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.”
“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.