ON GRATITUDE, UNIONS, VETERANS AND NEW JERSEY TRANSIT

As readers of this blog and my book know, the mission of my company is to promote the hiring of veterans.  I take that mission seriously because I believe that it is our duty, as Americans, to offer the only tangible support we can to returning members of the Armed Forces: employment.  But it is not just the right thing to do.  As I wrote in a previous post about the treatment of vets, it’s also the smart thing to do.  Vets make great employees, have fabulous skills, are mission-centric and care about the people they serve.  They also have the “‘No’ is not an acceptable answer” attitude.  They get the job done.

I work in Manhattan and live in New Jersey.  Every morning and every evening I travel by bus to and from the City.  I actually enjoy the ride.  It gives me a chance to unwind and catch up on my reading.  Not having to drive is relaxing.

What is not relaxing is the Manhattan bus terminal a.k.a. the Port Authority.  If, and it rarely happens, I can get to the PA before 5:00, there are no lines.  But from about 5:15 the lines start to form.  Sometimes it’s all gates; sometimes only a few.  And when I say “lines” I mean “lines.”  Hundreds upon hundreds of people can be standing in winding rows leading to their gates.  Sometimes the lines even cross each other.  Thousands of people can be waiting for their buses.  This is not exceptional; it’s practically every day.  We are all waiting for New Jersey Transit buses.  There is never a representative of NJ Transit to found.  What would be the point?

Now to be fair, if there is an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, where all the buses are heading to or coming from, it’s no one’s fault that the lines are long.  And if the weather is bad, traffic slows, accidents happen and, again, it’s no one’s fault.  But this situation exists even when there are no accidents and the weather is fine.

Two days ago, Tuesday the 22nd of May, was one such day.  The weather was fine – although humid.  There were no announcements of accidents.  I actually got to my Gate, number 224, just after 5:00.  The lines were just forming.  I was fifth or sixth in line waiting for the 5:20 bus.

Now I should explain that the 162 local, 163 local, 164 local, and the 144, 162, 163 and 164 express routes all use my Gate.   There can be three to four hundred people waiting in a line that I won’t even try to describe.  You have to see it to believe it.  Let’s put it this way:  Around 5:15 they have to shut down the escalator or people will start crashing into each other.

(Just an aside:  The escalator is the only way to access Gate 224.  If it is heading up, you have to leave the Gate and cross over to another Gate to find stairs if you want to return to the terminal.  The stairs have been blocked for months following the remodeling/renovation of the Gate.  Put differently, if something really bad happens, our only escape route is into the bus traffic lanes!)

But let’s get back to Tuesday.

It’s 5:20 and my bus, the 144, scheduled for departure at that time, is nowhere to be seen.  A couple of 162s and 163s come and go, but no 144.  The minutes tick away, the crowd gets larger, the humidity rises, and people start complaining.  One woman sees the dispatcher and calls him over.

She said something like, “Three 162s and two 163s have come.  Why no 144?”  The dispatcher tried to explain the situation to her, to no avail.  Then, being human, he got frustrated.  And then he said the truth.

Now I am sympathetic to a man who has to face one angry woman with literally hundreds of people standing behind, beside and in front of her, knowing that everyone supports her and no one supports him.  Add heat and humidity, and he’s entitled to be cranky.  And I’ll give him credit, Mr. Conrad Daniel told me his name when I asked for it.  That surprised me.  But what shocked everyone was what he said to the woman before turning around and leaving:

“A bus is coming for you.  You should be grateful.”

“Grateful.”  Probably the worst word he could have chosen.  Everyone was in shock.  A couple people asked, “What did he say?”

Well he said we should be grateful.  Why?  Here’s my theory:

Mr. Daniel (and I may have the spelling of his name wrong) is in the union.  (That’s an assumption on my part, but since NJT is unionized, I think it is a safe assumption.)  Apparently, according to him, we should be grateful that union workers do their jobs.  It’s irrelevant that we are paying them to do their jobs.  It’s also irrelevant that they are incompetent.

Why “incompetent?”  If, as I wrote, there’s a problem due to an accident or the weather, there’s no one to blame for a delay.  It’s the life of the commuter.  It’s the price we pay – in addition to the fare.  But the long lines and interminable waits when there are no accidents and the weather is fine are a chronic problem.  It’s practically every day.  If the good people at New Jersey Transit were competent, they would have figured out how to deal with the problem.  After all, they have the data.  They know how many riders there will be.  They know that 49 can be seated and 11 can stand.  Divide by 60 and you know how many buses you need.

Mr. Daniel’s “grateful” comment explains the attitude.  Mr. Daniel is not the disease; he’s the symptom.  The disease is unionism and the fact that it would take a Ronald Reagan (as in the air traffic controllers) to find the cure.

The Port Authority is owned and operated by the States of New York and New Jersey.  With all due respect to Governor Cuomo, who has taken on the unions, I doubt he’s a Reagan.  But New Jersey’s Governor Christie is a different matter.  Perhaps he would be good enough to take the lead…

Again, I want to be fair.  The buses running from New Jersey to New York come on time.  I’ve never really had a problem.  Every so often a bus is late or doesn’t show.  But it is so rare that it’s really not worth mentioning.  The problem is Manhattan and the Port Authority.

When Michael Dell started his computer company he did not use an IT company as his model.  His model was FedEx.  Reliable products and phenomenal customer service.  So let’s forget that New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority are involved with transportation.  Let’s look at them in a different way.

Tens of thousands of people arrive at a location in mid-town Manhattan to be taken by hundreds if not thousands of buses to various locations as far north as Montreal, as far south as Florida, as far east as Long Island and as far west as California.

But let’s not call them “people,” let’s call them “packages.”  Who sends packages, around the world, on a daily basis?  UPS.  And what is UPS’s tag line?  “We love logistics.”  In fact, instead of “love” they have a “heart” and a trademark which, I trust, I did not just violate!  (By the way, UPS is a union shop!)

Logistics.  Who have we, the American people, trained in logistics?  I’ll give you a hint.  They are mentioned in the title.  Correct:  Veterans.  And we have tens of thousands of them unemployed and soon to be.

Now if you read the blog post I referenced earlier, you’ll discover that truck drivers and medics, trained by the military, that is to say the Federal government, are not licensed, meaning their licenses are not recognized in any of the States.  Let’s change that.  How does this sound?

Officers with logistics training will be hired to run the Port Authority.  Veterans who were drivers in the military, will be hired as drivers (New York and New Jersey will recognize their licenses), and other vets will be trained to be drivers and to fill other positions at both NJT and the PA.  None of them will be permitted to join a union.  The only guarantee of their continued employment will be competency and efficiency.  If they are good, they stay and advance.  If they have a “gratitude” problem, they’ll be grateful for their unemployment benefits.

Yes, there will be a strike.  And, in the case of the New Jersey-located staff, they may have a justifiable complaint that they are losing their jobs despite having nothing to do with Manhattan operations.  Perhaps they should be spared.  In any case, yes, there will be a great deal of short-term inconvenience.  When the attack on 9/11 occurred, President Bush did not call on Americans to make sacrifices.  He told us to go shopping.  He was wrongly criticized.  He was, in fact, correct.  The aim of the attack was to cripple our economy.  The weapon with which to respond was consumerism.

But now we do need to sacrifice.  And the sacrifice is for our veterans.  So what if we have to rearrange our schedules for a couple of weeks?  It’s nothing by comparison to what veterans and their families have had to do.  This is the best way for us to show our veterans that we are, to quote Mr. Daniel, grateful and are now willing to repay the debt.  Get rid of the union; hire vets!

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I have hand delivered a copy of this post to the Customer Service Department at the Port Authority.  If they, or Mr. Daniel, wish to add a comment, it will be approved and posted without any changes or edits of any kind.  I will be happy to give them, and my fellow NJ Transit travelers, the last word.

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