After her fifth five-hour shift on the Public Service Alliance of Canada picket line in front of the Government of Canada Custom House building in downtown Vancouver, Jean Allan hurried home to phone her bank manager. She wanted to discuss the possibility of delaying her $280 monthly car payment on the 1987 Nissan Sentra that she acquired a year ago. Tired, nursing a bruised back and elbow from being knocked down one day and pushed up against a wall the next in a confrontation with picket-line crashers, the president of the 30-member PSAC Union of Solicitor General Employees Local 20086 had been too busy during the first week of the nationwide strike to attend to all the details of her domestic affairs. But after 17 years as a single parent—her daughter, Melanie, is now 19—the 40-year-old Allan is accustomed to juggling her books. The salary from her job as a parole office clerk for Corrections Canada in Vancouver— $25,000 a year, $300 take-home a week—has never been quite enough. Said Allan: “You learn to rework your budget very well. I know it’s very important, but I can’t afford house insurance. I save all year to pay my car insurance. You learn to do without.”
Allan says that she could earn more in the private sector or in other work—“My brother is a welder; maybe my father should have taught me how to weld too,” she jokes—but she has set her sights on a career with Corrections Canada. Since joining the service in 1985, after spending seven years as an accommodations co-ordinator for the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Allan has studied criminology part time at Simon Fraser University, taking one course a semester. She is now in her third year of the four-year course. “I’ve been scratching away, little by little, at the criminology degree that I need to reach my goal of becoming a parole officer,” Allan explained. “I want to stay in Corrections.” But like tens of thousands of PSAC members, Allan did not hesitate to join the picket line when the strike began early last week. “This has been building for a long time, and there is more at stake than just wages,” she said in an interview. “We have been dealing with downsizing, with contracting out.” Claiming that a cabinet minister’s tax-free allowance amounted to more than her annual salary, she added: “You know something is seriously wrong.”
Allan says that she is not convinced that the strike will solve her problems, or those of her fellow workers. But she added: “We don’t know how else to get the point across. We are on the inside. We see how the money is spent, how it is wasted. The public knows, too, that the spending priorities of this government are out of line.” And last week, earning $125 in strike pay, the five-foot, one-inch native of Dauphin, Man., had to rethink her own spending priorities. Said Allan: “If the strike goes on much longer, I might just have to do without a car.”
Allan is helped with the $950 a month in rent for a three-bedroom house in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, by the $425 she receives from a boarder. Still, that leaves just $675 a month for food, clothing, telephone, heat, water and other expenditures, such as automobile payments and insurance—not to mention replacing her car’s worn-out brakes. Daughter Melanie—who entered Vancouver’s Langara Community College this month in a recreation leadership course—also contributes. Melanie has helped out since she was 12 years old, first with a paper route, then with an after-school job at McDonald’s. Said Allan, her green eyes—framed by a cascade of curly red hair—flashing with pride: “Melanie has worked to help pay for her clothes and for her own spending money for the past seven years. And now that she’s in college, she’s working part time at a gift shop in a Vancouver hotel.”
Jail: Allan says that in three years, when her daughter graduates, she may be able to take some time off to study full time herself. Until then, she will work to keep both their dreams alive. Last week’s events have cast a cloud over that future. Yet, said Allan, “We have to pull together or we won’t accomplish anything. But who knows if it will be resolved by this government waking up?”
At week’s end, as Treasury Board President Gilles Loiselle announced that he will table back-to-work legislation in Parliament this week, Allan and the entire PSAC membership braced for what may well be an escalation of the confrontation. “It will be the law,” Allan acknowledged. But, noting PSAC president Daryl Bean’s threat last week to defy such a law, Allan said that she will support the union leader. “If he goes to jail, I’ll definitely stay out,” she said. “There’s no way in hell that I’d go back in. A lot of others feel that way, too.” Saying that she was “bom in Manitoba, raised in Saskatchewan, worked 12 years in Alberta, and now that I’m out here, I can’t go much farther west,” Allan has chosen her place to make a stand.
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