Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Denver Transit Strike, the Media, and far too much else

I was finishing up my shift at Scooter Joe’s coffee shop in Denver when Ric, a writer for Labor Notes came in with a request for a box of coffee. Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union were in their second day of a strike against the Denver Regional Transportation District ( RTD)
Ric wanted to show solidarity with the workers and had bought a box of donuts to take to the strikers. He asked my boss how much it would cost to bring a bunch of java out to the pickets, and she gave it for free. I grabbed a bag filled with cream and sugar and asked if I could tag along.

On the way to the site we picked up Ric’s friend Larry who was working on initiatives to arrange carpools for blue collar workers who were trapped by the strike. He explained how historically this was effective at keeping the community aligned behind the strikers.

There were about twenty bus drivers left at the site by the time I finally got to the offices of the RTD. They were in good spirits, but none of them wanted to be there. They all seemed to want to just get back to work, and felt that the impasse was squarely on the shoulders of the Department of Transportation.

A driver named Deb said…

They’re causing problems; friction in our families. We are on pins and needles to see if the public will support us. I am hopeful that Owens will see it… he has to see the safety issues. Look at that bus. It is full of people, and you know they are getting antsy in there. It’s frustrating for the Governor to be waiting for safety to be an issue. It already is.

I spoke to a driver named Carl…

TBTH: It sounds to me that nobody here really wanted a strike.

Carl: If they had come to us in the right way, none of this would have happened, but they came at us in the most degrading way possible.They acted like we had a sign on our heads that said, “I’m stupid. Kick me in the ass.”

TBTH: Still, you guys are being paid a lot more than I am.

Carl: These guys up here (points to RTD offices) who make the rules, they get paid a lot better than you too, a whole lot better than you or me, but think about what it is we do. I am in charge of people’s lives. I drive every day in the mountains. In rain. In fog. There are fifty people on my bus, and whether or not they like me, or whether or not they treat me well, I have to keep focused or I could run off the road, and these are people’s parents, people’s loved ones, and I have to take care of them and get them home, get them to work. If I want to go out one night and have some fun, I have to think first about what I am responsible for the next morning. It is stressful. People talk to you all day about religion, about politics, I mean these are topics that people die over, they are really important to people, but I have to keep my opinions in because I have to pay attention to what I am doing or people die or we all wind up on disability, and what is that going to do to their lives? What do you pay the man who when he gets spit on has to first think about your safety before anything else?

Just talking to me at all gave some of the driver’s reason to look over their shoulders. The RTD had just brought in ‘security’ from a company called IMAC; The International Management Assistance Corporation. I am told these guys had been hired when the supermarket chain King Soopers wanted to fire their striking workers and toss them off the property. I sat down with a couple of these rather large gentlemen and had this exchange…

TBTH: What’s that say, I.M.A.C.?
Goon: I-Mac, yeah.
TBTH: Is that a security company? I write a thing on the internet.
Goon: Security, yeah.
TBTH: That guy has a Wackenhut badge. I have heard of them. Are you guys part of that?
Goon: No, we’re a separate thing. They brought us in for this.
TBTH: Has there been trouble? Are they expecting trouble?
Goon: We’re here in case.
TBTH: So do you work mostly for the city, or all sorts of stuff?
Goon: Oh, we work everywhere.
TBTH: So how long do you think this is going to go?
Goon: (laughs)
TBTH: Yeah, I get that we aren’t the one’s making that decision but did they tell you to clear off a big block of time or is it a day to day thing?
Goon2: We never know.
Goon: They just tell us when it is time to go.
TBTH: Go to work? Or when the job is over?
Goon2: They let you know two hours before you fly.
TBTH: Before you fly? So you’re not from around here?
Goon: No, were from all over.
TBTH: Where you from?
Goon: I am from Miami.
TBTH: I am from Detroit.
Goon: He’s from there too.
Goon2: I’m from Flint.
TBTH: So they call you in from all over and you fly in and meet up and then they fly you back to wherever?
Goon: Yeah.
TBTH: That is a wild job you have. Is it a hassle?
Goon: No, it’s not a hassle. It depends on your lifestyle.

Goon and Goon2 were making $30 dollars an hour. I am told that IMAC has already charged the taxpayers $114,000 for whatever it is they have done so far. Inside at the RTD board meeting a proposal was being made to release a million dollars from the General Fund to pay the Goons for two months of work. This was pared back to a one month paycheck of $500,000. Reportedly, one of the selling points was that IMAC guards carried hand held video cameras to make it easier to find grounds upon which to fire the workers when the strike was over. None of the guards I saw had those cameras yet.

The money being paid sent a message to the workers, and they were hearing it. The RTD was willing to pay money to break the union that it was not willing to pay to keep wheels on the road. This baffled the drivers. They still thought that the other side might possibly be bargaining in good faith.

Inside, former Board Member, Jon Caldera had the floor. He was awarded the prize for Best Media Manipulator by Westword Magazine for his work on behalf of the Independence Institute. He came to the meeting to propose that with no contract in place and the workers on strike, now might be the perfect time to just privatize the whole thing. As it stands there is a law mandating that 50% of the routes must be outsourced to private contractors, and the board is permitted to raise that number right up to 100%. More than a few board members seemed happy to take that route. Sources told me that contractor, First Transit, has a top rate for its drivers around $15 or $16 an hour, which is several dollars lower than the union workers receive.

Labor had a few friends in the room, and one name that was mentioned very positively by the workers was that of Bill McMullen who repeatedly put public best interest ahead of other considerations. He tried to bring the RTD into arbitration, and he even announced he will be joining the pickets tomorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum was General Manager, Clarence “Cal” Marsella. He led the charge to replace budget for Denver bus drivers with budget for new luggage for out of town Rent-a-Goons with which to carry our tax dollars back to Miami.

The meeting went into closed executive session so that the board could discuss ‘strike preparedness strategy’ in private. During that time, I had a conversation with Jesse Brezzel who runs the private security firm BRT Investigations. He was in charge of people checking into the meeting, and when he is not doing security for RTD, he runs security for the local NBA team. He told me a number of things that had him looking over his shoulders and choosing his words carefully so as not to get himself into trouble with his very nervous clients.
Nothing he said was earth shaking. It was mostly about the debacle surrounding the RTD hiring Alvertis Simmons and how his company was brought in during the aftermath. Still, the fact he was talking to me at all was a source of concern for ‘the company’.

That sort of fear was pandemic tonight. I talked to a dozen people who shared with me very human and interesting stories, but if I write about them, bureaucratic over-reactions might get good people into bad situations. As a blogger, I have a unique position in the journalistic world. I don’t have to care what any editor or corporation wants me to write. I get to just tell my own truth. But in a way, by holding my loved ones hostage, the corporations are telling me what to write as well. I love the truth, and I love the human people behind the badges and picket signs and even the official board member name plates, but every last one of them is being held hostage and I do not want to cause them harm. It is a tough situation for me at times.

I was thinking about it while talking to Kevin Flynn of the Rocky Mountain News and Jeff Leib of the Denver Post. While impressing the hell out of me with their knowledge and ability, they also killed some time listening to me jabber about being a ‘citizen journalist’. “I forget; how do you make a living at that?” Yeah, bite me Leib.
I was talking to some journalists, maybe those two maybe not. It went something like this…

TBTH: You guys have a lot of access because of the power you have, but oddly I get a lot of access that you don’t precisely because I am ‘nobody’. It gives me some opportunities to do a different sort of writing.
Someone: And you can write about the rent-a-goons.
Someone else: You can even use the words rent-a-goons.
Someone: He can write about Ludlow.

Yes I can. I can write about the Ludlow Massacre where 20 Colorado coal miners were killed for striking in 1914. I can talk about the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, progenitor to firms like IMAC.

I can also write about how bright Someone and Someone Else are, but how both smart and hot AP writer Kim Ngyuen is. You see, they get paid. They are vastly talented. But I get to call people hot on the internet. Fair trade.

When the meeting came back into public session, the board looked like they were going to gavel things closed without any public comment from the union members. Dave Ruchman managed to keep the meeting open long enough so that one union member was allowed the floor. ATU officer, Tommy Mullins stepped to the microphone and asked that the Board empower their negotiators to bring the private security money to the table at tomorrow’s meeting with the Union. No motion was passed concerning that request and everybody was sent home.

Tomorrow the Union, the RTD and the Feds are going to sit down at a meeting ordered by the Federal Conciliation and Mediation Service. From tonight’s proceedings, I do not have very high hopes of this first meeting. It felt like the majority of the RTD Board has chosen a course for the next weeks, and are going to try intimidating the drivers into underplaying the union’s strong hand.

I started the long walk back to my car. The Sixteenth Street Mall was quiet with no ‘mall ride’ buses sliding by. It was just the pedestrians and the horse carriages. I lingered for a bit around the night time chess players, and arrived at Colfax and Broadway just in time to see the Fox News broadcast being taped. The reporter was practicing his lines, and I updated him on what I heard in the meeting. The lede for that segment was how Governor Owens had rejected a call for arbitration.

When an earlier contract negotiation was brought to arbitration, the union was granted 5 of the 7 points in dispute. Wanting to avoid a repeat of that, the State decided to open the doors to a strike rather than an arbitrated settlement. When the Union requested the Governor to intercede he told them to just accept the contract and get back to work.

I offered the reporter the information that there was a Federal mediation meeting in the morning. Now, while this is not the same as binding arbitration, it did mean that the workers and the RTD were not in a ‘take it or leave it’ situation and the Governor’s advice was unlikely to be heeded any time soon.

I talked for a long while with the reporter and his cameraman as people driving by shouted various nasty things. Both of them were genuinely decent people, and I would explain why but once again decent people who speak openly put themselves at great risk.

The cameraman, who was clearly more disenchanted with his employer than the reporter, did let me know that he was not worried about how the network might take his frankness, so I will quote at least part of what the techie said…

We can’t talk. That stuff you were saying is the reason a lot of us won’t be in this business for much longer. It’s just too fucking corporate. Too incorporated. Not just this network, but all over.

I was told that the local affiliate was not as biased as the parent company, but even at the local level things were not driven by what was important, but by media consultants who were being paid to tell the bosses what they wanted to hear. Things needed to be “Visual, compelling, and impactful” but somehow things like renewable energy were never going to be that, no matter how colorful the story's hook or how solid the research that showed monumental impact. It has gotten so bad that even local professional sports are considered to too pale to be of interest.

The reporter and I talked about his days in Democratic politics, before gerrymandering took him out of the game. He spoke of how hard it was communicating to people that their votes made an impact, and how eye opening and disappointing it was to see his community so disenfranchised.

Still, when a young man in a hoodie came up making the case to be put on the air to tell how when it came to the transit strike, “this shit is messing with my motion,” the reporter brushed him off and kept him disenfranchised. The reporter has my respect, but it was a bit disconcerting to hear a man of his integrity tell me that his victories consist of slipping in a code word here and there that let his listeners know that he too grew up “in the hood.”

They were kind enough to give me a lift in the FOX News van back to the coffee shop, and I spent the trip wondering about a world where the people in front of cameras can’t speak to their communities about the things that matter, where journalists with fantastic grasps of context and history have to just write about the ‘he said she said’ of the moment, where all sorts of government employees can see waste and corruption, but can only talk about it where it won’t be heard or repeated. I added it to my political experiences where people can only have an opinion until they take a job with the Party that tells them to keep their mouths officially shut. I took a look at this whole stupid ‘off the record’ world I have wandered into, where my decidedly ‘on the record’ outlook can do damage to decent people.

Meanwhile, there is a bus driver out there who just wants to do his job and feed his family. Of the millions of ways the government spends my tax dollars, there are few I appreciate as much as paying the guy who drives me to work. I just want to yell out a few truths in hopes it will help them.

But I am afraid.


Blogger Aaron said...

Susan G of Daily Kos linked my cross post of this story on the DKos Front Page.

"TakeBackTheHouse's Transit Strike, Rent-a-Goons, Fox News, and miles of words gives a marvelous first-hand account of the Denver transit strike and the folks taking part in it."

10:45 PM  

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