Obedience on the Job

(Photo: Jon Mountjoy)

On America’s first subway, Boston’s Green line, the middle doors stopped opening. When I asked the driver to open the doors, he said that he couldn’t: now all boarding and deboarding at the above-ground stops is through the narrow front door by the fare box. Ah, the MBTA: making up for the 23 percent fare hikes on July 1 with improved service!

Me: “The new policy slows the ride for everyone. Now passengers cannot board and pay their fares until all the deboarding passengers have left.”

Driver, shrugging: “It’s the new policy. I just do what my boss tells me to do. I don’t question.”

Me: “We could use some questioning.”

Driver: “Questioning isn’t part of my job. I just wait for my pay day.”

If the train drivers, who have the closest knowledge of the problem, aren’t questioning the policy, what chance do the passengers have?

Here’s an alternative, condensed from What’s the Economy For, Anyway?  by David K. Batker and John de Graaf (page 106):

Manager of a Dutch division of an American company, a week after arriving from America, calls assistant at home on a Friday evening: “Please call the other workers in the division and start getting ready for the shipment on Monday.”

Assistant: “Excuse me, sir, but I don’t work on weekends, and I don’t expect to be called at home about work when I’m not working.”

In America, home of at-will employment law, we spend many of our waking hours in service to an authoritarian environment. How will we learn to defend our rights and the common good, a.k.a. democracy?

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  1. Mike B says:

    In this case the driver told you to shove off because he or she is under a Union contract and the only way they can be fired is if they are documented not following the agreed to procedures. If they were at-will workers they could be fired for not transmitting customer feedback to management. Of course they could also be fired for complaining so in that situation they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. A Unionized worker is just damned if he does.

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    • Justin Adams says:

      I’m a member of ASCME Council 5, and my understanding is that my membership in that organization doesn’t effect my rights or my employer’s rights under the state’s at-will employement law – just because I’m union doesn’t mean I can’t be terminated at any time for any or no reason.

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      • Mike B says:

        Most Union contracts spell out the processes for terminating an employee and those usually specify some sort of hearing and which infractions can lead to termination and if any preliminary steps must by taken beforehand. It is notoriously hard to fire people with either a contracted employment or civil service protections. However with at will employment an employer can fire someone for almost any reason they want or make up.

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      • Dave says:

        You don’t really believe that do you? Inability to fire union members members is well documented – it is advertised by the union leadership for support from its members, non-union management complain about it, and you can see it very clearly IN THE CONTRACTS.

        If this doesn’t apply to you, you are among a small minority of unions.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Dave, it depends on the contract. Not all unionized jobs have the same protections.

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      • Dave says:

        @anonymous –
        Of course it depends on the contract! This is where the ‘small minority’ part comes into play.

        I do have to be careful with sweeping generalizations, but this is one of those times when the stereotype is USUALLY true.

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  2. JohnnyPeps says:

    If the driver was smart enough to get paid to think, he wouldn’t be the driver. I am guessing that management considers factors other than your convenience in these decisions. Perhaps the rate hike encouraged more people to sneak on through the middle doors?

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    • Tristan says:

      I would assume that the new policy is in addition to, not because of, the fare increase. If they need to increase revenues to keep up with their budget, than the two most obvious places is to increase the fares, and to decrease fare-avoidance.

      And without any kind of analysis on what percentage of people sneak in through those doors, I’m really in no position to guess if we need to question the new policy or not. The obvious calculation is to compare the rate that fare avoidance is decreased, with the ncrease in the amount of time that’s spent waiting to get on and off the T now at these stops, and see if that’s a worthwhile trade-off.

      It seems to me that neither a passanger, nor a driver would have the information, at least while riding the train, to do a good analysis of the change. But I don’t see any reason to assume that the Transit Authority made a mistake by default. The subway service in Boston is pretty well run in my experience, certainly better than a lot of cities I’ve visited. I’m not sure what their budget looks like, but the fact that they’re both busy and can increase fares seems to indicate that their customers feel like it’s a good value.

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  3. BostonUrbEx says:

    The reason for the policy is because of all the freeloaders boarding from the middle and rear doors without paying a fare on the above ground sections of the Green Line. This wasn’t mentioned at all in your article.

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    • Steve says:

      So adding a few minutes to each stop, and slowing everyone’s commute for a small uptick in fare box collection is the answer? Congratulations, you’ve just been hired by the MBTA!

      There isn’t opportunity cost for the rest of the people commuting? Fair evaders annoy me as well, but if a few people getting a free ride results in a quicker, more convenient ride, then I’m all for it. This was an awful solution for something that wasn’t the biggest reason for the MBTA’s troubles.

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    • Mike B says:

      Most transit systems employ rear exit only doors that work pretty well and where they don’t can use under cover police officers to ticket fare evaders. In this case the MTBA is simply abrogating its duty to manage the situation.

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  4. Aaron says:

    What did you expect the driver to do? Ignore the new policy? I don’t think that would be reasonable. Complain to management? Did it occur to you that the driver doesn’t care?

    This blog should know all about how incentives motivate behavior. I’m willing to bet the train drivers’ have little incentive to improve the convenience of your boarding or de-boarding. They don’t have to get on and off the train all day.

    Why are you trying to make allies with a driver while he’s just trying to finish his shift, when you can easily enough send your own feedback to the MTA? Or at least, you could contact the drivers union or organization or whatever instead of enlisting the aid of a guy while he’s on the job.

    As for the anecdote you cite from “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?”, what point is that supposed to be making? Who is the one questioning what? It seems to me the employee is standing up for his rights. I think it’s the manager who should be questioning his assumption that his employees are reachable and amenable to work outside of their work schedule. Was that the point in reprinting it here? It’s not clear.

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    • Tristan says:

      It’s actually a fairly common occourence to hear the drivers trying to improve the speed of the boarding – reminding passangers to use all the available doors (at least at the underground stops), to move in, not block the doors, ect. At least during busy times. I assume that either: 1. they have some formal incentive to keep to a schedule (it’s part of their review or something) or 2. there is an informal incentive, probably something like “avoiding a huge backup of trains during rush-hour” and all the problems that causes for everyone.

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    • Kenn Fong says:

      @Tristan, you’re very fortunate that you’ve held jobs where you are allowed discretion over all your actions. Every transit district has clearly-spelled out rules that its operators MUST obey. They send out monitors to make sure there is compliance. For example, if a bus driver stops behind another bus at a stop, the driver must not open the doors to let you out. If the doors are opened and you trip, because you were not at the stop, the insurance company might not cover the claim. If you are hit by a car or a bicycle the same is true.

      Sometimes it might appear as if a worker is being incompetent, rude, or obstinate. Stop and consider that this person does not have the authority to make policy. In the military, they say, “that’s above my pay grade.”

      You might be a bit less upset with everyday life if you stop to consider that not everything and everybody in the world functions to please your every whim.

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  5. Alex says:

    Well, let’s cut the guy a little bit of slack. I work in a highly technical professional field, and our current management doesn’t allow anything to be done without explicit permission, and we’ve all learned the hard way that dissenting opinions or actions are met with ostracism, visits to HR, and demotions. Sometimes, after a while, even if you know that there’s a better way to do something or that a management decision is stupid, you decide to keep your mouth shut and just hope that a change in management (or job) happens so you can start expressing your opinion and doing things better again.

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  6. Steve Nations says:

    You can find employees who don’t/won’t question inefficient policies at pretty much all levels of any organization. And you can find managers who rule by fear and hate having their policies questioned in pretty much any organization.

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  7. Patrick says:

    Fare-beating was rather rampant on above-ground Green Line routes long before the fare hikes. I can’t count how many BU students I have seen get on the train without paying. As an economist I would have thought you’d mention the freeloader aspect in your post. We all hate the Green Line, but I’d rather hate it while riding it with those who pay their fare. I completely agree with this new policy.

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  8. Joe says:

    Silly question, but why is Boston still taking fares on the train through a fare box (like a bus)? Get with the 20th century (not to mention 21st) and take fares at stations through gates, or on the train through gates, or failing that hire conductors. Chicago’s CTA isn’t the be all and end all of transit by ANY means, but not one of our trains requires paying a farebox on the train.

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