Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 9)
Early history of park workers 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall, September 1, 2011, Chapter Nine
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things all wrong, says the current management of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). The way it is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.” So a new supervisor was placed there. One of her tasks in the summer of 2011 was to dissect out the traditional activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.”
If the “anomalies” are going to be eliminated, sanitized, or commercialized, it’s time to write down the story of how they grew up in the first place. Memory is short. I’m writing this record of how the trial-and-error approach shaped Dufferin Grove Park, up until it ran into PFR’s “functional restructuring,” so that – if the “anomalies” fade away – park users will still have a reference. If a time comes when a new wind blows from neighbourhoods into City Hall, park users may want to pick up the thread and continue.
In Chapter Eight I told the story of how the former Ward 18 recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro began to work with the early park friends to address problematic youth behavior in the park. There were some painful confrontations before things got better. I wrote, about the most troubled youth: Some are in prison now that they’re older, and some have just disappeared. We hope – but don’t really know – that some are all right. It took another ten years before we – staff and park friends together – acquired the confidence in supporting one another to neutralize this kind of trouble before it became rampant. But before I go on with that part of the story, I need to go back and begin with another thread: the relation between park friends and the Canadian Union of Municipal Employees, CUPE Locals 416 and 79. To begin:.
A little early history of Parks workers
Rummaging through some boxes of Toronto Archives Parks and Recreation documents, I came across a few references to working conditions and to unions. In the first part of the twentieth century, the Parks Department was seen as a temporary distress-employer when there weren’t enough unskilled jobs around. So for example in 1922, the department employed 800 extra men three days a week, all to do grading. To spread the work around, even wheelbarrows were discouraged. That meant moving park dirt around with shovels and raking it flat. For these jobs, returned soldiers, married and born in the City of Toronto, were given preference in municipal hiring.
When the depression hit, in 1929, the city’s Board of Control ruled that only one spouse in a family could work for the city. The federal government helped the city set up a relief fund to employ men to work in parks, build new playgrounds, and clear brush. (There was critical commentary in the newspapers, saying that “clearing brush” by these make-work crews often meant denuding the parks of healthy plants, leading to erosion.) It wasn’t long before city politicians saw this down-and-out work force as an opportunity for making bargain capital improvements. In a 1931 budget address to the Board of Control, Alderman Wadsworth sounded enthusiastic. “To provide work for unemployed, many cities have pushed parks and playgrounds development which accounts for unusual progress in capital expenditures. I think we realize better than ever before the value to the community of [this approach] for the construction of Public Works. We feel that with this idea in the background it will be possible in time of distress in the future to add needed employment operations when private capital is frozen. We believe that our Park system affords almost unlimited opportunity if thoughtful planning for future possibilities is made.”
“Thoughtful planning,” as this politician saw it, involved scheduling capital improvements in synch with predictable cycles of economic distress. Men whose families faced starvation would provide a stable work force, with low wages and a disinclination to leave. 800 men grading park paths, with no wheelbarrows allowed – humiliating for the men, but the city still got nicely-graded park paths for Sunday promenades.
Hardly a win-win….
The earliest reference to a union that I came across was an undated letter in an archive box from the late 1930’s. R.Bradfield, president of the Civic Employees Union, had invited Parks Commissioner Chambers to speak to a meeting of all Parks staff . Chambers replied: " I do not see my way clear, at present, to address a meeting of Park Employees and in any case, I would prefer that notice of such a meeting be sent from this office.”
So the Commissioner seems to have felt that any such meeting would be his call, not the union’s. But he was wrong. Another archival document records that on June 30, 1943, city employees came under the provisions of the Collective Bargaining Bill of Ontario. The Supreme Court of Ontario declared the Civic Employees’ Union (later CUPE Local 43, then Local 416) an official city union under this bill. From the archive material, it’s unclear whether the union included women. The agreement said it applied to both males and females, but the same paragraph listed being female as one of the disqualifications of membership.
In 1946 union membership became compulsory for municipal employees, despite the objections of most City commissioners and city management. The park archive boxes that I looked at reveal no more of the story. The CUPE website only says The CUPE Constitution came into existence at the Founding Convention in 1963 when the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and the National Union of Public Service Employees (NUPSE) merged to form the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
The union and Dufferin Grove Park
By the time I got involved at Dufferin Grove Park in 1993, the two main CUPE union locals relating to parks were Local 416, often called the “outside workers” and Local 79, the “inside workers.” The outside workers were mostly men with trucks; the inside workers were both men and women. Almost all recreation programs in parks were run by part-time CUPE Local 79 workers, earning between a half and a third of what the CUPE Local 416 parks maintenance workers made. In that way park work was (and still is) a two-tier arrangement.
When we began with the adventure playground/sandpit and the gardens and the campfires, we had some anxiety about putting a foot wrong with the union. The bake oven was not built by union labour – would there be a grievance because some “breaking the cycle of violence” workers helped spread the cement? If the program coordinator (with Local 79) wanted to pick up trash in the playground, would she be seen as taking over park maintenance work?
But there were no grievances. From the 1996 Dufferin Grove Park Annual Report:
Cooperation with parks and recreation staff: To their great credit, almost all the city staff who have contact with our coordinator are friendly and cooperative, even as they might raise an eyebrow about this unorthodox kind of worker, with one foot in a city department and one foot in the community. City staff joke about our ability to penetrate their bureaucracy and get what we want for this park; but it’s equally true that in their dealings with us, the city staff (from the people who cut the grass all the way to the director) have very often shown remarkable enthusiasm and kindness in helping us achieve what we want. We feel fortunate to know them.
It was not until we had been involved with the ice rink for a few years that we became conscious of the role of the union. Even then it took a long time to connect the dots.
The city’s compressor cooled “artificial ice rinks” (A.I.R.’s) were an odd case. Everyone who used them knew that the Local 416 ice resurfacing staff spent most of their time sitting in the office. Sometimes the ice was pretty rough, but the drivers said they only had to clean it twice a shift. Their other duty was to make sure that the compressors were working all right. To carry out this task, each driver had a refrigeration compressor operator (RCO) “ticket,” which they got after a week’s training. The compressors were turned on all the time, but by law they had to be watched only eight hours a day. If the RCO’s (as everyone called them) found anything wrong during those eight hours, they were not allowed to try and fix it – they had to call the tech services staff. For the rest of their shift they mainly sat and talked to the rink guards, or read the paper.
Many of these RCO’s worked as park labourers in spring and summer, at the rinks in winter, and were laid off in between. One year, an RCO decided that he wanted the winter off too, but the City had decided they needed him as an ice maintenance driver. So they refused to lay him off. The RCO ran his tractor into the boards twice and on his third try knocked the big rink gate off its hinges, before he was able to get his wish. Then the City finally laid him off for the rest of the winter. Other RCO’s argued with the rink guards about the schedule, siding with the older skaters who had formerly “ruled” the rink. One year, the RCO was a city garbage truck driver who had decided he’d like to try working at an ice rink. It turned out that he had an antique car he wanted to fix up, which he brought to the rink every day. He had heard that RCOs only had to clean the ice twice a day, so he did that, checked the compressors, and settled in to work on his car the rest of the time. If the rink guards asked him for help, he made rude gestures and told them to go away. We asked the rink supervisors how this RCO got assigned to Dufferin Grove, which was getting busier every year and ought to have rated a better operator. We found out that he had a lot of seniority, plus the RCO ticket, and so according to the collective agreement he had the right to work at any rink he chose. But when his supervisors learned that he was not sitting and chatting in the rink office, but working on his own car, they replaced him.
One year we got lucky. We were assigned a rink operator who was a caretaker in the summers. He kept the building and the ice well maintained, and he got the older kids to help him with various small tasks around the rink, which made them proud and kept them out of trouble. If anything was broken, he fixed it, and he was friendly and agreeable to everybody. We thought our problems were over.
But the next year he was gone. He had only eight years of seniority. We were told we would never get him back.Putting him at Dufferin Rink in the first place had violated the collective agreement. People with twenty years seniority were bidding on the ice maintenance jobs.
That didn’t mean that the city’s rinks had a surplus of zamboni drivers. Many Local 416 workers didn’t want to work at a job that involved so little activity. At the cut-off time when the staff bidding was done, and all the Local 416 workers were committed to their choice of city placements (everywhere, not just at rinks), there were usually still some vacancies. So it would end up that the City had to hire RCO’s from outside shortly before the rink was due to open. In February 1999 we wrote to the PFR general manager to ask for better rink staffing. She replied that the department couldn’t find anyone better. They had interviewed 25 RCO candidates from outside the City staff, she wrote, and found that only 6 were suitable. We wrote back: “if the manager of rinks had set aside half an hour last spring to arrange for some promising candidates inside the city to take the one-week RCO course, you would have gained some excellent new RCO’s without having to hire outside. We could have had continuity at our rinks, and your department could have fostered the abilities of your employees. But this effort was not made.”
There was no response, and no remedy from management. We could jump up and down all we wanted, but it didn’t lead anywhere. We asked some of our union friends, why doesn’t the union get involved in making the rinks run better? They explained: making the rinks run better is the job of management. Unions are not supposed to look after the quality of the work. They’re supposed to look after the rights of the workers.
Sigh. There seemed to be no help for the rinks from any quarter. And then the situation got worse.
It didn’t look bad on the surface. As Dufferin Rink became a nicer place for neighbours to meet, it attracted more and more shinny hockey players, and old men playing cards, mothers with young children, youth holding hands with their dates, and newcomers signing up for $2 skate loans to try out this slippery new sport. We got the city to extend the closing time (to 11 pm instead of 9 pm), so that they could fit in some local permit groups without shortening the drop-in shinny hockey schedules. Gradually (with the insistence of our city councillors), extra ice maintenance sessions were added, to deal with the constant increase in rink usage. Schedules were distributed far and wide. The rink program staff undertook to make the schedules reliable, so that rink visitors could count on skating if they came at the right time on good weather days. Skaters began coming to Dufferin Rink from all over the city, and it was often crowded. This meant two things: (a) that skaters were sometimes frustrated by the crowding and (b) that zamboni drivers had a lot of eyes on them when they went on the ice to scrape and flood.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so they say, but it also makes enemies. The days of relaxed newspaper reading and a flexible ice maintenance schedule for the zamboni drivers were over. If the brochure said that 18-and-over shinny hockey started at 8.15, and the zamboni driver was repeatedly late getting out on the ice, or if he wanted to cut a program short and do ice maintenance early, he would get some grief from the skaters. Whenever that happened, the rink program staff (those Local 79 part-time recreation workers) got an earful too. So they got pretty insistent with the Local 416 drivers, that they should start and finish their ice maintenance sessions on time. This didn’t go over well with some of the drivers, and one day in January 2006, one of the drivers decided to take a stand. He insisted on clearing the ice before a shinny hockey program was finished, because, he said, that was his prerogative if he felt like it. When the program staff argued with him, the zamboni driver and his partner left the rink without grooming the ice at all, and went home early. A few days later some of the City zamboni drivers summoned their supervisor to a health and safety meeting.
The upshot of the meeting was that the part-time recreation staff at Dufferin Rink were given a long list of special rules just for them. Two rules were especially hard for the rink. Program staff were told to add an extra outside staff person at every ice maintenance session, which meant closing the zamboni café so the staff could be outside watching the zamboni go around. And the Local 79 “inside” staff were no longer allowed to speak directly to the Local 416 “outside” staff. All communication was to be mediated through the rink supervisor, by radio phone. If the program staff neglected any of the new “health and safety” rules, the CUPE Local 416 staff were entitled to leave the rink without finishing the ice maintenance. – Everyone was unhappy.
Next week’s chapter will take the union story up to the present. I’ll describe a fractious community meeting to discuss “should Dufferin Rink be run by a board of management?” and also the decision of some recreation staff to get more active in the affairs of CUPE Local 79; and finally the recent enthusiastic adaptation of the Local 79 “scheduling project” by Recreation management to suit their goals. The collective agreement expires at the end of this year: will the CUPE leadership hear us out before then, about a broader view of what unions can do?
The dictionary page
A new vocabulary has grown up within the City bureaucracy to accompany the “functional model” used for the most recent restructuring of Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR). (1) There are institutional ways of bending common words like “action,” (2) there are words which have one meaning in the community letters to Councillor Bailao but a very different meaning when used by PFR management, like “food,” and (3) there are other words, like “compliance” and “authorization” which are almost never used in ordinary talk. But they can act as sticks to whack people with. There are so many of these words that although I used up the whole of Chapter Seven for the dictionary, I only got to the beginning of the “F” words. Since then I’ve been adding one dictionary page for every chapter. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get through the alphabet.
Freedom of information: The city has an office that gives out information under FIPPA, the “Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.” CELOs has applied for many, many bits of information under this Act. The most recent were: (1) the Briefing Note prepared for management to guide the upcoming discussion about cash-handling between the City and CELOS. We are one of the parties to the discussion but PFR didn’t want to show us the research for their position beforehand. (2) the city’s job description for wading pool attendants. The recreation manager didn’t even let the Councillor’s office see it, in case they showed it to CELOS. However, both are public information.
Public information is released rather reluctantly by PFR. The “privacy” part of the FIPPA law seems to be of greater interest for its applications. At the bottom of every staff e-mail, the recipient is warned against sharing the contents: Any distribution, use, or copying of this e-mail or the information it contains by anyone other than the intended recipient(s) is unauthorized and may breach the provisions of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This warning is puzzling. Paper letters used to be considered the property of the recipient. One of our next requests to the Freedom of Information Office will be to find out whether e-mails really don’t follow that rule.
Health and safety: this phrase is used very broadly but it actually refers to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. CELOS has a database of legislation, regulations, procedures, policies, and guidelines pertaining to public space (now http://publiccommons.ca), with a number of OHSA-related articles. The OHSA was originally intended to address serious injury issues for workers. But as soon as the Act was passed it began to be applied to any kind of perceived risk to almost anyone. Friends of the park first became aware of the use of the health and safety legislation in December 2003, when two city inspectors caused an uproar by declaring Dufferin Rink a big health and safety risk. The NFB commissioned a 10-minute movie about the inspectors’ visit (filmed by Cavan Young), which is linked on the dufferinpark.ca home page. See page 6 of this chapter for a more recent application.
The Money Story
In Chapter Eight I gave some background on how CELOS came to administer the donated funds that go back into programs at Dufferin Grove Park. Since the mandate of CELOS is doing “practical and theoretical research into public commons,” it makes no sense for us to keep running park food operations once our research has shown they can work well. The City should take them over, but the question is: how can city policies be adapted to park food without stalling the food programs? That’s one of the issues that will need working out this fall.
As a first step, PFR has taken over the staffing of all the programs. That’s a good beginning, but it still needs more public input to make it work well. CELOS has begun forwarding the food-related and program-related donations to the city (other than those needed for groceries, park/playground supplies, and administrative support). We’ll post the weekly income (all food is PWYC donations) and expenditures on the celos.ca, click on “about us” and click again on “celos financial.” That way everyone can become knowledgeable about how much it costs to run the park programs. Here is the summer’s accounting for the nine-week (peak summer) period between June 27 and August 28:
Income (Donations): $59,827.89
Expenditures: $56,294.50 (Groceries: $24,936.41; Supplies: $2621.70; Contracts: $28,023.73; Portable internet for the park clubhouse: $112.66; Internet support, posting, updating events: $600)
Cash-on-hand needed for groceries: $1000
Cheque for City of Toronto: $2533.39
August 26 Sleep-In costs: This event was more successful than anyone anticipated. It was organized by playground parents Jess Lyons and Jonah Gindin, with help from other park friends. There were over fifty tents, almost all of them including children (Jonah told us that when he was trying to fill some gaps in the “Security” schedule with people who weren’t busy with kids, he could hardly find any). Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao talked to many of the protesters to hear their concerns. And thanks to the restraint shown by the city in not sending out by-law enforcement staff, the cost did not include the price of two hundred trespass tickets. We heard there were campfire discussions much of the night, also costing nothing, but offering up good ideas for free.
Fall Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.