My first paycheque was $26. I saved as much as possible, and bought my own clothes. What I recall most vividly was the pride that came with that $26. I felt like a big shot, having cash in my jeans, and could give my parents a small break from their daily struggle.
My mother Angeline raised us at our home in Trail, British Columbia. My father Vincent worked at the Cominco smelter. All my family were Italian; we shared a common courtyard with grandparents, aunts and uncles.
We were not poor but lived frugally. As a growing boy I craved steaks, but who could afford them? When I was 14 we took a 200-km bus ride to see the Trail Smoke Eaters hockey team play a game in Spokane, and at a roadside diner the menu read, Large Salisbury Steak – cheap! I ordered it. Lo and behold it was hamburger.
My father didn’t want me working at the smelter. He suffered from asthma and contracted lead poisoning five times before they transferred him to the repair shop. He worried when I landed a job at Cominco one year. “Keep your head up,” he said; “Watch your surroundings.” We had company respirators that were hot and uncomfortable but Dad never let up. “Wear your respirator,” he said. “The air you breathe will ruin your health; just look at me.”
Dad died at 72. Sickness robbed him of a happy retirement. The family thought he died of Alzheimer’s Disease but my mother would not permit an autopsy.
So, I worked.
At 16 I pumped gas at Skyway Texaco. The owner was a great employer, Alex Matheson. He was thoughtful and encouraging, and gave us little motivational perks to encourage us to work hard. But boys are boys: on weekends when Mr. Matheson was away, we’d disconnect the odometers at the garage and take the rental cars for a spin. Mr. Matheson is retired now; if I ever get back to Trail I’ll have to look him up and confess. You never forget your first boss.
When I wasn’t pumping gas I was a delivery boy at Mrs. Monkhouse’s flower shop. A friend had quit and recommended me, on one condition: could I drive a standard transmission? “Of course I can drive a standard!” It was a three-speed and I didn’t know how to drive it. On my first delivery I lurched and popped the clutch so often the bouquet stems broke, so I wired them up and hoped nobody noticed. The customer called the shop: “The flowers died.”
Another time we had a rush delivery of a wedding arrangement and I took them to the wrong address. People were upset: “Where are the flowers? Where are the flowers?” Mrs. Monkhouse didn’t fire me, but deducted the damages from my next two paycheques. I learned.
On completing high school I landed my first industrial job, as a hard-rock miner for Copperline Mines Ltd. in Parsons, B.C. They paid a bonus for the amount of rock you moved, and we moved tons. I remember one oldtimer telling me, “You don’t have to be smart or know all the answers to work hard. You can compensate for a lot with hard work.”
I never forgot that miner’s advice. It is a philosophy that guides me. People recognize effort, and even today I remind staff: you don’t have to know everything, but there is no substitute for hard work.
(Editor’s note: the author is the longest-serving president in the history of the Canadian Labour Congress, from 1999 to 2014)