Sunday, February 26, 2006

Conditions of the Working Class in Chelsea

THE HEAD OF OUR small group of designers called us to meet late last Friday. To preface this, a fundamental change in how my company produces newsletters has been in the works for months. The original target time for instituting the new system was last summer, with full implementation slated for the fall. Neither occurred. So our group has been in the position, as they say in certain parts of the South, of fixin' to get ready for some months now.

My supervisor told us we are close to reaching an important milestone in the process, and that we are now expected to get this new method going in the summer. For this reason, our boss told my supervisor that we are not to take breaks longer than a few days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Because I usually spend 8 days each summer in Las Vegas, this directly curtails my plans. I don't know if 4 days in the form of a very long weekend (like my usual January trip) still would be okay. I imagine I will be pulling my plumage out like an insane parrot if I don't get a decent stretch there, but this does not rule out taking a trip of my usual length in the fall. Las Vegas is supposed to be fantastic in October, though the hotel prices reflect this. (It's dead cheap to stay in July.)

This change screws my supervisor over worse, though, because she is enrolled in graduate school for this fall, which makes the summer the ideal time for her to take an extended vacation. She's linked into enough management duties that taking time off in any season is already a tricky dance. And the way this project is being described, she's gonna need to decompress more than any of us.

What this says to me is that our boss, and perhaps hers as well, are utterly paranoid about the chances of success this new workflow has. My boss is its primary champion, and she stands to lose a fair chunk of credibility (at minimum) if it fails. She can't afford to fail. She is contributing one of two incomes to a six-person family, and at Long Island prices. Four college educations and three marriages down the road, plus a mortgage. So despite the harmony in our little workgroup in doing one another's work when someone's out, the presumption is that any reduction in workforce will jeopardize the entire project.

Situations like this help me realize how free I am from a lot of this heart-killing, stomach-eroding, soul-crushing management bullshit. I can foresee a time when my supervisor completes her degree, begins to shop around her book of work, and leaves for a more creative design position where her new skills will flower more fully and she will make better connections in the graphic design world. Her position might then go to me. I don't know if my current mindset of rejecting the bafflegab of fools is compatible with the ass-backwards methods of my company's management. Of course, they could also go outside the company to recruit a new manager for the department. This is not incompatible with the aforementioned ass-backwardism. But the natural move would be to slot me into her place if she gave notice. I am not sure I want it.

I quit my last job for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones was that the senior duties of training and supervision took me away from doing what I enjoyed: editing and typesetting. My super at the current job does still do design work, but she splits it with some entirely unrelated business and management duties that I know I will loathe. Even if I wanted the position, there is no internal path upwards from it. My boss and everyone above her will only leave their positions if they commit felonies and are fired . . . and my supervisor made the mistake of transmitting the words of my boss to me that it is very difficult for anyone to get fired. Not the sort of thing you want to tell a man who has already decided to suppress bullshit with heavy return fire whenever it leaves the treeline.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if I were laid off. It's not out of the question. In the same meeting, my super mentioned that a sister press of ours, which took over the typesetting and prepress duties of several of our journals, may soon be dissolved. My boss is avoiding contact with the head of that company, rejecting or ignoring requests for equipment upgrades, and leaving her out of managers' conference calls. It's not known when the axe will fall, but my super says it will, and that their work, once ours, will return to our desks. (Another reason they are worried about extended breaks during the summer.) Closer to home, back in late 2003 we went through a stretch when we thought our work might be moved to another division, and that our positions were in danger. Layoffs had already thinned the promotions and editorial departments. So our boss deliberately overloaded our desks with work, to keep us all looking as crucial to the process as we could. It was fucking insane, and two of our staffers occasionally broke down in tears from overwork or even from minor mistakes (they are no longer with us). I just maxed out my 401(k) contribution to stash as much retirement income as possible, gritted my teeth, and tried not to fuck things up too much from haste. It probably contributed to my current senior position.

Even then, I did not share my super's fear of being laid off. She was just starting graduate courses then, on the company dime, so her worries were genuine. I had no such extra financial need, nor was I in debt. The next Vegas or even Foxwoods trips could have waited until I was getting steady paychecks again. I could have made my way for a few months if thrown out, especially if I got some sort of settlement package. Not to say I wouldn't have been upset and need some time to sort out the business reason from the personal rejection, and of course the job hunt would've sucked, especially at that time, in the early phases of the Iraq War. But I would not have starved. Nor would I now.

Downsizing and promotions are two stressors I will not allow to threaten my health or sanity. I am willing to indulge my boss's fear of allowing her crew too much shore leave in case her pilot project fails. The reward for this could be worth the inherent humor. It'll make the week in Las Vegas all the sweeter when I finally take it, in my favorite season of autumn, in a land where no leaves fall from the trees even on All Hallow's Eve.

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