Thursday, 10 July 2014

On Strike is NO FUN!!

If there is one thing that is predictable in our journey through time, it is that things will always be unpredictable. Which leads to why there was no blog post about a trip in the past month, why we have been strangely quiet around here lately, and the circumstances under which we sold our boat. It also leads to an ender where we try to make ourselves more able to adapt to the unexpected. But lets begin at the beginning and end at the ending.

SWMBO and I met at college where we were both studying Engineering. She was a direct entry from a University where she had earned a degree in history, which came with limited career prospects. I entered after 10 years in the workforce as a CNC machinist which came with shift-work, long hours, and some unfortunate employment experiences. We were both working towards a stable future in a career that came with respect, prestige, and a good pay rate.

We entered the field of traffic engineering recognizing it met our hopes and that there was a shortage of professionals in the field. We lived poor, carrying a mortgage and a child through school with us as we worked towards graduation. We took chances on jobs far away and in risky areas as we worked our way to a comfortable career. Now 12 years into those careers, we are employees in a municipal government and thought we had things figured out.

A month ago there were rumblings that the union we work in was at odds with our managers.

The rumblings became rumours. The rumours lead to meetings, the meetings to votes, and the votes to a strike. Suddenly our safe, secure income and lifestyle was gone, and we were staring down a situation where our expenses far outstripped our income. I think this is what is called living beyond your means.

In the first days of the strike, I wrapped up some projects around the house and we worried about how we would pay bills and whatnot. We thought the strike would be over within a few days, and this would be a gentle hiccup, but just in case it wasn't, I pout out feelers for other odd jobs and ways to make a buck or four before we got desperate.

Every day we would head out and walk the pickets and listen to stories from our coworkers of debt and kids and how they were faring. Everyone was bleeding.

After week one, the union paid us our strike pay (25% of our usual wages) and I started delivering fast food and newspapers to make ends meet. At this point we were also pleasantly surprised by a gift of cash from SWMBO's parents, and 2 weeks of groceries (and a box of beer) from my folks. At the same time, we sent a letter to the union explaining that since both of us work together, SWMBO and I weren't able to make ends meet on strike pay. The union stepped in with a cheque from its benevolent fund to cover our mortgage and daycare costs so we could keep our part time work going.

My days were grueling. I would start the day at 2:00 am and go deliver newspapers until 6:00 am. Then sleep until 8:00 am to be on the picket lines by 9:00 am. Picketing would run until 1:00 pm, when I would return home for 2 hours sleep, then go deliver pizzas until 10:00 pm. Four hours of sleep, and repeat. Of the three jobs, the newspapers was the most demanding and most difficult. It also turned out to be the most shady. I ended up quitting the newspapers and they will not be paying me, quoting breach of contract. I will never subscribe to those papers.

SWMBO picked up a job cleaning offices, working alongside recent immigrants. Between the two of us, we are making about 3/4 of our usual wage, but putting in about 200% of our usual hours. The mantra around the house was "On Strike is NO FUN!" the boys soon figured out that shopping, eating out, or just about anything that meant fun was off the schedule. It also meant cancelling our very exciting camping trip to Mississagi Provincial Park, way up north in Elliot Lake. That made me sad.

But a lot of good came out of being on strike too. I met a lot of people who work for the same government we do, but whose roles are very diverse. Nurses, health care aides, paramedics, income support (welfare) case workers, unemployment coaches, IT professionals, and all the rest of the army of workers who come together to make sure the community is cared for. And working my night job brought me into the lowest of low income neighbourhoods - places I never would have ventured, and some I didn't even know existed. I have never had such an appreciation for what I have.

In the middle of all this, I got a call from Montreal, a buyer was interested in our boat, but only at the lowest of rock bottom prices. We sold, seeing the opportunity to free up yacht club fees, and so I found myself towing the boat to Kingston, and cutting ties with the sport I have enjoyed for the past five years. The day the boat sold, the end of the strike was announced, and we started to have a glimmer of hope. Selling was one of our 2014 goals, but I hadn't expected it to go like this.

Tomorrow we go back to work. That is a relief. We have emerged OK, but a little rattled. Today we made an appointment with the bank to set our affairs in order so that if this ever repeats, we will be more prepared. Some changes we have made:

  • We have been aggressively overpaying our mortgage in order to get ahead, but have not built up our savings equally. We will continue to overpay our mortgage, but...
  • We will divert the money that was going to the yacht club into a Tax Free Savings Account so that about $400 per month will begin to build a crisis fund (I like to call it a warchest), and
  • We will keep our 'fun jobs' we picked up in order to supplement our savings. With some discipline we should be able to generate enough savings to survive another strike or bout of sickness for close to a year. this security will be handy if we run into trouble again.
  • Once our war chest is up to our goal amount, we will continue to build it, but divert an annual lump-sum onto our mortgage on top of our current over-payment. This way our interest earnings on savings will further knock down our interest payments on the mortgage.
We did a few things right headed into this strike, which we were fortunate to have in our pocket. First, we destroyed our car payments and controlled our debt so that it was manageable on our income. If we were living at the brink on a week to week basis, this would have been a true crisis. Second, we were proactive and quick to find other income sources when the strike did start. Third, we put away our pride and accepted gifts from our parents and from the union in order to get by. Without any one of these three items, we would have truly been in trouble. Finally, and less significant, we were willing to sacrifice minor things for savings. This meant missing our camping trip, changing the way we ate, and being more conscious of our spending. Many other folks on the picket line had a hard time with small choices like these, but in the end, they do make a difference.

So it looks like we missed our monthly getaway goal for this month - sort of. Next weekend, I have the Warrior Dash to look forward to, so I'm counting that as the July getaway, and last month we attended a beautiful wedding in Hamilton, so I can count that as our June getaway. If we do things that way, then this post covers off 3 of our 14 for 2014 goals, and teaches a little about frugal living. Not to bad after all!