March 21, 2023
It was the summer of ‘81. And not one that I will ever forget. Not exactly the best days of my life. I had just completed my second year at the University of Toronto, doing my undergraduate degree in economics. As with anyone at the ripe young age of 21, I thought I knew it all.
I came back to my hometown of Ottawa for a summer job working at a health food store, doing inventory, working the cash, and lugging bags of rice, flour, and coffee beans up and down three flights of stairs from the basement cellar to the ground floor. In the four short weeks that I was there, I learned a great deal, and not just about running a store, but also what it’s like to work for a real shyster, because every time I went to deposit in my weekly paycheck at the bank, it bounced. There had been repeated promises to get me paid in full, but none of these pledges were ever fulfilled. Realizing I was working for free, I decided that I had enough.
My dear dad had a best friend who ran one of Ottawa’s most prestigious food and vegetable grocery stores in the city. And he managed to convince his pal to hire me for the rest of the summer as a stockboy – loading and unloading trucks. The watermelons were tricky. The fellow running this food and vegetable store wasn’t only my dad’s best friend but his entire family had been friends with my folks and siblings for decades. I was very happy to be working again in a retail store, learning how these businesses operate, even at a summer student job level. And within weeks, I was promoted to the cellar to cut the lettuce and other vegetables and promoted soon thereafter to the main floor to create very nice layers upon layers of fruit and vegetables on the display counters. I was treated fine (except for the pranks that were played on me from my high-school dropout co-workers, like telling me I had something in my eye after I unloaded a box of jalapeño peppers and taking the ladder away when I was asked to hang a sign outside advertising 59 cents for a bunch of bananas – remember those days??).
But over time, I noticed that the people running the store were absolutely horrible. Without going into too much detail, the way that the staff were treated, especially the female employees, was beyond disrespectful. Today, there is no way they would ever get away with their inappropriate behavior. I wasn’t treated badly, but it did bother me to see so many lines being crossed between what was acceptable and unacceptable. I never discussed this with my father, because I knew that it would upset him, and I also knew that he would defend his friend right to the finish. But I was deeply bothered.
It just so happens that halfway through that summer of ‘81, I overheard a conversation between some of the full-time workers about forming a union. I approached them and said that I had just completed the Industrial Relations course at U of T, taught by John Crispo, who was a celebrity political economist in Canada. John was very well known and respected, and I would hazard to say that this was not only the most entertaining course I took in my five years as a student there, but also the most informative. The entire course was about labor-management relations, and there were guest speakers who were both CEOs and union representatives. I learned a great deal that year. Perhaps too much.
Upon hearing that I was interested in getting involved and that I had at least some education in how to get a union up and running, the workers at the store who were putting this idea from pen to paper asked if they could rely on me as a consultant. I was more than happy to. They had already contacted the appropriate labor union to represent them. All I had to do was act as an advisor. Over several clandestine evenings spent at the house of the more senior worker at this fruit and vegetable shop with others who wanted to get the ball rolling on getting a majority of the staff certified, it wasn’t long before the union rep showed up with a blueprint. All the while, I was there to impart whatever academic knowledge that I had, and also to provide opinions on the roadmap. All this from an undergraduate course on labor-management relations!
At one point during the summer, I was having dinner at my parents’ home where I was staying for the summer, and my dad began to talk about how his buddy who ran the company is facing a worker revolt, and that there were rumblings of a union coming in to begin a certification process. I just shrugged my shoulders. But over the course of at least a week, every single evening my father brought up how his friend was upset and despondent over this union situation. I didn’t say a word. But at one point my dad, flatly asked, “Dave, do you know anything about this union business?”. Frozen in time and feeling the beads of sweat roll down my temples, I blatantly lied, and said “I have no clue”. For the next week, at every single dinner with my parents, the topic came up. Over and over. And each time my dad would ask me, “Dave are you telling me you know nothing about what is happening with respect to this union?”. And I kept on lying – “nope”, but becoming more and more uncomfortable about it. My dad said, “if the workers unionize, I just want to tell you that my pal is going to close the entire business, and everybody will be thrown out of work, and he will reopen it with an entirely new staff”.
All of a sudden, I felt guilt pangs, because I knew the man who ran this business very well and I could sense that his threats should be taken seriously. At the same time, the shenanigans that went on in the shop that he was fully aware of, the disgusting behaviour that was going on in terms of how management treated the workers, was simply intolerable to me. But as I became more and more involved in this unionization drive, even if indirectly, I got a sense that I was way over my skis on this file. And not just that, but I realized after several rather raucous meetings with the union representatives, that they were probably even bigger jerks than the men managing the fruit and vegetable company. The pressure tactics that these union reps were putting on workers to sign the certification cards, in two words or less, were – really aggressive. Maybe sometimes it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t — But I do have to say that the more I saw these union bullies in action, the more I wanted to extricate myself entirely from the situation.
So, I went on a long walk on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon with my mother, who was a wise owl. Very fitting because her Yiddish name was Faigel, which means bird. And, boy, did she ever give me a birds’ eye view of the entire situation. I told her what was really happening at this food and vegetable shop, and about my involvement, albeit indirect, and how I had lied to dad, right to his face. I remember that day as if it was yesterday and my mother wasn’t really that upset at me. More like sympathetic. She did tell me that I was half naïve and half ideological. She reminded me of how she was very sensitive to the labor union movement having grown up in Winnipeg, where socialism ran rampant for many years. Just read about the great strike of 1919 and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I was ideological, but then who isn’t at 21 years old? How could I know back then how ridiculous it was to think I had everything figured out just because I took John Crispo’s second-year course in industrial relations?
But the big problem was lying to my dad. My mother told me, in no uncertain terms, was I to hide this lie from him any longer: “Come clean and tell your father the truth”. This is also very fresh in my memory bank more than 40 years later. As bad as it was admitting that I had surreptitiously worked behind the scenes to undermine his best friend’s business, having lied about it for over a month was far worse, and admitting it to my dear dad hurt in such a way that it still brings a tear to my eye to even talk about it, let alone write about it.
My father was furious at me, and we didn’t talk for most of the rest of the summer. It was a truly painful double-whammy for him to have a son work against his best friend, a best friend who gave me an opportunity to work in his shop, and unlike the health food store, at least get paid. But the lying was a far worse crime.
Now when I went out for that walk with mom, she said some things that resonated with me and still do to this day. She said:
“Dave, your intentions were good. But all the lying to your father is completely unacceptable. You also have to think of how your actions have consequences. You are a temporary worker at the store. You’ll be going back to Toronto to go back to school for third-year Economics in September. So, you will not be bearing any of the consequences of your actions, whether or not you were directly or indirectly involved with what’s happening right now at the store. Other people, including the workers, whether they get unionized or not, will be bearing the consequences. But not you. If your dad’s buddy decides to close the shop, they will be bearing the consequences. If the certification process turns into a disaster, they will be bearing the consequences. But you won’t be. You will be back at school”.
Well, I continued to work at the store, even as I did my best to distance myself from the labor representatives and the whole unionization process. But I did have a sense that management knew that I was somehow involved. My dad’s friend who ran the business became quite cool to me, I felt the coolness and just hoped that whatever it is he knew, that it wouldn’t damage his multi-decade, close friendship with my father. My dad was giving me the silent treatment all the while, nonetheless. He was pissed, and justifiably so. One of the most painful periods of my life, even till now.
While I successfully extricated myself from the unionization and stopped going to the meetings after I told my father the truth, it didn’t matter. Because in mid-August I received a letter from the Ontario Labour Relations Board that I was to testify about the management practises at the company that triggered the certification process to begin with. I was told that I would have to be there at a certain date and time which I can’t remember at this moment, but what I do remember is that I would be there with two of the union reps and that we would be sitting across my dad’s best friend.
I seem to recall throwing up after I read the letter. Not only was I involved in this union business, and not only was I involved in lying to my dad, but now I had to go face-to-face with his best friend, testify on how employment-standard laws were being violated, and likely ruin my dad’s friendship which I knew he valued immensely. I was sick to my stomach.
But as fate would have it, I actually did become really sick. Within days after receiving the notice to appear in front of this tribunal that would determine the fate of the unionization drive at the fruit and vegetable company, I developed an incredibly painful sore throat; I was beyond fatigued, and my body was breaking out in rashes. Although my father still wasn’t talking to me, he drove me along with my mother to the clinic to get a diagnosis.
And guess what? I had mononucleosis.
I was told by the physician that I had to stay in bed for at least four weeks. I explained that I had to be in front of a tribunal in the coming week, and the doctor said: “I will write you a note to excuse you from this endeavour because you are not to get out of bed, unless it’s to go to the washroom”. Verbatim. So, the doctor wrote the note, and I got absolved from having to show up to testify against my dad’s buddy about all the bad behavior at the company. It was like picking up a truly great Community Chest card for anyone who plays Monopoly. Skip the Labour Board hearings and go straight to GO (I didn’t need to collect $200 to be completely elated, more than just relieved, by this turn of events).
As it turned out, the clowns and the jackasses at the union never did manage to get enough workers to sign the cards. The drive to unionize the company hit the proverbial wall. My father’s relationship with the owner of the company was saved. But the best part was that dad started talking to me again. I can’t tell you how many times I apologized even years later. My dad forgave me, but I realized that of all the mistakes I made in this whole situation, the lying aspect was the absolute worst part of it. You can be excused for youthful exuberance and feeling as a college student that you can change the world. You can even be excused for aligning yourself with bad people (so long as you realize when to get out of Dodge!). But once again, not being truthful was the worst part of this and the greatest learning lesson. And let me just say that never in my life was I so happy to get mono.
So, what are the major takeaways from this story from my past? Here are five of them:
1. Honesty is always the best policy.
2. Don’t stick your nose where is doesn’t belong.
3. Listen to your mother.
4. Try and be practical, not ideological.
5. If you get sick, get your timing right.
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