Workers’ rights have come a long way since the industrial revolution began, but there still is far to go. More time for breaks would boost productivity and reduce injuries, leading to fewer claims for workers’ compensation. But will management listen?
I looked up at the clock in the lunchroom at the warehouse. It was 2:13 in the afternoon. Last break was almost done. Shit, I thought to myself, I just sat down, now I had to get back up again. Breaks didn’t feel like a rest from work, just a brief pause, a few precious minutes when you could let your mind wander and stop straining your muscles and body. You didn’t even get the full fifteen minutes, now that I thought about it. I had to use the toilet, which shaved off about four minutes of sit-down time in the lunch room, and management did expect us to use the toilet only on our breaks. At other jobs I had worked at, in a different province, break was only twelve minutes long, and part of that was taken up with walking to the other side of the plant to the lunch room or outside for a smoke.
It just didn’t feel like enough time, especially for somebody engaged in heavy manual labour at a warehouse, or working on an assembly line at a factory, and other jobs too, I was sure.
Lunch break, after three hours and forty-five minutes of work, was little better than the two shorter breaks. On top of using the bathroom, you had to warm up your food in the microwave oven, sometimes after waiting for others to go first, eat your food, and then put your food container away in your locker. Every lunch break I liked to put on a fresh pair of socks. I also liked to brush my teeth after eating my lunch, which took time, and I had seen other guys doing the same. The guys who wanted to smoke up had to walk out to their cars in the employee parking lot. Time for rest was more like twenty minutes than thirty minutes. It just didn’t feel like enough time, especially for somebody engaged in heavy manual labour at a warehouse, or working on an assembly line at a factory, and other jobs too, I was sure.
Workers needed to push for more time on all of our breaks. I wanted to see another ten minutes added to our first and last breaks of the shift, and another ten minutes added onto our lunch break. It didn’t seem like much more time I suppose, only thirty more minutes. But it would make all the difference for us. We would have more energy for the heavy work, boosting worker productivity and overall output. We would have more energy to maintain the proper form when lifting heavy boxes, reducing the chances for injury and cutting down on worker compensation claims for the company. During breaks and lunch, we would have more energy to relax and socialize with our co-workers. Possibly, a sense of family would develop among the workers. After our shift was done, we would have more energy for other activities in life, like sports, or hobbies, or family life. Worker morale would go up.
Of course management would never go for it, never voluntarily give us more time for break. The first thing they would say is that the company is compliant with all the labour legislation, provincial and federal. The second response from management would be to say that “we were the ones who developed and implemented the idea of breaks to begin with, so we know how much rest is optimal for you.” “Our experts,” they would continue, “say that the existing break schedule is quite sufficient for all employees.” Next management would say that it would cost too much. “If we paid every staff member for an extra ten minutes for first and last break, every day, it would add up. Moreover, paying out that extra money to the staff would place us at a disadvantage in relation to our competitors. It’s not necessary and it just wouldn’t be good for the company.”
Professional athletes can get motivated by their enormous salaries. We got paid below the poverty line.
But these were not the real reasons why management would refuse to give us some real time for rest if we asked. The true reason was that they did not want to acknowledge how hard the work really was. In my department at the warehouse, we rode around to a bin, ducked down under a metal cross-bar, and started hauling boxes from the skid inside the bin onto the empty skid we had brought with us. Most of the boxes contained bags of intravenous fluids destined for hospitals across the country, along with jugs of hemodialysis fluids. They weighed from twenty to thirty to fifty pounds each. Then we would ride around to the next bin specified in the customer order and haul out more boxes. All shift long we rode around to bins and hauled out boxes. By the end of a shift, you would have lifted thousands of pounds, and that was just the physical side to the job.
It was not just my present job that was like that. Multiple other jobs that I have worked on were as or more physically brutal. I remembered one job where I lifted heavy slabs of insulation off a long line of rollers and stacked them up high on skids. One summer I worked for a moving company, hauling refrigerators, washers, dryers and sofas from somebody’s house out into a tractor-trailer. I loaded windows and doors into trucks all day at one factory. At a lumber mill, I hauled long heavy planks off a conveyor belt onto different metal carts. Some of the planks measured twenty-three feet in length. In a different department at my present job, I was part of a small crew that unloaded boxes from trucks by hand. One truck alone held tens of thousands of pounds of freight. Machines had not completely erased physical toil. In many jobs, humans had to be machines.
In fact, I thought we had it harder than professional athletes. In a hockey game, the players got a twenty-minute break after only one period of playing time. Two more such breaks followed and the game was not even two hours long. Plus, there were breaks between shifts, with the players resting on the bench. A football game broke down into four quarters, each only fifteen minutes of stop-time in length. At half-time in the game, after only thirty minutes, the two teams got a fifteen minute rest. Some of the players didn’t play for the entire game. In a Major League Baseball game, the entire team, except for the batter, sat in the dug-out for the entire inning. The players out in the field stood around for much of the game, moving only if the ball came in their direction. Professional athletes can get motivated by their enormous salaries. We got paid below the poverty line.
The only course of action, it seemed, was for us to go outside management to find a way to extend all of our breaks. One of the ways in which we could do that would be to start an on-line petition to our respective provincial governments, and the federal government, to amend the respective labour legislation. Another way in which we could take action would be to send letters to our provincial MLAs, MPPs, or MNAs, and federal MPs, as well as meet with them to discuss the issue. I had been involved in a similar campaign regarding compensation for injured workers. A third way to try to extend our breaks would be through unions. Workers presently unionized could push for that change when the next contract negotiations with management came up. Non-unionized workers could use that issue as one reason to persuade their fellow workers to form a union, and then push for it to be included in contract negotiations.
Unfortunately we could not expect that our efforts would immediately pay off. To begin with, the needs of workers, both manual and service workers, had long since disappeared from public discourse. Over the last six years the federal Liberal Party had talked about helping the middle class, and the federal Conservative Party had talked about deregulation and helping big and small Canadian business. The closest the federal Liberals had got to the manual worker was to introduce a low-cost national childcare program. Even the New Democratic Party, historically the political party that most represented the interests of workers, was now virtually silent on the issues affecting us. The best the NDP had pushed for was a national pharmacare program. At the provincial level, which governed the labour laws for most workers, the situation was much the same. Across the country, people struggled just to get the various provincial governments to mandate paid sick days.
Then, if we did manage to get our issues on the political radar, we would run up against the corporate lobby. Big and small businesses were well organized. The managers spent company money to push all levels of government to pass pro-management policies. They would certainly resist any proposal to extend breaks on the job. As for unions, as important as they were for representing the needs and rights of workers, they had some problems. Unions tended to focus their efforts on the issues of wages and benefits, not on the level of work and the necessary rest. It might be difficult to get an extension of breaks and lunch onto the union’s agenda for negotiations with management. So too was forming a new union to advance that issue potentially inadequate. Forming unions in the workplace was nowadays quite difficult. Many workers were afraid that they would have to go on strike, and labour laws allowed management to bring in replacement workers.
It was going to be a long and arduous process for us to extend our breaks on the job. But if we kept at it we would eventually succeed. One hundred years ago workers got no breaks on the job. Workers toiled for twelve to sixteen hours a day straight. I remembered watching a documentary on YouTube about Henry Ford Senior and his automotive factories in Michigan. The workers asked for ten minutes out of the whole shift to eat lunch, and Ford Sr. refused. It would take decades more, through unionization and strikes, and pressure on governments in both the United States and Canada, for auto workers to get the system of breaks we have today. Later this system was codified in labour legislation across all provinces in Canada. Now every employee in the country is entitled to these breaks, along with an extra break if you put in two hours of overtime work. We could change the system.
Then, if we did manage to get our issues on the political radar, we would run up against the corporate lobby. Big and small businesses were well organized. The managers spent company money to push all levels of government to pass pro-management policies.
It was now a couple of minutes past the allotted time for break. The time left in the day was only one hour and forty-five minutes. But after almost six hours of hauling heavy boxes I felt tired. I really felt like taking more time for break. If I wanted I could do it. There were no security cameras in the lunch room, and even if there were, I doubt any manager would be watching them. Like the rest of the guys in my department, I worked alone filling customer orders. Nobody would notice my absence for another ten minutes, or care. If I was down on the work quota at the end of the day, so what? I needed to think about the long term. I needed to be employed for many years, hopefully for the rest of my working life, not burned out or injured after only one year.
Maybe that was the way we should go. Maybe the workers should just act on their own to take care of themselves, either individually or as a group. Let’s face it, by the time the government got around to helping us, it would be too late for me and the other guys in the department. I was forty years old, and most of the other guys were around the same age. Forming a union also presented a problem for us. Who was going to start a union drive at this warehouse? I’m no leader. Besides, we had as much right as management to set company policy, without resorting to a union. The managers didn’t contribute any more than us to the operation. The managers didn’t have to worry about getting too old for the job, and it’s not like all of us were going to move up into management. Nor did we want to.
No, that approach would not work. We couldn’t just ignore the managers and reform our breaks and lunch period on our own initiative. I had worked in some operations where everybody left for and returned from break and lunch at the same time, and the crew was small. It would be virtually impossible to take extra time in the lunch room, or out in the parking lot. In a small or large factory somebody would immediately notice your absence from the production line. If you somehow coordinated with all of your fellow workers and stayed on break longer, there would be an immediate confrontation with management. In other work environments, it would be equally difficult to take this sort of action. We needed a solution to the problem that covered everybody, out in the open. Quickly I tied up the laces on my work boots and headed back to the grind.