Sunday, May 24, 2009

BUS STORY # 134 (On The Importance Of A Good Bus Story)

This past Monday, a group of transportation workers came to the city council meeting to accuse ABQ RIDE director, Greg Payne, of retaliating against anyone complaining about problems in the department, and to ask for an independent audit. Payne (who must have known they were coming) defended himself by showing a sensational series of bus surveillance tapes capturing bus drivers behaving badly, retorting that some employees were not used to being held accountable for their conduct, and asking the council to understand what he was up against.

According to most local news departments covering the story, the confrontation was an unsettling surprise to the councilors, and some councilors thought Payne’s showing the tapes was inappropriate.

One story reported two of the counselors as having said they are regular riders and have never seen anything but professionalism and courtesy from their drivers.

I’ve been riding a little over three years now, and while I’ve seen a few Circle K stops, and once got bypassed at a stop by a driver on a cell phone, I don’t recall a single episode of reckless driving. Further, it is my impression that over the last year and a half, there has been a noticeable improvement in the professionalism, courtesy, and timeliness of the drivers.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few bad apples still in the barrel. On one of my regular routes, several co-riders have told me one of our drivers has exhibited fits of aggressive and dangerous driving. One of them told me he’d called it in, but nothing has happened that he knows of.

To be honest, I’m not terribly shocked to learn that some bus drivers drive their buses like the average Albuquerque driver drives his or her car. I find myself wondering why anyone in his or her right mind would drive a Smart Car out there, never mind a scooter.

But I digress.

The evening following the city council meeting, local NBC affiliate KOB ran this story along with the tapes:

At the same time, ABC local affiliate KOAT ran a council meeting follow-up story featuring American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union local president, Andrew Padilla, protesting the release of the tapes to the public.

Padilla’s objection was two-fold. First, the tapes “are wrapped up in lawsuits or grievances and were not meant for public viewing.”

The second, and by far the more interesting of the two, was that those tapes came from security cameras put there for the protection of the drivers. One can’t help finishing the sentence with “comma, not the riders.”

He also accused Payne of wrongfully firing some drivers.

The last thing busboy is going to do is make a judgment call here. Consider that, if every story has at least three sides, this one has a bunch more: the union’s side, management’s side, the councilors’ sides, the employees’ sides, the riders’ sides, the reporters’ sides of everybody else’s sides, and, finally, God’s side. As usual, God is the only one not talking.

What does interest me, however, is the contest for the hearts and minds of the citizenry. I believe the winner of that contest is the side with the better bus story. And right now, management has the better bus story.

As one news account noted, this is just the latest battle in what has been an ongoing war between the union and Greg Payne.

For some background, consider this KOB undercover investigative report from two years ago, done as a response to viewer allegations about bus driver misconduct:

Two years later, things are better. Ridership is way up, but complaints have actually gone down. Who gets the credit for that? Greg Payne and management. How did they do it? Defining expectations and holding slackers accountable. Oh, and fighting union opposition every step of the way.

Great bus story for management, terrible bus story for the union.

The latest battle at city hall allowed management to emphasize its story line. Whether appropriately deployed or not, Payne scored by releasing those tapes. The next day, those images dominated the conversation around the water cooler. The episodes were graphic, memorable, and emotionally provocative.

The union continued to muff its story line by missing the opportunity to express its dismay over non-compliant and dangerous drivers and to jump on the public safety bandwagon.

Instead, the union is unwittingly telling us a story about how its primary goal is to prevent Greg Payne from firing bad drivers. In the story-telling process, it has also managed to make Greg Payne and management look like the only people in ABQ RIDE who care about our safety and the quality of our service. ¡Hijola! These folks need some serious story-telling help. In fact, the story is so bad, one might be forgiven for wondering if maybe the union leadership is actually in bed with management.

One of my co-workers told me one of the clips featuring an ABQ RIDE driver texting behind the wheel was included in a national news story featuring several “caught-on-camera” videos from around the country. Texting is a particularly effective story line. Consider these:

Last September, 25 people were killed and 135 injured when an engineer drove his commuter train into another train because he was texting and missed a crucial signal. California quickly passed a law making it illegal to text while driving. Of course, this law prevents mass transit operators from texting as effectively as laws making it illegal to drink and drive prevent drunk driving.

On April 29, San Antonio news stations broadcast graphic front window, driver, and passenger views of a bus plowing into the back of an SUV on a freeway because the driver was texting and hadn’t noticed the traffic had stopped.

A couple of weeks ago, in Boston, an operator was texting his girlfriend when he ran a red light and rear-ended a train, injuring 49 people and doing over $9 million worth of damage.

To its credit (enhancing management story lines everywhere), management at the T didn’t just make it an offense to text. It actually addressed the problem by flat out banning all cell phones, iPods and paging devices for drivers while on duty.

Incredibly (weakening union story lines everywhere), the Boston Carmen's Union is fighting the ban.

That, in turn, seems to have sparked a call for Congress to ban possession of all mobile devices by all mass transit drivers while on duty. The call came just this past Thursday on NBC news from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and from acting National Transportation Safety Administration chairman Mark Rosenker. This from a decidedly pro-union administration.

This is why I think management has the better bus story, and this is why it continues to own public opinion – even that part of the public which is texting and emailing and number-punching and conversing away behind the wheels of its own private vehicles.

As long as the union story line remains how mean and nasty management is to the poor, downtrodden workers, and ignores what the rest of us are seeing and thinking and worrying about from those videos, it will continue to have no credibility, no respect, no audience.

Look at all the union issues in this war. They’ve all but disappeared from the public consciousness. The video images of a few bad drivers haven’t. Those drivers have effectively sabotaged whatever legitimate grievances their honorable and responsible fellow employees might have. And that’s a very sad bus story indeed.

Here are links to the rest of the stories from which I’ve put together my own.

May 20 Albuquerque Journal story from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The Alibi’s coverage of the city council meeting

Union Officials Protest Release Of Bus Driver Tapes

San Antonio Driver Crashes Bus While Texting

Conductor in Boston Trolley Crash Was Texting His Girlfriend

Union Fights MTBA Cellphone Ban

Mass transit officials want law banning drivers from having mobile phone devices on the job


Blogger Barbara said...

This is brilliant! I see a new figure of speech emerging - who has the better bus story....Thank you for this one.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Thank you, Barbara. (Wow! You are faster than the Rapid Ride!)

6:16 AM  
Blogger abqdave said...

Your analysis of the public relations aspect of this is spot-on. The union lost, especially with the ridiculous argument that the cameras that caught the unacceptable behavior (that puts passengers in danger) should only be for the protection of the driver. The cameras shouldn't be for both the protection of the driver and the protection of the passenger?

The city council also lost by arguing that it is inappropriate to show the behavior that endangered the public to that same public ...ridiculous.

9:49 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home