Monday, February 28, 2011

work and respect

My name is Mike DuBose. The worker's rights that my government and many of its citizens are actively trying to destroy? They are mine. This is my story.

My first job was summer employment. I got a position alongside my brother, who was working at a pavement marking company. We painted the lines on parking lots, school tracks, parking garages, and so forth. This was in Florida, in the summer, and we were almost always working on freshly-laid asphalt. As a result, the working conditions were awful. The heat was enormous...on top of the standard 95-100 degree highs, we also had to contend with radiant heat from the asphalt, which boosted everything by 20-30 degrees. Then there were the surely toxic fumes: paint, mineral spirits, and asphalt...even over twenty years later, the merest whiff of a new parking lot turns my stomach. I have no doubt that had I stayed in this line of work, I would today have serious health issues just from inhaling all the chemicals.

Our boss was a really fun and nice guy. However, he only really cared about working us as hard and as fast as possible. When he would run to the store, he would bring us (fairly awful) coffee--if we gave him money, that is--but he refused to bring us sugar or cream because it took too long for him to grab some packets. When we would break for lunch, he would eat as fast as possible before yelling at us to hurry up so we could get back to work. He loved to yell and berate us if we were not flying at our jobs.

My boss wanted to push us, but he never really reciprocated with any loyalty. I was the summer guy, and, as a result, I was never taught any skills which would increase my future hireability. I never, for instance, got to run the striping machine; this meant that the only real thing I could bring from the experience was the ability to sweep, to carry stuff, and to wait on my other workers who were given the big tasks. However, even the workers who were taught skills were unvalued. One weekend during the next fall, he called me and asked me to help him with a job. I went, because I honestly did like the guy...and also, I could use the cash. When we left for the job, I asked where all the co-workers were, but apparently, my boss had "let everyone go" because he wanted to raise his income.

This led to my first two lessons about work. First, you are only a tool for bosses to use as they sees fit. Second, you have no rights; you are instead a machine cog. Third, it doesn't really matter how nice your bosses are...they are never looking out for you.

My next job was working at a pizza chain. I was a good employee...I would do anything I was asked, I would come in whenever called, I tried very hard to learn, and I worked as hard as possible whenever I was on the clock. Eventually, I became an assistant manager. When this happened, my mindset clicked. I started to demand everyone work as hard as I did. I ran my stores with a maniacal focus. I kept a very close eye on labor and food costs, and I would rather work everyone as hard as possible than treat my employees well if it meant I could bring in good numbers for my bosses (who, I assumed, I could make appreciate me through sheer force of will).

When I got promoted, I read it as a sign that my hard work was paying off, that my bosses were taking care of me. I believed this in spite of getting only about a dollar above minimum wage and working most weekend nights. However, about two months after a major car accident, and while still suffering the effects of broken ribs, I got a call that I was fired. I wasn't even given a good reason, but later, I found out that my manager fired me so she could promote her 17 year-old cousin. Turns out the lesson I should've learned was that promotions and such were not signs you were becoming a valued employee; they were just ways to extract more work out of you.

I then worked at a major package delivery service. My job was to load two 60' semi trailers. These trailers would then be picked up, moved to the other side of the building, unloaded, and moved onto small local delivery trucks. I had two types of interactions with my bosses. They might try to trick me by throwing in packages that were supposed to go to Jacksonville AL or Jacksonville NC rather than Jacksonville FL. Then, when one of these slipped through, they would come and yell at me. Their other method of interactions was to just skip to yelling: first, that I wasn't packing the truck efficiently, then that I had to tear down my truck and start over, and then that, while I was rebuilding the wall of packages, I was falling behind on incoming packages. Finally, they would send over someone to help me get caught up, but only after giving me a "I can't believe how awful you are" look. Eventually, they quit calling me in and, after a few weeks, called me to tell me I was laid off. The only real lesson I got out of this was that even working hard was no real guarantee you would be treated with even a superficial level of respect.

After a while, I started work for a temporary service agency, where most of my work was in warehouses and such...although it occasionally got much worse. As a temp worker, I learned that no matter what I did, I was invisible. Hell, even the other workers wouldn't learn your why would the bosses not treat you with the same respect they would give to a disposable toilet seat cover?

I went to work for another pizza franchise, promising myself I would be just a worker bee, completely uninvested in my work. Only my boss (a supervisor at my old pizza place) forced me into management...and soon, I was back to killing myself every day. I did rise to a valued position...I actually got traded back and forth between the supervisors and ended up working in about ten different stores during my time there. This, however, was by no means a sign they were looking after my best interests, and I eventually quit when my manager kept ignoring my hours requests. This was, I learned, the only real power I walk away.

I worked in telemarketing sales for a while. Again, I worked hard, and again, I did a really good job, but the other shoe dropped when one of my colleagues got a job in the company mail room. He was overly excited about this, because it was actually a full-time job, unlike our sales work, which was all through a temp agency...and his excitement just depressed me further.

I decided to go back to school, because college, I assumed, would lead to a job where I was treated with some level of respect. I figured that if I became a teacher, if I dedicated my life to the public at large, if I just worked at helping people and hopefully making the world a little bit better of a place, things would work out. I never had any hope for fame and riches. I just wanted a job where I could sleep well at night, knowing I made a difference in some small way. Surely that will be respected in some small way...right?

To pay my bills, I went back to work for the pizza place, only because I was good enough to work a morning shift and get all my prep work done by opening. I would wait on customers through lunch and then study. Later, I got a job as graduate assistant for my department (which meant being a glorified office boy); one professor in particular enjoyed dumping piles of photocopying on my desk when I had ten minutes left in my shift. Eventually, I also started working for another professor's teacher-training project, but this prof, I am convinced, was essentially unable to even pick me out of a lineup; when I cut off my long metal hair, she didn't even notice.

I moved to Ohio and became a graduate teaching assistant. I wanted to teach as much of a range of classes as possible (thus expanding my skills and hireability), but my first department refused to give me their film class. I was then transferred to another department, where, although I was a doctoral candidate, my work was analyzed, reviewed, and critiqued by an MA student with years less experience than I, and the decision on whether my students passed or failed was made by someone else. I did one research assistantship where my prof wanted me to write a research paper and him to put his name on it, and another assistantship where I got a spot on a couch rather than an office.

I was then thrust into the world of part-time work, where I was treated even lower, paid less, and remained invisible to my bosses (save one at the lowest-paying community college, who, even though they paid me half of my other schools, still wanted me to wear a suit to teach). I then had to take a part-time job at the local zoo to make ends meet. My bosses there liked me, but only because the rest of the workforce was so lackluster...I still had no rights.

Throughout it all, I remained a good worker. Wherever I have been employed (even at the lowliest of places), I have honestly given my all to my job. When I was doing temp work, I would bust my ass...not because the bosses might see my effort and like me (I knew they usually didn't know who I was) but because that's what you're supposed to do at work. I gave my rural low-paying community college my A game, and my students got a taste of top-level college teaching...even if it was unappreciated to do so. I killed myself at the zoo. I was an awesome employee wherever I worked. It's just, I always thought, how you are supposed to be....and, if you keep doing it (the entirety of American culture tells us), someone will notice.

For my current job, I'm an Associate Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at University of Toledo. I teach composition, business writing, technical writing, and literature classes. The subject matter really is outside my training, but I have worked hard to become a good, pedagogically sound teacher.

I meticulously plan my classes for maximum student learning. For instance, I put in long hours conferencing with students, discussing their writing, giving them the personal educational experience which I never had. I've had colleagues tell me "you're a badass teacher." My departmental evaluations are good, and my boss has expressed admiration at my reach and scope in the classroom.

All I want from work is to be allowed to do my job to the best of my ability, in an atmosphere of relative stability. While I by no means thought I would be a writing teacher, I honestly would be quite happy doing this work, at this school, until the day I die. I like my school, like my colleagues, like my students, like the work. As long as I am at this job, I will give my university as much of me as I can.

Unfortunately, I have learned recently that all the lessons from my previous job still hold true to this day. I might be good at my job, and yes, my bosses might like me. Ultimately, though, I am just a cog in a machine, and those who hold ultimate authority over my labor are not looking out at all for my best interests. Instead, they see me as the enemy.

My state elected a governor who ran on a platform to, among other things, raid my retirement. Now, my governor and legislators are ramming through a bill which will eliminate my right to collectively bargain. This means that my university president, who is already deeply engaged in efforts to undermine my college, will be able to do with me pretty much whatever he pleases. I am a soon-to-be father who is now probably going to have my family leave taken away. I am soon going to suffer a big financial hit when my take-home pay drops when the university administration quits contributing to my health care. I would not be at all surprised if my actual salary gets cut. These, though, are far from the worst thing that can happen. If the current anti-collective bargaining movement passes (as it surely will), my university could fire all us lecturers and replace us with part-timers. And because I wouldn't have the ability to collective bargain, and because the union wouldn't have the power to strike, there's absolutely nothing I or any of my colleagues could do about it.

Aside from my personal doom, the most disturbing thing about all this is that, if they gut my job (as I suspect they will), it will lead to worse teaching. You take away my job security, and I will be a much more panicked teacher. You increase my workload, and that's less time I can spend with my students. You take away my benefits or salary, and I will do my best to leave the business of teaching altogether (assuming, of course, there's anywhere else for me to go...I've even given thought to going back to the restaurant world). Moreover, you will teach me and everyone who does what I do that our work is unvalued...and although we really want to care about our job, there's only so far we can go when that consideration is constantly unreciprocated.

I don't really want much. While I think I deserve it, I have absolutely no expectations for a salary reasonable to my level of training and my work performance. I have no desire for awards, publicity, or accolades. All I want really is to be treated with a little respect and be allowed to keep trying to help the future generation become a bit smarter and better at critical thinking, in hopes that they can make this world a slightly better place. I also want to not be treated as the enemy.

That, during a time where you say we need increased job growth, and that the key to such growth is an educated citizenry capable of doing the work, this is the time you decide to rip the top off education, make all the workers devalued, and try your hardest to drive out the dedicated professionals who teach is frankly befuddling, counter intuitive, and more than a little sad.

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