Postal workers in Canada staged rotating strikes in early winter 2018 when, following a special law of the Federal Government, they were forced togo back to work. Since that time, the negotiations were subject to arbitration, which led to two extensions. Postal workers had also been subject to a similar law in 2011, under an article that was later proven to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada. However, this case law failed to prevent last year's strike from ending in the same way.
Workers today face all sorts of impromptu legislation that interrupts their strikes, of the Taft Hartley article in the United States, that prevents support strikes, New York State Taylor Law, which effectively prevents public service workers from going on strike. Severaladvanced that unions must challenge these laws in order to turn the tide on these draconian laws and actualize union activism in order to fight for real gains in the workplace. But how do you get there when the penalties and obstruction fees are so high? In the case of Canada Post, some workers are subject to fines of $1,000 a day simply for taking part in the strike.
I spoke with Roland Schmidt, Local President 730 of the postal union in Edmonton. Workers in this section have established a method of disobeying back-to-work laws and fighting against the establishment of new laws of the same kind. These direct actions begin by building a balance of power in their workplace and then disperse into a larger training program..
How do these direct actions, in your workplace, did they start?
In 2011, our local branch has had a very positive organizing experience with several activists who fought against a mandatory overtime regime. Tangiblement, this meant that if we were short-staffed, the corporation could force letter carriers to stay on the job. Instead of hiring the necessary staff, bosses could therefore use these measures to force employees to stay at work until the tasks were completed. We called this measure ‘force back’. Workers would have finished their usual route, and then had to follow up with another hour and forty-five more minutes, be another person's road. If it happened once or twice in a few months, All right, we would have just made a little more money. But the, this exception to the rule happened three times a week. Fighting against this measure has been a real springboard for activism in the local. Field work committees have emerged, coordinated refusals to apply the bylaw and stood together against the corporation. A campaign has emerged across the city, bringing together all the suppliers of all the stations. We organized mass meetings. Canada Post recanted on threats of suspensions and changed its methods of organizing its employees and the problem was solved!
Based on our experience, we have developed a course called ''Taking back the workfloor’’ (Reclaiming your workplace) which was largely inspired by the training given by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a labor organization that has always been responsive in supporting the postal union when our rights are violated.
Ironically, in the same period of time when we were entering the outbreak of a strike, (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper threw us aspecial back to work law. This legislation has really deflated our troops. We didn't have an action plan to fight the law. Following this event, our section has entered a long period of inactivity which only recently ended, in the last 6 or 8 month.
There is still a lot of misgivings and concerns that have not been addressed – we still have issues around workplace structures and understaffing that result in injuries to a quarter of our members every year. Following last year's law, our members were pushed to the limit, resulting in a departure from the usual union process. I was part of a small group of activists in Edmonton and we decided that we had to openly assume that all union procedures – grievances, arbitrage, the judicial system, the constitution – let us down. We need to get back to fighting to revive CUPW activism.
I was an officer in the organization at the time, and we brought out this course to train people through these issues. Our group has grown, from 5 person to 30. We finally decided to go completely, and I became president of our local in June (2018). We fully recognize the limitations of union bureaucracy, but we thought that we could use this platform as a lever to promote an organizing campaign among all postal workers.. Since I am no longer a postman, I spend most of my time at the union office and so I can spend half of my days visiting different Canada Post buildings to explain why the union spends its time losing its fights, why we still receive strike-breaking laws and why union organizing is the best way to counter these measures. Together we can turn the tide and put pressure on the company. I wasn't sure how the workers would react to my ideas, but, with the help of other activists, people enlisteda lot and we filled our classroom 6 times in June, with 20 people every time. This mass of people represents the core of our new contingent of organizers and we now had representatives in every area of the business.
We had several direct actions in seven of our eleven main workplaces, thus involving new workers in direct actions; confront intimidating bosses, address payroll issues etc.. With direct action, we were able to see a major improvement in our working conditions within a few weeks, when we had not seen any change in several years.
Are you afraid of penalties, following all these direct actions, considering that you are subscribed to the back-to-work laws?
This is a very present concern. Some people believe that it is not really important to consider fines, but the reality is that with the majority of our members, This is an issue not to be taken lightly.
Many of our actions take place around the fact that our collective agreement gives us the right to complain. Let's say you have a bullying boss - like last week, there was a section of 25 workers at a site who struggled with a harassing supervisor who systematically fell on their heads. He wouldn't let people leave until the very last minute., which is largely badly received since it is necessary to put at least 5 minutes to cross the huge shoppe. They got tired of filing grievances against this supervisor and 20 of the 25 workers marched to the Director’s office to urge him to listen to them. The latter left the premises and the workers told him “We'll wait for you until you come back."He eventually came back and they were able to explain all their problems with the Supervisor in question to him.. The manager then reprimanded him and the supervisor even apologized to the workers.. Since that time, he seems to stand straighter and act with more respect.
The company then issued disciplinary letters to all the workers on the pretext that they had stopped production for half an hour.. We fought against this disciplinary measure. As part of my duties as President, I said: ‘’We made use of our right to complain. The director fled his office, thus lengthening a meeting that could have lasted only a minute.Even though we have stopped production, why didn't they bring us the law ? There were several times when they could have put it back in our face, but I think the bosses are afraid to add fuel to the fire.
In Rosedale, one of the largest mail sorting centers in Edmonton, there was an error in the categorization of a certainflyer, the bosses therefore insisted that it be delivered individually to everyone. This request added up to 4 additional kilometers of walking for already overworked letter carriers. I was still a postman at that time and we made amarch on the Boss saying '' You need to re-classify this flyer.The management of this station then ordered that we still issue the flyer. Rather than comply, the workers went to the vote on the subject and voted no. Now, the management told them ''We will have to carry out disciplinary measures. but we all laughed in his face. of the 60 people who refused to distribute theflyer, only 5 were targeted and received a one-day suspension. Normally, we would have received a suspension of 5 days for such an act of blatant insubordination. Considering that we had twice received a direct order and still refused to obey.
This incident would have been another opportunity to use the Special Law against us that the employers did not take.. Why didn't they and why aren't they tougher on the workers who participated? We think it doesn't take much to scare them.
What is the course about?Take Back the WorkFloor?
AEIOU form date (Shake, Educate, Inoculate, Organiser, Unit) teaches workers how to build a support team in their workplace. Performing workplace mapping often increases the register of potential allies.. How to organize a meeting of colleagues. We also do a lot of role-playing and simulations of meetings and potential confrontations – all in a day of 8 hours.
We try to convince as many people as possible since we want to recruit more widely than from people who are already ideologically convinced.. We register people according to their working hours. They participate with other colleagues who share the same kind of tasks and the same rank. Ensuite, we ask them if they would like to continue their union involvement, and then relegate them to Facebook groups, Signal as well as email list.
We have been so successful that all different levels of our union have been excited to take our course. We are part of the prairie region – Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – and the rest of the region seems inspired to join the effort as launched in Edmonton. Other locals ask us why such a program does not exist for them and them. We therefore share our organizational methods with other locals – Lethbridge, Grande Prairie Saskatoon, Winnipeg. So, we therefore send our trainers to the various premises to give the course but also to train other workers so that they can then be autonomous. We help them look like an alley so that their premises can then be managed by themselves. With these different premises we can even create regional organizing committees – a first for our union!
How the CUPW National reacted, did he even react?
It's hard to say. With regard to the trade union organization as such, it is interesting because we are facing a success never seen before. We have almost tripled our levels of participation in the Monthly Meetings, resulting from the immense participation in the organizing committees, to groups of volunteers, to everyone who shares our progress on social media. All these things that get people reacting on our Facebook page where groups across the country are starting to question 'why is this kind of activity not emerging elsewhere?’’
It is difficult to determine whether these people, au national, are also skeptical because they did not initiate the movement and are now embarrassed , sort of, to join it so late, or if it is because they are totally opposed to our methods. I like to compare unionism to a bird. A wing is only procedures; put the bars on the T's, handle grievances, arbitration, consultations etc.. The other wing represents the Field Organization. Our union has relied only primarily on its procedural wing since 1985. It was then that the penalties and fines awarded to strikers changed from prison penalties to the back-to-work laws we know today.. Ensuite, the strategy changed based on the following reflection : ‘’We are the specialists in our field, we are the ones who are going to have much better evidence for the arbitration.” The idea was probably not to demobilize the workers., but this drive to emphasize procedure came at the expense of collective solidarity. The danger is that once we get used to thinking about trade unionism this way, it becomes hard to believe that it can exist in any other way. I do not want to ascribe malicious intentions to procedural unionists, but I believe that we can draw our collective strength from accepting that there are many visions and approaches worth considering. I understand that someone who has spent their entire career filing grievances might feel threatened by members who are fond of another strategy.
I saw that you have decided to survey your members regarding the issue of compliance with the back-to-work law. Why did you decide to do this and what was the result of this survey??
It's interesting because while we were planning the campaign and providing union training to our members, they were already looking at the situation wondering ''How are we going to fight against that?
The roads of a department were being reassessed. It is a practice that occurs every 4 or 5 years, depending on the number of packages and letters. Even if the number of letters keeps decreasing, the quantity of packages, she, increases faster, thus creating more work for our members. Our collective agreement does not have a clear clause in relation to these assessments of our roads and does not require the employer to provide us with exact numbers.. This numbers, provided by union observers, are sent to Canada Post, which adds them to its algorithms and then gets mixed and twisted in some incomprehensible way. We asked them to show us their calculations, but their response has always been : ‘’If you are not happy, file grievances.As an answer, we circulated a petition throughout the city by almost every letter carrier, 800 people, by asking for the exact figures and the creation of 3 new positions ; requests based on calculations of our own figures. We threatened the CEO of Canada Post with an escalation of pressure tactics if P.C did not respond to our demands. Basically they were going to cut 8 posts, but ultimately cut only 3. We have therefore succeeded in preserving 5 positions through our organization – although any cuts are, in our opinion unacceptable.
A mass meeting was organized where 120 workers came to support the workers of this department saying ''How are we going to increase the pressure, while being subscribed to back-to-work laws that put us at risk of fines of $1000 per day?’’ Since no one can afford to pay such fines, we wondered ''Do we have enough support to fight so that the fines are not enforceable? ‘’ And we collectively decided that we didn't have the manpower to escalate the pressure tactics.. It was too big for us, at this moment ; we needed more support.
I was asked to organize a referendum in October. So I went to all of our Edmonton branches with ballot boxes and ballots, ashort presentation about our working conditions, the back-to-work law as well as plenty of examples of times when our rights did not have, and are not, taken seriously by the employer. I also insisted that there was no right or wrong answer – in case the workers did not want to disobey the law. After all, we want a realistic solution, not idealistic. The result of the vote, through the city, was in favor of disobeying the back-to-work law at 83%. However, this disobedience was conditional on the support of the whole local, in addition to national.
Ensuite, I wrote an open letter on behalf of the local, “We need to get out of this endless cycle of back-to-work legislation.and we insisted that nothing differentiates us from other letter carriers in the country, here in Edmonton. If someone were going to ask these same questions across Canada Post, our colleagues would probably agree with us. So, so the national helped us extend our referendum outside of Edmonton.
We had our first call with the national union at the beginning of November then a second last week. In their defense, they were honest up front that they couldn't really stand disobedience of scab laws. I don't see anything wrong with being honest about it. If we had $20 millions, half of our members could have defied the law for just one day ; and that's really not enough. But the idea has always been that if we wanted to be successful in our campaign, it's not because some of us can afford the fines, but because we would have such a large workforce that these fines could never possibly be implemented.
The national did not have the financial resources to support us, and was not prepared to make public outings in favor of disobeying the laws, but was very encouraging and present for our campaign. So they very elegantly got away with the idea of the referendum.
On the other hand, if you want to do civil disobedience, it is not necessarily by going through the national and waiting for permission that you will succeed. It is rather on the ground of the cows, in theshoppes that this kind of thing will escalate. A good way to think about it is to manage your local problems, then regional then eventually it will be easier to have this kind of conversation at the national level.
Even if the national is not thrilled with the idea of our mistrust, at least he's not hindering our campaign. For anyone who has ever had todealer with big trade union centers, this is already a victory. It is often our own organizations that limit our potential.
How do you plan to expand your approach?
We know that other levels of the union – regional, national- are not going to embark on such a program without having more than enough proof. So in Edmonton, we just focused on the process. We keep planting seeds and hoping something takes root. If you give the right tools to workers whose rights are being bogged down, it is inevitable that they will use it. More, the rumor about our successes begins to spread. Social networks have helped us a lot on this front..
I also had the pleasure of sharing our stories in aeducational forum where I shared that Edmonton would be willing to share their tools and even send trainers to anyone interested. At once, we have had several responses from other locals and will lend a hand in the new year. If remote sections pay the fees, we can even send our trainers by plane to train other colleagues and quickly allow them to organize themselves independently. We believe that all these grassroots actions across other locals will inspire regions to join too.
It's impossible to have too many trainers. I will continue to promote my course as long as there is demand. If union actions multiply, the stigma around these methods will surely diminish and more workers will lend themselves to them. The longer we continue building this organizational model, the better prepared we will be for the future, no matter the situation, be it laws or indecent working conditions. Because that's actually what awaits us. It is the logical continuation of the whole history of the working class. So we have to keep our focus on the organization. Disobeying back-to-work laws is the only way to push the labor movement in the right direction and keep things from getting worse.
If it's just a department in Edmonton, they are going to fall on you at full speed. But the whole town? One of the things I insist on in my presentation for the referendum is trade union organization as the starting point for any protest movement.. It's inevitable. And these workers will start something magnificent. But it's one thing to dream about it, and another to organize accordingly.
Article Original de Organizing Work Translated from English by Elizabeth Stone Mars 2020