Friday, April 30, 2010

Sad and mad

Sad. Watching the 16-year old Asian girl with ill-fitting clothes and a runny nose on the Muni subway train reading a book of Garfield comic strips

Mad. Having to walk out of my office building through the crowd of cigarette-puffing German, Italian, Russian, French and Japanese 18- to 22-year olds in tight jeans who won’t step aside after walking outside of their English language classes on the 3rd and 4th floor of my office building.

Mad. Having too much to do and not getting to relax.

Sad. Visiting my 39-year old friend in the hospital after he had a heart attack.

Sad. That it’s so expensive and so much work to parent a baby if there’s not a uterus in your house.

Mad. That those awful tea-party lemmings have made it almost impossible for me to feel relaxed after I read the Google or Yahoo homepages because it’s filled with tacky stories generated by Rupert Murdoch’s “news” website.

Sad. Learning that an educated and fun [former] friend of mine who disappeared from my life to marry an Orthodox Jew in New York has become a Republican.

Sad. Walking by the young white guy with chin-length hair who juggles, not very well, in the long underground hallway connecting the BART station to its Stockton Street exit.

Mad. Talking to customer service people in India who are probably perfectly nice and smart, but completely incapable of responding to my website inquiry.

Mad. That the man who has the window seat next to me is wearing an ugly Versace belt and Prada slacks and continues to stand in front of me in the row, taking his time folding his newspaper and putting his things in the overhead bin.

Sad. That every weekend can’t be relaxing and warm and deadline-free like the last one.

Sad. That my grandmother is about to turn 100 years old, and lives in a nursing home, uses a walker, eats flavorless food, and doesn’t know who I am.

Sad. That the children at the school where my spouse teaches who are Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t allowed to participate in Valentines’ Day parties, Halloween or classmate birthdays.

Mad. At the parents of those children for forcing an intolerant religion on them.

Mad. At the people who are cocaine users because their addiction destabilizes so many countries and the lives of the people in those countries, leading to deaths and kidnappings.

Sad. That sometimes it feels like there’s no way out when I feel overwhelmed.

Mad. When I don’t like the people who are telling me what to do.

Sad. That the people shopping at K-Mart continue to do so and the people working there have jobs there – there in that dirty, ill-stocked fluorescent shell at the edge of that huge cracking parking lot with the painted parking spaces all faded and the broken down cars out front.

Sad. That Family Dollar Stores where young Latinos and Blacks shop in low-income neighborhoods are like miniature K-Marts, but even drearier.

Mad. That Wal-Mart is such a terrible place that does terrible things to the world, but people still spend lots of money there.

Sad. That a formerly good friend of mine and I don’t talk to or see each other anymore.

Sad. That things aren’t always like they used to be.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pardon my tirade about some labor unions

More and more often, my experience with labor unions involves corruption, strong arming, and protecting the lazy. I used to be a big union advocate, because I understood unions stood up for all of the little people and gave them the power they otherwise did not have in terms of collective bargaining.

When unions first started, they had a noble purpose, but I wonder whether they still do. I offer three different observations:

Transit. I work with a number of different transit agencies, and reading through their documentation, contracts and performance data, I think, quite often, that the operators and dispatchers and maintenance personnel would be better off without a union. I’ve had transit managers tell me that they tried to give 15% merit pay raises to their long-term drivers with the best safety records and the highest number of passenger compliments, but the union leadership argued against it, instead eking out a 3% increase for all of the drivers, including the terrible ones. I see ridiculous provisions in San Francisco Muni’s contract that allow drivers to skip work without calling in. I see agencies sideline, with full pay and benefits, bus drivers who are drunk or beat up passengers. These people should be fired.

Schools. I have acquaintances who work in education and a spouse who works as a teacher at San Francisco Unified School District. Reading the directives of an educated and fairly reasonable sounding superintendent and then the teachers’ union’s irate and unreasonable response makes my blood boil. Why is the union willing to sacrifice some of its best and brightest young and innovative teachers to protect a few substitute teachers? Why can’t one of the worst performing schools in the SFUSD, with a particularly inept and crazy teacher who cannot competently educate the students assigned to her class year after year, be fired so that young, bright and innovative teachers can transform the classrooms and be rewarded for their work? The union protects the rights of the terrible teachers without even thinking about the students in their classrooms. The union’s focus is far too narrow.

Grocery. Almost every day I walk into Bristol Farms’ store in Westfield San Francisco Centre, an urban mall anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom in downtown San Francisco. Bristol Farms is a high-end supermarket on the ground floor of the mall that has been picketed by labor union representatives since the store opened. One day, shortly after the picket started in front of Bristol Farms, I asked the 60-something looking man with a huge gut and a yellow t-shirt why he was picketing. His answer: “It’s not a union store.” My response: “So why don’t you picket Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s? I don’t think they’re union stores.” His answer: “Umm, they just told us to come down here. I don’t really know anything.”

And so nearly every day since then, I walk past the mix of disheveled people who I would certainly have laid off if I had a business. They lean against the outside of the Bristol Farms store and talk on their cell phones or to one another about somebody’s “son who beat up his cousin getting out of jail” or “getting real fucked up this weekend.” I walk inside, buy some sushi or some soup, and I make a purchase from one of the efficient, friendly people who work at Bristol Farms. It’s not to say I don’t value the supermarkets and other businesses that offer their employees benefits and health care and other things, but it is to say to this union, if you’re going to send out the laziest, sloppiest people who don’t know why they’re standing outside the supermarket to tell people not to go in, then I’m not going to listen to your whining and irrational behavior. If you want to make an impact, you might need to hire some smart non-union young people who can clearly communicate what you seek to accomplish.

It may be my upbringing. My perspectives have changed over time, but I confess that growing up in Georgia – perhaps the least union-supportive state in the US – may have tinged my opinions somewhat. My school teachers were not unionized. The hometown airline, Delta, was not a union shop. And my friend in high school who worked at a local supermarket was pissed off that he had to pay union dues that got him nothing in return.

I am not a union-basher. Really. I believe that employer-sponsored health care, vacation time, cost-of-living increases and other benefits are rights that working people should have. And I’m grateful to the labor unions for making sure that Americans are guaranteed these benefits by most employers. But I also believe in rewarding people who do a good job, firing people – without question or backlash – who are slow or lazy or inept, and that an organization should rationally and clearly communicate its goals and responsibilities if it wants people to listen to its message. I’m seeing fewer and fewer examples of labor unions that are succeeding in these three areas, and that disappoints me because I want to be more supportive. Unfortunately, some of the only unions that impress me anymore are health care workers’, manufacturers’, construction and farm workers’ unions.

The good news is that one of the neighbors up the street is a union official and often is threatened enough by another union or another organization that her union positions bodyguards on the street to protect her. I suppose after posting this, I’d better cozy up to her.

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