Company Man/Union Man

One of my partners used to call me a company man because I used to clear as soon as possible from calls. We’d be in the EMS writing up the run report and the dispatcher would scream. Can anyone clear? I’m holding two calls. Priority One. I’d clear, then she’d bang us with a transfer the company was late on. Fell for it again, he’d say, company man.

I like having pride in my work and my workplace — not that I always do. The world is not perfect, and the world of EMS even less so. Like everyone I go through periods of agitation about where I work. It is no secret that paramedics and EMTs are among the lowest paid jobs for the work we do, for what is asked of us. That fact has caused many good people to leave the field. Yet here I remain.

***

A couple months ago I was approached by two friends and asked if I could help out with the union contract negotiations. It’s ugly this time, one of them said. You won’t believe what they are asking us to take.

All my life I have taken on things I shouldn’t. I get excited about something then overload myself. Years ago I was asked if I could help out with the fight againt budget cuts at the state EMS office. The next thing I knew I was leading a rally on the capitol (And popping Tums for the first time in my life). Later I was asked to help out with another EMS project and before I knew it I was going to meetings all over the state and serving on several committees, spending all my time writing drafts of proposals. I cut back some on that, but the residual of it is I am on the regional medical and educational committees and am actively involved in projects from rewriting the protocols, designing a protocol exam, and developing a lights and sirens policy.

The one area I have always stayed away from, however, has been getting actively involved in the union. Now, let me say, I am a union man. I believe in unions, I am a proud card carrying union member. I know the words to Joe Hill, as well as many Woody Guthrie songs. But I know that serving on the union is a quagmire that I have not wanted to get stuck in. For years I have watched union leaders get assailed by their fellow employees. It is a thankless job. For no pay and for many hours and days of their time, they get shit from everyone.

I remember calling up one union president and giving him hell years ago because their proposal was going to make me pay more for health insurance because my start date was January 3, where if my start date was December 31 I would be grandfathered in. We almost met in a parking lot to fight it out. Another time I called him up to give him hell about the company forcing me to take a post in the same suburban town where I now work willingly because at the time I was the paramedic with the least seniority of those with the seniority eligible to be posted there and no one else wanted to go(this was back in the day when there were very few medics, transfers for medics were few and far between and we all loved being in the city). He was just trying to do his job, but I didn’t like the way he was doing it. Not that he got a dime for it. All the time he was in meetings defending employees, he wasn’t getting paid while I was working overtime at time and a half.

Everytime a contract has come up, the union team has been blasted. How come you let them have this provision? How come our wages aren’t more? The last contract was terrible. The older employees like me, who had to pay nothing for our health insurance (our one perk that made our low pay palatable), were sold out so the new employees and part-timers would pay less for health insurance. The contract passed on a strict party line vote with the most senior 1/3 voting it down, and everyone else voting for it.)

While I was not happy with the union or the way the union leadership did their job, I could not deny the fact that if instead of spending all their time trying to negotiate a contract or defending no matter how badly their fellow members rights, if they were working as I was instead of doing unpaid union business, all the money they would have gotten would have more than equalled any conceivable munificent raise that might have won through their persistence.

Working for the union means the company hates you, your fellow employees hate you, and you hate yourself because you think you are stupid for even trying to do such a thankless job.

So when they asked me to help out, I told them thanks, but no thanks, I was, ah, busy, yeah(that’s the ticket), I was busy with other things. Sorry.

Too busy, working overtime. Too busy making money. Ca-ching.

***

Early word on the contract is not good. The company is trying to shove a new health care plan down our throats. They are offering a pittance for a raise. I have never seen people so upset. The way they are interpreting the health insurance is all it will take is one bad illness in your family and and any savings you have will be wiped out. You’ll be bankrupt. A debtor for life. There is no protection at all for catastrophe. I read through the material, and I don’t quite see it that way, but when I point out my interpretation, they say, that could be, but the company doesn’t have the answers for us. It seems the plan is as confusing to the company negotiators as it is to us. They have promised answers for us, but not delievered. For the first time I hear the “s” word mentioned.

***

Speaking of company men, I know of only one other medic beside me– there may be more — who laid down the $2500 a few months back to buy into the company. We own only a measly piece, but we we joke about the “riffraft” in the union who are taking a hardline with the company in the current labor negotiations, trying to eat into our dividends. Nevertheless we the company’s initial proposal comes up for a vote, we join with our brothers and sisters (union talk) and vote down the proposal, which is defeated 125-3. In the past, the union has been relatively weak in the face of the company’s negotiators, but this year they have formed a stronger front. Pay is pay, but health insurance is a person’s family and it illicits a much stronger response. I know health costs are skyrocketing, but people need to be assured that if they get sick or someone in their family is sick, they won’t be wiped out.

***

The negotiating resumes and in the first meeting the health insurance questions seem to be getting answered, and people seem to be saying, maybe the plan, which the company has now apparently modified, is not as unreasonable as initially thought. There are many other issues on the table that need to be resolved, but we are hopeful a public confrontation can be avoided. There is nothing wrong with hardball play at contract time — that’s good business (both for the union and the company). In the end I hope both sides can settle on something that works for everyone. While I am a company man, if ever forced to chose, I have to stand on the side of the people who work the streets.

***

Like others I contemplate the worst case scenario. What would I do? I am a union man so that much is clear. I will have to find other work elsewhere. I can start over as a medic at another company if they will hire me, but I will not have the prime suburban shift I have no, nor the ability to work unlimited overtime. How will I be able to meet my mortgage and other obligations? I may have to sell my house.

But it is not that dire. I will be taking an honorable stand, honoring my commitment to my fellow workers, proving the mettle I am made of. And, I think, maybe as one door closes, another may open. Maybe this is what I need to escape the shackles of this job I love. I would now be free to move anywhere in the country. I could go to law school, get a nursing degree, join the Peace Corps, see the world, live in a one room shack somewhere in America and finish my novels and write other, greater ones. Maybe that is what I need. The truth is I am
u
nafraid of the future. What will be will be.

***

While at the hospital I see one of our newer medics. I think she has been a medic maybe 2 or 3 years, after being an EMT for several before that. A nice, smart, well- meaning middle-aged woman — who cares about being good at her job. She tells me she is going to go part-time (I guess she’s going back to her old sales job part-time), and she seems sort of beatup. I don’t know whether it is the job, the union negotiations(where she has been actively involved and by many accounts gave an impassioned Norma Rae speech to the company negotiators), or all the routine crap that each profession and workplace has, and which sometimes can be onerous in this one, but she seems tired and disspirited. It makes me sad. You hate to see people who care leave, even if it is just to go part-time.

***

The next negotiating session will be Sunday night. I say I will attend.

***

I’m beat as I have worked the last seven days straight, including twelve hours that day and almost twenty hours the previous day. I am planning to stay for two or three hours at most, just to say I was there. I’m not planning on speaking. I just want to sit in the room.

There are maybe fifteen or sixteen of us, including three people from the union. The management team has six people. They come in the room and give their response to the union’s last proposal, then they leave the room, and for the next two hours we talk over all the points. Then we make a counter offer, which we present when they come back in the room, then they leave, we wait and they return with counteroffer. The evening goes like this.

The union members who have been at most of the sessions and who have done the most work are very passionate. I know them well. I used to work with one of the women, another is a good friend. You don’t want either of them in your face. Another woman is the closet human to a pit bull I have seen. One of the guys is a long standing medic. I have watched him for years. He is a great medic and a passionate man. I remember one night when he brought in a child whose throat had been slashed — he intubated the boy by sticking an Et tube right into the boy’s open throat. I remembered the pent up rage he let out when he came out of the hospital that night. These are good people — many with serious illnesses in their immediate families — cancer, crippling diseases, major operations. I respect all of them.

I would not make a good negotiator. I would come in with a reasonable proposal from the start. Then I would shrug and said okay when I got a counteroffer. If that’s the best you can do, I guess we’ll have to take it. I don’t know if I would have the combination of rage and steel to insist on what I feel I deserve.

I know several of the company team. Nice people. They have their bottom lines too — their jobs to do.

The people from the union local are also impressive to me. They have been through other negotiations and can offer counsel. They are straight talking and tough. They say they will back us. At the same time they are not offering us pie in the sky versions of reality. The lead union man makes a good point — the contract we will get is only as strong as we are as a union. We had a good vote, but if it comes to it, will we all stand together?

There is a point when it looks like people are angry and they want to tell the company to shove it. I am reluctant to speak because I have not been there for all the meetings, I have not had to put it out on the line like they have. I haven’t had to eat any shit.

I say my peace. I compliment them on what they have achieved — on their hard work. I respect what they have achieved — the modifications the company has already made in its proposal in response to their arguements. I tell them that no matter what the outcome, I will stand with. If it means striking, even though it is something I do not want to do, I will strike. But I also tell them, I think the modified contract offer isn’t so bad that everyone else will walk on it. When really pressed, I don’t know how many will stand with us. Health care is expensive. Its not like all the money is going into the company’s coffers. The company is going to be paying 75% of the insurance costs. I agree with what one of my fellow employees has said that if we can get enough to cover the increased cost of the health insurance in the first year, and then a reasonable raise in the next two years, then well, its not such a bad contract all things considered. Are we as a union strong enough to hold our membership together to get what we ought to be paid? (The truth is I don’t know if you can make that much). Or should we just look at this as a start. Maybe the next time around, we — all of us those in the room, and those who are not here — those working the road, those at home, those who fear losing their jobs and those who don’t, can be stronger — strong enough and committed enough for a tougher battle.

We make what we feel is a reasonable counteroffer. The company comes back with theirs. Some give and take, and by two AM the outline of a deal is reached — it just needs to be written up. We eat the new health insurance plan (although modified to keep out-of-poket maximims lower than initially offered) and accept a new method of accruing paid time off, along with an attendence policy, but in return we get a decent pay raise and some other extra money for training and longevity.

I am impressed with what I have seen. There was give and take, compromise was made on both sides. Unlike what I have heard about previous meetings, everyone was for the most part civil. I feel a decent contract was agreed upon – a contract which acknowledged the economic times we are in and the rising cost of heath care, and also acknowledged within constraints of the bottom line — our worth as employees.

So provided our entire membership approves the contract — there will be no job action and we’ll all be working here at least another three years.

I think that is a good thing.

***

I’m at work. I get a page: We need units to clear, holding priority ones. I quickly finish my paperwork (flush), find my partner and tell him we can clear. When we do, they bang us with a transfer.

Company man, I hear my partner say.

***

“There’s a better world a-coming
Don’t you see, don’t you see…”

-Woddy Guthrie

1 Comment

  • Blue Cross of California says:

    Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

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