Tag Archive | workers

New York Means Expected Excellence

A recent report from the New York City Comptroller found that New Yorkers work the longest weeks and have the longest average commutes in the U.S. What makes the report so disturbing is that the two top cities with the longest commute times: New York and San Francisco, are cities that have some of the most extensive public transportation infrastructures.

And not only do New Yorkers have long commute times for the many millions who live outside the five boroughs and commute in every day, New York City residents who live and work in the city have long commute times.

I am one of those New York City residents that have a long commute. I live 12 miles from where I work. Google Maps tells me it takes 24 minutes to drive that distance without traffic. It takes me over an hour to get to my office each day even when things are running properly (which is rarely).

New Yorkers tolerate these long commutes (which are getting worse and more expensive at the same time) not because we are suckers for punishment but because New York is worth it.

We expect a certain level of excellence in New York. Things that are acceptable or even considered excellent in other parts of the country just don’t make the cut here. That’s not being snobby or cruel, it’s just the cold hard truth. New York excels at smashing people in the face with cold hard truth at every opportunity.

I definitely notice that borderline New York snobbery creeping up on me in certain circumstances, especially at restaurants when I’m traveling. I’ve been to enough good restaurants in New York that when I go outside the city and stuff just isn’t right I notice right away. I know I wouldn’t have noticed if I had been living elsewhere.

The reputation for New Yorkers as being rude is tired and not entirely true. There are plenty of rude people in the city, absolutely, but what many people take for rudeness is actually just a brusque sense of not having time to waste. As the numbers show, New Yorkers are in a hurry and have less time to dawdle. That’s a testament to people being at the top of their game and playing for keeps.

There are reasons the city is teeming with people, many of whom were born elsewhere. It’s because New York is a symbol of the very top of everything: music, art, culture, dining, literature, you name it. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere—the adage holds as true today as it ever did. Our homeless are even better than other cities if for no other reason than they have to be smart enough to survive the cold weather and that weeds out the extremely feeble-minded.

And, while it certainly is not justified, city residents almost always feel a twinge of schadenfreude when a friend or acquaintance leaves the five boroughs. Just the act of staying and surviving in the city gives you a feeling of accomplishment all on its own, no matter how dreary the circumstances of your life might be. That can be a destructive attitude as well – staying in one place at all costs just to prove a point can be just as harmful as habitually moving all the time. No other city carries that same emotional baggage with it. No one pats themselves on the back for eking out a living in Jacksonville, Florida.

Which is why the public transit system is going to have to change. It has never run well and it has run with minimal competence for decades. This latest report by the New York City Comptroller illustrates in raw numbers the fact that New York’s transit system is operating far below New York standards.

The latest data is proof that New Yorkers are getting the shaft (again) from our own transit system. The silver lining is that New York is too good a city to let this slight go unchanged.

Taking Care of Business

Labor Day is a day when most American workers have a day off and spend it being thankful that we have a job, if we have one. Any power the day once held to fire up a meaningful organized labor movement in the U.S. has long been stripped away. For the vast majority of us, work is something we do because we have to do something that makes money.

I’d love to be able to say that I’m an independently wealthy writer who can generate income through the genius of every creative whim, but the truth is I work in an office doing work that doesn’t really interest me. I like being good at my job because I refuse to be a lazy slug and need to make a living. But I’m working for The Man like everyone else.

I find it to be a benefit to have worked many different jobs over the last two decades. I have been a grocery bagger, house painter, video store assistant manager, immigration inspector, security guard, line cook, telemarketer, retail sales clerk and financial journalist.

By far the job I hated the most was as the assistant manager of a video store. This was in suburban Atlanta in the late 1990s when I was living a miserable, impoverished life among the relative wealth and ease of the Atlanta suburbs. Even though I love watching films and getting to rent movies for free was a chief perk of the job, having to answer to the entitled whims of overfed suburbanites grated on my nerves unmercifully. There were a few very nice customers there, but I hated that job so much that when I saw a bug skitter across the floor one night, I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. If a bug can find happiness in this miserable place, then good for him.

Having worked a large variety of jobs has given me a lot of different perspectives I otherwise would not have had. I like to think it shows in my daily interactions with people. I was that awkward teenager pushing his Dad’s lawnmower. I was the pimply kid behind the counter at McDonald’s on Labor Day. I was the unlucky immigration inspector stamping passports on Christmas and getting stuck working overtime.

Sometimes, even among very intelligent and good-natured friends, it becomes startlingly clear those who haven’t worked many of these jobs. The way someone treats a waitress or a bartender will tell you more about their life and attitude than any online profile or paper trail.

There’s a missing value that hasn’t been instilled in much of the population: that there is dignity in work, all work. Just because you don’t like your job or don’t like the people you work with or have to serve doesn’t mean you should feel comfortable behaving without dignity or purpose. All working people have dignity and deserve respect. Working for a living is beneath no one. And when you think about it, we are all a lot closer to the unemployment line than we like to think we are.

It’s a wisdom I’ve come to more recently and wish that I had had when I was bagging groceries and fielding the nonsensical complaints from entitled suburbanites. I felt the anger and resentment that comes with being treated like a servant. I let the opinion of others get to me, and it reflected a low opinion I had of myself. But dignity is not anything that anyone can grant you. If you’re in the right state of mind, you’ll have as much dignity shining shoes as you will being a movie star.

This Labor Day, resolve to take dignity in whatever job you do, and remember that no matter what the job is, everyone working for a living deserves your respect.

Happy Labor Day.

Labor’s Love Lost

jim_larkin-200x200This past Easter Sunday, my family ate heartily and discussed some of the current political and economic issues of the day. There may be better ways to wash down a tasty Easter ham than a lamentation on the state of the republic, but we haven’t found it yet. Our conversation settled on how many pension holders have been screwed by their municipal or corporate overlords.

The unofficial conclusion we reached over our Easter meal was that the United States is long overdue for a resurrected organized labor movement.

Labor unions represent only about 11% of the American workforce, and a majority of union members today are government workers who can’t strike. The upside to this is that a lot of government workers have very good, stable jobs that are safer and more lucrative than their non-government worker counterparts. But most workers are continually getting screwed.

The labor movement was spurred on by the large impact of industrialization and it was designed to protect industrial laborers and tradesmen. It has not adapted to the changing economy. The majority of American workers today are not industrial tradesmen.

If there was a viable labor movement in the U.S., I would have a real union to join. I work as a financial journalist. The company I work for actually cut our salaries years ago during the financial crisis. They technically restored the salary cuts years later, but haven’t given raises since and continued to cut our pay in other ways, such as stopping all matching 401k contributions, gutting healthcare benefits, and the like. They’ve also done a lot of outsourcing. Employees with many years of service to the company under their belts were shown the door, their jobs shipped off to India.

A labor union would have fought all of those things, but there is no labor union representing us. We are considered too “professional” to join a union, though not professional enough to be tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage if someone outsourcing shyster can save the company a few dollars. But we don’t have much recourse since there is no collective bargaining going on. People vote with their feet and while people are leaving the company in droves, the rest of us are there are spending our energies looking for other work rather than fighting a good fight (and since I need my job and have four mouths to feed, I’ll kindly not mention the name of the company I work for here).

I dream of the day when the outsourcing C.E.O. gets a brick through his living room window and four flat tires on his way to work. There should be real unions to contend with when companies want to cut pay, cut benefits or cut jobs. This isn’t because I think the answer is some kind of socialist worker’s paradise. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy: Capitalism is the worst economic system there is except for all of the others.

There seems to be a great illness of myopathy among our current class of capitalists. They think only in the short term and only in terms of the bottom line. I have no problem with businesses making hard decisions and scoring a healthy profit, but a lot of executives are not thinking ahead much farther than the next quarterly report. Sure, the slash-and-burn fiscal ass-fucking they’ve been giving American workers has increased profits now, but what kind of company are they going to have in five years?

But our companies have pursued these policies and the results are predictable. American capitalism no longer means industriousness and hard work, but rather golden parachutes and amorality.

Just as democracy doesn’t work without real political opposition, real capitalism doesn’t work without American workers having some kind of say over their working lives. Labor unions were once the source of that power. They can be again.

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