Memoir: after five years as a labourer, I learned how hard it is to climb into the middle class

Memoir: after five years as a labourer, I learned how hard it is to climb into the middle class

By Mariusz Klapacz | Illustration by Cat Yelizarov

Memoir: CannedI was born in communist Poland and arrived in Canada when I was 12 years old. My parents came for the opportunities, the hope that I might one day get a decent job and build a home and family. By 2001, I was 27 and had spent the past decade in dead-end jobs. I wanted work that I could build a future on, and so I applied at a major grocery chain’s warehouse. They offered me a part-time job at $12 an hour. Thrilled at the idea of working for one of Canada’s most reputable companies, I accepted on the spot.

I was hired as a “picker,” which meant stacking skids six feet high with 18-kilo cases of food, loading them onto a pallet truck, driving across the warehouse to the packing area, securely wrapping the stack, and then delivering it to the shipping bays, where it would be loaded onto tractor-trailers. Pickers were expected to lift 200 cases of product an hour—about nine tonnes per shift. It’s heavy work. At my orientation session, a supervisor warned the dozens of new hires that only a few of us would last more than a couple of months. But for those who stayed, he said, “this company is for life.” We were then given a brief work safety presentation (lift with your legs, not your back) by a man who had suffered a back injury as a picker—he didn’t want it happening to us.

After about nine months I was offered a full-time position earning $14 an hour with benefits. I was one of the top employees in terms of productivity and attendance. Occasionally, I was rewarded with a company pin or a $5 gift card for Tim Hortons.

Five years in, I qualified for the maximum wage, $22 an hour, and was working the afternoon shift, Sunday to Thursday. I was finally able to save enough to make a down payment on a condo. My girlfriend and I began talking seriously about getting married and starting a family. And I developed close friendships with my co-workers. We shared details of our private lives and made each other laugh.

But the lifting took its toll on my body. I began suffering constant lower back pain. It stopped me from playing soccer, and I was having trouble sleeping. An MRI showed that I had bulging discs and irreversible damage on my spine. A specialist told me that I had the back of a 60-year-old. He advised me to change jobs, but I didn’t want to give up my seniority at the warehouse. After all, I was nearing the front of the line for a job in shipping and receiving or janitorial—much less strenuous work.

In late 2006, we found out that the company was planning to open a new warehouse and that we were welcome to transfer. We were excited at the prospect, thinking we’d get the first pick of the jobs and keep our seniority. That second part was crucial. Seniority gives you a degree of control—dibs on the best jobs, shifts, vacation days and the like. Most importantly, it gives you status and respect among co-workers, management and the union. I thought I finally had a fix for my back problem.

Less than a year later, management and the union informed us that the new warehouse was going to be run by a third party. The opportunities we’d expected vanished. If we were still interested we’d have to apply and start from the bottom. We were devastated. Some of my co-workers had already bought homes near the new warehouse. We felt tricked, cheated.

Last year, when our contract was up for renewal, both the company and the union were strangely quiet. Months passed without any news of negotiations, and we started to worry. A rumour was circulating that the warehouse might close, but our managers kept telling us not to worry, everything would be fine.

Finally, in early spring, the whole staff was called for a rare meeting with the warehouse operator. When we’d all gathered he announced that the warehouse would be shutting down in October. Some unidentified men were standing behind him, presumably security in case things got violent. There was no need; the news was met with dead silence. Management offered to try to find us jobs at another warehouse outside of the GTA, but we’d lose our seniority. A few workers walked out in fury, but most of us stood quietly. I felt nauseous.

By late summer the warehouse had been picked bare, with nothing left to send to stores. But we were still on the company payroll, so our supervisors presented us with hammers and brooms and told us to help dismantle the shelves. The deafening noise of 10-metre-high racks being torn down and the clouds from 15 years of accumulated dust made it feel like a battlefield. But in this case, there was no war—there was nothing left to fight for—only destruction and rubble.

Since the warehouse closed, I’ve been living off the government-mandated minimum severance package (one week’s pay for each year worked), and I continue to suffer back pain. My plan is to go to school and learn a trade. As for getting married and having kids, those plans are on hold. I can’t afford them anymore.

Mariusz Klapacz is 39 years old and hopes to train as an HVAC technician.

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