Suppose that you come to work one day as usual at the Journal.
And your boss says that in addition to your regular duties you have a new task: You are to tend all the indoor plants in your area. Watering, pruning, so forth.
This is what porters in the Journal Building were told a month ago.
The company had dismissed the commercial service that for years had looked after plants, reportedly to save $12,000 a year. And without offering any advice or training, a supervisor ordered the housekeeping staff to take over the plant-tending duties - a task that commercial plant services say requires six to eight weeks of training.
As the work mounted - the porters first were told just to water company-owned plants, then they were instructed to look after personal plants on employees' desks, then also to start picking off dead leaves - the Guild told the company that the new duties, while welcomed by the union, needed to be negotiated, as would be any added work.
The company's immediate response?
Not to provide training classes to explain the ins and outs of plant care.
Not to give the porters a sheet explaining which kind of plants need lots of water and which ones don't.
Not to resolve the conflicts with fellow workers, who complained that the porters were messing with their personal greenery.
Not to sit down with the Guild to see how the porters should mesh the extra duties - they take from 20 minutes to 50 minutes a day per worker depending the number of plants in their areas - into their regular cleaning schedules.
None of the above.
Instead, the company's number two executive circulated the Guild's letter to fellow managers, mocking the fact that the Guild would raise such a petty issue.
"Every once in a while you read something that summarizes a problem better than you could in volumes," wrote Mark T. Ryan, senior vice president, in a memo entitled "Guild Negotiations.''
"While we continue to focus on a serious proposal and realistic goals, this letter clearly demonstrates for all of us the focus of the Guild's leadership," he wrote. "Please feel free to share this with any of your managers or employees.''
At first blush, porters' new duties and their union's letter seem easy picking for ridicule.
What's it take to water a plant? And isn't this the kind of small-time issue that can be settled with a hallway chat between a manager and a steward?
In fact, that's what the porters thought when initially told to get out the watering cans.
"At first, we weren't going to say anything,'' said one of porters. The consensus, he said, was that the union had enough to worry about, fighting for a new contract after a year-and-a-half of frustrating negotiations, without arguing about care and feeding of indoor ferns.
"Shortly after that, were told to water all the plants in the building. Then that we weren't watering them enough. Then that we weren't picking the dead leaves off the plants. Then that (an executive) had to water his own plants and had to pick his own dead leaves off.''
Further, people who brought plants to work were upset to see them tended by the porters. When the porters reported that to their supervisors, they were told that the order remained: Water all plants.
In short, this porter said, the 11-person housekeeping staff, already down two workers, was being criticized for work with which most had no experience, even while they tried to do their regular chores.
"We were left in the dark,'' one housekeeper said. "We are supposed to know how to do this, but we don't. We are not plant people, we are cleaning people, and now we are criticized if we don't put in the right amount of water.''
Still, it's not rocket science, looking after plants, in between swabbing out urinals, emptying wastebaskets, vacuuming Dunkin' Donut crumbs off the carpet, right?
But it's not a task for novices, either.
The Guild Leader telephoned the kind of commercial plant service that had been employed by the Journal.
The plant service office manager said that while plant "technicians" are regarded as entry-level employees, they go through extensive training: six to eight weeks. There is classroom instruction and video demonstrations; and new workers are apprenticed to experienced workers, who take them on tours of client companies to explain what types of plants are located in what areas, and what customized care they need: watering, feeding,
pruning, even dusting.
There are casualties along the way.
"It's expected that they will kill a bunch of plants" before they learn the proper care, the manager said. The work is tricky enough that one reason for using a commercial service is that it guarantees its work: dead plants are replaced free.
Now back to the Journal porters.
"If they had taken the time to give us training or even just give us something in writing - we each have jobs, and job descriptions, what our duties are - but they didn't give us anything,'' said one of the porters who first raised issue. "How much water do you put in? One glass? Two?''
"When I go home at night, some of my neighbors' lawns are fantastic and some of them are shitty,'' he continued. "Obviously, the guy with a fantastic lawn knows what he's doing, and the guy with the shitty one doesn't know anything. If you don't have training, how are you supposed to know?''
Porters have some of the most difficult work at the newspaper; many have night shifts; they are asked to do work at which many people turn up their noses; and they are among the lowest paid workers in the Guild: about $510 a week, or half what ad reps and copy editors make.
They got new work dumped on them, so the company could save money. No discussion, no training. And then they were criticized for how they were doing it. So they went to the Guild, which is what the union is there for.
The company's first response wasn't to fix the problem. It was to make fun of the Guild.
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
401-421-9466 | Fax: 401-421-9495