Christine braced herself, took a deep breath and then jumped up on to a mail tub and began to shout “help! help! I am being robbed”. A sea of faces stared at her blankly. She got the attention her fellow Letter Carriers, but everyone was looking at her like she was crazy. That was fine, she was acting crazy. “Canada Post is robbing every single one of us, they are robbing people collecting pensions, they are robbing workers who aren’t even working here yet. We need to stand together, Winnipeg walked out and we need to show them that we have their back and will stand with them”.
Some began to nod knowingly; she then explained that workers earlier in the week had walked out in an unlawful strike in Winnipeg over technological change that was causing twelve hour days and massive job loss. She explained that Winnipeg was a testing ground for the new work methods and that the workers in Winnipeg were not just fighting for themselves they were fighting for everyone at Canada Post Corporation. Christine explained the struggle, the stakes, and that our fellow workers in Winnipeg were counting on a show of solidarity from across the country. She may have been a bit dramatic, but she was also being honest, sometimes you have to shout to be heard.
The meeting Christine called was part of a wave of work floor meetings across the city. The wave started at another workplace, Depot Nine. At some of these meetings stewards read statements published by “The Workers Struggle with the Modern Post” a grassroots Postal Workers blog based out of Winnipeg. Some of the meetings were open assemblies open to all employees, where workers could plan their next steps and air grievances. These meetings were part of a very flexible plan, part strategy and part flying by the seat of our pants. The workers led the struggle and often the official union structures were left behind in the dust as workers on the floor took initiative. This wasn’t centrally planned but it didn’t just happen spontaneously. It wasn’t outside and against the union nor was it a struggle within it against some abstract bureaucracy- we were trying something new on our own terms.
All of these decisions, to fight on the floor, to plan through assemblies and coordinate through an Organising Committee, were made in response to what we saw happen after the Delton Wildcat. After Delton a lot of people in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) discussed what had happened leading up to the Wildcat and tried to draw conclusions out of what had happened. Over several months workers took action against attacks by Canada Post on their wages and working conditions culminating in a high profile standoff between Letter Carriers and Management over staffing problems. Some saw the wave of militancy as a failure, they pointed to the hundreds of five day suspensions without pay, to the looming grievance against the union for an illegal work stoppage- a grievance that could cost the union millions of dollars- as well as the near firing of a key steward as all evidence that these developments were not positive ones. On the other hand the employer’s practice of giving new temps forced overtime had almost entirely stopped and a new layer of stewards emerged from the places that saw the most action. Delton depot became much more active and so did the Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (RSMCs) who had staged their own actions. For a brief time the employer was more serious in how it dealt with demands from the workers, though this respect declined over time.
Part of drawing this balance sheet was trying to figure out what we would do differently the next time an opportunity presented itself. Most of us decided that we needed something that we could actually use to develop direct action on the job at the post office. Some of us had read articles by the Sojourner Truth Organisation and some articles on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers influenced our thinking a lot. But there were big differences between the situation we faced and the situation these workers faced. For a start the presence the union had on the floor was much more visible than in the UAW where most independent radical groups that we read about existed. The CUPW had a tradition of militancy and wore it’s progressive credentials on it’s sleeve.
But the role of the union largely took an “obey now grieve later: attitude. This was drilled into us in the basic steward course, it was our mantra as representatives of CUPW. This meant that if there was ever an altercation with an employer our response was to do was we were told and follow this up through the grievance procedure later on down the line. This meant that the union’s role was one of mediating struggle through legal channels- much like the UAW and any other industrial union created since World War II.
Many of us also read the work of Martin Glaberman and Stan Weir, their thoughts on the decline of unions as organisations for class struggle influenced us a lot and it resonated with how the CUPW responded to shop floor struggles. We believed that making the union a mediating body more than a fighting body was hurting the CUPW and hurting us, just as it had hurt and continues to hurt the rest of the labor movement. We wanted to find another approach than “obey now grieve later”, something like a rule for management: “respect us now, or pay the price for disrespect now.”
In some respects, we were on the same page as most CUPW officers. Almost the entire local executive at varying points was united behind the idea that more action on the floor was needed. But when you got into the particulars of any actions, many union activists opposed anything that could lead to a suspension in retaliation (such as a walkout), or anything that could be seen as too confrontational (such as a “March on the Boss”, which is when large groups of workers march on management with a list of demands) or anything that was seen as too personal (like picketing a senior manager’s home). This left us with symbolic gestures, such as button campaigns, or the occasional parking lot rally or mass meeting. These things are fine in themselves, but I haven’t seen too many managers change their minds because of a button, and most of the problems we deal with are in the workplace, not in the parking lot. We wanted to deal with problems where they really happened, on the job. Many newer more militant stewards began to chafe at this situation and wanted to see what was experienced at Delton expanded upon and developed. A definite pole began to develop on the floor in favour of more direct action. Eventually a tension developed between the need for independent activity and the trade union discipline that is central to traditional trade unionism.
We took the outcome of the Delton wildcat as a sign that the workers were willing to take action but what they wanted was support. We also knew from the last wave of struggles that all the information was filtered through the union office. Often a lot of discussion goes into messaging in the union office and a lot of work goes into making sure that anything ‘the union’ says would not contradict arguments made in arbitration. If anything can be used to undermine our case before an arbitrator that course of action (such as a direct action campaign) will be dropped. This hamstrung us at Delton because we could not vocally support the walkout because it would be perceived as a violation of the ‘no strike’ clause in our contract. That meant even union officers that felt the workers had done the right thing were unable to publicly support the actions without compromising our position in arbitration. In the end the Delton workers expected actions in support of their stand and when it didn’t come they became demoralized.
We didn’t pursue a dual unionism strategy. Many of us felt that we were the CUPW, what we wanted to do was to improve the CUPW, not replace it. Plus, since CUPW had a presence that could not be simply ignored on the floor we would gain little by trying to set up an alternative to CUPW, even if we had wanted to do so. So we decided we would proceed as CUPW activists who wanted to promote an agenda of direct action. We decided to build groups that promote actions on the floor. We decided to focus on the stewards committees and the local organising committee for this purpose. We took this to be a political struggle in order to build a union that was based on rank and file militancy and that initiative could come from the floor independent of the union hierarchy or official structures. Most of us decided that struggles on the local executive and other political struggles in CUPW would take a back seat to organising and building the movement on the floor in favour of direct action. We weren’t interested in arguing with our fellow union members, we wanted to struggle against the boss in order to make our lives better on the job. Avoiding the local politics was harder than we expected but it was also a distraction we tried hard to avoid.
Our first step was to introduce a ‘rules of order’ into the stewards meetings and the organising committee. The chair was rotated among the members and everyone was taught the rules of order through the monthly meetings. Minutes were taken and circulated among the members and the agenda was based on what the members wanted to do. There was no resistance to this at all, in fact where a clear rules of order was not being used this was largely because no one knew what an orderly meeting looked like.
It took about a year to get the committee to be completely functional. Once the committee was up and running we wanted to get a sense of where the workplace was at so a few members put together a workplace survey and distributed it among our fellow postal workers. This gave us a tremendous sense of where the workforce was at. We found out that the vast majority were willing to strike, if the reasons were right reasons – particularly pensions and job security. This also gave us an idea of what issues to agitate around. This survey attracted some unexpected criticism because we decided to publish the survey results. Some people on the national executive felt this could compromise our bargaining strategy in Ottawa.
We also decided that we needed to break down the monopoly on communication through the union office. During the Delton wildcat we were hampered by slow movement in the union office and often a hesitation to encourage actions that some felt was either a violation of the collective agreement or too risky. We got around this by building text message contacts and encouraging committee members to build their own contacts. We began to build a network on the floor. Our network wasn’t routed through the union office, it did not have a single centre and relayed information without filtering it. You might say we were creating a nervous system for fighting the boss.
Through these small campaigns and actions we started to build a list of militants in every depot and in the plant. As this list grew we started to collect phone numbers and email addresses. We used this to strategize and develop our network. We began to publicize meetings by text message and write articles for the Inside Out. Some articles were rejected but many made it in to the newsletter. There was a common theme to our writings, that theme was independent activity- organise first and don’t ask permission.
Self Activity or Bureaucracy
Occasionally ‘days of action’ would come down the pipes from Ottawa, these were generally picked to coincide with important dates for the National Executive. They usually involved an uninspired button campaign where we tried to get everyone to wear loud coloured buttons. We like colourful buttons as much as anybody, but sticking a pin through your shirt doesn’t feel like the most effective way to stick it to the boss. In addition to these days of action, the committee started to promote other actions. Some people held interventions in staff meetings, some depots held mass rallies outside their installations, and one particular depot, Whitemud South, held regular protest marches through the depot.
At another depot a committed steward tried to organise something for the national day of action. She stayed up late making picket signs related to national demands and showed up at work early to hand out flyers related to negotiations. Most of the workers took the flyers but none joined her for the information picket in her installation. Later that week the relief letter carriers in the same installation all called in sick together to protest forced overtime and short staffing. We respect this sister’s dedication and hard work but that episode demonstrates an important lesson. The workers were clearly willing to fight but they didn’t see the union as relevant to that fight. Much of the union officialdom wanted to build button campaigns and other tamer tactics instead of the workers’ much more risky sick-in. Furthermore, the union officialdom’s chosen issues were often different from the ones that Canada Post employees and CUPW members were motivated to fight over. The workers on the floor took the more risky action than the union officialdom was advocating. They also took a stand that directly confronted management on their own terms instead of having demands filtered through representation in the spirit of “obey now, grieve later” or “obey while wearing a button and we’ll negotiate over this later.”
The next step we took to put on a course promoting workplace direct action. The course met some resistance from the majority of the local executive. Most of the content was drawn from other CUPW courses that taught stewards how to map the floor and plan a campaign. We also drew on a publication called “How to Fire Your Boss,”, an exercise where members built a stewards kit from a box of union resources and a role play used in member trainings in the Industrial Workers of the World where workers act out a simulated march on the boss action.
When we first brought the course up casually there was some hand wringing by some people on the local executive. A lot of people wanted to know if the course would lead to anyone getting fired. We were sympathetic to this – no one wants to get fired, let alone get someone else fired. But Canada Post is on a course to lay people off and put people out of work through injuries resulting from unsafe working conditions. So it’s not really a choice between risky tactics that bring the threat of firing or safe tactics that promote job security. If we don’t fight back effectively our job security is nonexistent. Anyone who has ever seen management bully a co-worker out of a job knows this.
We also had to have the course go through the President before we could put it on. Folks were particularly concerned about the IWW booklet. One member of the executive even said it ‘was not from a legitimate labour organisation’. That’s not true but even if it was, our attitude was that any tool that is useful for taking action on the job is a tool that should be in our members toolkit for organizing. Members ofthe executive demanded a separate vote just on the IWW publication. The vote passed by a slim majority. After a lot of stalling and roadblocks we finally decided that we would draw on the network we had been building and have people show up at a union meeting and pass a motion instructing the local to put on the course through the Organising Committee.
By this point it was pretty clear that there would be opposition to the workfloor activist course so we prepared for all the arguments we had already heard. We also used this as an opportunity to build up our members confidence and abilities. We encouraged and pushed the organising committee members who were shy to speak up and explain to the membership why they felt we needed this course. We also anticipated the motion being ruled out of order for technical reasons. We prepared to challenge the chair and we had some members read the relevant parts of the union constitution and bylaws so we could use them to defend our case if it came to that. We planned the meeting just like we would a job action. We tried our best to anticipate what opposition would come our way and we ran through what the arguments would be.
When the general membership meeting came there was a heated debate. As the vote was being counted it became clear there was a clear majority in favour of the workfloor activist course. Some members of the executive then charged that the motion passed was anti-democratic and that everyone had their minds made up before they arrived at the meeting. No doubt there were a lot of members who wanted a course, they went to the meeting to get a course and they left having gotten the course.
The course itself was a combination of CUPW material on mapping workplace dynamics and building a campaign and IWW role plays on direct action on the job. The course went through convincing members to take action all the way to how to plan and execute the actions themselves, ending with a role play on how to do a ‘march on the boss’ action. The course is still put on by the local every few months and is tremendously popular.
In total we put about 45 people through the training program that fall, the original plan and budget was for 60 people but foot dragging by other parts of the executive and continuous resistance made putting the course on extremely difficult. In the end the evaluations from the course gave it rave reviews. The facilitators from the course became extremely confident in not only teaching the course but acting out the program on the floor. Immediately following each course there was a short burst in militancy on the floor in workplaces where people had attended the course. What lasted much longer was an institutional understanding of how to plan a job action and carry it out, and a further spreading of a spirit of standing up against the boss together with your brothers and sisters on the job.
Events in Winnipeg
Canada Post Corporation had been planning for some time to change their equipment and working practices. The intention was to make these changes across the entire country, starting with Winnipeg. The changes planned were startling. It was to be the biggest technological change in post office in thirty years. For Letter Carriers the mail was to arrive already sorted by machines in the plant, cutting the inside portion of their workday down significantly. The plant was going to see hundreds of jobs automated out of existence in every major city in Canada. The Mail Service Couriers, parcel delivery drivers, were going to be almost entirely eliminated and instead all of the work was to be put on to the Letter Carriers. In addition to this Letter Carriers were going to be instructed to carry their mail in two bundles instead of one, making walking much less safe as workers were left fumbling with mail instead of keeping their eyes on where they were walking. This slowed down delivery and made it significantly less safe. Many concerns were brought up to management and most of them were simply blown off, even the legendary contract language protecting against technological change was not proving to be as effective at stopping the worst parts of the technological change as everyone in the union had expected.
Winnipeg was picked as the first place the new changes were to be implemented. When the new system for letter carriers was introduced in Winnipeg workplace injuries went through the roof and so did forced overtime. Workers were routinely putting in twelve hour days. Workers felt the changes not only in increased injury rates but also at home as families felt the brunt of parents being at work far later than they were before. Despite the problems, many of the workers insisted that any new system had to be given some time to work. Still the days were long and more workers were injured. Finally after three months the workers took action.
The first wave of letter carriers arrived at their depot on November 22nd they began sorting their mail into their cases the old way instead of using the machine sorted method. Management retaliated by suspending the lowest seniority, newest worker on the job. After that everyone else on that shift walked off the job. When the second wave of Letter Carriers arrived later that morning they promptly left in solidarity. Across the city in another letter carrier depot workers used their right to refuse unsafe work. The Corporation responded by locking the union executive out of the Depots and Winnipeg Plant, perceiving these actions as instigated by the union when that was obviously not the case.
Waves of Militancy
When the workers in Winnipeg walked off the job in protest, workers on the floor in Edmonton acted in solidarity almost immediately. Within two hours of the Winnipeg walkout, people in Edmonton were spreading the word. Depot 9 in Edmonton began a black armband campaign in solidarity with Winnipeg. Soon there was a regular black t-shirt day protest in the mail plant in solidarity with Winnipeg and coordinated with the people in depot 9 and their armband campaign. Then the black arm-bands spread to several other depots. One steward, addressing a crowd of 100 letter carriers said “until we know the decision on the discipline in Winnipeg I want you to consider these arm-bands a part of your uniform”. We were for that, but wanted to see things go further than symbolic actions. We decided to use the symbolic action to create conversation and push forward more effective tactics that would make the employer actually have to change. The first step toward more effective actions was spreading the word in order to make sure as many co-workers as possible knew what was happening.
Then some folks in Depot 9 wanted to escalate so they started holding coffee break meetings on the loading dock. These meetings were the same actions that began the wave of militancy that culminated in the Delton walkout. The workers read statements that were drafted by other militants in Winnipeg, many of these statements were play-by-play accounts of the actions taken by workers in Winnipeg.
The organising committee played very little role initiating actions – both symbolic actions like the arm-bands and more effective actions that began to take place – but it did play an important role. The organising committee helped coordinate actions that were breaking out in different work installations. Coordination happened mostly through quick phone calls while on our coffee breaks and a very active and lively text message list. We also spread the word management’s reactions to the workers’ actions in Winnipeg and in Edmonton.
The workfloor meetings like the ones that were happening in Depot 9 were publicized by text message and phone calls. Our hard work in creating worker-to-worker relationships and spreading contact information meant that CUPW members could communicate quickly and effectively with each other. This allowed news and inspiration to circulate from workplace to workplace, so that actions in one place would help bring on actions in another.
By this point we had a good idea where we could mobilise people. That list and our capacity was growing by the minute. After the coffee break meeting at Depot 9 several other depots started wearing armbands. People started wearing the black t-shirts on the shifts in the plant where we were not as strong. We then started pushing these shifts to hold meetings. Many of them had meetings that were very well attended. Most of these meetings created a space where people who were not on the union executive or had never given a speech before had a chance to read a statement from the blog, or get up on a mail tub and vent their anger. This gave people more confidence their own ability to act. By this point we all knew that we were building momentum.
As things escalated in Winnipeg the workers’ rage escalated in Edmonton. Soon accounts were coming back to the floor of union officers not being allowed to visit the workfloor in Winnipeg for management’s fear that they might incite the workers. The better informed the workers were the more they wanted to act. The next step was a big one but the depot that had been leading the way through this whole process, Depot 9, took the next step and led 50 workers into the bosses’ office demanding that there be no retaliation against the workers in Winnipeg for refusing to do unsafe work and walking off the job. It was a textbook march on the boss action. It couldn’t have been a better example of the sort of thing the training tried to model in march on the boss role-play. And this real march on the boss gave participants a better training in workplace action than anything any educational course could ever offer.
A Little Bit of Dignity
Over the next two days, three other depots and one section of inside workers took similar actions. Each in turn led mass delegations into the employer’s office and demanded that Winnipeg not be disciplined. These ‘March on the Boss’ actions ranged from 40 people up to as big as 75 people. The management team went white as a sheet every time. They stammered and stared blankly at the people whom they had bullied and degraded for years as they showed strength, dignity, and poise. They listened while the workers spoke in terms of dignity, fairness, justice, and the indignity, unfairness, and injustice that Canada Post was inflicting on our fellow workers in Winnipeg. There was very little talk about this being a ‘union’ thing. Instead this was a chance for hundreds of people to settle accounts with those whom they resented. In some of the depots management didn’t go back on to the floor for over a month after these actions. In one fell swoop the workers pushed the bosses into their office in several job sites and kept them there.
Workers held their heads much higher and the stewards universally became more assertive with management. While some things such as pay and benefits are determined by people in Ottawa- whether or not a supervisor yells at you or makes sexist jokes can be addressed quickly and cleanly on the floor and many workers resolved to take less abuse.
Every workplace struggle is partly a struggle for material needs, but it is always also a struggle for dignity and it is often this side of the struggle that will motivate people to take real meaningful action. With these actions, over the course of one week in late November 2010, the wave crested. Soon the Christmas rush really set in and everyone prepared themselves for the chaos that ensues at the post office every holiday season. There were certainly flare-ups and confrontations but they did not take on the mass scale they had in November until the Christmas rush had finished for another year. In the end there were about a dozen workfloor meetings, five “Marches on the Boss” and over five hundred workers participating in the black armband/t-shirt campaign. During the last wave of walkouts, three years earlier, the corporation gave everyone five day suspensions without pay and their disciplinary letters were to remain on file for one year. For the workers in Winnipeg, they received letters on their file and no loss of pay with the letters being removed after six months providing there was not another unlawful work stoppage. Technically there was still a five day suspension but the pay would not be deducted if the letters were removed after six months.
Often a union will publicize a grievance victory by telling everyone the total sum of money paid out in a grievance settlement. So if a thousand workers get fifty dollars each the union will say the workers got fifty thousand dollars from the corporation. This can make a modest victory sound like a spectacular gain. It also reduces something priceless — like a workers feeling of stability in their lives or the confidence that comes from telling a boss you won’t take their abuse anymore into a dollar amount. It’s simply good organising to publicise your victories and any working class organisation should do this but we also run a real risk of tying ourselves up in our own rhetoric. A fifty dollar settlement will never lead a worker to risk their comfort to stand up to abuse. It will not inspire anyone to fight for a better world and it will not give them the conviction required to do the right thing when faced with an injustice. We don’t fight for dollars and cents. We fight for values and relationships.
While there were important material gains in this struggle, above all, the workers came away with greater confidence and independence developed through struggle. They did not do these things because they thought a grievance payout was coming and the issue itself, solidarity with workers in another city who had been wronged did not leave much room for self interest. But a whole new layer learned not only how to organise on the floor, but also that they could do these things without first getting permission from the union hierarchy. This gave them confidence and from this confidence came militancy. These things had nothing to do with the collective bargaining agreement in any real sense, they had to do with something much more intangible- it had to do with the desire to be human in a dehumanising system.
The Myth of Spontaneity
One of the most seductive beliefs for working class radicals is the belief in spontaneous action. From the outside these events could appear to have come from nowhere except the raw alienation of disaffected workers. There can be no doubt that waves of militancy quickly take on a life of their own and that in our case there was never any single group of people who was in control of what happened or a single channel that everything passed through. No one can deny that the feeling of degradation that comes with our jobs, like almost all jobs, also fuels these activities. But there are plenty of places where workers feel disrespected and workers don’t respond collectively. And there are plenty of places where workers lash out in ways that don’t lead to this kind of action. Workplace theft, absenteeism and high turnover are all ways that demoralised workers deal with and resist work. But just because workers resist doesn’t mean that their resistance will ever progress into something bigger.
Most workplaces never get beyond the stage of grumbling and resentment and individual actions. At this stage workers are just as likely to turn on each other at they are to stand together. But at some jobs the workers begin to take the same acts of resistance and start doing them together. Grocery clerks decide to cover for each other while they play on their cell phones in the bathroom. If a manager is rude to them they try and get them fired and finally a few may try to all call in sick together to protest bad working conditions. As soon as these actions become social instead of anti-social, collective instead of individual, they begin to take on a life of their own. The actions then have the potential to create waves, workers push and the boss pushes back, the workers move forward and then things calm down. This can happen in a single workplace, across an industry, across a city, a country… the entire planet. When workers stand up it creates a situation where new possibilities open up and a memory of struggle those workers will draw on in the future. When word of a victory spreads workers in other places gain confidence.
Aside from spontaneity, there’s a seductive idea at the other extreme, that of thinking that working class struggle can be entirely conscious and planned out in advance from a single center of command and control. The revolution will not occur at an appointed time to be decided by referendum and executed by a perfectly democratic revolutionary union. But it will not spontaneously leap from the struggles of thousands of workplace militants either. The same is true for smaller scale actions, short of revolution. The successes we saw at the post office in Edmonton were not because of revolutionaries directing everything or spontaneous struggles that happened entirely on their own. Our success happened because we built from what we had. We built relationships with our co-workers, got our co-workers connected more with each other, and we gave people the confidence in their own power as workers. That gave workers the ability to act independent of any force that tried to undermine that activity, which in turn reinforced everything we built.
The direct action course, the text message list, the member-to-member contact, the blog, the articles in the union newsletter and the interventions in union meetings were all chosen to build that power and to let things take on a life of their own where no one could intervene and slow things down. The key to the success of these actions was that no one was encouraging anyone to depend on someone more knowledgeable or who was in a position of authority. Those of us with more experience and know-how did our best to share that knowledge and experience so that anything important we knew how to do for others we were also teaching others how to do for themselves. Above all, we took the attitude that all of us are experts when it comes to our own struggles.
Certain friends and fellow travelers have said “nothing is more alien to a strike than it’s end”. It’s true that there is always frustration and anger from the militants when a struggle begins to wind up. There’s an incredible rush that comes from people taking action for themselves, and an inevitable crash that comes after. Struggles create feelings of possibility and offer glimpses of possible futures. That makes it hard to go back to the monotony of business as usual and the “this day is never going to end!” feeling of life on the job. To cope with these emotional dynamics that all struggles have, it’s important to understand that these things come in waves. The best thing you can do as one wave of struggle in winding up is to lay the groundwork for the next struggle (and prepare people for the inevitable back-lash from workers sympathetic to the boss and the boss himself). Part of our success in mobilising workers, building independent initiative and dealing with efforts to channel the struggle into more conventional tactics such as arbitrations, contract negotiations and consultation with the employer, was we took the time to analyse what happened in the previous wave of struggles. From that analysis we made a plan on how to build infrastructure that built self reliance on the part of the workers on the job. This infrastructure, the direct action courses, the text message system, the use of blogs and an independent meeting schedule allowed us to build a movement that was centered on the work floor.
As this wave of struggle wound up other waves were already clearly on the horizon, first the contract negotiations for the CUPW Urban Operations contract and then the Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers contract runs out at the end of next year. There were also unanticipated struggles. The task is always look at our strengths and our weaknesses and see what we need to build to develop these struggles and take them as far as we can – toward the next wave after them, and as close to a world without bosses as possible!
This originally appeared online at Recomposition.