The 99-00 season was the final year of Antarctic Support Associates’ contract with NSF. As such, The Contract had been the talk of the town since the summer townspeople started coagulating in Denver for Orientation the previous October.
Besides all the candy-coated threats made against our jobs or our bonuses should we disobey any of numerous directives, the Orientation is where we are first dosed with propaganda to join us at the hip in support of our team. As we drank Tazo tea and ate packaged pastries from deco aluminum platters in a suburban Sheraton conference room, we were reminded of various unspecific accomplishments of the past decade and shown a chart tracking ASA’s Approval Rating during the course of their contract. While the early years showed NSF giving ASA a very low approval rating, the last year showed ASA getting a rating in the high 90′s percent. The criteria for the rating was not explained, but we were to understand that NSF was more than happy with ASA’s performance.
The contract award, which was supposed to be revealed by the time of the Orientation, had been postponed. Because information dispensed by the company is always hedged in their favor, all information means something to the employee. In the case of the postponement, we grumbled that NSF was making sure we were all deployed before telling us that our jobs would soon be in jeopardy. Later, when we got to Christchurch, the announcement was postponed again, at which point a supervisor described ASA Denver headquarters as “rats fleeing a sinking ship.” We got to the ice. Postponed. Weeks passed. Postponed again. A week passed. Postponed. A senior manager on the ice quit and flew home. Management said it was a personal issue, but no one believed it. The rumors were thick and complicated. He had another job lined up. He told NSF to shove it. ASA knew about the contract but wasn’t telling us.
All-Hands meetings were held in the gym just to tell us that ASA didn’t know anything, and please stop the rumors already. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to shake down key personnel for all they knew about big deals like this. I learned that when a government agency contracts with the private sector, if it goes with anyone beside the lowest bidder, the agency has to justify its choice. If it takes the lowest bidder it doesn’t have to justify the expenditure. (One ironworker who was working on the support structure for the new Pole station said the metal was so fucked up he would never go in the new station. Holes were missing, there were holes where they weren’t needed, and some pieces were so warped it was impossible to fit them together. The lowest bidder had won the contract, he said, and the contractor had then subcontracted out to locals who were working from their garages out on distant dirt roads somewhere in the southern states.)
Finally, the contract award was announced. NSF had awarded the contract to Raytheon. The atmosphere was excited yet hesitant. A lot to talk about, changes, but maybe for the worse. Word had it wages were going to go down. Some people wouldn’t get rehired. Who do we talk to to get our jobs back? No one knew. One veteran, who’d seen the contract changeover a decade ago, described the organizational effect as “chopping off the head and keeping the body.” That was fine for us in the body, but for our favorite supervisors in the neck things were a little more uncertain. No one was sure who was going to survive the blade. But anyone in the head had a resume prepared, at the very least.
News of this magnitude required an immediate All-Hands Meeting. The community packed the gym and the station manager delivered the word officially. We were reminded that our work here was for the entire good of the science program and that, regardless of the change, we would go out with our “heads held high”. The Denver staff met the news by going AWOL for two days, after which healthy severance packages were hastily prepared and dangled freely to keep them from abandoning ship, also requiring them to return to work immediately. The contract workers, whose loyalty is bought by the week no matter who is paying, returned to work as usual.
Just as ASA uses financial carrots to keep contract workers from bailing on their contracts, so NSF uses financial carrots to keep ASA from sabotaging the science program. We were told to keep our heads held high for the good of science. If our heads were held high enough, ASA could collect.
It was around this time that I sent an email to someone in upper management in response to his warm public invitation that if “anyone is interested in other contract work, just contact me.” I asked him for information about jobs at Johnston Atoll, a small island in the South Pacific where Holmes and Narver (ASA’s parent company) assists the US Fish and Wildlife Department in a chemical weapons destruction operation. He emailed me back with the information I sought, also warning me that though H&N approves of employees working on parallel projects, they do not approve of employees quitting one contract to go work at another. This response was cc’d to my supervisor as well, a warm public invitation turned chilly in practice.
In the meantime, while our heads were held high working, ASA’s fleet of lawyers was filing a protest over the contract award. (The reason NSF can’t just “hire who they want” is that all NSF’s money is tax dollars.)
ASA had no prayer of winning the protest, but they might have been able to convince the judge they should be reimbursed the millions of dollars the bid proposal cost them. A side effect of all this was that Raytheon used the excuse that they were “prohibited” from talking to current employees about wages for next season until the protest was settled, because wage scales are proprietary information, despite that even after a judge finally ruled against ASA’s protest, Raytheon declined to release information on wages. Thus Raytheon has literally lied since Day One on the continent. ASA, in the spasmodic throes of death, also tried to stop Raytheon from coming to the ice to learn the operation, even after they’d won. In exactly ten years, Raytheon will be pulling the same tricks if they lose the contract.
So how did ASA lose the contract award when their approval rating was “98%”? Because the contract rewards incentive. The better the approval rating, the more NSF had to pay ASA. So, by learning the job (according to NSF criteria) ASA had become expensive. NSF wanted to select a new company as their support contractor because it would be cheaper for them, and the new company would, for the first few years anyway, do everything NSF wants them to do and not argue with them all the time.
One icevet put it this way: “NSF is a science outfit attempting to oversee what is essentially an industrial operation. The people who have risen into the upper echelons of the NSF come from a background of science, and science administration. They’re not used to hardhats, so they make bad decisions that cause hundreds of thousands of lost dollars in the blink of an eye. Eventually the subcontractor they hire realizes this and begins to exert their expertise, sometimes where it is not, politically, wanted.”