I stopped working for a moment, lit a cigarette and thought to myself, “How did I get here?" How did I come to be standing in a muddy ditch, chin deep in thorn bushes wiping mouse piss off my hands?
On Christmas day?
I was trying to repair a telephone line for a customer who had already flat out told me he that didn’t want me at his house on that day. Specifically, he said “It’s Christmas fucking day for Christ sake, I can wait until tomorrow! You guys were supposed to be here two days ago.”
And he was right. It was another missed appointment. We weren't keeping up with the workload.
It was a cold day. Raw and blustery. My nose was running but I wasn't about to wipe it, (being that my hands were covered in mouse piss). I was being forced to work through the holidays because I was low on the seniority list.
I wasn’t always so close to the bottom. There was a time when I had twenty-seven people behind me in seniority. Today I have two, and one of those guys is about to get fired. So, really there's only one guy behind me. One guy between me and the next layoff. One guy. And I’ve been with the company close to fifteen years now. The time I had 27 behind me? That was one month after I hired in.
I had recently been promoted. Unexpectedly and certainly unasked-for. I had a new set of responsibilities which required learning, quickly, about stuff I had never had to concern myself with before. After twelve years of working Monday through Friday, 8AM to 5PM I was suddenly on a rotating schedule; late shifts, weekends, holidays, all the while trying to figure out my new responsibilities, much of the time in the dark (like actually in the dark, like with a flashlight in my teeth). In retrospect, it was trial by fire
My promotion got me a raise, a substantial one, which was nice.
I’ve worked a lot of shitty jobs. In fact before now I’ve only earned "decent money" a few times in my life. Before this gig came along, I had sort of resigned myself to a life of occupational mediocrity.
Mostly I bumped along at minimum wage looking for the next gig. One can go a long way on minimum wage with a sufficient amount of guile and charm and luck. And low expectations.
I’m a quick study but I get distracted quickly and bored even more quickly. This though, this was a real job and I was at a point in my life, older, nesting, where I needed to settle into something. A person can only bump along for so long.
So I put up with it. I hated it and I cursed my company’s name daily, but I did it because I needed the money. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I liked the money. What I needed was the insurance; optical, medical and dental for me and my wife. I live in suburban Detroit, Michigan and the economy here sucks. The economy in Michigan had been slow dancing with recession for close to ten years by December 2011 and I was not really in a position to walk away from what I had. So I stayed. I sucked it up and stayed.
And everyone else stayed too. We bitched but we stayed.
In the previous three years my employer, and nemesis, had laid off somewhere around 48% of its field technicians; using the financial collapse of 2008 as an excuse to clean house even though the company suffered only the slightest downward tick in business.
Since that time, with various broadband and TV options, this company had experienced a huge surge in work orders. That, coupled with routine maintenance and repair of overhead and buried cables, meant those of us who hadn’t been laid off (“surplussed” in corporatespeak), were working harder, for more hours, and under ever-tightening efficiency standards while customers waited longer and longer for service. We were working with three hands every day and still could not keep up, missing more appointments than ever.
Acts of nature like an ice storm or a blizzard or even a really windy day could leave customers out of service sometimes for weeks. But my company continued surplussing people and continued making record profits and continued blaming us for the missed appointments and dissatisfied customers. They would send out memos telling us that times were tough and we all needed to double down and pull together and we would, as a team, get through this rough patch. Meanwhile I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a fucking company ad,. The halftime show at the so-and-so bowl game sponsored by my company. The two minute warning with my company's name attached to it. The company sponsored injury report. This or that special presentation brought to you by....my company. You couldn’t escape it.
To make up for the backlog in work, my company forced overtime on us. Now don’t get me wrong, overtime can be nice. It helps pay for the little luxuries. But they were forcing overtime, week after week, for months on end. Not an option. Guys were missing their kid’s baseball and soccer games, were cancelling planned vacations, juggling babysitters. Zombie-walking from job to job, huge dark circles under our eyes. Making mistakes we would ordinarily not make. Getting injured.
The company exploited a loophole in our union contract which allowed for mandatory overtime. The contract clause was meant, in spirit, as a backstop for extraordinary circumstances (like ice storms or floods); everyone would pull together until the crisis had passed and then it would be business as usual.
But my company considered falling behind on appointments as a result of being understaffed, as a qualifying event. The extraordinary became the ordinary. Forced overtime became the norm. There was no discussion about hiring anyone back, even though there was an army of skilled and qualified and willing people out there who could step in and do the work, today. Despite that, they refused to bring anyone back. Instead they slowly, almost imperceptible, began to foster an every-man-for-himself environment among the workers.
It was all about breaking the union. My union brothers and sisters. Disrupting our camaraderie, making us distrustful of each other, pitting us against one another, that was their goal. Those corporate headquarters guys hate the union. Fucking hate us.
There was a time when, if we ran into trouble out in the field, we would call a colleague for help. If they were able, they would come help because the next time it might be them needing a hand and we were all in it together. Things got done that way. Efficiently. I mean think about it, if a job is going to take one guy three hours or two guys one hour doesn’t it make sense to send the second guy? That’s one manpower hour saved. We worked together and got things done and we kept our customers happy.
My company didn’t take that away from us all at once. First they said we needed to let our managers know we were calling for help. Ok, reasonable enough. They need to be able to account for everyone’s whereabouts (although now with GPS they know exactly where the fuck we are).
After a while though, we had to get permission from a manager, not just inform him, and if your manager was a prick or was afraid of his own shadow, he could say no.
That almost never happened though, at least at first. But eventually, we had to get our managers to actually authorize a dispatch; helper tickets they were called. This was, of course, explained as a way to know where everybody was at all times. For our own personal safety they said. Also to be able to account for everyone’s time.
A little later, managers could only write helper tickets under specific circumstances. Then, that set of circumstances got smaller and more restrictive. They started punishing managers who wrote “excessive” amounts of helper tickets.
Managers, being just as afraid of losing their livelihoods as we were, became very reticent about sending us help. Before long, the de facto ban on helper tickets became company policy. No more helper tickets. Period.
There is an area in my district which is pretty rough. Lots of gang activity, open drug dealing, shootings etc. After the fourth broad daylight armed robbery of a field tech, the company instituted a “two-man-territory” policy. No one was to go there alone.
Managers would write helper tickets and we’d roll in with two or more trucks. It was strength in numbers and no one got robbed anymore. But, some fucking bean counter somewhere with no clue about what we actually do, decided that two-man-territory helper tickets were a misallocation of resources and needed to be ended. Evidently, safety in the field was a great thing to pay lip service to but was considered a waste of money to someone staring at spreadsheets all day in a cubicle.
But it wasn’t always like this; it wasn’t always this bad. In fact, this used to be a great job. We all loved to come to work. I know how that sounds but we actually did love to come to work. The company trusted us to do what needed to be done and mostly left us alone to do it.
We used to get rewards for a job well done (gift cards and dinner coupons and so forth) instead of constantly being beat over the head with efficiency numbers and being told we’re not working hard enough, not doing it fast enough.
We would come to work happy and smiling, joking with each other, ready to go provide service to our customers.
Yes, our customers. The company used to treat the customers with respect. After all, they are the people who write our paychecks, not some CEO or CFO, jetting around the country, attending ALEC fundraisers plotting how to further break the unions and maximize quarterly earnings.
We used to work for something (our customers) as opposed to against something (getting in trouble). Getting in trouble usually begins with getting your name on a list.
You never want to get on a list. They have got all kinds of lists; leaving the garage a minute late or coming back a minute early, idling your truck too long, having a downtick in your productivity, using too many supplies (not kidding), getting sick too often (again, not kidding); the list of things that could get you put on a list continued to grow.
So, consider this a preamble to the diaries that will follow. I have a whole mess of stories from the field. Stories about people, animals, nature, office politics and life from my perspective. The perspective of the phoneman. The guy people let into their homes every day with their masks off and their guards down.