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My Love/Hate Affair With Unions

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I am the granddaughter of two Jewish socialists from the Bronx via the  Lower East Side of Manhattan via Lublin, Poland. Sol and Paula Sheiner voted for Norman Thomas every time he ran for President of the United States. My grandfather delivered milk in a horse-drawn carriage, and my grandmother cleaned and cooked, all the while muttering things like “Don’t call me Mrs., Mister! I am not your slave! I paid my own fare!!” She was referring to her steamboat passage, at the age of 15, from Poland to Ellis Island.

These are my credentials as a labor union supporter, flimsy and indirect though they are. My actual experience with unions is a whole other story that tested my principles, not to mention family loyalty. While I can’t imagine not supporting workers’ unions – which means, after all, supporting workers’ rights – my position is based on principle, and comes entirely from my head, not my heart.

I’ve worked as a secretary roughly half my life – starting in the days when a secretary was called one, and later when we graduated (in lip service only) to administrative assistants. As a committed, compulsive writer, I was indifferent to most of my jobs, and was always quitting or getting fired. An honest resume, if I had one, would list upwards of 70 employers. Of these, only three were union jobs – it seems that office workers, gifted at organizing other people’s lives, tend not to do the same for their own.

A radical lawyer friend got me my first union position, at a law firm that defended the rural poor (to which I belonged prior to getting the job). I was one of four secretaries; the lawyers dropped work off in a communal basket from which we were supposed to begin with the oldest. There wasn’t all that much work, yet the papers would languish for two or three days while the secretaries chatted, did their nails, and drank coffee. My lawyer friend, I soon realized, had fabricated employment for me where none existed.

Along with socialist leanings, my family had also passed down a super strong work ethic: no matter how much I despise a job, I work like a dog at it, and deliver the goods. Thus, whenever a lawyer deposited work into our communal basket, I would wait a decent interval to see if anyone else planned to do it – but after an hour or two I could restrain myself no longer. By the second week one of the secretaries took me aside. “You’re making us look bad,” she hissed. “Stop working so fast.”

Have I mentioned that a unionized worker cannot be easily discharged? In our union, she was entitled three warnings, and even after that it took an internal judge and jury to oust her. No wonder these gals got away with murder! Yet they were busy bees compared to my next union job, years later, when I moved to San Francisco. I worked for a law firm that, of all things, defended unions – that is, they defended union management against members who filed complaints or sued them. The office was unionized, yet even here they’d had to fight like tigers for it.

I had unknowingly stumbled into a dysfunctional situation, to put it kindly. I was the only Jewish clerk (my union classification). Every other secretary was Christian, while every lawyer, with the exception of one or two Chinese guys, was Jewish. One of my tribal brothers had a favorite routine: when he passed me in the hall he’d shake his head sadly and whisper, “A Jewish secretary – such a shanda! (shame).”

My direct supervisor, who was Hispanic, tortured me from the minute I walked through the door, sending me on hour-long chases after files that didn’t exist; intentionally botching instructions for the archaic Wang computer; and assigning me low-level tasks, like copying thousand-page legal documents. It took awhile to figure out why she was on a vendetta, but all was soon revealed by the secretaries I befriended. She had recently married the boss’s son, and the Orthodox Jewish patriarch was less than pleased. Shiksa that she was, she desperately craved his approval, and would never get it. From her perspective I had what she needed simply by the accident of my birth.

It must have been delicious for her to wield power over me. She wasn’t terribly bright to begin with, and never examined her blind animosity but reveled in it. This is not just paranoia on my part: the other secretaries confirmed that the shiksa indeed had it in for me. They told me she already had two warnings in her file, so if I were to complain I might very well get her fired. But when I spoke to one of the lawyers, he said nothing the shiksa had done to me was tangible or provable. It was obvious that none of the lawyers would dare try to fire the boss’s daughter-in-law, even if said boss did hate her. Nine months and several breakdowns later, I quit.

My third and final experience with union life was as Office Manager for the Bay Area branch of the National Writers Union. I worked independently most of the time, had a great deal of autonomy, and liked the variety of characters I met. Nobody condemned me for working too fast; nobody tortured me. In fact, I had a pretty good time for nearly five years here, and it ranks as one of my four or five favorites. Still, anyone with even a brief acquaintance with progressive groups knows the craziness that goes on inside them. As someone once said, organizing writers is like herding chickens. Someone even smarter said,

Writers Unite: you have nothing to lose but your brains!”

My point is, it’s possible to stick to one’s principles even in the face of evidence to the contrary. The case for unionism is too strong; what’s at stake is too crucial to discount unions just because some workers use them to slack off or to abuse their piddling power. So while you won’t catch me joining one again, I remain an avid union supporter.

After all, I want Sol and Pauline to be able to Rest In Peace.


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Down With Dirty Jobs (Like Oil Drilling)

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It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.

No, I’m not talking about sex work, so don’t expect this to be funny – or titillating (sorry). I’m talking about jobs that nobody should do because they shouldn’t be done because they’re destructive. I am speaking, specifically, of deep sea oil drilling.

The other day I breathed a huge sigh of relief listening to Bill Maher’s show on podcast. He was talking about the citizens of the Gulf states who want deep sea drilling to continue because without it they’ll lose their jobs. Bill said, without waiver or apology, “Fuck your job. You’re going to have to find something else to do. Like building windmills. “

All my life I’ve cringed whenever people say they can’t stop doing something that’s destructive to the environment, or to people, or to animals, or whatever, because they need the work. Maybe it’s because I’ve had upwards of 70 jobs in my lifetime, so I know about adaptability, but I just don’t get it. I don’t understand this myopic, egocentric, anthropomorphic and money-first point of view. Since anyone who raises objections (like me) is called out for being elitist and anti-working-class, I’ve learned to shut up. Which is why I breathed such a huge sigh of relief when Maher said what he did: finally, someone else said it! And without any equivocation whatsoever.

Maher went on to say much more than what I’ve quoted, and the more he talked, the more it freed up my own thoughts and now my voice. The most stunning point he made was to parallel the oil drilling industry to kiddie porn. Brilliant! Just imagine if the purveyors of child pornography said, “We can’t stop taking and distributing salacious pictures of naked children because too many people will lose their jobs.”

‘Nuff said.

Shorthand Makes a Comeback

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During my second semester of community college I took a class in shorthand and typing as an elective. Of all the courses I took throughout high school and college, this is probably the only one that’s earned its keep.

I hadn’t intended to become a secretary – I had no future plans, something, I’ve since learned, that can be hazardous to your health. My fate took a sharp turn when the teacher handed out our first sheet of Gregg shorthand symbols and their meanings: it was love at first sight. I was entirely intrigued by these squiggly lines and curves, and the more I learned, the deeper in love I fell. Eventually I could take dictation at a whopping 130 wpm. When I transcribed the symbols into English prose, I felt a thrill of accomplishment, as if I’d cracked some arcane code. In fact, that is precisely what shorthand is – an arcane code – and translating it requires the same skill set used by any cryptologist. Of course, shorthand was never as respected as cryptology – but what do you expect? It was “women’s work.”

Barely 18, I left academia, propelled by my passion for shorthand, and hit the Manhattan pavement. Within a few hours I landed a job in the Advertising Department of U.S.News & World Report for $77.00 a week. I still remember the names of the two men I worked for, and their initials, which I typed at the tail end of every letter, like so: CFR/ms and PEH/ms. The first thing each of them taught me was how to prepare their respective morning coffees.

And that’s pretty much the way it went: I brought them coffee, answered their phones, and typed sheets of tedious ad statistics. Except for the sex, of which there was none, the secretarial life was the way it’s portrayed on Mad Men — so accurately, I can’t bear to watch the show. Perhaps three times a week one of my guys would call me in and “dictate” a bunch of correspondence (we secretaries privately riffed on the phrase taking dictation.) But they thought and spoke so slowly I never got to fly at my previous breakneck speed, and soon dropped to 90 wpm.

I proceeded from USN&WR to the typical zig-zag employment life of a writer-mother, diving in and out of the steno pool dozens of times. I witnessed the sad decline of shorthand, replaced first by the tape recorder and later by technology, concurrent with our women’s revolution. Both all but wiped out the need for secretaries: now everyone can type.  I’m glad we’ve dispensed with the horrific power dynamic of boss/secretary – but much has been lost along the way. Back in the day, for instance, a woman with secretarial skills could move to any city in America (or any country, if she spoke the language) and within two days have a respectable, self-supporting job. Now she has to know seventeen different kinds of software.

When I graduated from secretary to journalist, I revived my shorthand skills – I’m one of the few reporters who doesn’t use a tape recorder during interviews. When I worked at On Our Backs as Susie Bright’s assistant, she asked about the scribbles in my notebook, so I gave a demonstration to impress her. Apparently it did: she never forgot I take shorthand, and last week sent me an email with the URL to a story about a woman in Colorado who transcribes shorthand for a sizeable clientele.

So now, in addition to typing, writing, editing, and proofreading – anything word-related – I am offering transcription services (see my complete list of services on BookBuster, my biz blog).  I’m still waiting for the rush of clients, so spread the word.

Shorthand Lives! Vive Le Shorthand!

Ed McMahon: Being No. 2

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12_carsonThe death of Ed McMahon got me thinking about people who play sidekick, or give behind-the-scenes support, or are in one way or another a prop for The Big Cheese. McMahon was probably the most well-known Number Two in show biz, having hooked up with a slice of cheese the size of the moon. In typical Number Two fashion he wrote in his autobiography, “I hitched myEd McMahon autobio wagon to a great star.”

I have a lot of respect for McMahon, and for most people in the Number 2 position. In baseball it’s the catchers I most admire: the guys who squat on their buns while the rest of the team rests or messes around in the dugout; in a sense the catcher nearly runs the game by calling the pitches. The pitcher of course is Number One—so important he’s excused from batting, at least in the American League, lest he lose his concentration or strain his arm. The pitcher is the guy who’s most revered in the sport, the one who gets all the kudos, attention, and money. Pudge as YankeeCatchers seldom even get mentioned in game reports—but you can bet your boopies the pitcher couldn’t have done what he did without a good catcher.

Ed McMahon himself compared his job to that of catcher. “It’s like a pitcher who has a favorite catcher,” he said. “The pitcher gets a little help from the catcher, but the pitcher has to throw the ball. Well, Johnny Carson had to throw the ball, but I could give him a little help.” IMO, McMahon was being far too modest: like every good catcher, he gave Carson more than “a little help.” But such modesty is entirely in keeping with a Number 2.

I first learned what it’s like to work behind the scenes when I joined a feminist theater group umpteen years ago. When I first came on board, I was relegated to the position of understudy, as well as all-around helper during performances. backstage workerI loved to do the lighting. Before you picture me up in some projection room playing with a big board of complicated doodads, let me hasten to add that “doing the lighting” in this case meant turning various light switches on and off at various moments during the performance. Nevertheless, I got enormous satisfaction doing this most menial of labors: without me, the stage and audience would remain constantly dark or constantly light. I was a crucial part of the production. To the audience I was, of course, invisible.

Later in life I came to realize that in many ways I prefer invisible roles to being the star. I’ve had occasion to be both, the latter in a limited fashion, but enough to teach me a life lesson or two. There’s something wonderful about knowing within yourself that your function in any endeavor is vital, that you do it well and with commitment, and that, unlike The Big Cheese, you’re not exposing your guts. Of course, you’re not garnering applause and adulation–but in fact, when I have gotten applause and adulation, I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable with it. Like anyone else I want recognition—but I prefer that it come in a less ostentatious manner.

AriesI was in my mid-forties when I tapped into this area of self-knowledge, and based on it I changed my sign—my astrological sign, that is. I was born on March 21st, the cusp of Pisces / Aries, and had always identified with the big bad Ram who butts his way into the leading role. Aries women are known as ferocious pioneers, forging new pathways in life, and I happened to meet several of them around this time. I was nothing like them—and if I was, man, did I want to change! So I began reading the Pisces daily horoscope instead of Aries. Pisces is a waterPisces sign—meditative and introspective. That’s me, all right: ask me to flick the light switches and I’ll happily work alone backstage, observing the performance and myself while I do the best damn lighting job this play has ever seen!

But back to Ed McMahon and his happy role as Number 2. He used to say he had the best job in entertainment, because he worked with the best entertainer in the world. That’s debatable, IMO, but it’s not the point. The point is that, for 30 years, Ed McMahon worked as a prop for Johnny Carson, and got enormous satisfaction from it. When he died the other day, I found out that he was born March 6, 1923. Ed McMahon was a Pisces.

Ranting

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I don’t rant nearly enough on this blog. I do it plenty to the radio and television when they’re spewing out the miserable news of the day, but I don’t think they hear me. Herewith, a compendium, in no particular order, of stuff that’s bugging me today.

Air Quality: Never very wonderful, the quality of the air we breathe is at a low point due to the hundreds of fires burning all over the state. Ashes float upwards, the breeze blows them hither and yon, and they float back down to muck up the air with something called particles. That grey sky isn’t fog this time, it’s gunk.

Six years ago I was diagnosed with COPD (Chronic Obstructionery Pulmonary Disease), yet I’ve had not one problem—despite, as my doctor says, my “best efforts” to kill myself with cigarettes—until last week. I started wheezing, and recognized the signs of airway obstruction. Doc told me to stay indoors while the fires are going, but it’s hard to avoid breathing altogether. I’ve been researching daily air quality reports, and while the information’s available, it takes some effort to find. What’s up with that? Anyhow, since I’m only just beginning to learn about particles and ozone, I won’t attempt to explain any of it. I’d rather just revive a line from Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, screeched out by the character of Agnus Angst, a teenager who wears so much metal the garage door goes up when she’s anywhere near it:

“WHAT’S UNACCEPTABLE IS THAT THE AIR IS UNACCEPTABLE!”

Remote Control Killing: The news anchor on CNN’s Morning Show literally drooled in admiration today while military honchos in a Reno Nevada warehouse flipped a switch and annihilated people clear across the globe, in Afghanistan. Apparently they’ve been doing this regularly. Of course, they’re only killing bad guys…you know, those terrorists hiding beneath dark burquas, and men claiming to be kids who are actually murderous villains in disguise. Barf.

The Four Day Work Week: The State of Utah recently came up with a plan to conserve energy and save money by putting government workers on a four-day work week. Lest we jump to the conclusion that they’ve suddenly become enlightened employers, this isn’t exactly a cut in work hours, as each of those four days is ten hours long. I can barely get through five hours in an office, I can’t imagine the brutality of doing ten. The brainwashed workers are thrilled: it hasn’t occurred to any of them to ask why the government can’t eat the extra day since they’re saving so much money. Everyone knows that actual time spent on actual work in an office is only a fraction of each day–but god forbid the workers should get a break.

Obama’s Move to the Center: I’m keeping track of Barack Obama’s race to the bottom on No Comment, but in the case of abortion rights, I can’t seem to maintain mere observational mode. The self-described pro-choice candidate holds the opinion that, while late-term abortion should be legal if the mother’s life is in danger, mental distress doesn’t count as danger. “I think it has to be a serious physical issue,” he says, “that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother…”

So post-partum depression isn’t real? It’s not significant? I’d like to see Senator Obama tell that to Andrea Yates, the severely post-partum mother who drowned her five kids in the bathtub to save them from Satan.  Yates is the most tragic and famous case of a phenomenon that may be barely recognized and undocumented, but that doesn’t make it any less real or signifiant.

Who the fuck is Obama (or any man) to decide what’s real or significant in a woman’s life? Who the fuck is he to declare which women and children get to survive and which don’t? As we used to say back in the day:

IF MEN COULD GET PREGNANT, ABORTION WOULD BE A SACRAMENT

Caveat: Every one of the automatically generated “related posts” below is unrelated–almost laughably so.