Tuesday, August 13, 2013

They Won't Keep a Good Man Down

The following editorial is my opinion and is not intended in any way to demoralize or otherwise disparage the many good men and women who work at any of the mills in or around Houston. I have been directly and indirectly impacted by the actions of a few only and speak in general terms not to offend, but perhaps to enlighten. I am responding from that place in my heart that has been touched by my own perceptions of injustice. For what it may be worth, no individual is being specifically targeted. References to corporations are my estimation of experiences relayed to me by several people. I freely admit that I have not been privileged to the corporate or management viewpoints relating to any of the conclusions I have drawn over the last 23 years. I do wish, however, to someday have different, more positive perceptions. 

Every day hundreds of people in Houston pack their lunches, don hard hats and work boots and make their way to work in one of the saw mills. They are the employees of what has been the industrial back bone of our community for decades. Houston depends on these mills; they employ a lot of people and contribute significantly to the tax base. They are important to everyone who calls Houston home, whether they work there or not.

But a pall hangs over some of these mills. There is a possible threat of one pulling out altogether, which would be detrimental to Houston in myriad ways. Another one simply seems so corrupt that it boggles the mind. The gross mistreatment of its employees has left a scar on the face of the community; a jagged emotional wound on many of the men and women who have given so much of their lives to making sure that the mill that employs them is successful. Employees have traded – quite literally – their blood, sweat and tears for what is admittedly good monetary compensation. But with little and in some cases no appreciation at all from the corporation and its local management.

I have never worked at a saw mill. I have no direct experience as an employee in one. I speak, though, from the experience of a wife and a friend who has seen the results of the mental and emotional abuse that appears to be dished out on a regular basis to people that I care about. I’ve watched good men beaten into submission, forced to take months of stress leave just to deal with the crap. I’ve witnessed attempts to fight back, to stand up for employees’ rights as human beings to fair treatment. I’ve seen the results of the back-handed manipulation that the management allegedly used to respond to these attempts. I’ve watched the way the union has failed over and over to protect the people that support it with their hard-earned wages. And it sickens me.

Employees are not merely treated like numbers. It’s much worse than that. I’ve heard stories of paperwork that has been suppressed by management who then blames the employee for not handing it in on time; requests for maintenance that have been ignored and then when equipment fails, it is blamed on the employees for not doing the work; applications for equipment that has been asked for and not provided, causing hold-ups in maintenance work that is blamed on the employees. I have been regaled with tales of management pitting employees against each other resulting in resentment and animosity on the production line. And on it has gone.

For the past 23+ years I have heard these stories repeated by several past and present mill employees. The anger and bitterness is palpable in the inflection of their voices. It’s disturbing to watch as their eyes glaze over with the remembrance of the incidents that they are imparting. It hurts to see these good people hurting this way.

I have worked in toxic environments. I have been on the receiving end of some pretty nasty stuff from bosses and co-workers. I also had the luxury to walk away from these jobs, knowing that I had the support of someone at home while I looked for other employment opportunities. Many of the people who have reported the abuses of mill management to me do not have that luxury, rather they have dependents – wives and children – and need to keep working there to pay the mortgage and feed their families. It’s not easy to walk away from the wages and benefits that bind them to the abuse.

If there’s one thing that I am grateful for, it is my current job. I work in a wonderful place with wonderful people and, as a boss now, not a day goes by that I do not think about how appreciative I am for the staff and board that I work with. I try to show that appreciation as much as possible. A bit of praise. A word of thanks. It’s not much, but I hope that it at least lets my staff and board know that I value them as people and recognize their contribution to the successes we realize together at HPL.

I try to encourage innovation and creativity. I don’t always agree with their ideas, but the staff knows they can share them and that we can work together to find a way to make them happen. Sometimes nothing comes of them. Sometimes we accomplish amazing things. Sometimes they are shelved temporarily until the pieces that will make them work can be gathered. There are times when I sit back and marvel at the things going on around me and my heart is filled with pride. I go home with a deep sense of satisfaction.

Not everything goes smoothly all the time. We have our problems. We have our miscommunications. There are instances where someone isn’t sure of policy or procedure and makes a mistaken judgment call. And then we fix it. Together. A teaching/learning moment bonds us even closer and everybody – staff and patrons alike – ultimately benefits. Granted life and limb is not likely to ever be at stake, but the point is I do what I can to take a positive approach to solving problems.

I can’t help but wonder why any employer would want to treat the people that it depends on to be successful with anything but respect and honour. There are more than enough problems to deal with in business without creating enmity and needlessly crushing morale. Instead of acting like they are doing employees a favour by letting them work there, why can’t employers understand that the employees are doing them as much of a favour by working there. Isn’t it a give and take situation?

Not all of the people on the management teams in local mills are corrupt or abusive. There are good people there, too, struggling on a daily basis to try to make things better and, subsequently, I’ve been told, being just as abused as the production and maintenance employees. Their strength is to be commended and I can only hope that one day their efforts will bring peace and prosperity to a factory that is so vital to our community.

There was a time when the mills rewarded their employees with perks like paid floater days, family days, company merchandise, Christmas parties, company picnics and such. There was a time when they supported the community through donations to non-profit organizations and other community projects. There was a time when they were great places to work, when they were shining jewels in the community crown. What happened? Why did things change so much? How did firing someone for trying to assist a seriously injured co-worker become acceptable? I understand that safety procedures are imperative in a place that is full of potential danger, but how can anyone be expected to focus on those details when a man is hurt? Would anyone in management have done anything differently in the same situation?

The thing I keep telling myself is this: any employer that takes this approach does not deserve the skills, experience and dedication of the man that lost his job just for being compassionate. He certainly deserves a hell of a lot better than this apparent lack of appreciation for the two plus decades he has been a dedicated employee – in spite of all the abuses he endured. Yes, he was paid well for the work he did. Yes, he got the training and experience and was able to hone his skills there over the years. Still, to be dismissed so brutally, seemingly without any regard for the trauma he experienced when his co-worker was hurt, is nothing less than atrocious.

I know that he will be okay. He has the support of many people who love him. He is creative and smart and resourceful and will recover from this final cruelty with dignity. His skills and experience will find a better place to be applied. And he will rise above the exploitation, a bright and shining star of kindness, respect and expanded wisdom. He will take with him the many friendships that grew in that dark place and found the light of brotherhood in a shared plight.

What makes me particularly sad is knowing that the industrial icons in our community have a lot of power – power to do a lot of good. They can, if they choose, scrape the tarnish off their increasingly diminishing reputations and become again sparkling jewels of industry, contributing to the economic strength of the community, being examples of integrity, humanitarianism and altruism that they once were, being leaders, being progressive… It really wouldn’t take much. A bit of gratitude. A bit of appreciation.

Instead of cracking the whip, crack a smile! Shake a hand. Recognize good work with a thank you or a kind word. It doesn’t have to be public, expensive or expansive. Just heard! Show a smidgen of compassion. Be supportive. People will screw up – that’s a given. Just distinguish stupidity or negligence from the very real human factor of emotion and trauma or a genuine mistake. No one expects perfection, but a sincere apology heals wounds much faster than time ever will.
I reiterate that this missive stems from my own perceptions and the impact on my own life that I have experienced through others I know and care about. I am truly grateful for and to the industry in this town for all the good things that it has contributed over the years. It is my hope that the existing industry continues to prosper and thrive so that we all can prosper and thrive. Just maybe with a little more benevolence.

Let's Be Sensible, BC

Warning:  This blog post is about the recent death of a local man, my opinion about the legalization of marijuana and the possible connection between the two.  If you are anti-marajuana or if you feel in any way emotionally vulnerable about the tragic incident that occurred on August 11th, you may not wish to continue reading.  I have not been graphic in my depiction of the incident involved, but I am aware that the man who died had many friends in Houston.  It is not my intention to upset or offend anyone.  These are my thoughts and opinions only.  

Right off the top I’m going to put it out there that I have indeed smoked pot.  And, yes, I did inhale! 

I am not a chronic smoker.  I share the very occasional joint with friends.  I haven’t purchased any marijuana for a very long time.  (I can’t afford it!)

Since my first experience with pot, I have been quite unable to understand its prohibition.  Personally, I’d rather see people smoke a doobie than get plastered on alcohol.  I have never heard of anyone smoking up and then crashing their car into an innocent bystander and killing them.  I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened or that it couldn’t happen; I’m just saying that I am not aware of any specific incidents of it.  There must be a reason why there is so much more hype about driving drunk than driving stoned on pot.   I don’t advocate for either one.  I’m merely pointing out the huge gap in attention that is given to both. 

Like any substance, marijuana can be and is abused.   I do think that chronic use does have detrimental effects on the mind and body.  There is documented evidence, for example, that chronic pot use leads to loss of short-term memory.  But then so does menopause and if they make that illegal, I will be at the very front of the lobbyists with the biggest loudest bullhorn, demanding the law be repealed! 

Now where was I …?

I am a member of Sensible BC, the coalition to reform marijuana laws in BC.  Since Washington and Oregon states have decriminalized marijuana, Sensible BC has stepped up its push to do the same in this province, and, potentially, lead the way for the rest of Canada.    While I am not actively lobbying, I am closely following the progress of the coalition and intend to vote for the decriminalization of marijuana if they are successful in getting a referendum next year.

I do not wish to comment on the benefits of the decriminalization of marijuana or its potential impact on the economy and crime.  Nor do I care to make the case for medical marijuana.   I do wish to share a very sad story about the possible impact of its current legal state on the life of one pot smoker.

On Sunday afternoon, a dear friend knocked on my door.  It was shortly after noon and she just popped in for a quick visit to say hi.  I poured us each a glass of water and we sat down at my dining room table to chat. 

A few minutes later we heard sirens approaching and a fire truck sped past my house.  My friend commented that she had heard some popping sounds just as she had arrived coming from the area behind my house.  We got up to go and see.

Sure enough there was a fire two streets over.  It looked like a large spruce tree was burning. 

Then the ambulance screamed by.  Then a police cruiser.  Then another fire truck.
The ambulance was not there long before it screamed back, sirens blaring.  Obviously someone got hurt.

It didn’t take long for the fire to be put out. 

At that point I didn’t think much of it.   I did hope that no one was badly injured.  My friend left to do other things and I carried on with my day.

Later, though, I found out that the home-owner of the place where the fire happened had died.  News reports stated that an explosion caused his shed to catch fire and that he sustained severe burns, to which he later succumbed, trying to put the fire out himself.  Apparently there was a small grow-op in the shed. I know no other details.

Was he in the shed when the explosion initially occurred?  Did fear of prosecution force him to try to fight the fire alone?  Would it have made a difference if pot was legal?  Did he die trying to protect himself from being arrested for a few pot plants?  Was it worth it? 

I have no idea.  But I do suspect that if marijuana wasn’t illegal things may have turned out very differently and Houston would not now be mourning the loss of one of our own or contemplating his sad and horrific death.

JM was 64 years old.  Originally from Newfoundland, he had been living in Houston for many years and worked, I believe, at one of the mills.  He was a quiet man, still handsome for his age and much liked in the community.  I first met him more than twenty years ago when he lived with a friend of ours.  I never did know him well, but I do remember his deep, slightly accented voice and his friendly smile. 

I know that many will not agree with me that the legalization of marijuana is a good thing.  So ingrained in the eyes of society is the perception that pot is bad, that it leads to the use of stronger drugs and it should remain strictly prohibited.  I know that some will read this story and think that if he hadn’t been doing something illegal it wouldn’t have happened in the first place.  There are those, no doubt, who will think that there needs to be harsher consequences for the use of marijuana and that that will prevent something like this from ever happening again.  I’m not going to argue any of these points, nor am I going to ask anyone to agree with me. 

But if we blindly accept laws just because they exist and don’t ever examine their validity, aren’t we just puppets?  Play things?  Pawns?  Marijuana prohibition is but one example of what I see as useless laws.  It just does not make sense to me that it is illegal and alcohol, a much more dangerous drug, is sold to us by our own government.  That’s just bizarre.  But I would never advocate for the prohibition of alcohol at this point.  We all know how well that turned out in the 30’s, right?

As of this morning, crime scene tape still encircled JM’s property – the deceptively cheerful yellow a warning to all that something bad happened there.  I can see JM’s clean white pickup sitting in the driveway and his little gray bungalow sits dark and empty in the centre of a lush green lawn.  Police vehicles come and go as officers continue to investigate... the crime?  Eventually the tape will be taken down and his possessions redistributed into the world.  New people will occupy the house and life will go on for the rest of us.  For the time being.

We may never make sense of what happened, but maybe we can start working toward a more Sensible BC, where a couple of pot plants can’t become the nucleus of such a tragedy.