The McJobification of City Employment: precarious worker experience at the City of Oakland

A fair workplace at the City of Oakland is more and more out of reach, with the help of a worker's union embedded in management.

Submitted by Otra Ala on February 19, 2018

Several years ago, when I finally admitted that I couldn't make a living freelance and would have to put a boss into my life, I took one of the first jobs I could find. It was close to home and ostensibly, manual labor--some cleaning, moving things around with a forklift. I prefer physical work so it suited me. My new employer at that time was boat repair and sales shop, so it was fun and new. I got to spend a lot of time around the estuary and became infatuated with it and even more so as I started kayaking.

The pay wasn't much, but I was lucky enough to have an off the books dwelling, a naked, wrinkled basement apartment which while gross to many eyes, meant sweet freedom to me. I've never been either ashamed or proud of the work I do for a living, because that's not what defines me, its what allows me to live a life I find productive and meaningful outside the margins of what I'm paid for. 

I'll be honest, I hated many of aspects of that job, and not the least was the one element I hadn't really counted on. As one of the last boat repair facilities in the east bay, my bosses also repaired the boats of every major law enforcement agency in the county and city. And eventually this caught up with me. One of the cops who brought in their boat recognized me from Black Lives Matter and other protests, and told my bosses, who themselves turned out to have politicis closer to white supremacy than I cared to know about. They began with harassment, things like telling me to clean the toilet after I'd just cleaned it, making me move back-breaking things, being assholes. 

I could see the writing on the wall. And so I started looking for jobs on or around boats to see what was out there. The job at Lake Merritt, which i found on Craigslist, seemed just up my alley, a place where I could take what I had learned about boating, teach some people things, learn a little more, and work in the town I love around one of its most iconic geographic idiosyncracies.

The only thing that made me hestitate was working for the city, an entity I have had a long and storied dynamic of opposition to. My history of joining in on the subversion of the city's crappier policies was a matter of public record. I helped take over an Oakland school when it was going to be shut down, and occupied it for three weeks. I took over one of the city's abandoned and decaying libraries, and with members of the community, nearly succeeded in turning it into a neighborhood run community center. I continued to run an unpermitted garden project on the grounds for years afterward. And, of course, this blog, which is not something I put on my resume.

But as I talked to friends and associates, everyone told me that working for the city would actually give me more freedom. I would have union protections, the city would not be able to impinge on my free speech outside the job. I could have a job where what I did during off hours was protected. Of course, as it turns out nothing could be further from the truth.

Getting a job at the city of Oakland is no minor thing. After the application is accepted, there's a two hour test to pass. Then, if you pass the test, there's a skills assessment at the site. If you pass that, there's a long limbo where they can't give you an inkling about whether you've gotten the job as they do a background check. From the beginning of the process to its end, can take from 4 to 6 months, so you have to structure your life around the hopes of getting that job.

For many people, the reputation of a city job seems to make it all worth the trouble--benefits, paid vacation and holidays, a Calpers pension, representation from the union, and the possibility of promotion guarded by civil service rules. And so it was for me. I managed to hold on to my other job for the 4 months it took to pass my background check for the Lake Merritt job, and on the literal same day when my bosses asked the accountant to cut my last check, I was offered the job at Lake Merritt. 

The first time I ever heard the words, Temporary Part Time, was my interview and skills assessment at the site, there the director of the boathouse told me matter of factly that the job was TPT. They never let on that the job is of lower caliber than other city jobs in the advertisement, one of the many hoodwinkings management play on workers.

I was stuck, of course, because no one who has invested that much effort into getting a job for months has the option of simply turning it down at the interview. I decided to take the job and see what happened, because, again, like so many other people, I felt confident the job could lead to a better position in the boathouse or parks and rec later, so it was worth pursuing. 

I later learned just what being a TPT meant, that it was more than simply a cap on hours. TPTs get no health benefits, and they receive a sub-standard 401k benefit, nothing like the famed Calpers benefit that has created stable retirement for city and state workers. Moreover, the fact that the union had agreed to allow the city to designate TPT as at will employees, meant that a manager could fire a TPT worker for any reason, something that bound the union to inaction.

Thus, the upside-down reality that SEIU and the city of Oakland together fashioned were city job sites run at the whim of the managers, who were free to fire people for any reason that came into their heads. In fact, managers have even still a greater latitude for baseless firings, because the MOU's language gives them the right to simply take an employee off the schedule, without explanation and without any expectation of ever being put on again. 

A manager of TPT's in the city of Oakland can use this soft-termination to get rid of employees because they don't like women, they don't like gay people, they don't like Black or Latino people, or they don't like what someone does after hours on their own time. They aren't required to say why, they aren't even required to make up a story about it, because they aren't required to notify the city it even happened. This constant that reigns supreme over the lives of TPT's comes from language SEIU 1021 agreed to include in the MOU. 1021 continues to agree to it, strike after strike, contract after contract. 

Not surprisingly, city of Oakland management have found they like having a disposable workforce whose mistreatment doesn't generate paper work. The ratio of TPT workers to permanent  part-time and full-time workers has increased over the years. TPT workers now make up over half of city workers--that's half of SEIU 1021's union workforce with the city of Oakland.

You'd would think that this alarming reality, especially headed into unknown territory as SCOTUS considers decisions that will eliminate compulsory union dues in California, would light a fire under 1021. You'd think that this would have compelled 1021 to fight to vest TPT workers in their contract negotiations, so that the latter would have some reason to keep paying dues after the fall. But nope. 1021 only fought for its 6% salary hike, cold comfort to half its membership, who are usually disposed of like garbage within two years of getting their job, or reduced to so few hours per year that the raise is meaningless. 

I didn't mind most aspects of the job I had, and I loved it quite a bit of it. As a bilingual person, I encouraged people who'd never been out on the lake to give it a try over the years, people who would have found only English speakers at the ticket window and would have simply kept walking and wondering what it was like to be on the lake. I taught people with phobias about the water to chill and build their confidence. I was pretty good at it.

I coaxed crying children into boats and then got to see them coming back to the dock laughing their little asses off with joy. I towed people back to the dock when they were exhausted or when the wind had left their sails. I pulled people out of the water when they capsized, and in one case, most probably saved the life of two under-the-influence folks who had unzipped their lifejackets and capsized their boat.

Because I noticed early on how vulnerable I was before the whims of my director, I set about creating a profile for myself on paper that made me look indispensable. I took the city's Language test, and was certified as a bilingual speaker with the city, the only one on staff. I took and passed a 200 question state test so that I could pilot the 27 foot pontoon boat for Lake tours and outings. I was the only staff person who passed the test and got a for-hire vessel license during the round I took it, and was the only staff who had the license on the regular dock staff.

Meanwhile, it was impossible to ignore a critical feature of the worksite. All the permanent hire management were white, non-Oaklanders--all the TPTs were Black and POC. These permanent hires had to be trained for jobs that TPT staff already knew backwards and forwards. I began hearing disturbing stories about how people of color and Black people had been passed up for promotion or fired summarily. In one instance, an employee who'd worked for the city for seven years and was still TPT, was finally offered a permanent job in a managerial position, but, unlike later hires, who were, yes, white, they were asked to take a salary cut and eventually had to quit. That person told me that when they had first started on the dock staff, the director had told a Lead to find a reason to fire them.

There were other stories. How a non-white employee who'd trained for a higher position only to find that the city hired a white person in the end, a person who themselves was later fired for calling another employee the n-word. And finally, the Black employee who was singled out when money went missing from the safe, even though they were not the only person on staff that day who had access to it. They were fired without any process, simply called to the main office and asked to surrender their key and badge. 

There's more. I could go on for quite a while, but I don't have to. Its logical that in a work environment where the management has been given the right to fire people without even having to write an email about it, their prejudices large and small will be the driving force of who gets to keep their job and who advances.

I''m not sure how much longer I would have kept the job. I liked taking people on the tours and the other stuff. But the management's vicarious attitude toward staff and the need to constantly make TPT employees feel as if their jobs and lives didn't matter was difficult to accept. When a fellow worker who did the same job I did was soft-fired, for example,  a permanent-hire Lead told me it was a good thing. "He can get a real job now", he told me, oblivious, apparently, that I did the same job of, you know, preventing people from drowning.

This was the prevailing attitude at the site. It was fostered by the director, and gladly adopted by permanent-hire Leads who may have needed to believe it because they'd really done nothing to earn their relatively superior positions. Although the Leads and director made sure to make us feel replaceable, they nevertheless disappeared completely on their guaranteed Saturday-Sunday weekend, trusting unimportant us to save people from drowning and dying in boats and then never thanking us for averting crisis when extraordinary situations occurred. I once singlehandedly pulled three hefty dudes--like 250 each--out of the water after their canoe capsized, but the only response I got was being reprimanded the next weekday because no one had created an incident report. 

This appalling situation that one wouldn't even expect at a McDonalds didn't get that way by accident. SEIU 1021 had a major role in assuring permanent staff that they did not have to treat us like employees in full. When a fellow staff member was soft-fired on the spot by a director with a vendetta against them, 1021 moved so slowly that it took a month to even begin addressing the issue. By the time the director agreed to give the worker back their job, that worker had, understandably, already moved on.

During the run-up to the 1021 strike in December, 2017, SEIU 1021 sent a rep to our site who simply refused to talk to or introduce himself to any TPT employees. His main point of contact was, incomprehensibly, our permanent-hire Lead, who was functionally our boss despite being in the same union. He never spoke to any other member of staff, incredibly, and basically designated our for all intents and purposes boss, as our strike leader.

In fact, the union never contacted us directly about the strike, we were informed via email from the director that our (and their union, IFPTE 21) had gone on strike and we could choose what we wanted to do. The email was promptly rescinded and replaced by another from a a department head, who had yet another union that wasn't striking. Obviously, there was a legal issue with our bosses striking with our union, while leaving us out of the whole thing and telling us to go our own way. This incestuous situation relegated TPT workers to the role of red-headed step-child at the city. After paying union dues to SEIU 1021 for years, just like any other union member, many TPT workers only became aware of the strike when they saw it on the news.  

When I was finally soft-fired, the process followed an unsurprising trajectory. My boss didn't even contact me for three days to explain why, then they finally mentioned an incident, which had been resolved to my knowledge. But it seems an unlikely coincidence that it also followed the day I told high school students doing water sampling on the pontoon boat that there had been reports of a sewage spill a week earlier, and that the city may not have been following its protocol. I gave the students the option of wearing gloves if they felt uncomfortable handling the water. That was a Friday around 10 am. I was removed completely from our online scheduling system 24 hours later, on a Saturday morning, which is not even a workday for my boss. 

My boss later hung up on me when I tried to ask them to put something in writing about why I'd been soft-fired, and then refused to respond to my emails. Again, because of the secrecy involved in my soft-firing, there is no record of why I was taken off the schedule, nothing for me to argue against, no process. And this was the fourth time the director had soft-fired someone in this way in a year. 

I contacted 1021, but it was clear my rep was unmotivated. Every time I asked about lodging a grievance, I was steered away with assurances that a face to face talk with my boss facilitated by the union would be a better solution. They even told me that they wanted to tread lightly because didn't want to create mistrust with a member of an ally union. But in the end, I knew, even in the inconceivable situation where my 1021 rep was eager to file a grievance, the language in the MOU had okayed my director's reprehensible actions. I'm not sure what I expected, I suppose I was just being naive. This is the union that reads this during  every contract negotiation and says, okee dokee.

The Department Head [...]shall determine the number of hours of work per day and work week which any part-time employee shall be required to work, or whether such part-time employee shall work at all...

Finally, after nearly two weeks of my boss ignoring my rep's email inquiries, and mine, I was sent an official "seperation" notice which simply stated "your services are no longer needed". I'm not sure whether the official seperation notice was bureacratic ass covering or retaliation against me for involving the union in the management's sacred affairs, but I do know that I'm unlikely to ever find out.

By then, I was finally exhausting the fiction of 1021's worker management disguised as representation. My rep assured me that they understood my feelings and that they were challenging the city on the status of TPT employees. But when I asked them if at any point during the current negotiations the language that makes TPT employees so vulnerable had been challenged, they awkwardly responded no. I came to terms with the fact that SEIU 1021 would never fight for me. This was all the more obvious as 1021 was in a contract fight with the City of Oakland, and they had even gone on strike, but at no point had 1021 ever questioned giving management all the extra-judicial power they needed to treat TPT's like second-class workers. That's when I'd had enough of this farce and gave up the ghost. 

There are things I will miss about my job. My Lake (its actually a Lagoon) tour rap was tight, and connected the history of the Lake and Oakland to the current massive displacement that threatens the people who live here. I liked piloting boats on the Lake, I liked teaching kids how to kayak, I liked being that outstretched hand for people stuck out in the water or bobbing up and down in their life jacket after a capsize. The Lake to me symbolizes so many of the things I think about when I think about defending my Oakland. Its constant and ancient, its the one unifying reality that everyone who is from Oakland experiences, something that can't be bought by newcomers no matter their power and wealth. It can be altered, but it can't be bulldozed, or refurbished as a affluents-only zone.

But even if I hadn't been fired the way I was, I would have eventually quit, because there was no way to work with the director's archaic view of race and class, nor their impenetrable indifference to the lives of their employees. Though this, of course, is a characteristic found in most bosses in this land, the union meant to protect workers from such caprice has instead inked the protections for the bosses unaccountability. 



Otra Ala

5 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Otra Ala on February 26, 2018

As an aside to this piece by the author:

It's rare to be treated so poorly by a soul-less machine like the city of Oakland, that you actually forget some of the shitty things they did. Here's one. The way city of Oakland hires new TPT, at least for the Parks and Recreation Department, is that they are not considered to be "on staff", that is hired, until they are officially entered into the payroll system.

I started the process of applying in early March, but even by June 10, the day I started working, I for all intents and purposes had not heard back if I was hired. City of Oakland's payroll system is so screwed up, that managers eventually began ignoring whether employees had been logged into it by the time they were scheduled to start work during orientation. The orientation is a period of mandated training that all Parks and Recreation employees are required to attend at the beginning of the fiscal year. My manager sent me an email the night before the orientation telling me I was still "not on staff", and would be required to attend the orientation anyway. I asked via the email chain what that actually meant, but they never answered.

The next day when I showed up for the orientation, my manager took me aside and with probably the worst interpersonal skills I have ever witnessed explained that what "not being on staff" actually meant was that I wouldn't be paid for the training period until I was added to payroll, and was still considered not fully hired in some way I still can't understand. I worked the first day for free. I was okay with it for a minute until she explained that also meant that I couldn't be reimbursed later when I was on payroll for the work period, because of some kind of arcane rule the City had about not paying people "before they were hired." That's not even as bad as some employees I talked to later had it, who worked for the entire orientation and training period of a week for free. This was, in fact, business as usual, and was expected. Of course, 1021 never helped us with this, in the few instances that people had sought them out, they told them there was nothing they could do. For that reason, I didn't even try and like most people, I sucked it up because I really wanted the job.