’t for everyone.

Some people don’t even last for that 5 minutes. They take one look at the catwalks and stairways, suspended precariously high above the water, and they quit right on the spot. And some tenderhouses are considerably shabbier than others (when they’re gross, they’re very, very gross), and that can turn people off as well.

Others quit after a few days. They can’t take the isolation and/or the boredom. Very few people are accustomed to no human interaction whatsoever for 8 hours at a stretch. That amount of introspection can be very uncomfortable if it’s not your thing. Solitary confinement is considered to be a form of torture, after all.

If you are used to spending your holidays at home with family, this is definitely not the job for you. And if you’re the type of person who likes to show up late, the coworker you are relieving will kill you sooner rather than later. If you have only a passing relationship with the concept of ensuring the safety of the traveling public, then we’d all rather that you go away.

If you are inflexible, you won’t thrive when working on a bridge. Yes, for the most part this is a sedentary job, but that’s punctuated with times of great activity. Doing maintenance. Responding to emergencies. Opening the bridge (well, duh). If you come to resent those parts of the job, or think the world owes you a living for doing absolutely nothing, ever, then you will not be happy here.

Sadly, there’s no uniformity of benefits or pay scale for this job. In some parts of the country the compensation is absolutely abysmal. (I can’t stress this enough: UNION.)

I’ve also run into short timers who were hesitant to talk on the marine radio, or couldn’t read or write well (there’s a lot more paperwork than you’d suspect), or were afraid to step outside alone at night or in inclement weather when things needed doing. These are always red flags.

Rereading this, I realize that I make it sound as if this is the worst job in the world. On the contrary. I’ve written about my love for this job in this blog on numerous occasions. But as with any other profession, you have to be suited to it. You have to have a certain je ne sais quoi. I may not be able to describe it to you, but I can spot a bridgetender with staying power at 50 paces.

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Give Yourself a Raise

Recently I got a raise at work, and I was thrilled. You have to understand. For 14 years I worked in a non-union job, and we got a one dollar raise every 6 years, which, needless to say, did not keep pace with the cost of living. And we’d have to fight to get that. We also got 3000 dollars’ worth of health coverage a year, which barely covered prescriptions for most of us. Now I’m working the same job on the other side of the country and we have a union and I’m earning three times as much, with a benefit package that moves me to tears whenever I contemplate it.

Let’s face it, if employers actually cared about their workers, there’d be no need for unions. Assuming The Man is going to behave honorably without union oversight is pure fantasy. Without unions there would still be sweat shops, child labor, and 80 hour work weeks.

I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. I just kind of fell into this good fortune. I did nothing special to deserve it. I was just in the right place at the right time. I am no more worthy than you are. I wish I could sign up every single person on the planet, but that’s not within my power.

If you can unionize, do so. But as much as it breaks my heart to say this, most people reading this are probably going to be screwed at work. The only thing I can tell you is that there is more than one way to get a raise. If you wait for your employer to do it you may wait forever. Here are a few other ways to raise yourselves up:

  • Find something that you love doing outside of work and do it just for the pure joy of it. You might also consider thinking of ways to make money by doing it, but that’s definitely not required.

  • Volunteer. This will give you a great deal of satisfaction. Call it a karma raise. And though your efforts you may meet people and make contacts that will translate into a future job, or make like-minded friends. You can never have too many of those.

  • Be ever mindful that the best things in life don’t cost a penny. Love. Friendship. Learning. Beauty. Reach out for those things. Embrace them.

  • Vote! Make your opinion count! Be heard!

  • Whenever possible, do as much as you can to lift up the people around you. Acknowledge their efforts. Give compliments. Be generous. That abundance will come back to you. On the other hand, turf-guarding, selfishness and subjugation will drag you down as well.

  • No one can treat you as well as you can treat yourself. But are you doing that? Being kind to yourself, pampering yourself? Our culture may frown upon it, but it’s the greatest gift you can give yourself. Make it a habit.

  • Speak your truth. Embrace your uniqueness. Maintain your integrity. Do what feels right to you. All these things will make you a more authentic, happy individual, and when you live that happiness, good things will come your way. No one can take that away from you.

  • Explore your spirituality to it’s natural (for you) conclusion. Therein lies peace.

  • Exercise. Do yoga. Walk in the world. Actively play.

Do something to give yourself a raise every day. It’s every bit as important to you as food. Think of it as feeding your spirit. The Man isn’t in charge of your well-being. You are.

Alicia
This is my friend Alicia. Beautiful in mind, body and spirit. And also the best yoga instructor on the face of the earth! (Photo used with permission.)

Rooting for the Home Team

When I was 10 years old I moved from my waspy, upper middle class New England house and wound up living in a tent in the rural South. It was quite the culture shock. But the biggest shock of all was finding myself in a public school where only 1 percent of the students looked anything like me. This was something I had never experienced before, and I got beaten up quite often as a result.

I also had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the backward Florida school system. It was several years before I started learning anything that I hadn’t previously been taught in Connecticut, and when they tested me and determined that I was reading at college level at the age of 10, they weren’t nearly as impressed by that as they were that I was voluntarily reading anything at all.

At one point my mother asked me if I even had textbooks. I told her yes, but that I did my homework in class, as it only took a minute. No reason to lug those books home.

Once, my teacher was talking about the Civil War and she asked whose side everyone would be on. “This is easy,” I thought. “Union, of course.” But I was stunned to discover that all the children of color around me chose the Southern side.

I was normally quiet and kept to myself to avoid the inevitable beating. But this… I couldn’t handle it. “Are you guys crazy??? You’re supporting the side of slavery!” None of them changed their minds, however. I was speechless.

As an adult looking back, it’s a bit more understandable. In that school system, they were taught virtually nothing about history or human rights. Most of them were so poor that they’d probably never stepped foot outside the backwater town in which we lived. They were simply rooting for the home team, as if this were a football game. I have no doubt that every one of them came to their senses when they entered the real world.

It wouldn’t be the last time I felt like the only voice of reason in an insane situation. I feel that way now when I see people supporting Donald Trump or denying global warming. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

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[Image credit: theblaze.com]

Hell Hath its Benefits

When I listen to my coworkers complain about this job, I have to inwardly giggle. They think this job is bad. They think they’re being mistreated.

For 13 years I was in a horrible job situation. I worked graveyard shifts and got a one dollar raise every 6 years, and they tried to find ways to deny us even that. I had no health insurance to speak of. We got $3000 dollars a year to spend on our health, including prescriptions. After that, we were on our own. I was usually on my own by about the end of February. Forget about dental or vision or retirement. It was a right to work state, so we could be fired without cause. Racism and sexism were blatant and they made neither apologies nor excuses for them.

That’s what happens when you don’t have a union. Do you honestly believe that employers will treat you decently of their own free will? Trust me when I say that doesn’t happen. I’ve lived it.

So when I got this union job, which pays 2 ½ times as much for the same work, and has health insurance, vision, dental, retirement, deferred compensation, and more paid vacation time than I know what to do with, I felt as though l had died and gone to heaven. What’s to complain about?

That’s something you never think about when times are tough. Having lived in hell, you will always be grateful for and fully aware of those moments when you are no longer there. That’s something that my coworkers don’t have: the pure and bitter glory of perspective. What a gift. Seriously. What a gift.

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[Image credit: imgkid.com]

Union Dues

For the first time in my life I’m a member of an effective union, and holy crap, what a difference it’s making in my life! I’ve actually got a living wage and can look forward to raises. I have decent health insurance for the first time in well over a decade. I have retirement. Retirement! I can’t even imagine. And believe me, that’s just the tip of the benefit iceberg.

I actually know several people who have bought into the whole Republican propaganda machine and therefore resent unions. That always kind of amuses me, because they would be the first people to squawk if they had to work more than 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day, or if child labor came back, or if they were in sweat shops. They have unions to thank for their excellent working conditions, and yet they disapprove of them.

I’m assuming these people think that employers are going to treat their employees decently as a matter of principle. Unfortunately, this has never been demonstrated to me. I’ve been working since I was 10 years old, and I’ve held 23 different jobs. What this has taught me is that greed will always prevail. Power always corrupts.

Yes, unions can take advantage of their power as well. Some of their benefits are a bit over the top. Yesterday I worked 12 straight hours, and because of that I was entitled to have my dinner reimbursed. I felt a little guilty as I turned in my receipt for coconut crusted prawns, top sirloin with mashed potatoes and broccoli, and salted caramel vanilla crunch cake. But you know what? I guarantee you that there isn’t a member of a board of directors anywhere in this country who hasn’t eaten even better, and I know I work harder than they do.

So unless you can wave your magic wand and come up with some way of making everyone behave fairly, I’ll continue to pay my dues and eat my prawns, thank you very much.

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Reliving the Battle of Olustee

On February 20th, 1864 the battle of Olustee was fought here in Florida. It was the largest Civil War Battle in the state, and the second bloodiest battle for the Union. 296 soldiers died that day, only 93 of whom were Confederates. In the end the Union soldiers retreated 40 desolate miles back to Jacksonville, their collective tail between their legs.

One weekend a year each February, thousands descend on the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park to observe a reenactment of this battle, and in 2005 I bore witness to this event myself. The irony is that I live in Jacksonville, so heading out there I sort of experienced a reverse retreat. And I’m here to tell you that that section of Florida is still pretty darned desolate. I could only imagine the hellish journey amongst the snakes and swampland and sharp-leafed underbrush.

And the thing about that part of Florida is that the deeper you get into, well, absolutely the middle of nowhere, the more you can’t shake the feeling that you’re traveling back in time, and not in a good way. There’s this feeling of free floating anxiety that you can’t quite put your finger on. I wouldn’t want to be there after dark during that weekend. And I wouldn’t want to be there even in broad daylight if I were black. And indeed, amongst the throngs of people and reenactors I only saw one minority face, that of a black union soldier. This just isn’t an event you want to attend if you’re not a WASP, because for this one weekend a year, people who are proud of the south and its history, in all its ugly and misguided glory, get to celebrate. There are confederate flags everywhere, and there’s beer. Lots and lots of beer. That’s never a good combination, if you ask me.

I must say, though, they really pull out all the stops. While you’re there, you can visit the confederate and union camps, and check out a lot of the historic armaments and medical tools, which is kind of interesting. There’s also an arts and crafts fair, a fun run, and even a square dance.

I’m glad I experienced this once, but have to say I’ll never go back. Not only because I came down with the worst case of sun poisoning in the history of mankind, complete with turning a dark purple and vomiting for 48 hours, but also because, more than anything, I got the feeling that here was a crowd of people that were longing for those days, wishing they could have back what so many feel that the south lost when they lost the civil war. Instead of witnessing a battle and thinking, “Never again”, they were thinking, “Yeah Buddy! The South will RISE AGAIN!!!!” And that sort of made me sick. You’re supposed to learn about history so as not to repeat it, not revel in its darkness and long for it to return.

So would I recommend that you go to the Battle of Olustee? Yes, with caution and a rather large companion. But that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the pictures I took while I was getting sun poisoned.

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