For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)
Fred Gilliam was not a patient man; he was the kind of man who expected results and expected them quickly. Not a particularly bright man, either, he was not much interested in suggestions or advice; he kept his own counsel and believed that no one could possibly know his business better than he did. He also tended not to learn much from experience. A large man and a bully since his schoolyard days, he was accustomed to persuading others to see things his way – one way or another.
But after more than a month of utterly fruitless contract negotiations, even Gilliam had to concede that his usual approach was not working. His bullying tactics following the mayor’s budget address had backfired badly and embarrassingly; his bullying tactics at the negotiating table, followed by a month of stubbornness, persistence, and refusal to compromise, had failed miserably; and his usual ace in the hole, enlisting council’s support, had abandoned him in his hour of need.
Gilliam knew he needed a new strategy. He also recognized that he needed to give in on something important, which literally left a foul taste in his mouth – as giving in always did to him. Consequently, at the end of yet another fruitless negotiating session, he asked Cisco Estevez, the city’s lawyer and his favorite whipping-boy during contract talks, if he could arrange a ten-minute appointment for him with the mayor. Estevez resisted at first, insisting that Gilliam could not circumvent the negotiating process and bargain directly with the mayor. Fighting back his natural inclination to tell Estevez that no one told Fred Gilliam what he could or could not do, Gilliam assured his adversary that he needed to speak to the mayor about another, unrelated matter. Although suspicious, Estevez agreed to see what he could do, hoping that his show of good faith would earn him some goodwill at the bargaining table. Three hours later, Gilliam received a call inviting him to meet with the mayor the following morning.
The next day, as Gilliam climbed the wide spiral staircase leading to the second floor of city hall, he did so with mixed feelings. He knew what he had to do, knew that this conversation was in the best interests of his men. He also knew that his forthcoming actions would make him the subject of a great deal of criticism – from the public, which he did not care about at all; from the news media, which he cared about even less; and from his own men, who would not understand the bigger picture and would think only about the short-term impact of their leader’s actions.
Still, he needed council’s help to get the contract his men wanted and deserved, and if this was the only way to do it then this is what he had to do.
A receptionist led Gilliam directly into the mayor’s office. The two men exchanged greetings while Gilliam poured himself a cup of coffee.
“What can I do for you today, Fred?” Norbert asked.
“Mr. Mayor, I think it’s time that you ended your experiment with Shaniqua Watson.”
The mayor did a double-take.
“We don’t know each other very well, Mr. Mayor, but I don’t kid.”
“It’s just that I’m very surprised. From what I’ve heard, you and your men were thrilled with Shaniqua. She made you all more money and she made you all heroes in the eyes of the public.”
Gilliam hated this.
“No, she promoted herself at our expense. It’s all ‘Shaniqua Watson this’ and ‘Shaniqua Watson that,’ never about the men. She’s never been up in a cherry-picker replacing lights and I’ve never seen her lay a shovel of hot asphalt, but somehow, all the credit goes to her. That newspaper picture of her driving a snow plow was pure hot dog.”
“Excuse me, Fred, but I’m under the impression that after the photo was taken, she spent two hours driving that plow and clearing streets.”
“Yeah, well, we’re tired of it, and we’re tired of how hard she’s driving us.”
“From what I’ve seen, Fred, she’s constantly giving credit to you and your members. She’s very generous with the praise.
“She’s also very generous with the money. I know – I see the overtime figures. Your members have been able to pocket quite a bit of additional taxpayer money thanks to her. She’s given you the best kind of praise of all – the kind that folds and spends.”
Gilliam could hardly bring himself to continue speaking this way. He could taste the bile rising from his stomach.
“Well, the overtime is too much, my men are tired, and we want it to stop. She may act all nice in public, but in private she treats us like slaves down on the plantation and we’re tired of it. She’s got to go, and the sooner the better.”
Norbert was genuinely surprised. He had no idea this was a problem – and did not entirely believe what he was hearing. He momentarily pondered whether there might be another reason, an ulterior motive, but found none. That hardly mattered, though.
“Fred, if you came to me with a specific problem, I’d do whatever I could to help you. You and your members have done a tremendous job under Shaniqua’s leadership. You make a great team. But your members have been around for a long time and she’s only been here a few months, and the turnaround has been amazing.
“If you have a specific grievance, I’d like to hear it. If you want me to address it myself, I will. If you’d rather run it through the civil service commission, I’m fine with that, too. But you haven’t given me a single good reason to fire Shaniqua and I have absolutely no intention of doing so.”
Gilliam was uncertain how vigorously he needed to press his case in private. Making the request was probably enough – it was doing so in public, and with conviction, that really mattered.
“Well, you have to do what you have to do, Mr. Mayor, and I have to do what I have to do. My office will put out a press release later this morning announcing our demand and I’ll take questions about it from reporters after today’s negotiating session. We’ll wait for your public response to our demand and then we’ll decide on the most appropriate course of action to take.”
“Action? What are you going to do, strike to have your beloved boss, who showers you with praise and extra money and has covered you with glory, fired for excellence in office?”
“Nothing’s off the table, Mr. Mayor. We’ll do whatever labor has to do to get our point across to management.”
With that, Gilliam thanked the mayor for his time, shook his hand, and departed. As he did he felt guilty and a little nauseated. Norbert, on the other hand, felt only confusion.
(more next Sunday)