To have (been) loved and lost

Happy International Workers’ Day!  Happy May Day!  Today is the day when much of the world celebrates their workers.

Today Your Working Girl would like to take the opportunity to honour a particularly hard worker of her acquaintance — her own dear father.

Parents these days are judged on a range of criteria and some do a lot of studying up on the matter.  Some are even said to hover like helicopters.  The upshot of Your Working Girl’s own experience being parented is that the results were pretty good overall, at least in her own mind.  She left her island home at a tender age feeling she could rule the world.  If not the whole world, at least her own.  Her Pillsbury apple turnovers were the best her father had ever seen.  Her report card, regardless of the B minuses that occasionally crept in made her the smartest girl.  Her birthday, one day after his own, made her the best present ever.

So enraptured was she by his account of life in the Merchant Marines, she contemplated a life in the Coast Guard. St. Thomas, St. Kitts, St. Croix, St. Lucia, Trinadad, Tobago … he’d recite the names midway through a story, like a bit of poetry thrown in for timing.  (He didn’t talk as much about his life on a minesweeper during the war, however, other than mentioning that they’d once let off a depth charge to get fresh fish for dinner.)

After decades of self-employment, he went back to work on the boats — first mate on the ferry that runs from Portugal Cove to Bell Island.

Your Working Girl received the call in the middle of the night.  There was a storm in Conception Bay. The wind was high.  The rain was coming down in sheets.  People hadn’t seen such a storm in years.

The news was bad.  There had been an accident.  Her father had fallen overboard.  They weren’t able to get him in time. The water was so cold.  Hypothermia set in. He drowned.

Young Working Girl doesn’t mind telling her Gentle Readers that she was slayed, absolutely slayed, by the news.  She had heard those words many times before in Newfoundland, a gruesome recitation on the cause of death, but never in relation to someone so close to her.  And the news had came on the heels of her dear mother’s passing just four months earlier from breast cancer.  [Your Working Girl often wonders what she would think of the carnival atmosphere surrounding the disease today. Thankfully, her mother passed with her dignity fully intact.]  Your Working Girl’s mother played a huge role in her rearing, of course.  Her patient intelligence and calm expectation ensured Your Working Girl’s confidence was backed up by capacity to execute.  No small task.

The news from home got worse. The storm had taken the lives of two other men that night — a fisherman and his son, both named Max.  They had been setting their lobster pots when their boat capsized.

The scene at the funeral home was, at peak visiting hours, pandemonium.  Three men from the same community lost in one night.  And three bodies.   Not always the case in circumstances like this.  It got hard to move around.  Condolences were offered with clasped hands.

“Sorry for your troubles,” said the visitors shaking their heads and tearing up.

“All hands go this way,” they offered by way of comfort.  We all die.

The wife of the young fisherman who had drowned along with his father sat motionless at the head of her husband’s casket.  Her long brown hair partly hid her face.  Her eyes were open, head bowed and hands clasped in her lap.  Your Working Girl, being about the same age and a fellow traveller in the deep valley of grief sat down beside her hoping to be able to offer some comfort. The young woman made no response. She didn’t cry.  She didn’t rage.  She sat perfectly still with her young husband laid out beside her.   Your Working Girl walked away.  Grief is a lonely place.

Weeks later, back in Toronto, Your Working Girl knew the time had come to make her first tentative steps into a world where the sun still shone and people went about their everyday business. The occasion was a get-together with her gang of fine friends to watch the airing of The Final Offer, a superbly crafted documentary about the Canadian autoworkers breakaway from the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) in 1984.  Led by Bob White, then head of the UAW Canadian section, the show-down changed the Canadian labour movement forever.

The suspense, the collective bargaining action coverage, the courage and charisma of a labour leader doing the right thing broke through Your Working Girl’s wall of grief.

It showed her that speaking truth to power, standing up for what you believe in while singing a few songs and having a bit of fun was something that could be done and that a body could possibly make a living at it.  It gave her hope and inspiration, something to replace the emptiness she felt in her heart.

It also made her proud of people like her father, people who work hard to the end, like he did when he tied the life-saving rope tossed to him around his own wrists before he succumbed to the frigid Atlantic waters.  People who do the fishing, the mining, the manufacturing to provide us the things we need and want.

Your Working Girl is not the only person in Canada to have suffered the loss of a loved one on the job certainly.  The North Atlantic alone has claimed many more lives since it claimed her father.

Last year, 750 workers in Canada died from work.  April 28th is the annual the Day of Mourning when we honour them.  Your Working Girl remembers this somewhat obscure dedication because April 28th is, coincidentally, her father’s birthday.

Yet, these days you can’t pick up a paper without seeing unionized workers — or any worker for that matter — being slashed and trashed.  The private sector is cutting wages and slashing benefits, companies are up and moving to where labour is cheaper. The public service is the object of a “crack-down” on wages and benefits.   A price has been placed on a worker’s heads by profit-focused men and women, whose job entails buying stuff cheap and selling it for more.  For them, the cheaper the better.  Just witness the results of the disregard workers are shown in Bangladesh.

Your Working Girl’s father gave her a great many great gifts, as fathers all over the world give their daughters.  Your Working Girl is not alone in her desire to ensure her parents are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

So when Canadian companies mistreat their workers, many of whom are parents, whether here or abroad, they must be held accountable for their actions.  When Canadian charities hold their own institutional interests above the interests of vulnerable people, they too must be held accountable.

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) was formed when a diligent few went up against the status quo in their own labour movement.  They took a position different from their colleagues and friends.  That’s not an easy choice.  You know this if you’ve ever had to make it yourself.

Yet, it is necessary.

The Canadian Auto Workers union has gone on to be the most successful labour union in Canada.  In a funny twist of fate, the fisherman of Newfoundland and Labrador joined the CAW as did Canadian air traffic controllers.  The former prompted the response “autoworkers” when a  Newfoundland fisherman’s union official was asked to name the appropriate term to denote people who fish for a living.

So today and this week, think about a worker you love or one who loves you.  XO

And download The Final Offer for free from the National Film Board.

Epilogue:  Years after her father’s passing and and subsequent viewing of the documentary, The Final Offer, it was her honour to host Bob White and his lovely wife Marilyne at the large and fun (a-hem) parties she held to entertain her clients and friends at Christmas.  (It’s always good to kick up your heels a bit during the revolution.)

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