Jutta Mason: Parks story
( display item 22)
Letters to Park management about staffing 18-Jan-2012 
A summer serial, continuing into the fall and winter, December 15, 2011, Chapter Twenty-two
By Jutta Mason
Recap: Dufferin Grove Park is doing things that don’t fit the city’s policies, says the current management of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR). According to a staff report obtained through Freedom of Information, the way the park is run leaves the city “vulnerable and open to major risk factors.”
From last May until a few weeks ago, a new recreation supervisor was tasked with dissecting out the traditional recreation activities from the many “programs that represent anomalies for PFR.” Most of the anomalies involve CELOS, the Centre for Local Research into Public Space. (Chapter 14 and 15 were about this little research group, which began at Dufferin Grove but now extends beyond it.) Despite the ongoing management effort to radically shrink the Dufferin Grove anomalies, they are still stubbornly clinging to life.
Or maybe the anomalies are even thriving, against the odds, at all three Ward 18 outdoor rinks. Dufferin, Wallace, and Campbell rinks are all run by the same staff. Dufferin Rink was getting too crowded, so the staff have been trying, for a few years already, to make all three rinks as welcoming and comfortable as possible, to spread the crowds more evenly. This year City Councillor Ana Bailao gave Wallace and Campbell clubhouses a huge boost: she found some funds in the budget to put in proper plumbing and wiring for the clubhouse kitchens. Rink friend David Rothberg donated more funds, to equip the kitchens and also to buy more loaner skaters. Rink staff attended bankruptcy auctions and got commercial-grade sinks and other kitchen equipment (and heavy-duty shelves for the loaner skate) at bargain prices. City staff installed everything, and all three clubhouses now work really well.
This year the rink program staff are especially proud of Campbell Rink. It’s a single-pad rink and therefore more of a challenge to run. Tucked away in the middle of an economically mixed neighbourhood (beside the railway tracks and near former paint factories), the rink is a wintertime home-away-from-home for many local kids and youth. More and more young families are discovering it too, with its weekend campfires and its clubhouse reading corner and board games. On opening day, December 3, Campbell Rink was full of shinny players out on the ice. Inside the clubhouse, rink staff Marina DeLuca-Howard cooked macaroni and cheese in the new kitchen, with help from trouble-maker kids, while neighbours sat at the clubhouse tables and chatted over fair-trade coffee, and newcomers borrowed skates and sticks for their first-ever shinny game.
Meantime, over at Rosedale Rink, which is surrounded by large handsome mansions, the ice wasn’t ready, so the rink couldn’t open until three days after it was supposed to. The rink change area is cramped and windowless and there is not much conversation among neighbours. Instead of being welcomed by a community kitchen with friendly staff and shelves of loaner skates, skaters at Rosedale Rink are greeted by several large vending machines. If there’s a staff person at the rink, skaters can’t tell, because the office is at the back of the building with, no windows. Communication is done by signs giving various rules, including one making helmets mandatory for shinny hockey (pond hockey).
Toronto is a surprisingly upside-down city: people who live in mansions in Rosedale get less rink fun than people who live in basement flats across from the railway tracks. One thing is the same, though – few skaters wear helmets to play pond hockey, at either rink.
The last chapter of this serial, Chapter 21, was an open letter to Jim Hart, the new general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. Chapter 22 is an open letter to the presidents of the two main union locals that work at the park: CUPE Locals 79 and 416.
Why write open letters to these people? Because it seems more and more likely that the City will lock out its municipal workers soon after their contracts expire on Dec.31. The lockouts can begin as early as mid-January. Where our public spaces are concerned, a lock-out means no outdoor rinks, no libraries, no community centres, no indoor swimming pools, perhaps not for the rest of the winter and beyond. It also means that many of the part-time PFR workers at Dufferin Grove and other public facilities won’t have money to pay their rent or buy groceries. People will have to help each other.
A municipal strike is a time when the “third element” in civic life – the citizens – become more obvious. Through our taxes, we already own our public amenities. Most of the time, though, we are the silent third partner. Oftentimes management staff act as though they are the sole owners of our public spaces, and oftentimes union members act as though our public spaces are first and foremost their work spaces. From both sides there is the inevitable nod to “serving the community.” But the inclusion of the “third element” – in our case, park users – is fleeting. These open letters are an attempt to get the “third element” included in a more active conversation, as the municipal-worker lockout approaches.
Last Sunday morning, Jim Hart wrote a quick reply to the open letter that was addressed to him in Chapter 21: “As the new GM of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, I find much of what you have said to be informative and certainly worth further exploration. I will follow up with staff and get back to you with next steps.”
There may be a long wait before Mr.Hart gets back to us. City Hall is on high alert about the upcoming lockout. Managers have to think about who will fill in for the work that union staff ordinarily do. There’s a niche market for companies willing to help out. A company called “Profile Investigation” has posted an ad looking for people to take an expedited, free “Private investigator” course offered by the company, and then take a licensing test from the Ontario government. “The only pre-requisites for this work,” says the ad, “are a calm, professional attitude and the ability to work well under stress. The nature of this work would also require that you have no relationship (actual or ideological) with a union. The pay will start at $16/hour and there is a strong opportunity for 40 hours or more per week. The start of the project, and its duration, are not known for certain, but it could start in February and last for several weeks or even months.”
An open letter to the president of CUPE Local 416:
Dear Mark Ferguson,
As management strategizes about finding “private investigators” to do the work of locked-out unionized city staff sometime in the new year, the CUPE union locals are trying to drum up popular support. That raises a question: will this be a public relations war, or a long-needed opportunity to refresh public conversation about our civic resources?
On the CUPE 416 website, you say “Our strategy is not to fight with the public but to take our rightful place with the public, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to protect our great services and this great city. We are supporting and training our members to take the truth into communities around the city.”
A crisis is a good time for truth-telling all around. I want to tell the true story of one small corner of your concerns: your members’ jobs in our parks and community centres. And I’d like to narrow the scope even more, and look at the city’s outdoor compressor-cooled outdoor ice rinks, particularly one of them – Dufferin Rink. Dufferin Rink’s story reflects the larger issues that trouble the city’s workers and the citizens for whom they work.
I’ve been a booster of outdoor rinks for about 18 years. For the first ten years, an outdated provincial regulation required a Local 416 RCO (Refrigeration Compressor Operator) to be at the each outdoor rink continuously for 8 hours a day. These rink operators had a special “ticket,” allowing them to write down some meter readings from the rink’s machinery gauges twice a day. That took ten minutes each time. The RCO also drove a tractor fitted with a “Champion” ice-resurfacer. If he cleaned the ice twice during his shift, that took another hour. The rest of the time the RCO sat and talked, or read the paper, or played cards with a few regular rink visitors. If it snowed, the RCO couldn’t do any ice cleaning until the plough came to clear off the snow. There was a plough on the front of each tractor, but back in those days, using a plough was a different job classification, so according to the collective agreement the RCO wasn’t allowed to use the plough to get the snow off.
During the first decade of my involvement with Dufferin Rink, Local 79 recreation workers collaborated closely with me and other rink users to dilute the youth ghetto at the rink – to add families back into the mix, and older skaters, and women shinny players, and newcomers learning to skate. Our efforts paid off, and Dufferin Rink became more and more popular. Sometimes the recreation staff were just running to keep up with all the hubbub. The RCO’s, however, continued to sit throughout much of their shift, in their normal way. Having such an idle worker was hard on morale, and it certainly made a poor impression on the people who came to the rink.
One year we got lucky. The rink operator assigned to Dufferin Rink 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 RCO jobs. The RCO’s that followed him went back to their narrow job definition.
When I asked CUPE members about the RCO job, I got different answers. Some guys said, “it’s up to management, not us, to assign the proper amount of work.” Which was true, of course. The fact is that, for a long time, management took very little action to enlarge the scope of the RCO’s work. Other CUPE members said they were embarrassed to have their union be associated with such a lax work situation, on display to the public every day, at the rinks. “They’re bringing us all down.” Which was also true.
We went to the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA) and asked them: “why do modern rinks need RCO’s to babysit the compressors?” They said, “you’re right, they’re redundant, lots of towns with arenas are unhappy about it, and we’re changing the regulations.” But that change took three years. If I remember right, CUPE representatives lined up with vendors of RCO training courses to lobby against the change. Your union wanted to save your members’ jobs, even in a case where a job was no longer necessary.
When it finally came down to the crunch, and RCO’s were no longer required by the provincial regulations, management made some changes to the job requirements for winter rink maintenance. The changes were made with a broad hammer, on a citywide scale, one-size-fits-all.
By then, CELOS had established the popular cityrinks.ca website, to reflect the views of rink users (the third element: citizens, taxpayers). But there was no room for us at the discussion table, as there was no room for the union. Management was sure they knew best, so they consulted neither the workers nor the skaters. Some of the city’s most experienced ice maintenance staff were moved out of rinks completely, and the union brought a grievance against the whole process.
The outdoor rinks are one small piece of the giant conundrum of municipal governance. But the larger themes are all there: narrow, inflexible job descriptions, seniority-trumps-all, the collective agreement as a shield against dialogue, unilateral “we-know-best” action by management, the exclusion and frustration of the citizens. All are problems that need to be addressed.
On top of that, the union and the citizens face a related, urgent problem now: the apparent willingness of some of the city’s many managers, and some of our elected representatives, to hive off pieces of our public goods to private companies that need to make a profit. Your message, Mark Ferguson, says that the union intends to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the public” to “protect our great services.” Over the years, CUPE Local 416 has not always stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the rinks. Your members’ services have sometimes been far from “great,” and in some instances the deficiencies have been highly visible. And yet, your members include thousands of hard-working people, whose ingenuity and experience have long been under-valued by managers who are preoccupied with enlarging their turf. Is CUPE 416 opening the door to practical collaboration with citizens who approach you? Will you come and visit Dufferin Rink before Christmas, Mr.Ferguson, for a cup of fair-trade coffee and a cookie prepared by a CUPE Local 79 member? Some members of the public would love to talk to you about the issues I’ve raised.
An open letter to the outgoing president and the president-elect (starting in January) of CUPE Local 79:
Dear Ann Dembinski and Tim Maguire,
As the time approaches when a lockout is possible, CUPE Local 79 has emphasized the distress of the CUPE members who will lose their jobs if the city’s budget cuts are approved: “The loss of 1,000 living wage jobs will send hundreds of families into a downward economic spiral. It will affect not only these families, but their neighbourhoods and communities as well. The loss of a decent livelihood for a thousand of our citizens is a very serious matter.”
It’s true -- your members are also citizens and taxpayers, residents who live in the city. Their troubles will add to the sum of the city’s larger troubles. That’s one reason why it makes sense for CUPE Local 79 to make common cause with the public, beginning right now. Beyond that, this impending labour disruption is a wake-up call for CUPE 79, which has been in a downward spiral for years in terms of its influence on at least one city service: recreation programs in our parks and community centres.
PFR management has been shrinking the competency and range of recreation workers since amalgamation. The full-time staff have been turned into book-keepers and compliance officers. The part-time staff find their programs whittled down as the Welcome Policy is made ever more difficult and humiliating for citizens who want to dance or swim or play a sport in a gym.
Free drop-in access to recreation programs for all Torontonians has also been quietly reduced or removed – for instance youth drop-in basketball in community centre gyms, or summer playground games, crafts and “fun days” in parks and at wading pools. This is despite the fact that the tax budget allocation for PFR has gone up every year but one, since amalgamation. Part-time recreation workers used to work with families in such park programs for much of the year, all over the city. Now they rarely do. In the 2012 budget, PFR management wants to eliminate park-based recreation staff entirely, because their existence is “inequitable.....This recommended minor service level change will harmonise recreation support provided in City parks by having community event organizers rely more heavily on volunteers or collect special event support costs.” The money saved by this “minor service level change” (removing the equivalent of five low-paid CUPE Local 79 workers) is equal to the starting salary of one PFR manager. The music, the games, the neighbourly events expunged from parks because of the lack of recreation-staff help, are an impoverishment to neighbourhoods and a false economy – we lose much more than we gain by eliminating staff who have a direct relationship with the community.
These changes are devised by management and are no fault of the union. But the rear-guard battle of the union to defend its part-time members is having some direct bad effects as well. An example is the Local 79 “scheduling project,” which extends seniority rights to part-time workers as long as they get their complex paperwork in on time every season. In Ward 18, management has transformed the scheduling project into a tool to disrupt collaboration and innovation among co-workers. Part-time workers become competitors for scarce scheduled hours. If one of the seasonal “scheduling forms” is submitted a day late, a co-worker gets to leapfrog over her or his colleague and take their shift. Moreover, working with community members to enliven parks or community centres is flagged as a “conflict of interest” by management, who accuse recreation staff of a hidden motive: unfairly trying to increase their own scheduled hours.
This is an unintended consequence of a Local 79 project, showing that good intentions can pave the road to bad outcomes. The irony of management using the Local 79 scheduling project to reduce innovation is rich: isn’t innovation supposed to be one of the pillars of the “business model” that slots citizens and taxpayers as “customers” of our city government?
It’s easy to show that PFR management is going down the wrong road for both the public and the workers. But what can be done? CUPE Local 416 says the workers and the public must stand “shoulder to shoulder” to protect our civic resources. As a start, can Local 416 and Local 79 begin standing shoulder to shoulder with each other, in relation to our parks and community centres? And can both union locals together expand their approach from solely protecting the rights of their workers? Unions traditionally try to avoid mixing their fingers into the responsibilities of management.
But if PFR management loses its way and the public loses the enjoyment of our parks and community centres as a consequence, then the jobs will go too.
These are the issues that need some new solutions. PFR management has become known inside and outside the civil service for its make-believe public consultation sessions followed by unilateral decision-making. If there is frank talk at all, it lives in the back meeting rooms of City Hall. The workers and the public are not there. But open conversation is the way to change. Can the union undertake to work out flexible, practical approaches to broadening the enjoyment of our parks and community centres, in a refreshed, ongoing conversation with the members of the public? If that open conversation is located around the barrel fires (or temporary bake ovens?) at the picket lines of locked-out CUPE members, the distress of the lockout could be mitigated by a realistic hope for change. Will you come and talk to park friends about this open letter, at a Dufferin Grove campfire, in the week between Christmas and the new year?
The money page (or quarter-page)
The open letters have squeezed out both the dictionary page and the money page in the last two chapters. But here’s a small example of taking a different approach to budget cuts, concerning wading pool closures. Councillor Doug Ford says that his ward (formerly his brother’s ward) has no wading pools. He’s mistaken – we have a photo of a forlorn wading pool at Sunnydale Park, in his ward. The photo shows two wading pool attendants napping or reading under City-issue sun umbrellas, and no kids in the pool.
The wading pool at MacGregor Park in Ward 18, in contrast, is lively and loved by hundreds of children. But MacGregor Pool is on the on the closure list. Maybe it got there because its plumbing is rusty and replacing it will cost money. But wading pool repairs don’t have to cost $230,000, like the Dufferin Grove “repair” cost. If the City goes back over its “state-of-good-repair list” and cuts out the frills, and puts better staff at the pools, Councillor Ford’s wading pool can be more like MacGregor pool, and both can stay open.
Winter Story (2011) is published by the Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS), http://www.celos.ca.
Illustrations by Jane LowBeer