The longest I’ve ever worked on one jobsite is twenty-seven months. Now, you might be thinking something along the lines of, “Two years? That’s not a particularly long time. What’s wrong with this guy?” The honest answer is plenty of things but not being able to hack it in my chosen field isn’t one of them. I’ve been a member of IBEW local 134 for just over ten years and during that time I’ve worked as an electrician for two shops. The first was a mid-size southside shop that just about went under in the early aughts but seems to have recovered since. For the sake of this post we’ll say that I was collateral damage when the shop was in its downward spiral. But the truth is there’s a story worthy of a post – just not this one. About three months after getting laid off in early ’05, I got picked up by another, much larger shop and – count my lucky stars – have been with them ever since.
Now unless you’ve landed an in-house gig at a hospital, a government building, an airport, or a convention center, breaking the two-year mark is kind of a rarity. New construction jobs usually last anywhere from 9 months to three years with the three year slots filled by supervision (i.e. general foremen and foremen). Apprentices and journeymen will usually do 6-18 month stints depending on the scale of the job. My point is not to humble brag but to say that over the course of two+ years I’ve had the chance to get to know some of my coworkers pretty well. While two years doesn’t earn you veteran status with a company, it is long enough to learn an awful lot about those grinding away right beside you. You learn about their work ethic and skill level – where they’re strong and where they’re not. You learn about their kids’ sports involvement which is always an ongoing saga of local, community, and family politics. You learn whether they like Miller, Bud, or a variety of micro-brew. (You can tell if they go straight for the hard stuff by the unexplained facial bruising.) You learn which high school they went to and to which parish they belong and you learn whether or not they have any college behind ’em. If you’re lucky, you might even get a little personal history. Maybe he used to be an airplane mechanic. Maybe he had four kids, a wife and a vasectomy by the time he was twenty-two. Maybe her daughter just celebrated her 21st birthday after being diagnosed with a rare terminal illness at the age of two. But alongside getting to know what makes your coworkers tick (and they you, of course), you learn to separate the personal, the professional, and the political – because you have to.
We don’t get to choose who we work with. That we don’t is a good thing. We’re exposed to different backgrounds and points of view that we can’t simply dismiss if we aim to establish productive work relations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t duke it out from time to time. Take my foreman and I – we’ll call him Andy – two bullheaded and opinionated Irishmen from the southside of Chicago. At least once a quarter we erupt into a shouting match over taxes, school lunch programs, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare!), race, school breakfast programs, green energy, gas prices, gold, the fed, inflation and any other number of topics that you’d expect a jobsite liberal and a jobsite conservative to shout at each other about. (Yes I know I’m not supposed end sentences with prepositions but I’m a southsider, sometimes I can’t help myself.) But all in all, the dude’s a good guy, an engaged dad, and a hell of a mechanic. Soon after each argument our loud disagreements are water under the bridge. We have to go back to work. And in a sort of dysfunctional way, we’re better coworkers after each spat.
The thing about a jobsite or any workplace for that matter is that you might find yourself working with someone whose politics burn your ass to no end but whose work ethic is right in line with yours. Then again, you might find their work ethic makes your need for a bottle of hemorrhoidal cream that much more severe. What’s different about a jobsite from other places of work is the accompanying knowledge that the work is temporary and so are the relationships established. I imagine that takes the edge off for some. I know it does for me. Others may just keep their heads down until they make it to the next one. As for me and Andy, I know it’s not like that for everybody. Not everybody can bounce back and forth between political pissing contests and yuckin’ it up as well as we can. We’re on different jobs now but I’m sure when (if) we end up in the same crew again we’ll pick up right where we left off.
Now I’m sure I’m not the only one that lacks the wisdom to refrain from talking politics at work so I’d love to hear from others about their stories of general political debates at work as well as workplace specific politics (antics also welcome). So send you stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post them or write about them or some combination of the two. I haven’t really decided yet. Your anonymity of course is guaranteed. It should also be noted that I welcome stories from any political bent, I won’t discriminate. (As a liberal I’m biologically pre-dispositioned not to.)