Or So it Seems … Jobs from Hell

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:


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.”


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 robb@robblightfoot.com.

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. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.
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3 Responses

  1. Sheila Barnes says:

    I was a member of the CTA/NEA (California Teachers Association/National Education Association) Union for my entire teaching career of 37 years. I joined when I started my first teaching position. I became involved with the local teachers association as a site rep, then went on to be on the bargaining committee, grievance rep, secretary/treasurer and then president – all in my first 10 years of teaching. I learned so many skills along the way. Communicating, bargaining, listening, advocating, and standing up for my rights and the rights of my colleagues. I just recently retired from teaching and and continue as a life time member of CTA/NEA. Unions are the backbone of the working class and are under attack. Google “36 Ways Unions Have Improved Your Life”. It is a real eye opener.

  2. Grammy says:

    For all the years I worked for Alpha Beta (and retired from there) the union did right by me. They were there when a boss was paying under the table (in the beginning when I was suppose to be racking up the hours towards a journeyman wage). There for the fight for health care. Sure wish there was a union for lab workers. Daughter’s company told her that they do not value an employee past three years because they feel the workers has got “job burnout” by then. Best to walk away and come back refreshed from another company. She has worked for them for 11 years and has worked up the title promotions to supervisor yet earns just $5k from starting (those 11 years ago). The stress is off the charts (to get test out on time while supervising nine workers). She has worked up to five weeks vacation yet the company will not let her have more than one week at a time and there is no senority. Past August no vacations are allowed (because the case load is so heavy) and no pay out if you can’t use your time. Two jobs have been open in her department for two years, yet the pay is so low that quality workers are not attracted ($35-55 with qualifications so high that a graduate from Davis wouldn’t be hired). She would love to find some other place to work but there just isn’t much out there (and that is in the Sacramento area!) Right now it is a company’s ball game and the worker has to bow to them. As far as drug testing…that is the norm now. An employer can not risk someone getting hurt because someone is high or down. In forty years I looked back and I had it good (but I knew that at the time. I loved my work.)

  3. Ginny says:

    Unions can be good. My dad belonged to one. They helped keep his job after he had a heart attack, yet when his plant voted to non-strike, the head union said they had to strike. Never made up the money lost from that strike, let alone others.

    Most unions are in government. Governments do not make money; they tax for their money. When a department or section or enity can’t fire someone for being incompetent or other valid reason, then that is tragic.

    Just look at the mess and most grievous with the Veteran’s Admin. That is not good for anyone, let alone the veterans that can not be brought back from the dead.

    My brother-in-law was a teacher in Salinas. One time his daughter said being from a teaching family, she knew how important tenure was. I said I did not believe anyone should be excused from losing their job for many reasons, including incompetence. nor did I believe in tenure. In the conversation with my b-i-l at the time, he went on a two hour dissertation on how his principal fired a bad teacher, ending up by finally going to court to get the person fired, and that took two years. At the end of the two hours, I just said you proved my point about tenure.

    I am not saying there can be injustices in work places. I’ve seen it. Been through it, yet still feel doing your best — no matter what your job may be is important and being self reliant these days is a real plus.

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