Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Please Rank My Spite

Readers, I have written this blog post to ask both of you how much I should despise the workers I saw today. Let me present the facts as straightforwardly as possible:
  • They were employees of Portland General Electric (PGE).
  • PGE is a publicly traded company with stock symbol POR.
  • At one time, PGE was owned by Enron, but Enron sold it amid its self-made disasters of the early 2000s.
  • Many of PGE's workers, including the workers I saw today, are linemen represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW);
  • The PGE workers aligned with IBEW engage in collective bargaining with PGE. 
  • While PGE is a private corporation, it is not, in any real sense, engaged in competitive enterprise. The state has granted it a monopoly over the provision of electrical power to a large and heavily populated hunk of Oregon. We who live in that area can either go without electricity or purchase it from PGE at regulated rates.  
  • The workers I saw today were repairing a power line, at least 30-40 feet in the air. When I saw them, the temperature was 38 F, the rain was steady, and there was a non-trivial but brisk east wind. For logistical reasons, they did not have the benefit of a "cherry picker" --- the image at the top gives a fair approximation of what I saw, though I saw three linemen rather than two.
  • One of the linemen was not directly engaged with the power line, but appeared to be serving as a safety spotter of some kind -- he was positioned a few feet back from the other two, and his focus was divided between the other two linemen and the crew on the ground.
  • Many members of the crew on the ground were standing. One or two might have been leaning against their PGE vehicles, though not, I would say, in a lazy way. They were all paying attention to the job at hand, watching the safety spotter's hand signals,  directing the flow of gawking passersby like me, and doing whatever one does in that work. 
  • It must be admitted that none of the workers on the ground were filling the time by jogging in place vigorously, doing push-ups, drawing up diagrams of money-saving innovations, sweeping the sidewalks, planting trees, reading to children, changing out the engine oil for the PGE trucks, answering customer service calls, or singing the praises of PGE's senior managers, board of directors, or shareholders.
These are the facts as I encountered them. In the context of ongoing national controversies, in which, apparently, millions of people have somehow contrived to conclude that public sector unions are peopled with despicable layabouts whose bloated compensation packages are dragging us all to ruin, I am not sure what to make of the PGE workers I saw today. Should I hate them?

If so, how much should I hate them? Should I hate them as intensely as I am expected to hate school teachers, social workers, nurses, police, and fire fighters, etc., who often seem to do useful work but are, it turns out, paid by the government? Should I hate them as much as I would hate them if they were employed by a publicly owned power utility?

Should I hate them before or after they complete work on the power line? (I admit it -- I do enjoy having electrical power.)

Hold that thought. Apropos -- well, maybe nothing in particular -- consider this, one of many charts recently published in Mother Jones:

Given that sort of forty-year trend, and given our recent and ongoing national experience with the banksters, I am tempted to say it requires towering levels of stupidity to convert "the government is in debt" to an adequate explanation for "I don't have as much free time or as much money in the bank as I would prefer" and to stop the analysis and begin the fist-shaking, scat-throwing outrage --- so much colossal stupidity, in fact, that it ceases to be stupidity and goes begging for a more fitting label. And the difficulty of locating the right label for it suggests the possibility that I am the one who is seeing all of this the wrong way. There's a conceptual connection or leap that I am failing to make, evidently.

To my way of thinking, if the question is where is the money and free time going?, this is an empirical question with actual answers, but evidently my way of thinking is wrong. Somehow.

I hope someone will set me straight and help me understand why wage-earners -- whether employed in public or private sector -- are in any meaningful sense the ones to whom to direct any share of outrage. It seems to me the bottom 98% of us are out bracing against the same wind, feeling the same cold, dangling with little support, precariously close to falling even as we do the work.


Informed Respondent said...

You are uninformed, and your observations are superficial at best. Let me tell you a little bit about linework. Number one, it is one of the most life endangering occupations out there besides logging. Typically because of the stresses, strains and exposures, a lineman's years on the pole are limited. They expose themselves to voltages of up to 500 kV on any given day. The workers you saw on the pole were most likely working with 12,450 volts phase to phase. If they accidently touch a phase or bridge phase to phase with their being, they are almost instantly dead. Typically when working on primary voltages the crew make up is two journeymen linemen and one groundman. You probably saw an unusual work situation where extra crew members were needed or a training session. Due to the extreme danger a significant amount of training is invested in our workers to ensure their safety. If there is any unusual work type, or a pole is being worked hot (to ensure continual services to customers) additional crews will be brought in for safety reasons. Beyond that PGE crews take pride in working long and hard hours to insure that our ratepayers/customers like yourself, have the luxury of electricity 99.98 percent of the time. Unions are necessary to keep the workers safe due to the downward pressures of maximizing the bottom line, and even with unionized representation lineworkers still get killed. PGE's rates, much like other utilities are not increasing because of unionized workers commanding a premium salary while squandering away their workday, it is because of the rising raw material prices, increases in healthcare benefit costs, increases in the cost of borrowing capitol and the list goes on. Should you have any more concerns about the number of workers working on a given pole or location, go out and strike up a conversation with the foreman, I am sure they would be more than happy to answer any questions you have or explain the situation.

Dale said...

Informed Respondent, you might want to take a second pass at that. Albeit smothered in irony, my post is actually supportive of workers, specifically the workers who risk so much to keep the power flowing. I respect the work they do even as I -- as you correctly note -- know next to nothing of the finer details of it.

I know this: PGE crews should take pride in their work. It is real work and it merits real compensation, and I am already on the side of PGE workers when/if the next dispute with PGE management comes.