Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Life In The Worker's Paradise

Working in Advertising Operations at the Washington Post was like working in the worker's paradise even for a temp. However, being an employee and in the union as well meant you really didn't have to do much work but you got great pay and benefits for the lack of effort. Me? I was just getting great pay with no benefits. I was one of the Post's insurance policies they could lever against the union of workers who didn't really want to do any work for the most part though as always there were exceptions of course. The situation was the revolution in technology was exploding but the Washington Post was still doing paste up boards like it use to be done for Mark Twain. But that had to change for the Post to be competitive in the changing economic landscape caused by the Internet revolution and computer generated finished copy instead of lead type.

My first night I met Billy George and my boss Bob Tamoria. Bob Tamoria was a great boss to work for. He was a big part of working in the worker's paradise. You see, I had worked many hard jobs in the past with bosses who could give a damn about you. Bob really did care about his workers and so did the Washington Post apparently because they sure coddled employees - especially the union people. Billy George, on the other hand, was a union guy. He was one of the more friendly ones but that first night Bob had him showing me the ropes of how they were using the Track-It data basing system to move their ads from being created, to proofed and revised to finally being ready for press.  He gave me a bum steer. Billy said I was working too hard and to slow up. Also he said every forty-five minutes I was to take a mandatory break. It seemed kind of kooky to me having worked real hard jobs my whole life. So I mentioned it to Bob and he set me straight. I could take a break every once in a while but not like that. So Bob and I became close since he was management and just about everybody else were union workers. They didn't have to speak to him and they didn't unless forced by some union contract agreed reason. So it was a lonely job for Bob and I know he appreciated the camaraderie and conversation.

Those first couple years in 1998 and 1999 that I was a temp at the Post were my final years in Virginia before moving back to Maryland. I don't even like driving into Virginia anymore. At this time I was making more money than I'd ever imagined but my credit was screwed by the mix up between me and my dead father. We have the same name but Bank of America somehow confused this eighty-six year old man and me.  So now that they are having a rough time of it I'm not losing any sleep over their troubles. If they were to go completely out of business I think the world would be a better place for it. But as I said at first I was still living in Virginia planning our escape and raking in the dough from two jobs and now my wife was working too. Plus, the work at the Post was not like breaking rocks in the hot sun. I was in an environmentally control cubical sitting in a $1,200 ergonomically correct chair working with a computer. My boss thought I was great. I use to proof all of his reports and memos for errors and to make sure they were well written. I was hired to only proof advertising copy as far as upper management knew. Proofing Bob's reports was a task that I also did for several managers while at the Post because the paper had lots of smart managers but in Ad Operations not many great writers. The writers were on the fifth floor committing acts of journalism for the paper which, while well written and catchy, said absolutely nothing most times. I had already come to realize this years earlier. Even so I would punch up their prose a bit which made them look good for upper management who covet this sort of thing in their people. Being a manager at the post was like having a position in the Roman Senate. The compensation was great and you could afford nice togas but one of the other managers can always stick a knife in your back to enhance their own climb up the mockingbird ladder. Loose alliances formed between management factions. I was in a position to know about this, the situation with the union and its workers and just the general shop scuttle butt. So basically, I was familiar with who hated whom and who's team everybody allied themselves with especially at the top of the managerial ladder. When something big screws up heads can roll. For example, I saw a head of Advertising Operations go from being the night manager to being an ad makers the following week - and he was one of the luckier deposed managers. Most got lateraled into some bullshit position then paid to go away. Cold hard capitalism that the workers of the Washington Post did not least not at that time. But things change as I shall discuss.

The union workers on the sixth floor in Ad Ops where I worked fell into three groups. Most liked me and tolerated my scabby presence. Some were ambivalent like Lonny Chenery who didn't give a damn what your thing was as long as you didn't cross him or get in his way. I always obliged because I had to deal with a small percentage of workers who did despise me for being a temp working on their union turf. When I say workers I don't mean that in the literal sense. Some like this one "worker" Dee rarely did much work at all. Instead, I could on most nights hear her talking with her grandchildren on the phone and cackling loudly. But she certainly didn't want to work. She didn't want me to work either. All I wanted to do is show up and do what I was told to do and collect a paycheck. I still didn't agree with the Post's editorial position most times but it was their paper and I had to admit - they were making money. Lots of it. The ad rack was jammed every night with a hundred or more new ads. They just kept coming and coming and many nights we had to work past dawn to get caught up. An ad maker sometimes would shove an ad in my proof rack and three ad jackets would fall out it was so stuffed with revenue.

Putting together a newspaper is a hurry up and wait job. So you work hard and furious early getting the paper ready. Then you could have an hour or more at the end of your shift with nothing to do. Well, if you were in the union working under specific working condition legally binding and reviewable restricting you henceforth know as an "employee" to specified tasks and nothing else without prior notice and agreement with the said union then blah blah blah blah. In other words it was a legal pain in the ass to get any union worker to do anything more than the one job he was hired to do. The Post would just have to hire another worker while the union guys sit and do nothing. Which brings me to one night later in the shift when there was not any proof reading to do for the four of us proofreaders - so Bob Tamoria grabbed an ad from the rack and told me to build it. It was a Quark ad and I'd never used Quark before. I dove in as software is software to me and after about forty-five minutes I'd built the ad. I hit the Stepped Done button with Track-It and was up at the ad rack looking to grab another ad to do. That's when Dee walked up to me.

"Building ads now Tom?" She asked in a snide tone. But I responded politely, "Yes. We're kind of slow in Q.C. (That stands for Quality Control) and Bob Tamoria told me to build ads." Dee's rude response to my shock was, "That's right Tom. Keep sucking Tamoria's ass." A bit stunned I said, "Excuse me?" But Dee just walked way babbling to herself. She just despised me. I told Bob about it. Next thing you know there's a big investigation involving him, the head of Ad Ops, Legal, the Union...and of course Dee. They never contacted me about anything, most likely because Legal feared I may have an actionable claim against the Post for Dee's bad harassing behavior. The Post is real concerned about their public image and would not appreciate bad press about their contract temp employees being harassed by the Washington Post's employees. Even so Bob filled me in on all the details. It ended with Dee breaking down in tears and begging for mercy. She was only written up with a reprimand. She didn't speak to me again unless she had to due to work which she rarely still did little of. She did complain to me on one occasion after that but I can't remember about what. All I recall now is I responded that she should tell it to someone who gave a damn. She never spoke to me again which was a relief.

Her husband Joe hated me as well. He worked in Ad Operations too and did lots of overtime. He actually worked real hard I must say. But he was a union guy and his wife had gotten into trouble for telling me to suck Tamoria's ass which of course was really all my fault for being a temp worker trying to feed his wife and kids. One evening not long after the Dee affair Joe asked me a job related question to which I answered while referring to him as "Boss." He went off about him not being my boss and glad for not having the position. So DON'T CALL HIM BOSS ANYMORE! But I called everybody Boss at the Post because I was lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean. Everybody's my boss. So I replied, "Sorry Boss. I thought everybody here was my boss."
He walked away even more annoyed than before but before he too met his wife's fate with the grand inquisitors of the Washington Post. In the days ahead I too would find myself before the inquisitor of the mockingbird for various harassment thought crimes perpetrated by word of mouth.

It's funny now thinking about it. It ended by me being written up for "Instigating a Conversation." I'm not kidding. A conversation. The conversation I perpetrated dealt with economics with a recently hired temp who was a nice guy but flying left. He wanted the government deciding everything while I'm more of a Jeffersonian free thinker and actor who abhors interference into my private decisions by government or anyone for that matter. We're debating late that night and in the middle of my "conversation" which I may or may not have "started" when another proofreader tells me to shut up because she has to work with this other proofreader. In other words she felt my conversation might scare him away from work. But I'm relatively sure this middle-aged single woman was kind of sweet on this guy and this was her way to show she cared. But we ignored her and kept talking. But she kept telling me to shut up until I finally responded, "No I'm not going to shut up." To which she replied, "Would you like me to go home?" She was a typical union proofreader milking every ad and proofreading as few ads as possible to minimize her chances of being caught giving up a write-off. So her statement had nothing to do with my conversation with Brice who she was sweet on even though I'm sure he's gay. At the very least when he realized the whole affair might have been due to this worker being fond of him he needless to say was not pleased by the honor. But I told her I didn't care if she did go home because as usual she wasn't doing any work. She jumped up, grabs her things and turns to leave just as Bob Tamoria comes wheeling out of his office to see what the commotion is all about. He says, "What's going on?" Liz replies, "I'm going home because Tom told me to go home." Bob told her to go I suppose because there was only half an hour left anyway and it would diffuse any possible issues at least until Bob sorted it out. She left and I was still peeved she could be permitted to interrupt our conversation and tell me to shut up repeatedly. But Bob got me to settle down I after a bit I thought that was the end of it at least for me.

This was the end of the week and when I returned the following week this worker's schedule started one day earlier than mine had. She used the opportunity to claim that I had been somehow violent and made her feel, "uncomfortable," which a white, heterosexual male must never be found guilty of at the Washington Post especially against one of the protected groups of employees. If you somehow made a black, gay, lesbian woman feel uncomfortable then your ass was surely getting fired. It is fitting enough punishment for some of my genetic material still being composed of the DNA of white Europeans who perpetrated four hundred years of slavery and oppression. So I understood this naturally. Even so I had forgotten the whole issue when I arrived to work that next week and sat down to get busy. But the phone rings and it's the head of Ad Ops, Tom Glinka. That's never good the first thing when you get in. He tells me to come to his office and when I do Ronnie is there too and they ask me to shut the door behind me and sit down. I figured I wasn't going to get a Merit Pay bonus for good work. Then they tell me about this alleged violent behavior that had been invented in the mind of my accuser who possessed one third of the protected status criteria being a woman. She had me threatening her with violence and feeling uncomfortable all over the place. I knew I was in deep trouble. The trouble for her was no one on the floor ever heard any violence or anything that would make anybody feel uncomfortable. So Glinka wrote us both up, her for leaving work before her shift and me for that conversation instigation that was partly to blame because I should have known better than to say I wasn't going to shut up when a member of a protected class ordered me to do so. But that was the end of it for me though I never spoke another word to her the remaining years I worked for the mockingbird and most of those years were spent with her only two yards from me on the other side of the cubical. In fact she was so hysterical about it that when they moved me back to sit across from her after being in another department she had a fit and ended up being suspended herself.

Well she just kill the goose that laid the golden burrito. I got this woman food at Burrito World every night for several years but no more since I wasn't taking orders from her. After three or four months again I arrive at work but the phone call I get is from Personnel this time. They ask me to come by right now. This doesn't sound good I thought as I walk to their office wondering if this had anything to do with the earlier incident. I thought, nah. I walk in and after a bit of friendly chit chat I'm told of a violent conversation I had with my supervisor several weeks earlier which of course made my accuser feel uncomfortable. The trouble was it never happened except perhaps in my accuser's mind. She used the opportunity to bring up the earlier incident in which she felt she had not received her adequate quantity flesh. But I knew this time she would never be a problem any longer as I never had any violent conversations with my supervisor whom she waited three weeks for him to go on vacation for two weeks before lodging her complaint. So I stayed for several hours in Personnel just chatting away about anything and everything to stall for time while I knew the managers in Ad Ops would be hopping mad because I wasn't there. This worker had taken off as well because I guess she was hoping they would fire me because of her delusions. When I finally went back to the sixth floor Ronnie asked where I'd been with a stern look like it better be good. I said, "Sorry boss but I've been up in Personnel discussing the fight that me and Randy had." Ronnie worked the same hours as we did and never missed a day at work or a thing that went on there. He said, "What fight?" I quickly replied, "You tell me boss. You know who said Randy and I had  violent conversation several weeks ago and it made her feel uncomfortable." Ronnie screamed, "Bullshit! You and Randy never had any fight here." I smiled and replied, "I tend to agree with you, boss." Ronnie told me to forget about it and he would handle it. He must have because that's the last I heard of it and she never filed any further complains against me. She had destroyed her credibility but there were plenty more at the Post and they held higher social ranking as well.

It's funny but the joke was I was cheating at the employee appreciation soirees because I always won the baseball tickers - at least several years in a row. At one point as they are reaching into the hat to see who is going to win the baseball tickets someone yells, "This better not be Estrada-Palma again." Ned got the Kathryn Graham book and I joked, "Gee Ned...I was hoping for the Kathryn Graham book but all I got were these lousy Nationals tickets behind their dugout. He gave me that, "You bastard" laugh.

But my earlier accuser also won the tickets as well but didn't realize I had won the pair right next to her pair of tickets. That afternoon of the game a couple months later I'm sitting with my son Alex when she walks up with the usher alone then realizes it's me sitting there. She thanks the usher then walks away never to return. I figured she must have been embarrassed to be seen at the game by herself with two tickets.

So later that evening I call in at work because I had taken off to go to the game and I was telling Randy guess who I saw at the game as well as her walking away and not returning. Ronnie the night manager overheard our conversation as he was passing by and asked what's up. Randy told him what I said and I could hear Ronnie screaming from the other end of the phone. "God dammit! She told me she was taking off to fly to Florida to be with her sick father." She got the Ronnie riot act when she came to work that next week but I'm sure she had developed a lie by that time as an excuse for her being at the game when she said she would be at her father's sick bedside.

I survived this mockingbird investigation but there would be others to come. Again these would involve conversations and allegations of being uncomfortable. I survived them all and now I can tell the story. The Washington Post is still thought of in respectful terms by many even though some of the nonsense they charged me with will surely bring a smile when I tell the story. It's a story of the ridiculous wrapped in the foolish all conducted with a witch hunt flare on a journey to be like fair and stuff like equality and like stuff you know... I will tell you how it feels to be before snotty nosed little college graduates acting as lead investigator, prosecutor, judge and grand jury using secret evidence which we the accused are not permitted to view in order to render their verdicts. When you find yourself being a straight white guy as well you are already down two strikes before you ever sit down. Fortunately, the only punishment for my infractions were verbal and written reprimands mostly for not being sensitive enough to the feelings of others. That meant my accusers heard me talking to someone else because my hearing is bad and I speak loudly - I'm the first to admit. If they disagreed with my opinion I was expressing to someone else that could be grounds for an investigation. At the Post it is never wise to say anything above a whisper and only to trusted co-workers. Never put anything in writing unless you are forced to then make to real vanilla. At the Post there are no problem - only issues. At least that's what I was told by management.


Blogger Carol Moore said...

Good story. Bet you aren't working there any more. Ho Ho Ho.

Having been a temp so long, I know what it's like being able to watch the circus with bemusement.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Tomás Estrada-Palma said...

And you'd win that bet!

10:30 AM  

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