“Son, never disrespect what a man does for a living. I don’t care if it’s mopping floors or working as an executive in an office. Every job is there for a reason, and someone has to do it.” – Francis Eugene Poag, Jr.
I’m standing in the bag room next to the carousel with Jacob. He’s a quiet young man, favoring stoic reserve over extroverted displays of crass humor common among ramp agents, a pastime I thoroughly enjoy and participate in. He’s my puller, the person who loads up the bag carts, and I’m the runner, the person who takes the bags out to the planes. Being a bag runner is one of the more stressful jobs, but at least there’s down time. Jacob and I share a love for Hip Hop. He knows the old school rappers like Rakim, and independent artists like Oddisee. His eyes are half open, and there’s a slight sway to his stance. He’s dead on his feet, and it shows.
Me: “This your Friday?” (In shift work your Friday is the last day of a five day work week)
Jacob: “Nah man, Saturday.”
Me: “How long your shift today?”
Jacob: “Eighteen hours.”
Me: “Damn, dude. What time you clock in?”
Jacob: “4:30 (AM). Get off at 11 (PM).”
Me: “That’s a long ass day.”
Jacob: “Yup. Worked two 13’s before that. Got another 18 tomorrow.”
I never ask why anyone works a brutal schedule like that. The answer is always the same: money. But sometimes people offer a more specific reason.
“I’m moving to a new apartment, and I wanna pay off the security deposit in one wack,” Jacob confided.
While Paul Ryan was wondering where his comments about the urban poor had gone so wrong Jacob was working close to eighty hours that week so he could pay off a security deposit on a new apartment along with his other bills.
Our union contract stipulates that you can’t work more than six consecutive days. Some stations let you fudge that rule, the smaller field stations, but I work at a Hub so they stick by it. However there’s no upper limit on how many hours you can work in those six days. If you want work six doubles in a row they’ll let you. My personal record is seventy six hours in a week. That’s seventy six hours of hard, physical labor.
I’m sitting in the break trailer getting ready to eat some take out. I’m not a big fan of take out for lunch, but it’s quick and I’m a bit lazy when it comes to food prep. Gary, a middle aged, down to earth guy with a slow southern drawl who is quick to laugh, and slow to anger drops a small bombshell in the middle of our casual conversation.
Gary: “You rich Poag.”
Me: “Say what? Why you say that?”
Gary: “Because you are.” He gestures toward my Panda Express take out box.
Me: “Man, I ain’t no rich man.” I say incredulously. I’m bewildered, and a little incensed at the remark.” “ I’m… I wouldn’t be here if I was.”
Gary smiles, and shrugs a bit, playing it off as a joke. “It’s alright man. It is what it is. But you are.”
I don’t think I’m rich, far from it. I have friends who make a lot more money than I do. To me they’re rich, and they’d probably say the same thing I said to Gary. I think about all the times I’ve seen Gary get take out. It’s exactly zero. Then I think about all the times I’ve seen him at work. It’s a lot.
Me: “Hey man what’s your normal shift?”
Gary: “Days. I come in at 9:45.”
We both get off at eleven o’clock at night. I don’t say anything else. I focus on my food, and glance over to the news on the TV hoping that the upcoming weather report isn’t gonna be too shitty tomorrow. I’ll make a comment about football in a couple of minutes to change the subject with Gary.
To folks like Gary I’m a rich man because I don’t pick up that many extra hours. I work my forty and go home. A lot of nights I clock out fifteen minutes early. I don’t sit by the clock. Once the work is done, I’m done. I’m not on the company’s dime. I’m on my time. I’m rich because I only work forty hours a week. I’m rich because I can occasionally buy an $8 take out meal during my shift. I don’t have kids to worry about, and I don’t have financial obligations beyond myself. That’s why I’m mistaken for being a rich man.
When Paul Ryan attacked the concept of overtime pay, with the deceptively titled the “Working Families Flexibility Act", Gary worked extra hours at straight time. There wasn’t any overtime to be had, but he still had bills to pay. So he worked, and still works over forty hours a week, every week.
“Hey motherfucker! You gonna do any fuckin’ work today?!”
My head turns in the direction of the authoritative bellow, as does everyone else in the trailer. Frank, a stout, hardworking veteran ramper with an aggressive sense of humor that’s compensated by his uncompromising sense of fairness stands over another ramper, Caleb, who’s been shirking his duties.
Caleb: “Fuck you man! I’ve been working.”
Frank: “Bullshit! Ya ass been in the trailer all fuckin’ mornin’. I ain’t seen you on one flight.”
Caleb: ‘Fuck you man! I been out there.”
Frank: “When? I worked ‘em all. Poag been out there. Stevens been other there. Matthews been out there. Everybody been out there but you!”
Caleb sinks a bit in his chair. It’s a harsh rebuke, especially since it’s so public but Frank is voicing the frustration we’re all feeling, but too polite to say. People call out, and the company only schedules for regular operations. The running joke is “What’s regular ops? Irregular ops.” It’s the nature of the industry. It’s never smooth. It’s hectic, a daily fight to control the chaos in a fast paced, detail oriented environment with a lot of regulations and moving pieces. So when you have a guy who’s hiding, i.e. being lazy, it means that the rest of us have to work that much harder.
I have a lot of respect for guys like Frank. He’s the kind of guy who’ll pick up your shift so you can get a day off for your kid’s birthday. If you’re sweating your ass off on a scorching ramp in the middle of summer he’ll slide you a bottled water from the catering truck. If he tells you “good job” he means it. If he introduces you as “one of the good ones” it means you’re a hard worker, and it carries validity because he’s one of them too.
The good ones are the unsung heroes of the ramp. When an area gets slammed with too many planes you want good ones on your crew. We’re the people unit managers breathe a sigh of relief when they see we’re in their area. They can count on guys like Frank to make sure they don’t have delayed departures to answer for to the Station Manager. That when it’s time to bust ass, and show out we’ll step up because there’s a pride in doing a hard job that not many people can do, and doing it well even if the pay isn’t all that great.
So while we were turning flights, making sure Paul Ryan made it home to Wisconsin on time, and his bags didn’t get lost he was sitting on a plane figuring out ways to make it a little harder on guys like Frank so guys like Mitt Romney could have it a lot easier.
For a lot of working people this is their life. They’ll work hard until the day they die. I’m thirty seven years old, and in pretty good physical shape, at least for this kind of work. Even so it still kicks my ass. If I work a thirteen hour shift it hurts to walk the next morning because my feet are so sore. All my joints ache due to repetitive motion, heavy lifting, and dehydration. I’m also considered one of the younger ones. There are guys in their mid to late sixties who still work full time on the ramp, and have done so for decades.
Paul Ryan doesn’t get it. The GOP doesn’t get it. They never will, because they don’t want to. In order to do so they’d have to see guys like Jacob, Gary, and Frank as human beings, not as burdens. They’d have to see them as citizens contributing to society, not as takers. They’d have to see them as I see them: as people worthy of respect and dignity.