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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas in Los Angeles

It's been a long time since I posted here. I've been writing on my other blog and trying to get books published on Amazon and a lot of other projects. As well as doing my day job which, as anyone in this industry knows, has a way of taking over your life. It's Christmas and though I am not a Christian, It's Alban Arthfan for this old Welshman, still I'm very aware of the special atmosphere of this season. I believe in kindness all year around but this is supposed to be the season of love and goodwill to all. That is why I have to write about some things that are bothering me more than words can say. First I have to mention that I have a lot of good friends who work with me. Good people who are just as horrified by some things that happen. This is by no means the majority of bus driver's, these people are not even a significant minority but their very existence within this industry is a reflection on us all. I wish they were gone, they do not belong among us. On a cold ans rainy night, an elderly woman with a walker, was told she could not board the bus because she had no shoes. A woman with a child in a stroller and loaded down with groceries was told she could not board because she could not take the baby out and fold the stroller. A man was refused transportation on the last bus because he had too many groceries. A grown man stopped the bus and refused to drive any further because two women were calling him names. A woman wanted the police to arrest a homeless man because he didn't have the bus fare. The list could go on and on. It bothers me and upsets me considerably. I have been involved in this industry on two continents for 37 years but the heartlessness I have encountered this Christmas is more than I have ever encountered. It's time to show some love folks. It's time to remember what Christmas is all about. Then, keep that thought for the rest of the year. Everyone has heard of Charles Dicken's book "A Christmas Carol" I suspect more people have seen a movie version than have actually read the book. Still, no one wants to be thought of as Scrooge even when they act the part. This Christmas I want to remind everyone of the ending of the book. Where Tiny Tim says; "God Bless Us! everyone"

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 16th for Wales and Mexico

On September 16th 1400 AD Owain Glyn Dwr raised the banner of Welsh resistance and a rebellion ensued to make Wales a nation once again. Free from servitude to the English crown and free to make it's own treaties with foreign nations. There exists in Welsh legend the "Mab Darogan" Son of Prophecy who will rise to lead the Brythonic Celts in their time of greatest need. In 1400 Owain was believed to have been that person. His rebellion was successful at first but ultimately failed. His banner is still raised today and the inspiration of his uprising may yet lead to an independent Wales. We shall see but the future is filled with hope.
In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain and placed his brother as King of Spain. The people of Nueva Espana saw an opportunity to overthrow Spanish rule. On September 16th father Hidalgo with his co-conspirators Ignacio Allende and Dona Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, rang the bell of his little church and delivered El Grito de Dolores The rebellion was successful, Mexico was born and all over the world Mexicans celebrate this day and in Mexico city the President rings that same bell used by Father Hidalgo and reads to the crowd El Grito. At the end the crowd erupts with cries of "Viva Mexico"
In Mexico and for Mexicans, the future is filled with hope.
I'm writing this just before I go to work. This is the weekend closest to Mexican Independence day so this is when the fiestas take place. Los Angeles has a large population of native Mexicans and also Chicanos, the descendants of those who were here before the American-Mexican war. the celebration has always been a fun occasion though most of the main streets in and around L.A. get closed down for the parties. This year there will also be protests about Arizona Immigration laws and "Justice for Manuel Jaminez" that I wrote about in my last blog.
There are 5,500 miles between Wales and Mexico. The languages are different, we don't even speak English the same way, but we all have our reasons to protest and we all have very human hopes and dreams on a personal level. For our nations and our peoples, whatever the pain of today, the future is filled with hope.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Riots in Los Angeles

This blog started off as a humorous way to make comparisons between my experiences as a bus driver in South Wales and Los Angeles. I also thought I could spout off a bit at what I perceive as the shortcomings in public transport across two continents. Sometimes things happen that just ain't so funny and this Tuesday saw one of those things. Manuel Jaminez was shot to death by police officers and that's when the shit hit the fan.
Three LAPD officers on bicycles were patrolling the Westlake district of Los Angeles, Manuel Jaminez was weilding a knife. The Los Angeles Times had the story.
For a bit of background; The area where this took place is just to the west of Los Angeles city centre, if you saw the movie "Volcano" you may remember the lake that was boiling at the beginning of the movie. That lake is in the center of McArthur Park. The north edge of the park is 6th street where the riots described in the article took place. There's nothing new in having a riot here, there was one 5 years ago it was reported on Fox news you may notice the phrase  "the marches were peaceful until this evening when the LAPD used force to break up the crowd" That time the demonstration was in support of "Illegal Aliens"
The police officers were from the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) For my friends in Europe, the LAPD is employed and funded by the city of Los Angeles. There are a number of Divisions around the city. Rampart patrols Westlake among other communities and relations between the citizens of these communities and the police department have been strained for many years.
The three officers including the one that fatally shot Jaminez were themselves Hispanic. The situation is a tinderbox. Since Tuesday there have been peaceful marches every night. A shrine has been set up on the spot where he was killed and marchers have been keeping to the side walk and behaving in a generally peaceful manner. however a demonstration is planned for Saturday. that is likely to get out of control. Everyone is fearing the worst and tensions and emotions are running high.
Coming from the United Kingdom where the cops don't carry guns, I know that if someone was stupid enough to attack three cops with a knife, he wouldn't be killed but by the end of it he would wish he was. Here in L.A. rightly or wrongly, this is seen as an attack on a Hispanic community even though the police were of the same background. I refuse to make a judgement, I just do not know all the facts, I do know that I'll be in work tomorrow trying to do my part to keep the bus drivers and their passengers safe. I'll be one of those detouring the buses around any disturbance. I'm safe enoughbecause I operate from the main headquarters building and anyway, I'm hoping that everything will be relatively peaceful but I'm prepared for the worst.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Strike or not to Strike

The United Transportation Union called a strike vote and the vote was 87.5% in favor of a strike. That doesn't mean a strike is going to happen. It just means that at this point the Union can continue negotiating with the management knowing they have this loaded gun up their sleeve. The percntage may look high but in the past the percentage has been well into the 90's. members of the Union will vote for strike action though. To do otherwise would leave the Union almost weapomless in the face of management. An overwhelming majority is essential but the fact that, for once, the Union failed to get above the 90% threshold demonstrates that there is little enthusiasm amongst the membership for industrial action. Still, a significant majority is still all that is needed and that's what they got.
What happens now is that the Union is in a position, at any time, to halt negotiations and call a work stoppage. Under California law the work stoppage does not necessarily come into immediate effect. The comany can seek an injunction requiring the Union to hold off for, what is normally referred to as a "Cooling Off" period. During this time it is hoped negotiations can continue and a deal reached.
Here's the rub; if the union call a strike and the management ask for a cooling off period, the timing is such that the walk out could be delayed until December, just in time for Christmas. That is a two-edged sword. No-one wants tp strike just before Christmas, the most expensive time of the year for most of us. It is also traditionally the busiest time of the year for public transport. No buses or trains on the run up to Christmas would leave Los Angeles in chaos. Los Angeles has a thriving garment district, jewellery district, Toytown that supplies a wide range of children's gifts at wholesale prices and Broadway with it's varied stores from exotic perfumes to electrical goods. Every Christmas Los Angeles is packed and so is public transport. Neither side of the table wants a strike. It is in nobody's interest, but this is L.A. and crazier things have happened.
Every three years the Union and Los angeles metro get together to work out the details of a contract. The contract sets out the wages and benefits for the next three years. So for the period of the contract, the company pays us and we agree not to take any industrial action. It's not a happy situation, it means that every three years we all put our lives on hold. vacations are only tentatively planned and it's hold off on that new car or new furniture because there may be a strike and any money you may have gets eaten up in just staying alive over the strike period.
The United Transportation Union has six locals (Branches) the chairmen of each local plus the general chairman form a "Committee of Adjustment" They meet with a team selected by upper management. Most of the people on both sides of the negotiating table are known to me personally and I have a high regard for them all. They are men and women of integrity, and I say that from personal experience. That can also mean that they will be stubborn when they are convinced they have the right of it. As things stand the dice could roll a number of ways. Which way is anyone's guess at this point but once again we are all holding our breath.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Welsh School and Los Angeles Buses

 Dyfrig Jones is a Nationalist councillor for the Gerlan ward in the Welsh county of Gwynedd. As a Welsh separatist he has been a lifelong supporter of furthering the use of the Welsh language at all levels and has fought valiantly in the past to ensure not just language survival but its growth and development. Recently a decision was made by the County Council to close a school, Ysgol y Parc. The council decision was based on fiscal necessity, the school housed 18 pupils. I suspect that here in America the decision to close a school that small would hardly raise an eyebrow but in Gwynedd it caused a storm of protest. Dyfrig was one of those who voted to close the school and it resulted in Ffred Ffransis, a respected and well known figure in the Welsh community, calling Dyfrig and others who voted for the closure "Traitors" Osian Jones, a friend of Dyfrig since they were 15 also referred to them as traitors, another member of the audience referred to the councilors as "Pigs" Dyfrig talks about it on his blog; Blog Answyddogol  (The Unofficial Blog) it's in Welsh but if you use google translator you will probably get the gist of it.
Celtic passions run hot and there is a lot of anger about such decisions, especially in Wales. Because the school is in a small rural area and is a Welsh speaking community. The children will be moved out of the community and that is what has raised passions. The existence of the school ensures the future of the community as one where the natural language is Welsh. The first language of the children is Welsh. Such heartlands are necessary for the survival of Welsh as a living language, not just an academic interest. These Welsh speaking communities make a vital contribution to the vitality of the only living language that has written poetry going back to the 6th century.
This brings up a major point. What happens when ideals and principles face the harsh reality of fiscal restraint. How do we balance the things we believe in with the things we can afford?
The question of Ysgol y Parc, put in its simplest terms is the question of how to protect and improve the quality of life of a community.
To put a different perspective on this; Wales is about 8,000 square miles. Los Angeles is about 4,000 square miles. I've driven buses all over Wales and L.A. and L.A. has its communities too. They need protecting and they can get pretty upset when threatened. Unfortunately there is a very real threat looming. The United Transportation Union representing some 3,500 bus drivers, just had a strike vote. The vote was 87.5% for strike action.
 Here's the problem: In this recession with layoffs and not much happening to boost the local economy, not to forget rising gas prices, more people are riding the buses. Trouble is no bus company can operate from the fare box, aid is needed, from the federal government and the state government. In these austere times spending on transportation has been cut. A large portion of the funding also comes from sales tax. With low spending on luxury items that money is not what it should be. So the company and the union are at loggerheads. The bus company points to the sad and sorry cash register and the deepening recession to propose what amounts to a steep reduction in take home pay. Also, even though demand is rising the bus company intends to cut services.
I don't really have a solution to any of this. I can't see a satisfactory end to the problems of Gwynedd or the problems of Los Angeles. Not that I'm a pessimist by nature, I prefer optimism, I would like to see a rainbow's end. There are those in Wales and those in the Bus Rider's Union who say that when the monetary based system fails the community then it's time to change the system. Perhaps it is but let's not have too much malarkey on the streets this time. My instinctive sympathies lie with the pupils of Ysgol y Parc and the drivers and passengers of L.A. Los Angeles needs a full and efficient bus service with a far more efficient use of resources than is the case at present and the County of Gwynedd, and Wales itself for that matter, needs a way to have a more real control over it's resources and a wider perimeter for its functions. Including innovative ways of funding. When it comes down to it though, all that corporate leaders and elected politicians can do is cut. When will anyone reach out and grab the creative solutions that are staring them in the face.
 I fear I'm asking too much.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Goodbye old Friend

Writing this blog about life as a bus driver in Los Angeles and comparing it with my previous life as a bus driver in Swansea has triggered many memories of the things I did and the people I knew back in the day. Sometimes the memories can be quite painful. I just received an e-mail from Swansea, letting me know that an old friend, Mike Christmas, had passed away. His funeral is this week. Mike and I worked for South Wales Transport back in the 70's and 80's. I remember his payroll number was 1470. Large corporations, especially in the transport industry, know you by your number rather than your name. My number was 1520 as a bus conductor, when I became a driver it changed to 707. Odd how I can remember these things. With Los Angeles Metro my number is 18853, Nothing changes.
I was grateful to be told about Mike's passing though it saddens me. We were mates and at one time he lived in the next block of flats to us in Sketty Park. He and I were both on the Union Branch committee. Basically we were shop stewards, back in the days when a Union was a Union. One memorable occasion comes to mind. The labor party was in government, Harold Wilson was Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Dennis Healy, announced there would be deep cuts in Public Transportation funding. The Transport and General Workers Union staged a rally in London. Mike and I were among the attendees. We heard stirring words from our leaders and then it was decided we would all march on Parliament and tell the inmates how they should be running this asylum. There were about 3,000 of us from all over the UK. Mike and I were among the first to get to the Parliament building and the police hadn't been expecting this. Every one of us had the right to visit our representative there but we were too much to handle at one time. So they let us in. Me and Mike walked up to this cop and said, "We've come to see our MP" The officer calmly directed us which way to go. We met another cop who also gave us directions. The third cop advised us to go through a door and that's when we found ourselves out on the street. The sneaky  buggers let us in one door and out the other. All our attempts to regain entry were met with "If you wish to see your MP sir, you must go to the front of the building." By the time we got around to the front, reinforcements had arrived to keep us orderly, conference rooms inside Parliament had been set up and Spokesmen for the government were there to talk to us. Cleverly done but they have a thousand years of experience at being sneaky and they've learned it well.
Mike and I were very active in Union work back in Swansea. We didn't take any crap from the management and, to be fair, they didn't take it from us. Branch meetings were usually small affairs until there was a threat of a strike, then the Union hall would be packed. Negotiations with management were far more participatory than they are here in America. Here, a committee of full time officers meet with the management in executive managerial style to negotiate contracts. In Wales all the local officials are volunteers, there's no financial reward. In L. A. Everyone in the Union gets paid. I can't bring myself to be actively involved in the Union over here, the whole structure is too far removed from the people it represents There is no real impetus for change though, because there is no real experience of anything better. Migrant workers from south and central America are used to a high degree of corruption so their instincts are to mistrust while the average American worker believes that their Union is the best in the world. They see democracy where none really exists because the comparisons are with immigrants who have been running away from tyranny and corruption.
I never believed Mike could be corrupted, he always was very firm in what he stood for. In fact he could be quite obnoxious at times if you didn't agree with him. He saw anyone who sought promotion as someone climbing a ladder on the backs of his workmates. I didn't always agree with him and we had our disagreements but he was a good friend. It grieves me that I can't be there for the funeral but he is someone else I will be looking for at Calan Gaeaf,

Friday, August 13, 2010

From Swansea to Los Angeles

My friend, Matt Davies sent me this photo along with a couple of others. He'd been to a motor show and they had some of the buses that he and I used to drive back in the 70's and early 80's. He sent me them in an e-mail entitled "Nostalgia Rush" and that is exactly what it was. I remember the training bus we had. It was similar to this one but older. It had a crash gear box. That meant that in order to change gears you had to match the speed of the engine to the speed of the rear axle. There was no power steering and automatic gears were a dream of the future. Back then the definition of a "Good Bus" was one where the heaters worked.
When I learned to drive a bus my instructor was Elwyn Richards. He was a tough old bugger. He and I both spoke Welsh but my driving test had to be taken in English. The only problem with that was, in English, I would get mixed up between left and right.
Funny thing is that since living in America where I hardly speak Welsh at all, when I do speak Welsh I get mixed up between Wednesday and Friday.
Anyway, Elwyn got so pissed off at me turning the wrong way, like going left when he said right, that he cured me by smacking me around the ear. It would be "Turn right!" (Smack) "Turn left!" (Smack) and that is how I learned left from right in English.
Things are a bit different here in L.A. We have a modern fleet powered by Compressed Natural Gas. Gone are the days of Diesel. There's not a manual shift to be found and you need to be a computer expert to fix them these days. Everyone has to be politically correct. There's no smacking around the ear and be careful you don't hurt any one's feelings. I'm lucky though, I can curse in a language no one here understands.
I'm an instructor myself these days, Got my certificate from the Federal Department of Transport. The Transport Safety Institute. and a few other bits of paper that would surprise some of my old colleagues. Yes I teach Americans how to drive a bus. I think a lot of my old friends who remember the trail of destruction I left behind me when I was first driving might view this with horror. The wonderful thing about being here is that no one does know me from back then. I'd been a bus driver for almost 20 years before I came to Los Angeles. No one can point a finger and recount my past disasters.
Differences aren't just in the buses though. Over here the Union, (United Transportation Union) is currently in negotiation with the management. Things don't look good. In this present climate no one wants a strike and I'm certain that There wouldn't be a strike if things could just stay as they are. Unfortunately the company may want to take things away, reduce what we have without increasing anything. That could bring on a strike. There may well be moves to increase the amount Drivers pay for medical benefits, reduce the number of full-time drivers and increase the number of part-timers. Other items that could have a negative impact on the standard of living of the staff could result in industrial action.
I hope not. I hope everything can be sorted out but right now I'm not hopeful.