Ms. Shortreed—our principal here at WCI–quietly walked into our room a couple Fridays ago and stooped down to the floor to grab something; being nosey (or, as I call myself, observant), I sat up tall in my seat to see what she was doing. My curiosity was piqued when I noticed she was cleaning out the garbage bins for the weekend, and since the slow-day-at-the-office rationale wasn’t clicking for me, I went over to investigate. She told me that the custodian for this hallway was out for the day, and that there would be no-one else to take out the trash: as she put it, “anything to keep the fruit flies out for the weekend.”
I knew I wanted to write a piece on the current job action of custodians and support staff, but I struggled with how I was going to write it. As I started to gather information, I began to wind myself into a web of questions and answers (mostly questions). This is the first time that I have done an investigative piece like this, and the process was exciting, so I thought I would share that quasi-objective journey.
Right off the bat, let me just lay down a few things.:
There is a lot of crap going on with education at the moment. Unions here and strikes there; it’s quite a mess, and it can be rather confusing. Any negotiations that you may be hearing about are happening between two parties: the unions, who represent teachers/staff/custodians and their rights, and the Government of Ontario, who represent their interests as well as their constituents’.
And a little more context:
The Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (OSSTF—the teacher’s union) has reached an agreement (yay! we have teachers!), and if you want to learn more about that, you can click here, here, or here. The elementary school teachers in the province have not reached an agreement. And the Custodial and Maintenance Association (CAMA—remember that one) and Education Support Staff union (secretaries and the like) are currently negotiating a contract, and they are the main focus of what I’m writing about here.
Let’s start with the Education Support Staff job sanctions, since information was much more accessible in their case. I spoke to a school board staff member, also a member of the ESS union, who made sure to note that “we were specifically told not to talk about sanctions with anyone.” For their protection I have changed their name, and I will refer to them as “John” for my purposes here.
In my conversation with John, it became quite clear that there is a lack of communication between all parties involved. After the summer break, John said that he “didn’t know [he] was coming back to a dispute.” To contact their members, the ESS union has set up a private communication system outside of the school board “WaterWorks” email server; however there doesn’t seem to be much activity on behalf of the union. “I get most of my info from the news… I don’t know what I’m fighting for. I feel like I’m in line with everything,” he said about the lack of clear communication of the goals/progress of the current negotiations.
John also filled me in on some of the job sanctions the union is mandating support staff to take part in, and what they mean for the school’s administration staff (principals and vice-principals). Members are not to distribute any board documents, including papers like student transcripts or attendance records. Secretaries have also been told not to page students over the school’s PA; therefore, if the main office needs to find someone during lunch or between periods, they now need to find an admin staff member to page for them. This is only a concern should a student need to be called for emergency purposes, yet even still there are other ways to find student. What is a problem, however, is that this adds work to the already tall enough pile of the vice-principals.
The real take away from my conversation with John is that the administration staff are the ones getting pressured in this situation: “our admin is totally getting hooped,” he said. The administrators are left to pick up the slack.
This theme continued when I carried on my investigation into the custodial strike-action.
The general knowledge of the sanctions being imposed by CAMA (the custodial union, in case you forgot) is that they include this whopper: custodians are not allowed to cover the zones of custodians who are absent. Schools are cleaned in sections, each custodian responsible for their own (upper third floor, for example, including the hallway and all classrooms and washrooms). Under a normal labour situation—where they are under a contract—custodians cover each other’s zone when another is away. Reasons for absence can be for a number of reasons: illness, vacation, required at another school, the list goes on.
To tie it back to my narrative at the start of the article, it is their mandate to non clean the zones of absent custodians that brought Mrs. Shortreed down to room 221 to pick up our garbage.
It all breaks down quite simply to this: our school is not being cleaned properly. Now, you may be saying wow-wow-wow there mister wanna-be-journalist, how bad could it really be if a classroom is not cleaned, or the garbage does not make it out for a day. If you happen to be thinking this then I concede, you would be correct. On average, this really does not have much effect on our school. But to you nay-sayers, I say, what if custodians are gone for multiple days, or even a full week?
As an aspiring journalist, I wish I could say all of this is purely sourced fact, but as I explained earlier this whole issue is rather murky, with no clear sources to pull from. I struggled to find a custodian who would be willing to talk to me (for their own job security), and when the opportunity arose for me to get in touch with one of the night-shift staff members, it ended up falling through. However, when I was talking to John about the issues with the secretarial union, he also mentioned a few points concerning the CAMA sanctions, and how they’ve played out in the Waterloo Region District School Board’s (WRDSB) schools.
Through inter-colleague communication and discussion, John had come to the understanding that one of the washrooms at WCI had not been cleaned for an entire week while the custodial staff responsible for that zone was away on vacation, which this staff member is entitled to as a full-time employee. Toilet paper, sinks, toilets and urinals, and not to mention general cleanliness, was neglected for the entire week. This, says John, was confirmed by another support staff who reportedly went into the washrooms on the following Monday morning to find it in a state of filth, the smell being specifically notable. The washroom was left untouched for a total of nine days, which includes both weekends around the week in question.
After learning this, I decided to take a look at the WRDSB website to see what they had to say about the issue. I found a post titled “Important Information Regarding Rentals & Community Use of Schools.” The only mention of the CAMA or ESS job sanctions was on a small post announcing to community members that they couldn’t rent out the schools (for such things as religious or language schools, and sports tournaments). In the post, the school board states that the strike “has resulted in health, safety, and security risks for our community participants as well as our school facilities.” The WRDSB is quite aware of the implications that the job sanctions have on health, safety, and security, but have neglected to communicate this in any form to students or parents, just as the unions have ineffectively communicated with their members.
To reach a conclusion on the issue of health, especially with respect to the washroom situation at WCI, I decided to call the Region of Waterloo Public Health. I soon realized that getting an answer to the seemingly simple question—is this a health concern to my peers and me?—was not going to happen. I called, and the receptionist connected me to a health inspector. After introducing myself as a student journalist and posing my question, Sandra directed me towards their media representative. After getting on the line and explaining again the situation, and then my question, Vicky (the media rep) asked me to summarize what I had just told her and send an email her way for her consideration. From that point on it was quite clear to me that this was an issue already on the public health radar, one which they wanted to be very careful not to choose sides in. After sending my email, I got a reply the next day asking me to be more specific about “my complaint.” I reassured Sandra (who I was now connecting with instead of Vicky?) that the situation had been dealt with and was not an immediate health concern. Again I posed my question to her, but her reply was quite frank, and I never got the details I was looking for: “I have taken your concerns to a manager and your complaint will be addressed by the Public Health Inspector for WCI. An investigation will be conducted at the school, and if necessary, the WRDSB will be contacted as well.” Watch out WCI, inspector Sandra is on her way.
I will admit, the custodial sanctions got me a little fired up. But how naive of me, to think that the union was going to talk to me about the issue. I phoned Brett Harrington, the President of our local CAMA chapter, with a list of questions about health and safety–I even went as far as to dig through the CAMA constitution, which in section 3.1.4 states, “to promote and advance the cause of public education,” as one of the objects. I was going to use this wording as part of my arsenal against the resistance I expected from Brent (objective journalism at its finest here ladies-n-gents). My phone call with Mr. Harrington was quite brief. All he said to me when I asked him to comment on a few things relating to the strike, was, “I wouldn’t have a comment to make,” before hanging up on me.
Despite having a rough encounter with Brent, I gave Diane Flewwelling of the support staff union a call. I attempted to, anyway, and after going straight to voicemail a good 6 times, I decided to call it quits.
So there you go. That’s all I got.
When I first talked to Ms. Shortreed while she was on her afternoon garbage collection, I sensed a strong feeling of frustration on her end. I understand now, because this whole ordeal is rather frustrating. Thus far, I have only gone over what these strikes mean for secondary schools, but it is important to note that all this is happening in the elementary schools, too. On top of having schools left uncleaned for small children and secretaries who are un-able to safely buzz in parents and students (check that out here), they are dealing with a labour crisis with teachers who are currently under sanctions restricting extra curricular activities.
At the end of all of this, it’s important to realize that this affects the students. I don’t know the answer to the union question (and is it a very complicated one), but I do think that a more open-dialogue between parties would in the end be beneficial. There is no real conclusion to this, and in a few weeks this issue will likely be whisked away with the slightest of mention, but that does not make it un-important or unworthy of thought.
Unions may be trying to put pressure on the government, but they are cracking the foundations of one of our most relied upon institutions: education.
UPDATE: Both the custodial and support staff unions reached tentative agreement on Monday, November 2nd that are yet to be ratified by their members. The job sanctions will continue until this ratification occurs.