Now you know you're underpaid but the boss says you ain't
He speeds up the work 'til you're 'bout to faint
You may be down and out, but you ain't beaten
You can pass out a leaflet and call a meetin'
Talk it over, speak your mind
Decide to do somethin' about it
Pete Seeger, “Talking Union”
It’s hard to get a job these days, and many of those that are available are horrible, low-salary soul-sucking stinkers. If you’ve ever read any Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, you know what I’m talking about. His stories are outlandish, but all too real.
For example, one company started a “We Value Our Employees” campaign the same month they instituted a compulsory, involuntary drug-testing program. In another instance, a company dispensed with raises, offering instead a year-end bonus contingent on reaching five of seven company goals. Just before Christmas, the company announced that there would be no bonus because the employees had reached only four goals.
One of the goals they missed…improved employee morale.
So I had little trouble believing a recent headline shared with me by Dave Masters, one of my readers:
WORKER DEAD AT DESK FOR FIVE DAYS.
You can draw several conclusions from this story in Britain’s Birmingham Sunday Mercury
First, working long hours is so common as to be unexceptional.
Second, cubicles afford more privacy than we think.
And third, British workers must have an impaired sense of smell.
Oh, and a fourth item. According to Karin, if you think this is funny you’re an awful person.
Not wanting to appear calloused or sleep on the sofa…let me explain my interest in this tale.
It’s not that I find this story funny so much as I am, honestly, puzzled that it’s news.
Why does this surprise anyone? Isn’t this the sort of treatment we’ve come to expect? I checked this story, and it does appear on Urban Legends. But, sadly, there are other stories that are not far off the mark, and they’ve been verified.
We are living in the Dilbert workplace, and it’s been a long time in coming.
Case in point, in my early 20s, I had a variety of low-paying, non-union jobs in the oilfields and at a shop that repaired and resold whipped-out equipment that had been red-tagged by OSHA. The stuff we’d revive—back-from-the-grave zombie-ware—was truly terrifying. It had a way of blowing up, catching fire or otherwise trying to send me up the River Styx.
And my co-workers were no better.
Some of them would show up under the influence of various substances, and they thought it was a hoot to drop tools from overhead to get your attention. When I protested, they shrugged and said: “Hell, whatcha yer problem? You’ve wearin’ a hard hat, ain’t ya?”
Another guy I worked with—I’ll call him “Pyro”—had a thing for starting fires. He swore these incidents were all accidents, but I had my doubts. He routinely blew things up, grinning like a maniac.
In the interest of time, I’ll share but one story—the steam cleaner fiasco.
The device was a huge old boiler fired by natural gas. Normally, the cleaner was started by striking a match and lighting a small pilot light. Then a safety cover was closed, and the main burner was eased on. But this particular machine was made sometime before the invention of the wheel, and so lacked many common safety devices, such as the one that prevents the main burner from igniting without the pilot on and the safety cover closed. And thanks to a filthy workplace and eons of accumulated rust, the pilot was plugged.
But this didn’t stop old Mister Pyro.
He propped open the safety cover, cranked up the main burner, and tossed a lighted match at the steam cleaner. The resulting explosion registered about 10 points on the Richter scale and sent him to the doctor with shards of rust in his eyes.
Amazingly, he wasn’t blinded, didn’t get fired, and returned later in the day looking like Blackbeard the Pirate. In fact, when he came back, he managed to light the steam cleaner and de-greased a big-block Chevy.
Pyro was living proof that evolution, natural selection, and the belief that you can trust-your-employer-to-provide-a-safe-workplace are all myths. And since Pryo didn’t file a claim, my boss thought everything was just hunky-dory. It was made clear to us that any unexplained OSHA inspection would cause a sudden scaling back in the workforce.
I quit not long after.
In addition to explosions and fires, I’ve also been standing in close proximity to tanks that boiled over, cables that snapped and dropped massive slabs of steel, and cranes that have been driven into potholes, causing them to flip.
And these things all happened on the good days.
It’s a wonder that I made it out alive. And the only reason I stayed with some of these crummy jobs was that most of my options were equally dicey. When I finally got into college and entered the world of white-collar work, I thought my problems were over.
Alas, I was wrong.
After earning an AA degree, I was a management trainee at Bank of America. I thought I’d made a good choice right up to the point I learned, I was expected to show up early—in my suit and tie—and go out to the parking lot and clean up dog droppings and unidentified excretions left by transients.
I don’t think we’ll ever see that in a Dilbert strip.
This was, I learned, an effort by senior management to put us in our places. Yes, I no longer feared for my life, but even so I fumed. Others reminded me that—as many will be quick to point out—that I was lucky to have a job. But this story, and others like it, still begs two questions.
First, why do employers and our co-workers want to make our lives a living hell? And, second, why do we put up with it?
I think there’s only one explanation: We are insane.
Well, OK. Maybe that’s too harsh. Maybe we’re just afraid. Our minds are full of unanswered questions such as:
What might happen if I speak up?
Would a complaint become part of my permanent record?
How hard would it be to replace me?
What if they think of something even worse for me to do?
Fear keeps us in our places.
Another recent news items seems to support this conclusion. Again, thanks to my pro-labor buddy Dave, I have the following story from “The Week.”
AMERICANS WILL LEAVE 500 MILLION UNCLAIMED VACATION DAYS ON THE TABLE THIS YEAR
Skipping vacation? You’ve got to be kidding, right? Why would anyone do this?
Well, the reasons vary. There are those who want to batch up their days for a future vacation. That’s logical. But others say they are just too busy on the job to take time off, or they fear the boss will think poorly of them, or worry that an important decision will be made in their absence.
I think this is a sad testimony to how much fear lives in the workplace these days, and where is that leading us?
I was rolling this around in my mind when I came across an old Pete Seeger song about the “union train,” urging collective action. The tone is jocular, but the intent is serious.
It ain't quite this simple, so I better explain
Just why you got to ride on the union train
'Cause if you wait for the boss to raise your pay
We'll all be a-waitin' 'til Judgment Day…
The song asks if workers are tired of lousy working conditions and low pay? And then it urges them to organize. Seeger says confront management and the fat cats. Call them out. Make them sweat.
This is harder and harder to do these days. There’s little sympathy for organized labor in American media. And the law is increasingly lining up on the side of business. Many southern states now have anti-union laws, euphemistically called “Right to Work,” that ban organizing and strikes, tools that led many Americans out of crummy, unstable jobs and into a better life.
Much of the past few decades have been a retreat from labor’s gains. Many union bargaining sessions have been a series of give-backs. Worse yet, strategic corporate takeovers and bankruptcies have stripped union retirees of the guarantees and pensions they worked a lifetime to obtain. Yet today we see that corporations have plenty of rights—including the ‘right’ to deny workers access to contraceptives in their health care plans—but workers are having a tougher and tougher time asserting their interests.
I think it’s time to rethink our anti-union biases and stand up for the American worker.
No, unions aren’t perfect. What is? And I don’t agree with the position Redding’s labor leaders have taken in their efforts to antagonize or vilify the McConnell Foundation and Turtle Bay management. I’m not going to get into that dust-up here. But even with this disclaimer, I’m pro-union. This is because I prefer to take the long view and look at what good labor has, on the whole, done. Consider the accomplishments of Cesar Chavez and you’ll see how important it is for workers to be organized.
It won’t be easy to get back on the union train, but then it wasn’t easy back in the 1930 when car manufacturers hired goons to beat up union organizers. Seeger sings about this, too.
Now, boys, you've come to the hardest time
The boss will try to bust your picket line
He'll call out the police, the National Guard
They'll tell you it's a crime to have a union card
They'll raid your meetin', they'll hit you on the head
They'll call every one of you a goddam red…
Pete Seeger, Cesar Chavez, and many others urged action and they took their lumps. Thousands now live better lives because of them.
I think it’s time to dust off some of the old rabble-rousing LPs and to lace up the hiking boots. If we’ve learned anything from reading Dilbert and recent history it’s this:
If you want a bonus or a raise… then you’d better get organized, and then your promises in writing
And that’s a great way to build some morale.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.