Union man Wednesday May 23, 2007, 13 comments

Today was no different than any other day. I was standing on the platform, waiting for the morning commuter train into the city. I had my iPod on, listening to the BBC radio drama/comedy the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It’s good, I recommend it.

There is an unwritten rule about both commuter trains and men’s public bathrooms – one doesn’t talk to others. I cannot explain it, I merely observe it. Right up to the moment that the union man tapped me on the shoulder, my day was no different than any other day. I was startled that someone would touch me on the platform. I popped my headphones out of my ears and turned to look at the union man.

“Hi, I’m one of the guys who maintains the tracks you people use to get to your jobs every day.” he said to me as he handed me a photocopied information sheet.

Again, I was taken aback by his forward manner. I looked down at the sheet, skimming it briefly.

“Right now office workers are maintaining these tracks. It’s dangerous. The company has office workers maintaining the tracks.” he said, searching my face for an opinion.

“Why are you going on strike?” I asked him as my eyes read the reasons listed on the information sheet.

He hesitated a moment, then plunged on “We haven’t had an agreement since December. We’ve been bargaining since last July.”

I nodded.

“It says here that your union believes ‘wages, benefits, seniority, work rules, safety, quality of life and other issues’ are the principal issues, and that you and the company cannot agree on them. Does that sound about right to you?”

I could see he was getting uncomfortable, but he nodded. He had been counting on human nature – that I’d take the sheet and say nothing. But he was wrong. Wrong guy. Wrong train station. Wrong day.

“So, you guys are on strike right now, and while I agree it is absolutely irresponsible for the company to be running trains on dangerous tracks, and while I also agree that the company has likely mismanaged itself, you guys want more money, more benefits, and more security, and you’re willing to risk the lives of thousands of commuters – who pay your wages, if you think carefully about it – because you can’t come to an agreement with the company?”

He was visibly uncomfortable by now, but I didn’t care. I respect unions. I respect their necessity. But when unions become as greedy, as self-serving and short-sighted as the companies they oppose, it upsets me. Unions are businesses, and act in the interest of business.

“How much does the average guy doing your job make? I asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can answer that.” he responded.

“How does seniority affect the safe operation of these railroads?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” he stammered.

“I won’t even ask about how medical benefits help repair train tracks. You don’t know how much you guys make, and you don’t know how seniority affects the work you do, but you’re supporting a strike based on these issues?” I asked.


“Listen. Safety on the job? Sure. I think that’s a noble thing to make a stand on. Nobody should have to work in a dangerous environment. But there are government regulations to protect workers in the workplace. Safety is a really important issue. And there it is, listed on the flyer you just handed me, after wages and benefits and seniority.”

It was strangely quiet around us.

“But putting at risk the employment – not to mention lives – of ten thousand people who rely on these trains to take them to the jobs that allow them to feed their families because you want better dental or even more money for doing something that a lot of people would be happy to do for less is terrible. There’s other avenues. There’s arbitration. Did you try that? There’s rotating work stoppages – things that inconvenience the company but don’t inconvenience your customers – people like me that you’re asking for support. Did the union think of that? Did you? Did you vote to strike so that you could force the company to give you a raise? Did you even pay attention to the issues?”

I was on a roll, by this point. I was calm, but I was pointed. I believed in what I was saying, and the small group of commuters who were gravitating toward us seemed interested in his response. There was tension in the air, a sense that this situation could go one way or the other.

“We are your customers. The company hired you so that it could better serve its customers. And here you are telling us you are going to cause us problems because you think you need more money? I am disappointed. No, I’m ashamed for you.”

He was torn. Torn between getting in a shouting match with me or leaving. I could see it. I wondered if he’d start yelling. I am sure he felt I was threatening him somehow. The world teetered on the edge of a knife.

“...dunno…” he muttered.

“Maybe you should go ask your union before you start asking us.”

He didn’t answer me, but turned and left. Everyone could feel the tension dissipate as he walked away. There were a few approving glances from other passengers as they caught my eye. But then, like the tension, the small circle of onlookers that had gathered broke up and went back to their own thoughts.

I put my headphones back on and started listening to the adventures of Arthur Dent again. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the union man walking down the platform, handing out his information sheets to other commuters waiting for the train.

I would like to thank the Teamsters union for inspiring today’s post, and look forward to any clarification or additional information any Teamsters union representative wishes to provide.


Thomas Wednesday May 23, 2007

Who knew that listening to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy would bring such mental clarity to pursing such a dialog with a union worker … You really should have been there to help Arthur deal with the foreman just about ready to unleash the bulldozer on his house.

By the way, you’ll probably want to bring your towel with you on subsequent trips on the train.

jules Wednesday May 23, 2007

You go big dawg!!!!! That was amazing!!!


Daniel Black Thursday May 24, 2007

Who is John Galt?

I had a similar conversation last year with a police officer who ticketed me for running a stop sign. When asked some pretty basic questions about the legitimacy and ethical reasonableness of the rule she enforced, she could only reply, “Stop signs are their for a reason.”

I’m sure I’m quite ignorant of just how often persons take it upon themselves to really invest themselves into and through the structures to which they lazily concede their sovereignty, but I bet we as citizens don’t engage nearly enough. Rallying en masse has its place; but it’s easier, in some ways, when you can lose yourself in one institution in the face of another. You didn’t cop out like that. Your asking questions of another man, your making intimate what is usually detached, is where it’s at.

It’s like Fight Club with (much) less blood.

Adrian Thursday May 24, 2007

Thank you all!

Tommy, you made me laugh :)

Jules, I appreciate your support.

And Daniel, I am struck by your eloquence (as always). Thank you for the very kind words.

I am proud of the questions I asked – and disappointed that the union man hadn’t asked them already.

Heather Thursday May 24, 2007

I’m not trying to start something – I SWEAR – but those questions, great as they were, would have been better posed to the union bosses. Intellectually humiliating that poor bastard in front of a crowd of strangers made him the sympathetic figure. I expect that’s why the crowd didn’t burst into spontaneous, cinematic applause. If only one of our politicians could be so inspired.

sarah Thursday May 24, 2007

If you proselytise for an organisation, you have to be able, and prepared, to back up the viewpoint you are touting.

Jorge Friday May 25, 2007

I don’t know what condoms have to do with this, but if everyone is safer, then I’m all for it.

Adrian Friday May 25, 2007

I don’t think I intellectually humiliated anyone. At the end of the day, maybe he’ll question things before supporting them.

sarah Friday May 25, 2007


Adrian Friday May 25, 2007

Most likely he’ll just keep handing out information flyers.

Daniel Black Friday May 25, 2007


I can see your point. If it’s to be addressed formally by the union, taking it to the leadership is definitely an important step.

But, and I can only speak for myself and my observations, we are a disconnected union of persons. Take that to be my city, my country, my species, however you choose, and I would support it. Approaching the bureaucracy is approaching the trappings of the institution. Alternately, approaching the body politic, the organ that gives authority to the institution, serves at least two functions:

- You’d connect directly with the people who’re most directly affected by the policies of the unions. Maybe you start to defeat your generalizations, and come to know people, come to find that their causes are your own. I’d wager that the leadership of various unions have more in common with one another than with their membership.

- By inserting yourself directly into the powerbase, you can subvert policies and protocols to see the power for what it is. When you’ve pressured your representatives to pressure the unions to fix whatever needs fixing, and by your detachment from that process you can’t make any progress yourself, you go grassroots.

I realize I’m posturing a little, and we’re kind of conflating a product of happenstance with a determined effort to change things. It’s not like Adrian’s started campaigning for reform, as much as this post says. So, by that observation, I’ll start shutting up now.

Heather Saturday May 26, 2007

Daniel and all,

Yes, all good points and as I said I thought the questions were great. I wish I could think like that on the fly. I just wonder how much is accomplished, in the end by approaching the issues on the fringes rather than the core. I think it goes without saying that these organizations exist for their own ends and have become completely detached from the interests of their membership. Justifying their own existence. That said, taking it up with a guy who’s doing what he has to to retain union membership and therefore his job is most likely to create resentment. When push comes to shove you stand with those who sign the cheques – that’s the unfortunate truth. Most people are far more interested taking care of their families than changing the world. That’s why they’ve taken those jobs in the first place. It’s a fascinating dilemma.

Sweetie Tuesday June 5, 2007

Has anyone thought of the predicament the union member was in when he approached Adrian? In essence, none of us know much the average person doing his job makes (including the union man himself). None of us know, either, what kind of benefits come as part of the job, or how seniority effects the work-life. These are all good questions Adrian asked, but they still aren’t answered. So are we really in a position to do all this hand-waving and running off into philosophical discussions which require some judgment?

Let’s suppose that the wages and benefits were not enough to support the average person’s family? Then the predicament becomes, do I strike to take care of my family, or do I keep working so that the tracks are the best possible to save a bunch of strangers? And if I strike, and the strike is short, how much damage has been done anyway since there will probably be no accidents? Or if I strike and get support, and the riders stop riding the trains, then I have only damaged the greedy company, not any persons.

An ethical and moral dilemma for the common man, isn’t it?

Although the right questions were asked to allow us to walk in the man’s shoes, they weren’t asked out of concern, but were probably taken as a direct assault. No one will be able to answer under those circumstances. Why not ask the man about his personal reasons for the strike and what it’s like for his family and the co-workers he knows well? Just take a different tact to get the same answers. Then maybe we’ll be able to make judgments and decide whether or not it’s only noble to strike for safety vs. benefits and wages.

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There is little elegance in complexity.”
- Adrian Lebar


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