Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Fair"-est of them all...

It's been a long time now that I've been neglecting this blog.  It hasn't been intentional, but life has a habit of getting in the way. 

A lot has happened over the last few months, most of it good, but it's kept me busy nontheless.  I finished The Argenis Solution and saw its release.  I saw The Treos Dilemma take the science fiction category at the San Francisco Book Festival (really proud of that, by the way!), and started on a fifth book.  As usually happens in the summer, I've fallen down a bit on my writing, so I've all but put it off until September.

But that wasn't all that I wanted to write about today.  I needed to vent a little, and I've decided to do it here, in my space, where I can.

In my heart of hearts, I'm a writer.  But even writers have to eat when the books aren't selling, so I also have a "real job", which I affectionately refer to as "The Job Which Supports My Writing Habit".  I work for the railroad.  Which one really doesn't matter to my story.  I've worked at this job for the entirety of my adult life.  I started out as a cleaner, worked my way up to mechanic, and for the last couple of years, I have been the foreman of my very own crew.  Over the last 22 years, I have met some terrific people at this job, and each person that I interact with has taught me something, whether it involves the job or not.  I believe that a part of my job as a foreman is to teach others what I've learned about the railroad over the years, so I try.  But even in teaching, I sometimes learn things.

Having said that, what I need to vent about is something that is really disturbing me about this job lately – “fair play”.  Now let me explain what I mean, and why I put that in quotes.  When I started, the junior man in a crew got some really lousy assignments.  But over time, he worked his way up in seniority and made it to the better ones.  And if you messed up a job and delayed a train, that task was your job until you learned how to do it right.  I went through these rituals, and so did everyone else that started at the same time as I did, and for years and years before.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was that yes, the younger guys got more work than the senior guys, but the senior guys were 20 years older than us!  Sometimes more.  They had put in their time, learned their craft, and earned a bit of a break from time to time.  The second reason is tied in a little with the first: repetition.  The best way for most people to learn their job is to do it.  So if you're just starting out and you need to learn how to do your job, doing it is the only way to learn to do it right.  With someone to help you if needed, of course.  But still, you can't learn the plays if you don't put in the reps, as they say in sports.  For a hundred years on the railroad, this is how things were done.

But now, in 2013, we live in an age of “fair play”, where the work has to be given out evenly, whether an employee's skill level can keep up with it or not.  And we have to ask our older employees to give up the breaks they've been working 20 and 30 years to earn in order not to offend someone that was just hired onto the job last week.  Because if we offend that person, they can now go to management and tell them that their foreman has a personal grudge against them for whatever reason and is "picking on me." In an emergency, when a train has to go out on schedule, you can't just grab the nearest person and run out to the equipment like before, because even though we are paid to work for 8 hours, it isn't “fair play" to call someone to do a task when they have already done one a few minutes ago.  And no one bothers with the fact that a foreman shouldn't really be doing mechanical work, even though there are still some of us who do what has to be done anyway to get the train out.  But if that requires me to crawl under a train and get my hands dirty, then so be it.  But by their thinking, I shouldn't really have to do my own job if I run out to the yard to rescue a crippled train (“fair play” is “fair play”, right?).  You would think that the example set by working foreman would make it clear how ridiculous the arguments are, but "Why do I have one more car than he does?", or "why do I have to do this job?  What's (insert co-worker's name here) doing right now?" are the only questions that some people ever seem to ask.

Now, the answer you used to get from a foreman in a case like this used to be "because I told you to."  The nicer, less hardline version that I have used in the past is, "because that's what I need you to do tonight."  9 times out of 10 when you use the second one, it shows the employee some respect as a person, and in return he respects you enough to do what you told him to do, whether he likes it or not.  The really hard-assed version was "do what I told you, or sign out and go home."  I’ve never used that one myself, but every time I’ve seen it used, it was effective.  The worker always hated the foreman after that, but didn't want to give up the money, so he did his job. 

Now whichever you agree with or don't agree with, the thing all of these approaches have in common is that none of them seem to be acceptable anymore.  Now, when someone doesn't like their assignment because, "you gave me one more car/train than him," the assignment has to be reworked so that everyone has an “even workload”.  When you have a guy who is a dynamo and can run circles around the rest of your men, you have to hold him back and not ask him to do more because, you don’t want to be accused of “favoring” anyone. When you want to give a guy a little less than you did the night before because last night he did over and above, you can’t, because someone will always blaze a trail to your boss’s office to ask why he’s being picked on.  Before, you could tell a crew of car cleaners what equipment they had to work and they could agree amongst themselves how to divide up the work, but now it seems that the foreman must micromanage his men and assign them individual cars every night.  This way, no one gets that one extra car and feels “picked on”.

I could insert a joke here about handing out participation trophies too, but I think I've typed enough words for now.  If I have to write a joke too, it wouldn’t be “fair play”. 

I'm sure you can come up with a punchline of your own.


Until next time...

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