Union Blues

This little piece was previously published in the Montreal Gazette, February 19, 2001, under the title “By the cool pool I landed in hot water.”

When I was eighteen years old in 1964, I had what seemed like a great summer job lined up: I was to be a front-desk receptionist at a suburban country club.

My initial excitement soon began to pall. All day, every day, I was stuck toiling in the club’s sweltering entrance alcove, while forty feet away lay the sparkling turquoise pool, tantalizing, off-limits.

Then there were the club patrons: whiny complaints about lost membership cards, earrings, noseplugs, underwear, children… Constantly nattering at me, “But why can’t my friends come in just this once?!” “I know I’ve used up all my season guest passes, but…” “Why do I have to wear a bathing cap?” “What do you mean you have no more beach chairs left…?”

Things worsened when I made a serious gaffe one day, angering the manager, whom I’ll call “Bill X.” A gentleman telephoned and asked for him, and I breezily answered, “Oh, Mr. X? He’s probably at the bar.” It must have sounded to the caller as though that were the most natural place for Bill X to be. (In fact, it was, but the caller didn’t have to know that!)

By midsummer I’d become quite disgruntled. The job was not as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. I pondered my options. I needed the money, so quitting was out. What would make the situation more palatable, I asked myself. Finally I hit on it: a raise! After all, $35 a week was just not adequate compensation for the wretched unpleasantries. For more money, I figured I could stand it. Then I had a real brainstorm: if I could mobilize the other two receptionists, we could demand a raise en masse. In unity there is strength!

And so began my campaign as union organizer. I held clandestine meetings with my colleagues, to try and win their approval of my plan. At first they were reluctant to make waves, but eventually I allayed their worries.

At last came the day of reckoning. Having been unanimously elected spokesperson of the unofficial Front-desk Receptionists’ Union, I found myself standing wobbly-kneed in Mr. X’s office, facing the stern-looking manager across his broad oak desk. Trembling, I squeaked out all the arguments – which I had silently rehearsed many times – for our raise.

His response was, um… not very receptive. He basically contended that we’d known what the salary was when we started, so how dare we complain now. And then he went a giant step further.

He said, staring at me levelly, “…and furthermore, I don’t think that your staying on here would be in the best interests of the club.” Being naïve and inexperienced, I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant (though it didn’t sound too terrific), so I asked him. He simply said that since the approaching cooler weather would mean decreased attendance at the club, they would not need three receptionists. So he was “letting me go.”

***

It turned out that I had a knack for aggravating bosses. There was the one in ’66 whose favourite mug I broke. I also managed to mangle his important client’s original document in the (albeit prehistoric) photocopier. And then in ’68…

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