WHEN DID “UNION” BECOME A DIRTY WORD? The writings of Taz Riggs.

Life is funny… Taz Riggs is now a leader of the Dirt Bag Paddlers Admin team, and frequent contributor to DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE, but he was once just a funny name on Facebook (back before when you could use nicknames…) when I first stumbled across his writings on an invite only group called RAFTGUIDE UNION DISCUSSION.  I was only vaguely familiar with the concept, but intrigued, not because I felt a need in my own guide career for unionization, but rather because I saw a lot of my friends who had given their best days to the boating profession struggling with healthcare and off season woes. So I read, and I listened… And I befriended Taz.

The discussion in the group has dissipated like the fog lifting after the rain storm, with a breeze blowing in it seems to be gone… For now. Seems in today’s Murica “union” is a dirty word. So, I looked up the word. 
noun: union; plural noun: unions; noun: Union
1. the action or fact of joining or being joined, especially in a political context.
“he was opposed to closer political or economic union with Europe”
synonyms: unification, uniting, joining, merging, merger, fusion, fusing, amalgamation, coalition, combination, synthesis, blend, blending, mingling; More
antonyms: separation, parting organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests; a labor union.
“the National Farmers’ Union”
a club, society, or association formed by people with a common interest or purpose.
“members of the Students’ Union”
synonyms: association, labor union, trade union, league, guild, confederation, federation, brotherhood, organization
“the workers joined a union”
Hmmm… Sounds like a bunch of Commies. Muricans hate Commies. (Excepting the obvious fact that dirtbags often exist in habitation curiously akin to communes. But whatever.) but then I came across these meanings, which I felt more aptly apply to what these rubber pushers were getting at. 
a state of harmony or agreement.
“they live in perfect union”

So I got to thinking, perhaps it was time to gather up the brown leaves of last season, rake them together and put a match to them… Perhaps the flames would rekindle the discussion. Perhaps the heat would warm the ideas gone cold. Perhaps the smoke would signal a new beginning. Spring is just around the corner….
So I gathered up the words of Taz Riggs, not the only author in the group by far, but a bellwether.  I left his work unedited but reordered in a way that I thought would tell the tale best. Enjoy. 

“Now the rowin’ gambler, he was very bored,
He was tryin’ to create the next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But, yes, I think it can be very easily done
We’ll put some bleahers out in the sun
And have it out on Highway 61.”
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

Dirt Bag Paddlers was kind enough to post a bit about our group. I felt it necessary to respond to some of the comments, and did so. This is what I offered: 
Some people, just by force of their basic nature, have a tendency to react to some of the ideals set forth by this group with a call for nihilism and anarchy.
River guides are actually one of the most diverse groups of pf people you could find among any one profession. Because they to live a free and easy lifestyle they are often labeled as non-conformists. Prejudice also tends to pigeon-hole them as rebels and misfits. For many, guiding is just a short stop on the long path of life; and for most it has a tendency to influence the way that they walk that path from that point forward. From that community have come doctors; lawyers; investment bankers; engineers; social workers; artists and musicians. Ask them and they will tell you that their experiences on and around the river had a positive impact on their life.
A wolf howling in the night is assumed to be a lone, solitary creature; dangerous and destructive. Yet, research has proven that they are very social and caring animals. They are strong, graceful and very attentive to their community. Though they may be predators, for the most part they take small game. But, when food sources are lean, they band together and become a highly coordinated and formidable team to take down larger prey. For them this is not a destructive game, but a means of survival. Their spoils are shared among the group; both the young and old; from the Alpha to the pup.
There are some whose comments to the group at first appear to be dismissive and negative; though if they are thoughtful and passionate; there are useful and constructive terms in their words. We encourage every ones contribution to the pack.
All Forward,

“…we are but pygmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders…” -John Wesley Powell
The put-in is not the river; an oft used adage. The put-in above the hwy. 76 bridge on the Chattooga gives not clue what lays ahead. Just because you run “Grumpies” On the Ocoee without a hitch doesn’t mean you’ve got “Broken Nose” wired. At one time the awesome exception to this was “The Tubes” below Summersville dam on the Gauley. Nothing…nothing will ever compare. Launching into a surging eddy with current as strong as any place on the river. To face an eddy line that goes way beyond the term eddy fence; a mine field of seathing, exploding waves determined to push you and your crew all the way back to the bus. You might grit your teeth, brace for another hit and that wave suddenly vanishes; the force of the eddy flings you into the maelstrom; stung by a hailstorm of mist and physically shoves you downstream. Flips could occur in that angry nothing between the eddy and downstream current; heads bobbing, spinning, dunked and going nowhere. The greatest geek filter to kayak, canoe and raft is no more. Find someone who was there (we are fading fast), they can regale you with hours of river stories that never leave the put-in.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are at the put-in for this project. Paddle together now… All forward!!!

From where I sat, in the back or the cockpit of a raft the economic decline arrived more than a decade before the the rest of the country recognized it. Market shares, as it is referred to in board of directors meetings, took a steep dive. Profits, profit margins and revenues slipped and crumbled. Near manic scrambles ensued. Cost cutting measures became desperate; benefits to employees were cut, minimized and eliminated entirely. Small companies cut losses, selling out or closing doors forever. Conglomerations have formed for mutual survival, diversification became the order of the day and myriads of programs have sprung up in order to retain clients for longer periods, as one destination vacations were hoped to prop up revenues. Owners have quietly stepped aside and few will remember their herculean efforts and sacrifices made early on to build the industry. Investors and minions of whiz-kids with degrees have filled the vacuum; their successes are as yet to be realized.
Changes don’t happen overnight. Evolution is a mean and heartless process; rarely reversible. Fraternities of tenured guides who strove to define professionalism have been deftly replaced with short term inexperience. Short term employees have and always will be a necessity; to cover the height of the season; but, their mentors and herders have diminished . Companies that were once outposts on a frontier have become something like resorts. The effort to recoup costs has brought about desertion of the masses in favor of those who can “afford” services and amenities. What used to be a bottom up structure has been flipped, and “if you don’t like it you should move on” has become a mantra.
I can look back through a telescope, some use a magnifying glass, and many are staring through the bottom of an empty beer bottle. Sometimes I’m surprised that guides don’t occupy the parking lot with worn out squeeegies and open palms in hopes for enough to purchase a twelve pack. Damn it! Where is your self respect? Guides used to arrive in rusted out pick-ups with camper tops; old Volkswagons and the family Volvo ready to serve new duties. Guides were willing to do much more. They scrubbed showers and toilets, swept buses and drove them, took out trash, repaired boats; anything to be helpful. Now very few are willing to much more than Put-in to take-out. Companies once nurtured loyalty, not just from employees, but from “guests” as well. Now it’s, “show me the money” coming from all sides.
The “old-school”-house is sagging and termites have infested the beams. Fresh paint and flowers aren’t the answer. WE can rebuild starting with a new foundation.
I submit that we be an all inclusive association. I do not see any advantage to excluding any persons. I believe the support of all interested parties would be an asset. I propose that we include:
a. raft guides- both paddle and oars
b. dory and drift boat guides
c. kayak guides and instructors
d. fishing guides both floating and wading
e. manufacturers of gear for the river and the lifestyle of river people
f. camp groups
g. governing agencies
h. organizations that support rivers; recreational and environmental
i. snapping turtles
j. skills training providers; technical, first-aid, safety and rescue.
I hope this to be a short list, possibilities are there for us.
All Forward,

Here are some topics that have come up several times and represent things that we would like to offer our efforts to. As always your constructive comments will be useful in helping to form ways to move these thoughts forward.
1. Job advancement based on merit.
2. Affordable First-aid training of the highest degree attainable (WFR at present can run $600-$1000, that may or may not include lodging and meals, and of course a week without income)
3. Standardization of technical training including rescue skills ( there are enough sources out there to produce a well written manual/book and represent a source of income for the Assn.)
4. Off season/shoulder season employment.
5. A library of information related to specific rivers (including human and natural history, flora and fauna, geology, hydro-electric projects and flood control…)
6. Environmental and river access issues.
7. Compensation (this comes in more forms than just salaries)
The Professional River Guides Association is established for the betterment of the river community. That community consists of the river itself; the guides; their managers and company owners; skills providers, including First-aid, safety and technical skills trainers; governing agencies; established organizations that promote and support the sports and industries surrounding the river; and the public both commercial and private users.
( a start, your constructive comments are welcome and needed)

In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.
-Czeslaw Milosz
I hope that I don’t disappoint anyone by saying this, but, I am not operating in a vacuum. Twenty-seven years ago Kenton Grua called a meeting of fellow boatmen in Flagstaff. From that meeting grew the Grand Canyon Guides Association. If you would like to read about Kenton and the formation of that group, Google: Kenton Grua: the Factor (BQR Winter 97-98). If you are not into a lengthy read, cut to the last 4 or five paragraphs of the article. Chances are, you will go back and read the entire interview with Lew Steiger, in order to better understand the man. If you still want more I can recommend the book “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko.
Returning from a 30-day, Grand Canyon dory trip in ’99, I just missed meeting the “Factor” by one day. (though I did get to see the dory “Emerald Mile” in the warehouse) I was heart struck when I learned of Kenton’s death in 2002 from a mountain biking accident. His legend and legacy lives on.

All of us, whether we want to admit it or not, want to follow in the footsteps of our heroes.
Every stinking, mildewed and sweating one of us will be heroes if we do this. And, if we do not succeed no one will blame us for trying.
All Forward,
p.s.- the closest I will ever come to the word union is unity.
“We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in the one scale, and self- preservation is in the other.” – Thomas Jefferson on slavery in a letter to John Holmes, – Apr. 22, 1820
“What do you want for nothing? A rrrrrubber biscuit.” – Charles Johnson/The Chips- 1956
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” -Dr. Seuss (Theodor S. Geisel) The Lorax- 1971
“You can’t push a rope.” – K. Taz Riggs -Feb. 2014
Link to the RAFTGUIDE UNION DISCUSSION group page on Facebook

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