“It all started when a friend asked me to go to a Young Workers Workshop – and I was hooked,” says Nikki Sheppard, Chief Steward with CUPE 905, Unit 19 – Regional Municipality of York, in Ontario.
“I’ve worked for the Region for ten years and have been a CUPE Steward for nine years. In September of this year, I was elected Chief Steward of our Unit,” Nikki continues. “I guess I come by it honestly; my mother was a steward and a chief steward and my husband, Doug, is the Unit 19 Chair – it’s all in the family.”
Nikki enjoys working with CUPE and, while it keeps her busy, it’s also very fulfilling. “There’s a huge payoff in knowing you’re helping those who frequently think they have no voice.”
“There’s a wonderful sense of belonging; it feels like a big family. So many opportunities at CUPE are positive. We all have a common interest, a common mission and common values – we’re all on the same page.”
The main challenge Nikki and Doug deal with is time. Both have full-time jobs, are active in the union, run a home and are raising three children – Aaron, 16, Marley, 13 and Tyler who is 10.
“My union work cuts into weeknights and weekends, but we manage, explains Nikki. “We take the kids with us as much as possible on information pickets, to workshops, conferences and conventions, and we have family who also help out if, for some reason, I can’t take them with me.”
Not only are the children exposed to union activities by various outings and trips, they are learning through experience about the labour movement and unionism.
The family has an “Earn Extra Money Agreement” that is a collective agreement signed by Doug as the employer and the three kids as the workers. Nikki is the family chief steward. No job is paid less that $10.25 per hour, the going minimum wage in Ontario, and specific jobs can earn time-and-a-half. There is a sign-in time sheet for each of the three children, and when a job is complete, one of the parents must sign the sheet acknowledging task completion.
“This doesn’t take the place of their regular chores, like keeping their rooms clean and jobs that most kids do around the house,” Nikki said. “I wrote this contract for jobs they can do to extra money.
“If they want something special they can earn it through this agreement. Or, they can use the contract to negotiate a purchase for something as simple as new laces for their sneakers – if they are frayed or have broken then that becomes a health and safety issue because their shoes can’t be tied properly.
“There is a strong health and safety element to this contract. They must wear rubber gloves when using cleaning fluids; ventilate the bathroom or kitchen properly if they’re using cleaning chemicals. They also have read cleaning chemical labels and know what cleaning substances cannot be mixed together. They have to wear hard shoes when mowing the grass and absolutely no headphones when using the lawnmower.”
Nikki has also written a handbook—CUPE Union Steward Handbook—for the stewards of CUPE Local 905. The 20-page manual gives a short history of unions in Canada, a description of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the Employment Standards Act, and a guide to the role of stewards.
“CUPE has given me a wonderful opportunity to meet many, and diverse, people from all over at various functions. I have lots of opportunity to help people and to protect the rights of our members.
“My advice to members is to get active in the union, to get involved, and don’t ever hesitate to ask questions if there’s something you don’t know about,” Nikki concluded.