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Sunday, March 6, 2011

day 59: the system, fighting the fight and finding resolve in injustice

Yesterday was definitely a day for admitting a bit of defeat. I got to learn how broken 'the system' really was and spent a day licking my wounds so to speak. Upon reflection I realized the only time the system had ever actually worked in my favour was when I was able to exploit it. For instance, even though I've always felt the traffic tickets I got were under unfair circumstances, they were rarely unjust. If they clocked me doing a certain speed or caught me turning against a traffic sign, it doesn't matter how silly it may have seemed, I broke the law. Regardless, I'll fight the ticket and in many cases gain substantial pardons for often obvious flouting of the law (driving with a suspended/expired license, JUST as an example). There's the system for you. The only time it has worked for me is when I was abusing it to avoid discipline.

   But so many times it's been the inverse. I try to seek justice in a situation that seems to have an ethical and moral precedent and find that the system has been built to protect and facilitate abuse by those with power and control. The system was meant to protect the little people, the ones without power. Regrettably, it just doesn't seem to work that way.

   In 2006 when Humber College had a 3 week strike right before the end of the year I learned that the college was positioning itself to save money because in strike time they don't pay anyone. In a way a strike was as desirable for them as a settlement because they could save hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars depending on how long the strike went. Instead of recouping the time when our 3 weeks of striking were over they instead crammed our last 5 weeks of school into 2, effectually ruining our chance of getting anything valuable from the end of the semester. We had paid for 13 weeks of school though and I was furious. I started a campaign to recoup the cost to students who had paid their tuition in full. I had a lot of the student body and teaching staff behind me. The campaign took as long as getting a lawyer coming in to say there was nothing I could do. A class action suit would cost more than I could ever hope to win back and there was little to no chance I could ever win the case because of what the law allows in terms of an institution during a strike. I argued that a factory on strike doesn't gain anything because production stops and interrupts their cash flow while workers are off the line, but an educational institution is paid in full up front for services to be rendered and they don't lose any money by not rendering those services (in fact, they gain a substabtial amount of money). It didn't matter. I didn't have the power to change what was so clearly unfair and unethical.

   In the summer of 2007 I was on my 4th contract with Canada's Wonderland as a performer. In this contract I was a guitar player in a show called "Swinging to the 60's". This company treated musicians like cattle. They constantly used tiny loopholes in our contract to force us into labour that had nothing to do with our contract or our show; perform in parades in nickelodeon costumes, having us go out between shows to hand out pamphlets and advertise the show (which they tried to pass off as "rehearsals"). They may not seem like big asks, but it was rather the culmination of them constantly trying to abuse our contracts to mistreat us in so many small ways that made it a constant battle. 

   At the beginning of the contract we had pictures taken of us so we could sign a separate contract saying this was our set "look" for the summer and it couldn't be changed. The contract was meant to keep us from changing our appearance but didn't actually bind a specific party. Both the staff AND the park signed on the dotted line. Halfway through that fourth contract the general manager decided he didn't want the band to have facial hair. Despite my having had it for all four contracts without complaint and despite the fact I was only working there two days a week I was told it had to go. I refused. As far as I was concerned I had signed a contract saying that what I looked like was meant to stick. It wasn't even really about the beard. I felt I had finally found something I could use to stop being pushed around. I let it go as far as them telling me to go home. Then, that if I didn't shave they would fire me. I wanted them to do it. It wasn't fair and if my getting fired would be the catalyst for some sort of change in how they treated people then it would be worth it. When they finally brought down the axe I called the ministry of labour and I called lawyers for advice. I learned they could basically do whatever they wanted to change the terms of my contract. It was a 50/50 chance if I could get the whole staff mobilized against them that I could make a case in small claims court but I had already been trying to get support from the staff. They loved to complain but not to put their jobs on the line for it. I made my sacrifice for nothing. I'm certain to this day that Wonderland treats their staff just the same, as though James Everett never existed.

   I recently had something even more flagrantly abusive happen to me and found out that yet again, the system would protect those above me from any kind of retribution*. I'm powerless. Yesterday I lamented another small bit of naivete - about there being something out there bigger than me that could protect me - drift away into the abyss of lost childhood hopes. I used my time to feel sorry for myself and all the times I wanted something to be better than it was and found I could do nothing at all. I thought of all the best intentions and how meaningless they can be in the face of law and rote, bills and acts.

   Depressing, no? I thought so. Until I had time to grieve and move on. Today I wake up with feet at the end of my legs, hands at the end of my arms and most importantly, a mind to top it all off. I have power. I have resolve. I have strength learned from years of losses and wins. If the system can't protect me then I'll need to go on protecting myself. The most important parts of me. The ones that don't even make a blip on their radar. Understand that, even though it will be without violence, I consider myself responsible for my own retribution from here on out and everyone should be wary of that. I will defend myself with teeth and tongue and a mind that is more imaginative than the limited scope of the law**. Today I savour right now. I have what it takes. Day 59, in the bag…

*There will be a time and place I can explain this more fully. The time is not now and this may not ever be the place.

**When I was quitting Blockbuster back in college I was quitting because I had had the worst boss of my life (even to this day). He was just horrible to everyone all the time and he constantly lied to customers to sell our Rewards program. When I quit I didn't steal. I didn't find some elaborate way to make a dramatic exit or destroy some part of the institution I had begun to resent. I knew that those outbursts were so easy to forget and attribute to anger or spite. Instead, I spent my last weekend selling more Rewards packages than anyone had in a weekend at that store in years (like, the years when people still rented movies). I did it without lying and with almost every customer leaving with a smile on their face, all the while my boss was next to me at the next till trying to peddle his bullshit to no avail. At the end of the weekend he begged me to stay. He asked what he could do to get me to stay. I told him there was nothing he could ever do but be a different person than who he was. It may seem small, but I bet he will never forget the day he begged an employee to stay. To this day my employee account has a "Do Not Rehire" on it, which I wear proudly.

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