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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.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bus Fares and Green Shield Stamps

Some people may remember the days of Green Shield stamps. These were stamps that the retailer would give you every time you made a purchase. The stamps could then be exchanged for items at the Green Shield shop. They were all the rage at one time and it was a brave shopkeeper indeed who didn't stock them and occasionally do promotions where you got double or treble the stamps. From the local corner shop to the big supermarket, Green Shield Stamps were everywhere.
One of the bus drivers in Swansea, I think it was Desmond, found a book of stamps on his bus. Des' was quite a character and he started handing out stamps with the bus fare. He told the passengers that the bus company was trying out stamps as an incentive to get more people to ride the buses. It was a good joke except then South Wales Transport started getting all these phone calls from irate passengers complaining about the drivers who were not giving out stamps. They insisted that the other drivers were keeping the stamps for themselves instead of handing them out like that honest guy Des'.
The odd thing about bus companies is that they think that the only incentive they can offer to people for riding a bus is that the bus goes down a certain street. That's it, never a thought to what else they might do to encourage more patronage. Instead if a bus doesn't carry a lot of passengers the service gets cut. That is not a business model geared towards survival or even common sense. It would be nice to point at one bus company and say "This is wrong" but it's not one company, they all follow the same suicidal tendency and if it wasn't for government funding and government bailouts, from before the word became popular, there's not one of them that could survive.
The "Experts" that bus companies listen to aren't any help either. They are more likely to contribute to the problems rather than bring positive solutions. Last year I attended a planning meeting that was being addressed by a panel of experts who spouted so much rubbish that I ended up stuttering in the effort to say something constructive and be polite. I heard talk of what had been successful in Philadelphia and Detroit and so obviously it's going to work in Los Angeles. I was wondering what dream world they live in or must they spout intellectual drivel in order to get paid. It continues with more and more of these meetings and conferences that have no relevance at all to the current passengers and are even further removed from bringing more people to the passenger seat. What was both irritating and amusing, but mostly irritating at that planning meeting I attended was one highly educated bloke who, whenever a point was made, would reply "Now how can we turn that into a positive statement?" I wanted to smack him. Not everything is positive. The world has negative and positive elements and problems are never solved by this kind of psychological mumbo-jumbo. More especially, this kind of thinking is not the kind of thinking that reflects the experience of bus riders. Before any planning can work, somebody needs to talk to real people.
Here in Los Angeles there's an organization called the "Bus Riders Union"
They're a radical group with some very liberal left wing views and that scares the hell out of the powers that be but they have real people in their membership. Some Honest to God men and women who are fed up with a company that ignores their real needs and want to be heard. I'm not talking about student activists or 60's intellectuals, they have more than their fair share of those, but the kind of people who need a decent bus service.
It's time to take them on board at these planning meetings. Maybe then we'll start to see some meaningful plans.