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A Prince Amongst Savages

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pat conte editTen years ago yesterday, a good friend and stand-up guy went home to be with the Lord.

Pat was the AFSCME Union Steward on day shift at the City of Warren’s Wastewater Treatment Facility, often times a thankless job. The guy was humble, quiet, intelligent, and endowed with a pair of union balls most scabs secretly covet.

We became soul brothers during an attempt by an outside company of hired guns to implement “best practices” at the WWTP. Among many “recommendations”, it meant “relaxed” job descriptions and the loss of  overtime required to run and maintain a facility designed to operate on a 24/7 basis. Briliant.  The citizens of Warren won’t restrict the elimination of body waste to just day shift.  As that penny-wise, pound-foolish notion became our reality, two shift supervisors decided they would exploit the new directive on eliminating overtime by grabbing it up for themselves.  Their combined abuse of OT was nothing less than staggering. In no time, they were raking in more than their base salary. When operations & maintenance began to question the fairness of this new “best practice,” upper management  ignored and chose to silver-tongue their subordinates. After a year of this bullshit, some of us met in the locker room one day, deciding our next move. Concluding the only option left was going outside the department, we wrote and distributed a petition everyone signed (except three guys bereft of a spine on the midnight shift) exposing the overtime abuse by two specific shift supervisors who were making more than the mayor.

Pat hand-delivered copies of the petition to every council person. After doing so, He made sure his last stop would be the mayor’s office. It had such an impact, a council vote on the Water Board budget was held up while they researched the  merit and allegations of the petition.

The retaliatory fall-out was immediate and very direct. Because I wrote the petition and Pat delivered it, we were in the cross-hairs of the two supervisors who’d been exposed for their greed, hypocrisy and malfeasance. Neither of us had ever experienced the kind of explosive rage those two guys unleashed.  Looking back, I’ll admit to using some fairly inflammatory language in the petition that was read at a meeting of the Warren City Council and broadcast via cable to residents of the City.

This statement didn’t go over real well.

“While operations & maintenance rank & file bust their asses in their part to facilitate a more efficient workplace for the benefit of taxpayers, two shift supervisors continued engorging themselves like feral swine at the trough of the rate-payers. Their unfettered abuse of overtime is so egregious, every resident should rise up and inundate the Mayor’s Office with calls of protest, demanding these two pigs be stopped in the repugnant swill they revel in”

On the basis of said petition, we were both called into Chief Engineers office the next day and  chastised for lacking “loyalty” and losing the “vision.”  Proper etiquette (never a strong-suit) flew out the window. My immediate response was to inform management to be grateful two of their darlings were exposed. They didn’t quite see it that way.

At any rate, it was  now time to cue up Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns & Money” because the shit had hit the fan.

Dad…get me out of this indeed.

Ponch & Nick went about the business of creating a textbook  hostile work-place. Of the two, Ponch wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Barely functioning on a “challenged” level in an effort to extract a public retraction, he wrote up and/or suspended me a total of 14 times over the next 8 month period. Things got pretty damn intense around the plant as an unholy jihad revved up.  One day, a scream above the roar of machinery could be heard.  “Hurley! Get your miserable ass over here and fill in this big hole now!  A cursory examination of the task at hand  revealed a broken 4″ PVC Line in the deepest part of the excavation.  After preparing for the arduous task at hand, I called my steward to inquiring about being been taken off of operating equipment to do a maintenance gig.  At the job site. Pat smiled and observed;

“Hey Tim…does that line look repaired to you?”

Again, Pat smiled and said with a wink;

“Use your best judgment”

After filling in the hole with cement over the broken line, the plant email internet went crazy with messages flying around questioning Ponch’s sanity.  He arrived back at the job site just as the last shovel full of dirt was tossed awaiting maintenance to cement it over. Bloviating about my judgement, we feared for his health. When stopping to catch his breath,  my response was measured and calm while feigning ignorance, while underscoring the importance of following orders.

Stuff like that went on for quite some time. His frustration and rage only grew in his effort to retaliate. He never really made any progress as Pat, and I continued to take the brunt of his futile assaults.

Patrick was The Rock to lean on and would always  would say;

“Don’t give him any bullets to shoot you with. Never be insubordinate, do what he tells you, ‘cuz  I got your back brother Hurley.”

True to his word, Pat beat, reversed and over-turned all 14 of the write-ups and suspensions.

Some of you anti-union folks out there might sing a different tune if you worked for those two geniuses. Terms like Maximized Efficiency; Downsizing; Multi-Tasking and Flexibility became plant buzzwords on cultish emails emanating like sludge from management. We knew they were trite euphemisms for getting rid of employees.

Truth be told, Budgets were tight everywhere. The Plant had to adapt to changing times. The only problem with the kind of “progress” they were selling (at an exorbitant rate) was this: Over the next few years, management began replacing senior $31.00/hr state-certified professionals with $10.00 grunts.  That was our  reward for loyalty and trust. Guess who never went with the program? Nick & Ponch. As operations and maintenance became flexible with job descriptions (ostensibly to save jobs), those two did everything to sabotage anything they perceived to threaten their rather opulent existence.

Their attacks drew Pat and I into a very tight friendship. In fact, we became “blood brothers in a stormy night with a vow to defend…no retreat baby, no surrender.” As the hostility morphed into  personal threats, conflicting work-orders, assignment of the dirtiest jobs and so forth, their deleterious effect on the operation of the plant became obvious.

For instance, one day, Ponch ordered us to abandon the operation of the plant to weed-whack a hill of grass in 98 degree heat.

After a year of this crap, I was getting pretty pissed. However, Pat always kept his cool and never would give management the pleasure of blowing his lid, er…hard-hat.  The issuance of AVOs (Avoid Verbal Orders) job assignments only applied to us.

So there we stood in the blazing heat with two gas-powered, industrial weed whackers strapped on our backs like rented mules. As sweat poured down our mugs like a leaky effluent discharge line, Pat calmly adopted his inimitable, shit-eating, handsome Italian smile while reading the AVO and said;

“Hey Tim…listen up. This work assignment doesn’t specify how high or low to cut the grass, so just use your best judgement. Amen?”

In the twinkling of an eye, great joy replaced the tension & anxiety as grace replaced a desire to mace Ponch’s face. Firing  up the weed-whackers, our laughing could be heard above the roar of the machines. It took all shift, but we did manage to butcher the hell out of that hill of grass. Two brother operators in a maniacal state had lots of fun decimating the big hill of grass to a state it would take a year to recover from.

The hill  was the first thing visitors saw when driving onto plant grounds. Management didn’t think it was so great. Upon inspection at the end of our shift, Ponch was livid. Pat calmly informed him it would be in his best interest to act in a more professional manner, or we’d be filing a grievance against him. As he sputtered in frustration, Pat waited patiently for his wrath to wear out and with perfect timing, asked him about the wisdom of abandoning the jobs we were hired to do.

“Why sacrifice the operation of the plant? So you could get your little rocks off retaliating because of the petition?  What you’re doing is illegal, but you’re too blinded by an exaggerated sense of importance to see it. O’ by the way, we had a lots of fun manicuring that hill while getting in a work-out.  In fact, we’d respectfully request weed whacking every blade of grass for the rest of the summer, providing you approve the overtime.”

Pat just stood there and smiled, while Ponch looked like he might cry. In the end, there wasn’t a thing he could do.

Though quite the passionate man, Pat knew to hold back until alone without witnesses to really lay into those pricks. He taught me about grace under pressure. He also did his job without the backing the AFSCME hierarchy, including the local president who was a buddy of Ponch. That meant Pat took shots from all directions with both barrels, but NEVER flinched. The irony was he wasn’t a troublemaker and never instigated a thing. Pat had a heart for the underdog. He’d think and pray about a matter and then proceed with a response while avoiding ill-conceived reactions. He had a particular distaste for any kind of bully.

Today, ten years later, I miss my friend and brother. He was a guy who understood how a work-place should function and fought hard for everyone he represented. But it went way beyond that with Pat. He was a man who walked out the courage of his convictions with an ability to see the Big Picture. He thought ahead and played those two fools the chess-game of their lives. His Cheshire Cat smile was something that never failed to lift our spirits. He was a steward’s steward.

Guys like Pat come into our orbit, but a few times in life.

Many lives were blessed & enriched by our having crossed paths with Patrick.

Speak to me
Speak to me heart
I feel a needing
to bridge the clouds
Softly go
A way I wish to know
A way I wish to know

Oh you’ll ride
Surely dance
In a ring
Backwards and forwards
Those who seek
feel the glow
A glow we will all know
A glow we will all know

On that day
Filled with grace
And the heart’s communion
Steps we take
Steps we trace
Into the light of reunion

Paths that cross
will cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

Speak to me
Speak to me shadow
I spin from the wheel
nothing at all
Save the need
the need to weave
A silk of souls
that whisper whisper
A silk of souls
that whispers to me

Speak to me heart
all things renew
hearts will mend
round the bend
Paths that cross
cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

Rise up hold the reins
We’ll meet again I don’t know when
Hold tight bye bye
Paths that cross
will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again

RIP brother Pat.

I’ll see you further on up the road in our Father’s house

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3 Comments

  1. HURLCO says:

    Reblogged this on HURLCO and commented:

    There’s always some day after editing. Grrr
    Plus, a new story about Pat has been added. Enjoy and Pass It On. Thanks for reading this.

  2. terrisutalo says:

    Tim, My heart just breaks from the immature abuse that was going on . Thank You so much for sharing . Pat was a just man. I am so proud of you both The dynamic duals) standing your ground. I don’t think you boys where finished ., its so hard to believe this could be a movie. Your are a Fantastic Writer! Tim.! I’ve Been really touched reading this. I can see how he could care for you so much. Your just as Wonderful as he was! I’m so proud I can’t wait to share this with his daughter and Family. God bless you for taking the time to tell about him. Telling his story. He is definitely smiling in, Heaven . and Thanking his best Buddy, Tim Hurley!

  3. HURLCO says:

    Of those who take the time to not only read…but leave a comment, yours is very meaningful Terri. You stood in the fire with him during that long, drawn out battle of the wastewater plant. They were the best and worst of times. That you made it through those times and then losing Pat, by faith and grace, is a testimony to God’s awesome love.

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