I have been a member of CUPE Local 2544 for over twenty-four years now. I started as a high school student working for the summer on the maintenance trucks with some of the different trades that the Peel District School Board (PDSB) employs. I was just a fourteen-year-old student looking to make some money so that when I turned sixteen I could buy myself a car. I worked through the summer months and earned $6.24 an hour. I performed such tasks as painting portable skirts, painting parking lot lines, moving furniture and playing gopher (fetching tools and the sort for the various tradesmen that I worked with).
I did this for two summers and although I did my best to put some money into a bank account, teenage angst got the better of me and very little was saved. At no point in time did I think that this would become a career for me.
After a brief move to New Brunswick and a subsequent move back to Ontario, I found myself looking for a job and attempted to do so with the PDSB. I rode my bicycle about two kilometers to the Park Royal Field Office but was told that there was a contract impasse between them and the union, and that they weren’t hiring at that time due to it.
In February of 1989 I attended my first day of school for the second semester at Clarkson Secondary School. I returned home from school in a very chipper mood as I was happy to resume my education and meet new friends.
As I entered the house, I checked the mailbox and found a letter addressed to me from the PDSB. I opened the envelope to find a cheque written out in my name for an unrecalled amount (enough to purchase a Vector Research amplifier and a used 1979 Datsun 200SX affectionately known as the “Ghoster Coaster”). As a 16 year old I didn’t really care why I received this money. I was just happy as hell to have it!
Immediately after school the next day, based upon my luck the prior day, I thought it was worth a shot to call the PDSB and inquire about a job. I spoke with the secretary to the area supervisor, and she told me that I could come in for an interview with her boss, if I could make it an hour. I agreed to do so and jumped on my Redline 500 BMX for the two-kilometer ride to the Park Royal Field Office.
Shortly after my arrival, I sat down with a big bear of a man for a brief interview. Upon conclusion, I was asked if I would be able to get to Hillside SPS to start work that very evening. I had no idea that that I was embarking on what would become a career for me.
I also had no idea that I was only a casual employee. Truth be told, even if I DID know, I probably wouldn’t have cared as I was just happy that I was earning $10.24 an hour cleaning a school while my friends were earning minimum wage at various fast food restaurants.
I was still a student at Clarkson SS and inevitably the conversation lead to how I made so much money, and upon learning what I did, the subsequent comment “You clean toilets!?” was heard all too many times. My response was always that I was making double what they were.
I worked in ignorant bliss at Hillside for approximately two years. In my naiveté, I had no idea what the union was; never mind that I was a part of it. I also had no idea what the benefits were.
Fast forward almost twenty-five years later, and I currently find myself as the Building Leadhand at T.L. Kennedy Secondary School after making the progression from casual School Attendant to permanent School Attendant to In-school Replacement to Custodian to Head Custodian to Building Leadhand.
I also find myself as the proud Recording Secretary of CUPE Local 2544. My primary role is providing communication to our membership of approximately 1500. As an Executive Officer, I also have a more intimate knowledge of what issues and concerns may be, or may become problematic for our membership at the local level, municipal level, provincial level, national level and global level.
The past year has been an absolute horror for unions everywhere. We have seen a year in which unions globally are under attack. Globally we have seen the economic collapse of Europe and its effects on North American economies. Nationally we have seen an austerity budget and Bill C377 pass through the legislature, both at a significant cost to Union members throughout Canada. As a school board employee, Ontario’s Bill 115 took away my right to bargain collectively. Locally, our Board claims funding reductions as a reason to change mutually agreed to working conditions that have been in place for 20 years.
There are times when I wish I could go back to being the naïve, happy-go-lucky, 16-year old version of myself…back to the time when my biggest concerns were having the best car, the coolest clothes or the best parties. Alas, I have changed just like the times have. I now have a family to support, a house to pay for and a future to save for. I also see the corrosion of the rights that generations before me have fought so valiantly to obtain, many of which we take for granted today. These include, but are not limited to: a forty hour work week, paid overtime, WSIB, benefits and the right to collectively bargain with the employer.
I have matured. Over time I have learned a great deal about socio-economic issues. I have gotten involved in political action such as a sit-in at MP Eve Adams office, and have attended numerous rallies and countless protests. I finally understand the power of the people and the responsibility unions and their membership possess. Just as my grandfather fought for the rights that I enjoy today, I feel a moral obligation to keep those rights intact for the sake of my children.
I hope that through reading this, people will understand how important it is to fight for our rights. Inevitably we will not win every battle, but I do know that we do not stand a chance if we don’t fight.
I urge you to support your local union. Understand that you are something bigger than yourself and that your voice is important as a unionized worker. Have that voice heard by attending membership meetings and participating. After all, unions are democratic, and it is the members who make the decisions and set the policies. At all levels, it is the rank-and-file members who determine by majority vote what the union does.
Dan is the Recording Secretary for CUPE 2544, which represents 1,500 custodians, maintenance workers, food service assistants, and school attendants employed by the Peel District School Board (PDSB). Dan has worked at the PDSB since February 6, 1989 and is currently the Building Leadhand at T.L. Kennedy Senior School in Mississauga, Ontario. Information about CUPE 2544 can be found at www.cupe2544.ca.