The Bumper

The Bumper

Years ago when I started working I got ripped off. I was given a job that I wasn’t trained for. I was driving a 5-ton truck, navigating narrow alleyways getting $60/day for what was listed on the time card as an 8-hour day – $7.5/hour. The reality was never less than a 12-hour day ($5/hr) and just about every other day we did 18-hours ($3.33/hr) with at best an 8-hour turnaround. This was back in the early-90s. Today there’s some recognition that kids entering the workforce are getting shafted by crappy opportunities, low wages and inconsistent work hours. I’d argue it’s hardly unique to the millennial generation. The current Great American Shafting started years before, no doubt even before my time. And it’s gotten, I think worse, since my particular experience with it.

I had been on the job for about a week. I didn’t know anyone except the guy who recommended me for the job who I’d worked with for several days on my first job after college. I was so new I didn’t even know who my boss was yet. One day, driving that 5-ton through the narrow alleyway behind the warehouse we were working out of – brick & mortar to my left, parked cars to my right – I was driving under a mile an hour, checking the mirrors every few seconds. But it turned out the right view mirror didn’t capture stair step jutting out a few extra inches just behind the cab. That stair step managed to grab a reflector strip running horizontally across the bumper of one of one of the parked cars and peeled it off which in turn yanked the entire bumper partway off the front of the car. It made a terrible sound. The damage was technically minimal, but it looked awful. Curiously, it turned out to be my boss’s car. Her supervisor came screaming out of his office: “Your fired!” he repeated over and over again as a small crowd gathered to see the damage. He had a variety of incredulous phrases and curse words to embellish those lyrics, but basically that’s all he said. After some time the volume of his voice was quiet enough, the pauses between “you’re fired” were long enough, that I finally had enough time to respond. “I know,” I said.

As it turned out, I didn’t get fired. My rate got lowered to $50/day, and my boss took a day’s salary on top of collecting insurance to fix the car. (That’s the abbreviated telling. The truth is that my boss was thrilled I’d damaged her car. She was excited about the insurance money. Furthermore it wasn’t like I agreed to forego a day’s salary – a coveted $60 – I just simply didn’t get paid for a day’s work. It took several weeks before I found out it was not an oversight but part of her settlement agreement that was worked out unbeknownst to me.)

In those days I’d jot as many notes down as possible at work and compiled them at home and during down time. I wanted to be good at my job. Without that extra effort there was no on-the-job training. It couldn’t withstand on-the-job jealousy. The work environment was such that newbies were a threat to those with status, title and pay. The management-by-hollering approach at that and many subsequent jobs had little to do with a tough-love approach to getting the best out of staff. It wasn’t about discipline, skill-building, or building a powerful group dynamic. It was a mode of management to keep new kids bowed down with their salaries around their ankles while at the same time giving them enough leeway that they seem an up-and-coming threat to established hires.

Years later I see the same process repeated to new hires. Kids anxious to prove themselves professional are given low-pay high-responsibility jobs for which they aren’t trained. When they screw up they get threatened with being fired and are only too happy to take some kind of hit in order to survive hopefully long enough to acquire that skill and get that pay raise.

And now I see it from the other side: my bosses’ bosses see great opportunities in hiring today’s youth. They cost a fraction of those with talent, they have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and they “know all these new technologies”.

It turns out they know nothing, just as I did. They could use my help. I offer it when I can. For whatever the dynamic, they typically don’t accept it. The savings their low rates offer pale in comparison to the toll of their mistakes. Budgets double, triple, and not infrequently quintuple. Crisis mode is the rule not the exception. Newbies get berated, blamed and fired to save management ass. There is frequently a moment where someone says something about doing a “post mortem” before “we do this again next time”, but the post-mortems never come, and the process repeats itself.

This is what counts as business as usual: under-experienced new hires are positioned above their abilities, threatening sometimes actually replacing more experienced and better paid superiors. Effectively everyone is always on the chopping block. The justifications are numerous: we have to make do with the limited resources and schedule we’re dealt with, so we have to just push through this so the next gig will see an improvement, but reality is stubborn: the budget suffers, the schedule suffers, the quality of work suffers. The corporate workplace is a cauldron of pathology. It works for almost no one.


Michael Bloomberg v Trump at the DNC

Michael Bloomberg v Trump at the DNC

Michael Bloomberg really stuck it to Donald Trump — and the rest of us — right at the same time.

In the same Trump-bashing speech, he offered demonstratively contradictory false equivalence: “Republicans wrongly blame immigrants for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on climate change and gun violence. Meanwhile, many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education reform and deficit reduction.”

The private sector undeniably caused a hell of a lot of the problems progressive activists are pointing to. It’s worth taking the time to nuance out the complex relationship between the government and corporate interests to capture the dynamic that gave rise to stagnant wages, expensive, lackluster healthcare, failing infrastructure, and shoddy education.  Worth it but not here right now.

Perhaps the real genius of Donald Trump is that his extremist existence and sudden national clout allows the clueless and destructive opinions of billionaires to seem like a breath of fresh air.




It’s the kind of thing you associate with the Live Free or Die independent self-made, salt-of-the-earth American. And to the extent it points to someone running their small business, eeking out a living, they’re entitled to the full protection of the phrase. But when this gets coopted by large scale industry whose actions have significant and often dire consequence on the country and world they inhabit, that phrase don’t play. Over a certain amount of impact a nominally “private” company should be considered a public institution, subject to significant oversight by government, its employees, and the public at large. Any notion at this point in time that what ails this country is over-regulation of large institutions is the stuff of dystopian sci fi.

There’s a phrase that’s played well in many a movie: “This ain’t a democracy”. It’s a fun show-stopper. The character who says it is frequently the lead, fettered by some lily-livered nabob, a worry wart of some kind, or a clueless corporate weasel. The context is a crisis with a looming deadline before disaster. There’s no time waste. The job must get done.

Tellingly, I hear that a lot at in different work environments, particularly when the working environment becomes so mired and dysfunctional that people start speaking out. If you spend 8 hours a day, or in my case 10 to 16, the idea that “this ain’t a democracy” sounds is menacing. Are you kidding? A third – or more – of your daily life has no relationship to democracy? Back on day one we were all called into a meeting. “We want to hear from you,” said the company’s owners. “We need you to know that we value your commitment and value your input. Don’t hold back. Share your opinion. We want you to be proud, committed, and we need you to understand that this things works best when we all work together.” That’s day one. Day 3, when you see what’s up and offer some ideas about what’s wrong and what might be done now, while it’s still early to head off a looming catastrophe this is the typical reply: “I really appreciate what you’re saying, but right now we’ve got a lot to do, we’re over budget and behind schedule, so what I need from you right now is let’s just get through this. It’s not what we wanted, but unfortunately that’s where we are. We’ll get all that sorted out next go ’round.” If that happened once, I’d get it, but in my experience that’s the routine.

Later – not much later – as the advice not considered devolves into full blown crisis, the decision making goes inadequate to desperate. Steps that would have resulted in a few days overage explode into mistakes, do-overs, and ultimately massive overages and schedule delays. Frequently there’s well founded fear that the company is about to go under. Sometimes it actually does. Either way someone’s assistant gets fired, scapegoats protecting the way things are. At some point in the process, when someone with little authority speaks truth to power, it happens: “This is not a democracy”. It might be unstated, it might just be tone. In my experience they actually say it, and often. It gets a laugh, but it’s hardly a joke.

Eventually, as always, the job gets done. It’s a pale wan mess compared to the aspirations first put forth, but in the end the team is gathered together and offered these fine words: “Guys, I just want to congratulate you all. It was a tough job. We faced a lot of hurdles, but I just want to say you all really pulled through and I’m so proud of you all. You’re the greatest, and I can’t wait to work with all again soon.” Fist pumps and high fives.

With that the project ends, and the team hopes wonders whether they’ll indeed be hired again next go around. The finished product frequently doesn’t look that great on the resume, it’s nothing to be proud of, as much as we’d like it to be, but it’s money, and we all need to pay the bills. It’s not a democracy. Democracy isn’t flawless, but it works better than this.

How about a new phrase. It’s a little wordy: “That thing you made me help you produce is a travesty. It impresses no one. The way you run your company sucks. Somehow you’ve got the ear of an executive somewhere who protects your ass from the black-and-blue boot mark it deserves. About time we damn well tell you how the hell to run your sorry-ass business.”