Buffalo Jump

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BuffaloJump3

Last week we brought you the first in a series of articles by Phineas Gage about a strike at Canada Post. This week as the strike rolled on the workers faced a common challenge of workplace battles. The government, employers, and national union began making moves to diffuse the situation and try to control the actions of the workers. Viewed from inside the strike at one local we see the decisions workers were wrestling with to try and combat the cut backs, austerity, and attacks being leveled against them on the job, and at the same time responding to the real possibilities of further losses, repression, and possible sabotage from above.

 

 

Buffalo Jump

I had only slept a few hours when I returned to the Mail Processing Plant the morning after they locked us out. As I parked my car I watched a crowd of Postal Workers gathered around a Lexus with the doors open, the trunk open and a bunch of chanting. I saw Sheila hauling a tire out of the trunk of the Lexus and bounce it a few times on the ground. I guess a few workers had this done to their vehicles when they took road trips across the border to the USA, the guards were seeing if there were drugs inside it, and thought that was how a proper search was done. The man in the suit got into his car and Sheila slammed the door hard behind him. He pulled out of the crowd safely but when at the edge of the mob he squealed his tires.

The mob covered their ears and a few plastic bottles were thrown at the car as he sped away.

I parked my car and found Harjit talking to a few stewards on the line. “Okay so at the assembly this morning we decided fifteen minutes right?” everyone nodded. “By my count that one went a bit too fast, we need to hold them up as long as we can.”

“Why?” One of the less militant stewards asked.

Harjit smiled, “because this is about power and right now we have the power”.

The workers dragged the whole process out for about an hour and a half before the last of about a dozen cars managed to get out. Once the fun was done they went back to putting the burn barrels in place, and building a barricade at the back gate to keep the big trucks from getting to the loading dock.

Soon the commotion settled down into the routine that would prevail for the next few weeks. Stewards stood on the line and trucks would drop off timber for the burn barrels. Workers would march up and down the line and vent about the company, their home lives and each other.

Sheila turned to Christine. “Before the lockout I started talking to the bank about a mortgage. I figured once the new contract is signed my financial situation will be more predictable. It’s pretty upsetting.”

Christine shook her head, “Yeah I was looking at the same thing a couple years ago. It’s crazy, my parents made the same income and they paid down a house.”

Sheila put her hand on Christine’s arm, “I know, my boyfriend and I are putting down enough for a condo but it’s really stretching us. The bank didn’t approve us for the place we want, my student loans lowered what they would let us take out.”

Scab Hunters

I almost missed the text between all the others that were flying across my screen. Statements like “good turnout at Rosedale” or “WMS needs firewood”. Ugh, everyone always needed firewood.

“WE FOUND SCABS EMPTYING REDBOXES!!!!!!”

“Red Boxes” are the letterboxes Canada Post Corporation uses. I got the address and texted the rest of the city wide organising committee to keep them on alert.

I grabbed Pete, who was wearing a Yellow Mesh trucker hat that said “CUPW Strike of ’92, Scab Hunter”. We got in a car and we floored it down to a strip mall with a few red boxes near the location. So we camped out next to one and waited an hour. Sure enough a plain white minivan pulled up and stopped.

“FEB 079” Pete mumbled the licence plate number as he wrote into a pad of paper. I then opened the door and got out just as a really young guy got out without noticing me. He walked towards the Red Box and I was right behind him. He reached into his pockets and pulled out some mail keys and opened the box as I was just walking up. He had it halfway open when I took one step past him, hip checking him and kicked the box shut. He was startled and stepped back.

“What the fuck are you doing?!” He looked at me dumbfounded.

“I-I’m emptying the mail box”.

“First off, the fuck you are. Second off, where are you taking it?” He rattled off an address, Pete was writing it down.

“You’re gonna get back in that car and if I catch you emptying these boxes again I will break your legs. You should know better than to fuck with a strike”. He didn’t say anything and ran back to his car and drove away.

Pete looked at me sideways from his seat in the car, “that was some crazy redneck shit. Would you have broken his legs?”

“I don’t know, probably not, but saying that means I probably won’t have to and that’s what matters”. Let’s check out that address when we have some free time tomorrow.

As we drove back to the office the radio told us the news. They described the back to work legislation as including heavy fines against the union if they defied the legislation, but just as heavy fines against the individual officers.

Then the news played a quote from the President of a very large and influential private sector union, he pledged to help Air Canada to fight the legislation but also called on the CUPW to defy the legislation. That created quite a buzz on the picket lines.

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Picketing

A few days later Jay was standing on the line when Sam tried to cross it. Jay stepped in front of him and said “you’re not crossing this line Sam”. Sam was a labour relations guy for the Corporation, he wore a sharp suit and shades.

“Look Jay we got a picket line protocol with National saying that we would only be held up fifteen minutes”. Jay shook his head, “this is our line and we elect National, they work for us, and we say you don’t cross”. Lots of the stewards were still pissed about management not taking their line seriously during the rotating strikes.

Sheila was the picket captain and she was watching from the sidelines.

Sam swore and pushed Jay, Jay swore back and reached for a broken piece of pallet next to a burn barrel. Sam’s eyes went wide behind his expensive sunglasses. Sheila took a step forward thinking she should calm things down, then she remembered all the times Sam covered for the sexist remarks from her supervisors that she had grieved. She waited.

Jay stepped forward and took one long swing, Sam stepped back letting the long board fan past him. Jay then gritted his teeth and lunged forward. Sam ran out into the parking lot with Jay shouting at him and chasing him into the plant doors.

I was sleeping on the union office couch when Sam called Craig. I woke up groggily and hear half a conversation. “Well what were you doing trying to cross the line Sam?”….”look I know we can’t have people attacking people”….”sure we’ll look at the videos from the security cameras”…”no we aren’t taking him off the line”.

I got up put my jacket on and went down to the downtown main post office.

When I got there a bunch of workers were grumbling angrily in front of the doors. Across the street was a manager with a brand new truck and a set of golf clubs. They were standing on the road behind the truck drinking coffee and pretending to swing golf balls at the picket line. Jay was off to the side talking to one set of Police, Sam to another.

Jay eventually pointed at me and the officers waved me over. When I got closer I realised it was the police I dealt with the first night of the lockout.

“Did you see any of this?”

“No, I just got here”. The police looked at me sternly.

“Okay look, I’ll level with you guys. We’re given a lot of leeway on this stuff, the city doesn’t want us wrapped up in a strike and be perceived to be taking sides. Ever since the Gainers strike in the 80’s they feel strikes are bad PR for us. So our instructions are to only press charges when we think there was premeditated intent. This looks like it was emotions flying a little high.”

Jay nodded and smiled.

“This does not mean anything goes. We’re going to make note of this and if we have to talk to you again Jay it won’t be as easy of a ride. We’ll throw the book at you.”

Jay nodded without smiling.

“Duly noted officer, we’ll make a note of it too”. I tried not to sound relieved but I obviously was.

As Jay and I walked away I turned to him and said, “try not to talk to the cops without a witness around. This may just be a nice guy routine and you want someone there to be a witness in case they say you said something you didn’t”.

When I got back to the office everyone was talking about the news. Word had come from National that the conservatives were on the verge of tabling back to work legislation.

Where All Roads Lead

“That came fast” said Pete, setting a newspaper down on the table in the diner. Christine nodded, “well lets get this agenda on track”.

Keith lead the first item on the agenda off, “I know we don’t usually have members of the executive here but this week I wanted Phinneas and Ike to sit down with us and talk about the next steps in light of the back to work legislation”. The group passed a motion allowing us voice but not vote and we settled into discussion about what our response was going to be to the Government’s next moves.

“If you look at the history of CUPW the big wins were always when we defied that legislation”, Christine was stating something half the room knew but the other half probably needed to hear.

“…defied legislation and in one case managed to get the President thrown in jail for three months” Ike added.

“Do you actually think our leaders are willing to go to jail? CUPW used to have the right leadership, people with guts and analysis, all I see in Ottawa now are bureaucrats.” Said Keith.

It was my turn. “I think it’s pretty clear at the National Level all roads lead to arbitration. Their plan at least as I’ve been told is to bring just enough pressure to the Corporation to make them settle on something before the Government steps in”.

Christine had her hand up, Keith nodded, “my problem with that plan is that it puts all the power in Nationals hands and assumes this fight began with the contract negotiations and will end when the ink is dry. Also what happens if the back to work legislation comes in before Canada Post settles? It looks to me like they will just wait it out”.

Sheila had her hand up; once it was her turn she started talking while watching a packet of sugar she was pushing around on the table. “Still though, if they pass that legislation and National caves what do we do?”

“National will cave,” I said.

“Then we need a plan that doesn’t rely on Ottawa”, said Christine.

Keith sighed, “it looks like there is some appetite to fight this in the rest of the unions. There was that quote on the news from one union president who said they thought we should defy it. We should press the CLC to call a general strike.” Most of the other depot representatives at the meeting nodded.

Ike spoke on his turn, “I think the rest of the unions members are as disconnected from their own union leadership as ours is, probably even more disconnected”.

I put my hand up and spoke shortly after Ike. “I agree, remember that plan you had before Keith. The one we talked about where you thought you could probably march the workers from Depot 9 down to Whitemud and possibly close it down?” He nodded.

“If we pulled the depot committees and put them in front of key pieces of infrastructure, like the Bus Barns for Edmonton Transit, the Airport and the Purolator Plant or going at the city Power Plants we might have a chance of shutting down the needed infrastructure. I still think it’s a gamble and I don’t think those lines would hold for long but we might be able to spread it fast enough to at least throw the process off kilter”.

Keith shook his head, “we can’t make a move like that without some institutional support from somebody. A move that big has to happen through the proper channels”. I disagreed but held my tongue, part of the problem were the official channels and how they were shaped but the reason they were a problem was because everyone believed in them.

“The local will have to call some kind of meeting late in the strike, there’s a General Membership Meeting coming up. I move that we draft a motion to bring to the next meeting to call on the rest of the Canada Labour Congress to call a general strike”.

No one voted against it, I had no vote so I didn’t even have to abstain.

Joe Davidson, a former CUPW President during some of its most militant years, once mentioned that CUPW was formed outside of the other major public sector unions largely because they disagreed with the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s support for arbitration over strikes. They felt that the right to strike was an important safeguard to maintain the right to collective bargaining. After a few initial strikes of dubious legality CUPW found itself winning concessions, eventually these concessions were given at arbitration following a strike.

The problem is that now arbitration following a strike was as much a part of the ritual as the PSACs practice of just going to arbitration. While the official union at this point worked closely with the organisers on the floor to bring chaos to the Post Office it was becoming clear that “the official channels” knew this would wind up in arbitration all along.

Instead of just going to arbitration the system that was in place for CUPW worked like a Buffalo Jump. Before settlers wiped out the Buffalo Herds to subjugate native people the way indigenous people would hunt buffalo would be to run them off cliffs. They would form fires that were very far apart and put people with spears behind the fires. Then a few particularly gutsy individuals would rush the herd and instigate a stampede. The buffalo would panic and run between the fires that were very far apart. Then they would pass two more fires that were closer to each other and would crowd in closer at the shoulders and press forward even faster. Then they would pass another fire that would press them even closer together, now the only animals with a field of vision that could see what was ahead was a very small group. Then the ground would drop out from a stampeding mass of flesh and wind up at the bottom of a cliff where that flesh was then separated from any brain or will of its own. Free to be harvested.

On either side of us we could see the fires, and we could see the Government charging behind us. We knew that our only hope was to turn things sideways but once the herd starts running it becomes very difficult to steer. We were just one city, a few thousand members out of a fifty thousand member bargaining unit.

After the meeting I got back into my car and heard the news, the details of the back to work legislation were announced. The penalties for defiance were one hundred thousand dollars a day to any union that defied, and fifty thousand dollars a day to any officer of the union that defied, and one thousand dollars a day to any union member that stayed out on the line after the bill was passed. The bill also mandated a 19$ per hour starting rate for any new hire and a different inferior pension plan with a later retiring date. It also said the remaining contractual issues would be settled by an arbitrator appointed by the government. That arbitrator would be given strict requirements stacked in the corporations favour and the decision would work through a process called “Final Offer Selection” where he could either choose one complete offer from the corporation or the union but could not take parts of either one.

We were being faced with a process where the legislative branch of the government was tying us to a board and the judiciary was about to eviscerate us.

Hand In Glove

The Local President put down the most recent Bulletin from National Office laying out the details of the legislation for a few of us, we met in her office. It was a bunch of the folks from the depot committees and a couple of the more direct action oriented members of the local Executive. This was the peak of a point since the wildcat strike in St. Albert where The President, the executive, and the depot committees worked together the most closely.

Ike put forward his idea, “We need to get everyone into a big assembly to talk about this, like we did with the fight around forceback.” Everyone agreed with that and folks got on the phones and started calling around for a place to hold it.

A couple hours later Sheila picked up a phone and called the first layer of the phone tree, “hi Jay, yeah it’s Sheila, it looks like the local is calling a mass meeting for the Shaw conference centre next week… Yeah we’re going to discuss what our next steps are going to be”.

A half dozen of us sat around a coffee table in the union office chatting while dialling people up and explaining that there was going to be a meeting “like the one we held over forced over time”.

I caught the President in the hallway outside the room the phone calls were happening in, “okay so what’s the agenda for the meeting?”

“National is sending out information, I was thinking Pete could facilitate the meeting”.

“You mean chair?”

“Well no, there’s some popular education material from the National Vice President in charge of education she wants in there. Pete and I are still working through what she has sent me and there’s more coming from Headquarters over the next couple days”.

Mass Meeting

The funny thing about a big room with high ceilings is that it always looks almost empty. Even a big person, or an even bigger personality, has to stand on a raised platform to be seen from the back of the room. Everyone sat at circular tables arranged throughout the room, facing each other, not the front of the room.

The dull murmur of six hundred stressed out postal workers washed over the room. My phone buzzed, I looked at it, there was a message from Keith:

“Do you have the agenda?”,

I texted back, “nope”.

“Prez said the agenda came from National, when is there going to be room for motions or votes?”

“No idea, Prez ain’t saying much about what’s happening”.

The proceedings opened up with The Local President standing at the front of the room. She gave a brief introduction and then explained the situation with the back to work legislation. She then introduced the facilitator for the session, Pete, as Edmonton’s “next local President”.

I winced and looked across the room to Christine who was in the process of picking her jaw up off the floor. My pocket buzzed, it was Keith, the message read: “?!”.

As I watched the scene at the front it didn’t look like that was planned, Pete was visibly embarrassed and started reading off his notes. He was usually a better public speaker than that.

Pete, reading off the sheet said: “If you helped on the picket line stand up” and the rest of the group clapped and cheered. Then “if you helped bring firewood to the line” that group stood up and the rest clapped and cheered. “If you helped out in the office”, lots of folks put a lot of work into sorting out the logistics for strike pay, everyone clapped and cheered.

Despite all the clapping and cheering a large group were also starting to get uneasy. One person spoke up and said “I didn’t come here to be congratulated, I came here to talk about what we are going to do about the legislation”.

I looked at Sheila at the back of the room and she was shaking her head. A few small groups were making their way to the door. Eventually there was a smoke break and everyone headed for the door.

“This is a disaster”, said Ike, as he and I walked out into the daylight. Keith was agitated as hell, “this is a big, big problem. When are we going to get a chance to talk?”

Sheila was angry. “Craig said there will be time to talk when we go back in”. Keith frowned, he had a very long speech prepared, it was going to be his move to try and get a motion passed calling on the Canada Labour Congress for help. What was even more worrying was that a lot of people were heading for their cars and weren’t going back in.

“Why is everyone leaving?” asked Ike.

I was getting a headache from the stress. “Because everyone knows that when you run the credits the show is over. National just sent the message loud and clear ‘that’s all folks’!”

We walked back in to the room where before the smoke break there was six hundred workers, now the room had about two hundred. If it was mostly empty space before it was a vacuum now. The President was back up at the podium standing next to Pete and Craig was at the first microphone. Keith made a point of being second.

Craig cleared his throat and spoke into the microphone. “I have been at Canada Post Corporation a long time and I’ve seen a lot of strikes but this one was like nothing I have ever seen before. This lockout, let’s remember that, it wasn’t a strike, this lockout brought the whole weight of the Harper Tories down on us. We need to keep fighting, but we can’t keep the strike up. It will bankrupt the union and bring thousands of dollars of fines down on the members”. He then repeated the numbers on the fines and who would be fined what.

“The Government has also said they will impose a worse contract on us now if we keep fighting. We need to settle for the best contract we can get not for guys like me, I’ll be retiring soon, but for the new young workers. They will have to live and work under that contract for decades”.

“This is why we need to keep the fight up in the courts and at the ballot box. We need to stay mobilised to bring a new Government in!”

There was some clapping and cheering, one guy shouted “N-D-P! N-D-P!”, the initials for the New Democratic Party, a Canadian Social Democratic political party that at the time was doing well in the polls and had strong labour backing.

Keith got up to the microphone and looked at the front of the room, cold, stern, and steely eyed. “We definitely need a new government and we definitely need to kick Harper out. There are a lot of people out there looking to this union for leadership. We also can’t submit to final offer arbitration.”

The folks at the front of the room winced at this, not ‘submitting’ to arbitration almost always leads to punitive measures the whole point of arbitration is to demand submission. In arbitration good behaviour is rewarded, bad behaviour is punished. The purpose of arbitration is to condition the feuding parties into getting along. The people at the front of the room were all extremely experienced with this system and also conditioned by it, they knew a way to win the game and defiance was not rewarded.

“A strike, a winning strike, can do that. It can show workers everywhere that we are willing to struggle, and we are willing to win. If we show leadership now we can win this, we can fight this and we can bring the fight to the Conservatives in a much stronger position!”

He paused and a lot of the remaining crowd cheered, the mood in the room was turning around a bit.

“That is why I prepared this motion, calling on the Canada Labour Congress to call a general strike!” Keith then started reading the motion.

The local President was ashen faced at the front of the room, she didn’t like Keith much at the best of times but this felt like a hijacking. “It’s out of order Pete, rule it out of order”. Pete who was chairing the meeting shook his head. Pete kind of agreed with Keith but he respected The Local President, he wasn’t one for fighting other union activists and knew crushing this would just push the divide in the ranks even further.
Craig walked briskly from the back of the room and said “this is just blowing off steam, let the anarchists run their mouths off at the microphones. It will make everyone feel good, like it or not this meeting wasn’t called under the bylaws so there’s nothing binding, we just smile and nod and it will all blow over”.

Pete then let the people at the microphones start speaking on the motion. People were enthusiastically in favour, at least those that were left. When the vote was called it was overwhelmingly in favour with a handful of folks on the local executive voting against. The room cleared out.

That evening Craig sent an email to the National Director, a handful of friends in various CUPW offices and the Third National Vice President in Ottawa. Sitting in the union office, holding down the fort, he quietly sipped a beer while typing up a report on what was happening in Edmonton. ‪

“Hey folks,
The meeting overall was really good, some criticisms, some folks upset at the situation but overall pretty positive. The ultra left made their move and tried to push a motion. It was not to defy, but struggle to defeat, but basically meaningless, except for not submitting to a final offer. So we called the question. I just got it called and all of us pretty well just voted for it to diffuse the motion.
Maybe we should have fought it, or amended it to remove the part about not submitting but I think it would have destroyed the overall positive gathering.
Unsurprisingly it’s all over Facebook, sorry I guess we did the best we could.”
-Craig

“Hey Craig,
Thanks for the update. We’re all very excitable and stressed here. I called my lawyer and told him we don’t need to transfer it all over to my wife’s name. Keep us posted if anything else develops. Send Dianne my love. Still, I totally understand the venting about an unfair system weighted against us, that’s exactly why we need to keep our calm though, losing it over this isn’t a winning emotional state.”
-Tony

“Wow, it is true what people say. Those Alberta people are rich! Pete and the kids can’t wait for the general strike! It will almost take our minds off the fact that we lost everything! Good to hear it’s under control. I know, I know, we’re just weak and scared!”
-Linda

  

Craig’s beer was done. He shut down the computer, locked up the office and went up stairs and slept on the couch.

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Turning up the Heat

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Turning up the Heat!

Postal Workers rally around the plant after being locked out.

This week we proudly present you the first of a three part series that detail a set of organizing actions by postal workers in Canada during 2011. It is written by fellow Recomposition editor Phineas Gage who expounds on the actions that led up to the CUPW strike, the predicaments that workers faced challenging management, and the indelible memory of seeing management flee an angry mob of strikers.

Enjoy, and check back next week for Part 2!

 

Turning up the Heat
by Phineas Gage

 

Craig stood inside the Mail Processing Plant doors, just about to punch in. His phone rang – the number for National.

The voice on his cell phone spoke excitedly. Craig nodded slowly.

“Almost ready, we have a couple depots that are slacking but this will light a fire under their ass,” he said.

The voice from the National Office spoke again.

“Okay, I’ll pass that on. So the strike could start tomorrow, it could be in a few weeks, you will keep us posted but we probably won’t hear much until you tell us to go”. Craig talked into the phone loudly enough that the other people standing near him could hear. Grand standing while no one is supposed to be paying attention is the oldest trick in the book.

“For all their talk about ‘direct action’ Depot 2 sure seems to not be interested in the big job action we have planned for a few weeks from now. You remember that one, right? The strike? That’s a pretty big job action, right?”

There was muffled chuckling from the voice on the phone.

“Yeah I heard about the workers at Air Canada, good to hear it’s not just us up against the Conservatives!”

The National Office voice laughed. Craig pushed open the plant doors. Time to start getting more phone numbers.

The doors closed behind him. A high-pitched shrieking filled the air all around him, setting his teeth on edge. A young sister flew past him on a forklift, a little orange whistle hanging out of her mouth. A tiny orange stick hung out of half the workers’ mouths in there.

A manager walked by covering his ears, his polished shoes taking him quickly behind a thick metal door that slammed behind him. Another worker, wearing a Shop Stewards pin, saw Craig covering his ears, handed him a set of earplugs and winked.

Craig smiled and put in the earplugs. The noise dimmed to just manageable chaos. Across the plant he could see workers going about their business sorting the mail but management had cleared the floor to regroup and discuss what to do in one of their boardrooms. The atmosphere was tense but the tension was definitely pulling in the workers favour, as the Supervisors got up from their desks to be briefed on the noise levels the workers would cheer as they plodded away to disappear behind to the door.

Rotating Strike

A few days later I was in the parking lot outside the Transportation Department where I work, reading the news on my cell phone. The headlines read: “CUPW Strikes Winnipeg First”. A co-worker tapped on the windshield of my car. Toni was sweating and she was fidgeting nervously. I gathered my things and walked with her into the Transportation Hub.

“They overloaded our trucks again.”

“Then take the parcels back at the end of the day, that’s the agreement” I said casually.

We had an agreement with management that any undelivered parcels would come back at the end of the day if the trucks weren’t loaded on time. That ”agreement” wasn’t written down anywhere, but it was real. We enforced it the same way we won it, by sticking together on the shop floor. For almost a year management tried to break this agreement. They’d always threaten discipline but never delivered it. It amounted to bullying. We always pushed back and visibly supported workers who took a stand. We had a few informal arrangements like that in our department.

“Sam is saying that isn’t the deal anymore. He says now that the contract expired all bets are off and they don’t have to follow the rules”. This was bullshit and I told Toni to tell everyone on the dock that all provisions from the old contract apply until the new one was signed and no one can make you work for free. I went into a side room to sign out my mail keys, pick up my manifest and grab my scanner.

Toni met me on the way out the door “Sam threatened me with a five day suspension if I told anyone else to bring their parcels back”.

I grabbed a mail tub on my way out, walked on to the middle of the floor, and dropped the tub. I then stepped on the tub to put me up above the crowd of workers milling about and cleared my throat.

I then shouted, as loud as I could: “We work an eight hour day here and there is no forced overtime, if your truck is late that time comes off their day not yours, if you are overloaded on your parcels bring them back!”

As I turned to step down from the mail tub I saw Sam springing toward me across the room, his eyes burning with rage. I’m a big guy, over six feet and broad in the shoulders but Sam was bigger than me. I took two steps back, tripped slightly and found my back against a wall and his face up against mine as he was raising his hands towards me. He stopped and probably realised if he hit me that would not go well for the Corporation. I took the moment he needed to collect himself to duck under his shoulders and walk towards my truck, saying as calmly as possible (which wasn’t very calm), “I’m going out and delivering my mail now”.

Most of us brought some parcels back that day.

Two days later Christine got a call from Craig about the last few names for the phone tree being prepared if we had to strike, “Yes I have the last sheet of numbers for the phone tree, I will fax them in tonight after work.” Over the phone Craig gave a sigh of relief and thanks.

Christine kept on sorting her mail. A letter carrier next to her asked when they were going to walk. “I don’t know but it sure is tense around here”.

“Why don’t you just tell us to walk? You’re the shop steward around here, you have the respect of everyone else on the floor, if you said the word most of us would go.”

Christine nodded, “This isn’t the kind of union I believe in, they may think they’re real smart in Ottawa but we know this fight best because we know the job. Besides this is all about bargaining chips to them, I’m a lot more interested in pushing for control over the work as much as any pay raise. So we’re asking 2% and they’re saying nothing, an arbitrator will put it somewhere in the middle”.

Her co-worker laughed, “Oh you don’t seriously think we’re getting a raise anyways do you? This is about showing them they need us so they don’t just walk all over us.”

Christine shook her head and started putting on her mail satchel.

Generals and Armies

A few days into the rotating strike several of us in the depot committees would do a round of calls every day. These calls rotated between about five other people in about five different stations around the city. Christine, Pete, me, Sheila and a few others would often talk for an hour or so while we delivered mail, touching base with each other, providing emotional support, and trying analyse (sometimes over-analyse) what was going on at our respective stations.

When Pete picked up the phone this time Christine launched into a rant about the effect the rotating strikes were having on the floor. “Everyone is just sitting around with their thumbs up their ass and they know it, we feel like pawns”.

Pete let her vent until she cooled off. She had done the same for him a hundred times or more. “I know. I see it on the floor in my station too, probably about a third of the workers just want to walk and throw down with the boss, and another third are scared. Waiting for National Office isn’t helping with that, the sense of powerlessness feeds into their fear”.

“Okay so we know what the problem is, and we know that part of it is just letting the union brass call the shots but what do we do? I mean we have a strong enough minority on the floor we could pull a strong depot or a shift at the plant and the rest of the city would just follow right?”

“The rest of the country would probably follow, Christine.”

“Right. But then it would be self-directed right? I mean the members would get the sense of power back wouldn’t they?”

“Except that it wouldn’t be self directed, we would just get a few key militants to stand in front of the gates and they would refuse to cross.” Pete really wanted to agree with Christine but he felt he had to say his piece now. “We have a very strong and influential network but the easy part is pulling the members out. Keeping them out for what could possibly go on for weeks is the harder part. We all want this to be over quickly but if a more radical group can pull the members out in the heat of the moment when the backlash comes a more moderate group will get them back in and under arbitration sooner, and keep them under arbitration for longer”.

When Pete paused, Christine pressed her point, “but maybe we can just kick start this, if we can get everyone moving maybe a little bit of leadership is what everyone needs right now”.

Pete laughed. “Man! You sound like Keith right now! That’s all that guy talks about is leadership and how we need to take it over.” He paused.. “Leadership is definitely what everyone is looking for, and we definitely need it right now, but it has to run deeper than just a single action. If one charismatic leader can come out of the woodwork and lead everyone out the door, then another one can come along and bring everyone right back in. When that happens everything will be back under control and through the official channels”.

“Damn,” Christine groaned. ”I hate when you’re right. I mean if this happens it can’t be a cavalier thing and it could do just as much to undermine what we have build as anyone could. It would have to either come through a militant group of workers in one installation or through a mass meeting. Getting all the radicals around the city to simply block the gates would just undermine what we wanted to do and probably just lead everyone back to a more conservative kind of unionism”.

People in the labour left have been saying for years that there is a crisis of leadership in the working class. It is hard to disagree, but the problem is different from what many in the labour left think it is. This crisis runs deeper than the brand of leaders. Any organisation makes political decisions as to what layer of leadership is to be the most politically important. In most unions the formal collective bargaining process favours the leaders at the top, so when something goes wrong it would follow that changes must be made at the top. The strategy coming from Ottawa was based on rigid discipline, pressure from the top, and heavily centred on the National Executive and what was happening around the bargaining table. The problem is that your strategy is partly a function of your structure and your structure is partly a function of your politics. In other words, how different levels of leadership relate to each other, and what is an appropriate action for the leadership to take is a political decision that determines the structure of your organisation.

“We need to work to rule”, Sheila was talking to a group of letter carriers a lot of them were rolling their eyes. Everyone always tells letter carriers to work to rule and the last thing any of them will ever do is slow down. “We need to show them we’re united”.

“Then why don’t we walk out the door?” An old guy shouted from the back of the room, his arms folded across his chest defiantly.

“Why don’t you? Who is stopping you?” Sheila shot back.

“Well you’re the shop steward!”

“Okay look if you’re that serious about this why don’t we put this to a vote in two days?” The crowd seemed to agree with Sheila and the old guy backed down.

If you look at leadership as a matter of politics at the top of an organisation you leave out the political questions related to structure and you leave out the political questions related to the politics that arise from the culture on the job. Unions and other mass organisations that are involved in heated struggles are complex organisms, with moderate groups, radical groups, groups with narrow self interested motives and groups with staggering amounts of self sacrifice and vision. Often workers’ organizations will be a completely mixed bag of all these traits. Within the organization, there will be back and forth as different groups trade positions as hegemonic versus oppositional in a matter of minutes. What determines whether the good qualities win out over the bad has a lot to do with confidence, mostly confidence in your power as a group but also sometimes confidence that your cause is just. Confidence is partly a matter of having a good analysis of where you have power, it is also partly the spirit of the group and the entire class. Some structures promote these things, others limit these things, but how your organisation relates to confidence, rank and file initiative and autonomy is a political commitment.

 

Phone Calls:

Sheila pulled her phone out of her pocket. The screen said it was the local President.

“Hey” she said flatly.

“Sheila, I hear your depot wants to take a vote on when to walk tomorrow”.

“That’s what the floor decided, yeah”.

“Look, I know it’s tense” the President paused, “but we need to be sensitive of the people who aren’t speaking up”.

“What do you mean?”

“These floor meetings, all of this talk of militancy, it’s well…it’s really macho. I think as a woman you can realise that this stuff can be really intimidating.” The President paused.

“I don’t know about that, I mean I’m in the room, and I don’t think I’m macho”

“Oh I’m definitely not saying that” The President interrupted.

“Look” the President continued, “there’s a plan with National. The stakes are really high right now. If you’re depot pulls everyone out it could destroy the whole plan. In fact I have a friend at National who is telling me it will. Do you want that on your conscience?”

“No I don’t”.

“Well think about it, won’t you?”

“Okay, I’ll think about it”.

They hung up without saying bye to each other. Sheila walked outside and smoked a cigarette faster than she had ever smoked one before.

Around the same time as Sheila, Pete turned on his headset and answered a call.

“Pete. It’s Craig”.

“Hi Craig”.

“Look, someone at your depot said you want to pull everyone off the floor outside the rotation set by the national office”.

“Well Craig, if my co-workers walk I’m going to walk too and national can deal with it”.

“Pete, we elected a National Executive Board to make these decisions, it isn’t democratic”.

Pete paused. “Who elected them?” Craig replied quickly, “the members”. Pete smiled and sighed, “then can’t the members decide to walk? I mean isn’t their authority higher than the board? They elected them, right?”

Craig felt himself getting frustrated. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that this call was going to be hard. He tried another approach. “Look this is war”, Craig knew a military metaphor would get somewhere with Pete. He thought of himself as a militant and Craig figured the macho thing might sink in with a younger radical man. “In a war you need discipline. You can’t have everyone running around the jungle shooting everything they see.”

Pete cut in, “I’m not sure it’s like that kind of war”.

“Sure it is, the Viet Cong needed discipline to win. They couldn’t have every unit doing as they pleased while they ran around the jungle”. Craig said this slowly hoping it would sink in.

Pete gave him a second before replying. “I don’t think you can compare a bunch of Postal Workers in Canada fighting a corporation to a struggle for independence in a French Colony, Craig. No one is shooting guns and what we are asking for, how we are fighting for it, and what is at stake are pretty different”.

Craig continued, “the goal is a negotiated contract, as long as we can drag this out the more time we have for a negotiated contract to come into place. As soon as we bring on too much heat the back to work legislation is going to come and then we are stuck with an arbitrator”.

Craig’s concern was that the recently elected Conservative Government would simply order us back to work by act of Parliament. The union’s plan was to use rotating strikes to pressure Canada Post into negotiating without a full-blown work disruption. A blanket work disruption, the reasoning went, would simply lead to the back to work legislation sooner. So the key to the strategy was to keep just enough pressure on the Corporation to keep them at the bargaining table but not so much pressure that we would just be put under repressive legislation.

“I’m not so sure the goal is a negotiated settlement Craig,” said Pete.

“Well what the hell else are we out here for?” Craig was losing his patience.

“I mean obviously we are fighting against the company and the concessions they want from us, but we’ve been fighting for a long time now, it didn’t start with negotiations and it won’t end with this contract. This isn’t just about the contract or even mostly about the contract. This is about building power and control over the economy for ourselves”.

Craig sighed. “I have to go, Pete.”

Blowing Off Steam

Christine answered her phone.

“Looks like it’s our turn to walk!,” Harjit sounded like he was smiling. “Don’t bother going in today. Show up in street clothes and the local office will have picket signs down to your depot right away”. Chrisine smiled, got in her car, and headed to her depot.

I was talking to Ike and Pete in front of the Edmonton Mail Processing Plant. It was a sunny spring day. “Did I tell you about the call I got from Craig?” My and Ike’s blank look told Pete we had no idea what he was talking about. “Well I got this nervous call from him a day and a half ago, I guess he heard a few people on the organising committee were talking about pulling the pin and pulling us out of rotation”. Ike cocked his head to the side.

“Yeah, he was really worked up, I told him it wasn’t just us, a lot of the floor was ready to start walking all over the city and if they did that the depot committees would obviously back them”.

“That makes sense” Ike was rubbing the back of his head with one hand. “I was talking to someone at National Office about some non strike related stuff, one of my weekly reports, and they said they heard Edmonton needed to ‘blow off some steam’, that must be what this is.” Pete walked back to his car to get his cigarettes.

My phone started buzzing. The rest of the committee was texting in reports on the turnout on the picket lines, overall pretty strong. I quickly hit forward on all of them to get the news out when I saw a commotion over at the front doors.

Three black dots were passing through a crowd of denim coloured dots. We heard a lot of shouting and jeering. Ike and I immediately dropped our signs and sprinted up to see what was going on. We had just arrived as one member from another union who came out to support us shoved a Canada Post labour relations guy through the line and into the parking lot towards the plant. “What the hell happened?” I was shocked but couldn’t help chuckle a bit. One sister shouted “those pricks think this is a big joke! They just walked through our line without even asking permission! So he tried to stop them!”

“Well, they got a little taste of a picket line then” said Ike, “lets hope that was enough for them to tell the higher ups to start bargaining”. The next day we all walked back in to work and the tension just kept building.

Mail trucks parked in front of the plant gate as workers join the picket.

Mail trucks parked in front of the plant gate as workers join the picket.


Depot Occupations

Christine met in the parking lot with everyone else. They gathered in a big circle and someone else from the committee, began to chair the meeting.

“Okay folks, we have a problem, Canada Post is saying that the temps all have to be laid off and that mail is down to three day delivery, putting us all on part time work. Problem is we have a depot full of mail right there…”

An old guy, a veteran of a few strikes put his hand up, the chair nodded, “I say we go in there and take over the depot!”

“Was that a motion?” she looked at Christine, and Christine smiled and said, “sure sounded like one to me.”

An older woman, one of the injured inside workers asked, “Can we get arrested?”

Christine said, “I don’t know, but do you see any cops around?” The older woman shrugged. The discussion went back and forth for five minutes. Overall the group wanted to take action but also wanted to weigh the risks. After a few minutes the chair called the question and almost all the hands shot up in favour. The group then gathered into a tighter crowd and barged into the depot only to see the Manager, Wylie standing in front of the door having just locked it behind him.

The crowded started shouting and jeering. Wylie shouted over them, “There’s nothing you can do about this, this is the future, you had best get it out of your system now because this is what it is going to be like!”

Someone from behind the door burst out and crammed it open. Wylie reached for the door. A scuffle ensued and the carriers pushed past them, entering the depot. The crowd immediately made for the mail cages and sat down on the floor. Wylie stood there, blinking, his face red. The letter carriers began chatting with each other. Anytime Wylie came near them they would shout at him, so he disappeared into his office. A small group from the committee sent out texts, the texts came in to my phone and I relayed the information across the city by forwarding the texts.

After a few hours the police showed up. The group voted to disperse so they simply filed past a few confused managers and left the building to get on with their day.

Across town Keith sat in his car reading a newspaper as he waited for the rally to start. The headlines read: “Canada Post and Union at Impasse”. The article described how Canada Post Corporation planned on only delivering mail three days a week, locking workers out for the two days they weren’t delivering. In addition, Canada Post announced that all temporary employees had been laid off effective immediately.

When he got out of his car, that news was all anyone could talk about at the Rally. The Rally was planned to march through a popular shopping district that had a depot inside it. As the crowd of letter carriers gathered the local President grabbed a bullhorn:

“I would like to thank all of you for coming today!” The crowd cheered.

“This is a great turnout and we need to keep ourselves mobilised and active if we are going to get through this. We have a lot stacked against us, we have the Conservative Party talking about back to work legislation, when we haven’t even really been on strike yet.” The crowd booed.

“We have the media saying we make $40 an hour, does anyone here make $40 an hour?” There were scattered shouts of “no!” and “I wish!” from the crowd.

“Canada Post is telling the public that they had to lay us off because there’s no mail to deliver, well let’s march down to the depot and show them how much mail there is!” The crowd cheered again.

“Most importantly though” The President continued “we’re here for a negotiated contract!” Most of the crowd cheered and clapped. Keith looked across the crowd at Ike who was also there from the local office and smiled. Ike shrugged. Then the march was off down the street.

It was a spirited march of about 300 letter carriers. All of them had been temporarily given a three-day workweek in order to pressure the union to accept concessions. The concessions included a two tier system where newer workers would start at 19$/hour, older workers would lose one week of vacation a year, the pension plan would be cut, and there would be no alterations to the new work methods that came in under the Modern Post, a management programme with an Orwellian name. The union came to the table with some minor changes to the work methods and a pay raise that would keep pace with inflation. In Edmonton though the opening created by the bargaining period created a chance for workers to try and assert greater control over their lives at work.

As the crowd wound its way into the parking lot of the depot, the President walked up and pulled on the door. Of course it was locked. She then smiled and punched in the pass-code from when she was a letter carrier at that depot. It opened. No one had changed the code. Before she had a chance to hesitate the crowd surged past her and into the depot. As the workers entered the main room with rows and rows of sorting cases they came upon several supervisors counting mail and keeping the aisles clear. The mail was piled to the ceiling.

At this moment half the crowd immediately began taking pictures of all the mail piled up and sending it everywhere they could. The other half chased the supervisors into their office. The frightened supervisors locked themselves in. Soon the floor took on a festive atmosphere as carriers started singing and dancing in the aisles where they usually worked. Dozens of them crowded around the bosses’ office as the Supervisors and Superintendent dropped the blinds on the windows that looked out from a slightly raised platform over the tops of the sorting cases. The carriers started pounding on the walls and the door to the office, soon the drywall started to lift off the studs in the wall and plaster fell from the ceiling.

Keith got into his car after the action, his heart racing. He turned on the radio to hear that the Government had just tabled back to work legislation for the workers at Air Canada. Declaring them an essential service.

Locked!

Management trapped inside the plant by pickets as police negotiate for their release.

Lockout

I got home and put my feet up, it was a long stressful day in the middle of a long stressful month. My phone gave two short buzzes. A text message. I picked up my phone. It was from Calgary. It said: “We’re being locked out”. Then one came in from Vancouver saying the same thing. I immediately got in my car and started driving to the Plant, the only workplace with people on shift in the evenings. Halfway there I got a text saying they were being called into the break room for a meeting with management. By the time I pulled up everyone was filing out of the plant and starting to grab signs out of an old RV the union local rented for a picket headquarters.

Ike was standing on the line when I got there because the union office was closer than my house. “I guess this is where the fight really starts” he was beaming ear to ear. I nodded wearily thinking about how much we had been fighting already.

As people gathered into more orderly lines and picket captains grabbed their vests I read an article someone sent me on my phone. A quote from the Canada Post website said, “due to some troubling developments in some cities we have decided to lock workers out in the interests of the health and safety of all our staff”. What the hell did that mean?

I was interrupted from my pondering that phrase by a commotion at the front of the building. When I got there I saw line of about twenty middle-aged women, mostly from the Philipines, chanting at the front doors to the Edmonton Plant.

“We hope you brought your pyjamas!” and “Nothing In! Nothing Out!” filled the air as the crowd swelled. It turned out the sisters at the gates weren’t letting management leave. This was partly in retaliation for what happened a couple weeks ago and partly because they felt management should have left when everyone else was told to. As one sister from the crowd put it “how do we know they weren’t moving our mail in there?”

Management quickly panicked and called the Local President who just arrived on the line. She explained where the workers were coming from and Management stopped wasting their time and called the police. Soon a few patrol cars showed up and shortly after that two uniformed Labour Relations Officers from the Police Department arrived. The workers on the line refused to talk to them and refused to take their line down. This stalemate went on for about an hour.

Ike tapped me on the shoulder, “A bunch of the stewards in the plant are worried the Exec is going to cut a deal too quickly and want you to negotiate because they know you are kind of a hard ass”. I smiled, that was flattering.

“The problem is that we are taking control as the Exec, Ike. The workers should be leading this. Get everyone up at the front gate and let’s have an assembly.” Soon about two hundred people were standing in a giant circle in front of the front door with another fifty or so holding the picket lines.

The cops stood off in the distance, one of them talking to a hysterical member of Senior Management and the other looking on confused by the entire scene.

“Okay, so we’ve got them stuck in there and now the cops are here. What do we want?” One of the sisters shot her hand up immediately.

“We want an apology for crossing our line when the pickets were up last week”. Everyone cheered. Anything else? Everyone shrugged. “Well that was easy,” I thought.

“All in favour of asking for an apology?” the crowd voted unanimously in favour. I walked over to the Police and told them the demand.

“That’s all?”

“Yup”.

They got on the phone and I went back to Ike. “I was expecting a bit more demands than that”.

Ike nodded, “management are proud, we’ll see what they say”.

The cop came back to me and said, “he says that’s unacceptable, got a compromise?”

“I’m not here as a representative, I’m just a mouthpiece for the group, I’ll take that back to the group and see what they say”.

The Cop nodded and turned away but stopped and turned back around to face me.

“That’s all fine and good, but you’re the senior executive member right now and that makes what happens your responsibility. We haven’t lost our patience yet and we can see you are being fairly reasonable but at some point all this could lead to you being arrested for unlawful confinement and that’s not a light charge”.

I shrugged and tried to play it cool as I walked away. Ike and I went back to the crowd, as we walked away and I pulled my collar to one side lightly. “Tough crowd”.

“Okay folks, management has said no and the Police want us to compromise. They’re putting some heat on me and threatening to arrest me if this takes too long, I’m fine with that and will abide by what this group decides but I want you all to know everything that is going on. So what is our reply?”

Ike and I worked out an approach that meant we could conduct negotiations by assembly. Demands and counter demands would be exchanged between the crowd and management through Ike and myself as delegates who met with the Police. The standoff went late into the night but participation remained high. The members were very engaged in the discussions as we stood in a large circle and debated what to do.

I walked back to the Police, “their offer is that they will let all the junior supervisors go if the Senior management apologises.” The Labour Relations Officer for the Police nodded and got back on the phone. He jerked the phone away from his ear suddenly. I could hear swearing.

The officer shook his head as I shrugged and walked back to the crowd. It was getting late.

 

The crowd came to the realisation very quickly that at some point a deal was going to have to be cut but the police were extremely uneasy about antagonising such a large crowd of ordinarily not very radical people. If this was a campus demonstration there would have been night sticks coming out after the first words were exchanged.

“We want them to leave their damn cars behind! Make ‘em get in cabs and go home without them!” One of the soccer moms was clearly trying to hold the line.

“That sounds like a motion” I said, my voice cracking slightly. “Any opposed?” No hands went up. “All in favour?” A brief pause followed. ”Damn near unanimous”.

I walked over to the police. It was half past midnight at this point and they were drinking coffee, their eyes looked red, my eyes probably looked red too.

“So here’s our offer.” They put down their coffee. “They go out the front door and meet the cabs in the parking lot, we will hold the cabs up briefly but let them through on the way in and let them leave without hassle. As long as they leave their personal vehicles behind.”

“We just have one request”, the police replied. “Everyone of your people stays on the grass, and every one of management stays on the pavement. That way no one can take a swing at each other.”

“I’ll ask the group”. I went back and no one had an issue with it. I told the police and they made a phone call. Five minutes later we had a deal, and half an hour later we saw four yellow cabs come rolling down the road. Everyone all around was relieved.

A Deal is a Deal

Slowly the people from management began to move towards the smoked glass doors at the front of the plant. Even their silhouettes appeared anxious. Suddenly the cabs stopped on the side of the parking lot near a gap in our lines left by the crowd gathering at the front of the Mail Processing Plant where they thought the cabs would stop.

Management suddenly burst out the doors and broke left towards the gap in the lines and onto the lawn. The Police gasped and reached for their radios. The crowd broke into a full on sprint, as the first supervisors foot touched the turf the workers stormed the parking lot. All bets were off.

“Why the hell did they do that?!” I heard myself shout.

I looked over and watched as the police called for backup and an angry crowd of hundreds of workers closed in on a handful of management people that were running for the line of cabs. Just as the workers closed in the managers, the crowd suddenly stopped and reached into their pockets.

One officer grabbed the other’s arm and pointed.

Then the crowd burst out started laughing as they pulled their cellphones out of their pockets and made videos of management fleeing in terror from their angry mob, disappearing into the cabs and watching the tires squeal as they sped away from the confrontation.

Within an hour the cops had left and I was home in bed. A skeleton crew agreed to hold the line at The Plant. With the line rosters sorted out for the night I walked in an exhausted daze back to my car. Sheila ran up behind me and offered me a cigarette. I let it hang off my lip, staring blankly at her rave about how amazing what just happened was. Then I could hear her voice, “wasn’t that amazing?”

I smiled and took the lighter from her hand.

“I’ll never forget this that’s for sure, but the fight is just getting started”.

 

 

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The Bell Tolls for Thee, Motherfucker

| Filed under Our writings

Sketch contribution by Monica Kostas

Sketch contribution by Monica Kostas

 

Get ready to never see bus drivers the same way again. This week we feature a story by John O’Reilly who takes us through the route of his daily tribulations as a city bus driver in Minneapolis.

 

 

Ding.

You’re just driving along, keeping your eyes open, checking side streets and blind alleys, and it happens. No warning. It jolts you, and you instinctively look down the road for the next blue reflective bus stop sign. If you know the route well, you can visualize exactly where the sign is. If it’s a route you don’t drive often, you push your eyes as far as you can see to find the next one in the thicket of poles on the side of the road.

It’s not until you’re a bus driver that you realize exactly how many signs crowd the boulevards of our cities. Only one among them is the one that your passenger has signaled for you to stop at, and you have the short time between registering the sound in your brain and where the sign sits to apply the full weight of your brakes, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of air pressure, to slow a half a million dollar vehicle to a stop without taking out a side mirror, hitting a biker or crushing a car, and maneuver it smoothly to the side of the road at exactly the spot where the passenger intends to alight. Every time, hundreds of times a day, it takes all your concentration to accomplish this simple, single task.

Ding.

It depends on the bus. Sometimes, on older vehicles, the bell is a tinny, high pitched metallic ping that grates the ears. While annoying, you never mistake it for anything else. On some newer buses, the bell is a gentle, computerized chirp, which sometimes escapes your notice. Hopefully you notice that your “stop request” light has illuminated or you see the passenger stumble towards the exit and realize what’s going on. Otherwise you have at least one, and sometimes multiple, irate commuters yelling at you to stop as you fly down the street past the sign. This doesn’t upset some drivers but, let’s face it, you, you’re a bit of a perfectionist about work. You feel bad when you fuck up and actually deserve your passengers’ scorn. Not that their scorn would go away if you drove perfectly, it’s a constant, but at least you know that normally you’re really just doing your job as well as you can.

Hopefully, you hear the bell as soon as it sounds. They teach you a lot about “stopping distance” in your training classes when you first start driving. First, your senses need to observe a stimulus: the brake lights of the car in front of you, a child running, a frantically waving hand, the shrill note of the bell. Then your brain needs to interpret what that sound or sight means. Third, you need to make a decision about what to do with that interpretation. Should you slow down? Speed up? Swerve? Honk? Following this, your body actually needs to carry out the action that your brain instructs it to. Finally, the bus responds. You’re not particularly good at math but you know that a 40 foot long bus moving at 40 miles an hour takes at least an eighth of a mile or more to come to a complete stop, depending on road conditions. Add this all together and you have what they call your “stopping distance.” Usually it’s quite a ways, so you need to be constantly on alert for what’s coming. No breaks behind the wheel, just brakes. Haha.

Ding.

You dream about being two seconds late to clock in and your dispatcher is telling you that he’s sorry, there’s nothing he can do, your work for the day has already been given to another driver, you better go talk to your manager because you’re going to get hit with an absence for this one. You dream about getting lost on route, your passengers screaming at you as you turn left, right, left, right, unable to figure out how to get back on track. You dream about being unable to find a relief point, the place where you take over for another driver out in the middle of a route. A particularly vivid relief dream has you running through the streets of an unknown downtown, praying that the driver you were to have relieved has not yet called into the control center and noted your absence from the appointed spot. Giant terraced plazas, wide rivers with bridges that only lead in the wrong direction, buildings that go on for blocks and blocks, parks that sprout up out of nowhere, you sprint through them without even knowing where you are going, hoping that you will find your bus driving through rush hour traffic. But you don’t ever dream of the bell.

Perhaps it is the bell’s banality. Hundreds of times a day you hear the bell and you obey its commands each time. More than any other part of your job, the bell is what disciplines you. Bus drivers routinely break traffic laws, or at least company traffic policies, with relative impunity. Perhaps a slap on the wrist by management, and that’s assuming you’re caught. Stories spread of drivers being pulled over by cops while on route, but that’s a once a year phenomenon at most. Nor is the schedule a particular disciplinary force. Management tells you to throw the schedule out the window as soon as you get behind the wheel. The union contract even specifies that drivers will not be disciplined for taking part in an illegal slow-down by driving behind schedule. You only get in trouble for being early, or “running hot” as they call it, never for being late. The only person who suffers from driving behind schedule, besides the passengers, whom no one really cares about, is you. Drivers get no allocated break time, only “recovery time” at the end of the line. If you have a 15 minute break on your time card and you’re 15 minutes late to the end of the line, you just turn right around and keep driving. Some drivers don’t mind this, 8 to 10 hours or more of straight driving, but it drives you crazy and you relish your 10 minute bathroom breaks, text updates and Facebook checking. Still, this is just your preference, no one above you ever really gets on you about the schedule.

Ding.

No, it is really only the bell that commands you. When you’re on the line, you are the captain of your ship. You are judge, jury, and if not executioner, then you have a direct line to the cops who, as recent events have shown with terrible clarity, are willing to carry out that function. You are the boss. If you’re smart, as you are, you know that you should wield this responsibility wisely, and know that there are few occasions when it’s actually worth it to get into a dispute with a customer. You remember who you are: a 20-something bespectacled white boy driving a city bus in some of the toughest parts of town. No one respects you because of your uniform, and really, why should they? Don’t start shit, don’t bother disputing the fare. Even management tells you it’s not worth it. The vast majority of driver assaults spring from fare disputes. Plus, you’re a communist, you tell yourself as another shithead kid lies to you about how he doesn’t have $1.75, you believe the buses should be free anyway. Tell him to take a seat. Don’t get rattled, you’re in charge, it’s fine. And eventually he too will ring the bell.

Forget the fare, forget the schedule, forget the customers, just drive. And you do your best to do so. The best thing about the bus is that the windshield is your entire field of vision. You are piloting 34 tons of steel, plastic and diesel down the road, all you can see is the city in every direction around you, and let’s face it, you’re good at this shit. You maneuver through poorly parked delivery trucks, streets made narrow by snow piles, idiot drivers who shouldn’t even have a license, every motherfucker texting behind the wheel. Your bus is about six feet wide, and you swear you’ve crawled it through tight spots that were six feet one inch at least dozens of times. Using just your tiny mirrors, you make the ass end of your bus, a very long forty feet behind you (sixty feet when you drive the articulated buses) do whatever you need it to do. You actually hold these peoples’ lives in your hands, every single day. But just when you silently celebrate another victory over the forces of the city, you are pulled back into reality by that treble note coming from above your head. It reminds you who is really in charge and what the premise of this whole enterprise really is. You’re not Evel Knievel, brother, you just drive a city bus.

Ding.

It’s a lonely job. It doesn’t seem like it, as you’re surrounded by people all day long, but ten seconds of pleasantries repeated all day long doesn’t add up to very much to an extrovert like yourself. You always thought that bus drivers were friendly and talkative. It turns out that’s just a strategy deployed to neutralize potential problem passengers by making you harder to hate. Sometimes you feel like an animal in a zoo. A whole day of petty interaction with people around you – “Howdy sir. Thank you. Cold today, huh? Yeah but it’s gonna be warmer this weekend. How are you ma’am? Thank you. Hey there little man! You hanging out with mom today? Hey man, how you doin’? You say you don’t have it today? Alright, why don’t you just take a seat for me? Hey there ma’am, you feeling okay today? Thank you. Alright now. Have a good day, sir.” – and none of it means anything at all. You can’t imagine what it’s like for your coworkers who drive the light rail train, trapped alone in a little box all day, moving up and down the same line of railroad. Sounds like hell.

At least you drive in the part of the city that you live in, so you sometimes see friends on or around your bus. A five minute half-hearted conversation with someone you vaguely know from college or an old neighbor makes the entire day of work seem infinitely better. Sometimes you’ll go an entire week without talking to anyone for more than a few seconds, and you’ll find yourself drinking a lot every night or desperately texting your friends to hang out. No wonder so many of your coworkers are gruff or weird when you see them around the garage, it’s a job that caters to loners. Maybe it’s the job that makes people into loners.

Ding.

You think. A lot. Trapped in your own head, you can’t help but let your mind wander. One eye is always on the road, planning your next move or remembering your next turn. But once you get a route down pat, it becomes incredibly easy to drift off into your own world. Hell, it’s hard not to. You hum, whistle, or when you’re lucky enough to have an empty bus, shout out the lines to whatever song is stuck in your head. You rehearse conversations that you would like to have had with a shitty customer, or with your parents, or with someone who wronged you in the past, or with your bosses. Don’t get too deep in thought though, easy as it might be, because it’s always right there, ready to spring. Bus drivers could all be philosophers but their thoughts could never string along any longer than a minute.

Ding.

Back on track. Back to work. Look up. Forward, to the right, down one block, two blocks. There’s the sign. Pull your right foot off the accelerator and let the retarder kick in and slow you down. Press your left foot down on the microphone button, lean over the dangling mic, and announce the cross street. Move your left foot to the right turn signal so that the idiots fuming at being stuck behind the bus know that you’re about to give them their chance to blow past you. Move your right foot to the brake and gently, barely, lovingly touch it so that the brake just slightly kicks in and the bus jerks forward as lightly as possible. Then slowly apply pressure with your right foot to the brakes, making sure your left foot stays pressed down on the right turn signal, as you “push-pull” the wheel slowly to the right with your hands.

When you’re exactly five feet from stopping, use your left hand to throw the front door open and unlock the back door, conscious that the pneumatics will take the three seconds between here and a dead stop to actually open the door. Prepare for polite people to say thank you, to which you will respond “have a good day” or “have a good night” or “take it easy” or “alright” as the situation requires. Look pretty girls in the eyes as you say this, for stupid sexist reasons that you can’t defend or explain or resist. Everyone else you can just automatically respond to with your mouth as your eyes look in your rear internal mirror, watching the last person move through the back door, or your right outside mirror, as the rear door closes behind the last person. Close the doors, wait for the rear door to shut (while it’s open it automatically enables the brakes), push your left foot on the left turn signal, look in your right mirror, your internal mirror, your left mirror, the front door to your right, then again, your right mirror, your internal mirror, your left mirror, squeeze the brakes to unlock them, gently touch your right foot on the accelerator, push-pull the wheel to the left and take off. Then do the whole thing perfectly again. Again. Again. For eight more hours.

Ding.

You have to size people up quickly, you’re pretty good at it, but you always second-guess yourself. Is that just your garden variety drunk or is he the one who will fall out of his seat and bust his head open if you take that turn a bit too quickly? Is that just another quiet untreated homeless psychotic, harmlessly mumbling to herself about the president, or is she the one with the knife? Is that just another young disaffected man acting real tough in front of his buddies or is he the one who actually has something to prove on a crowded rush hour bus? Is that just another snippy middle class white lady or is she the one who will call and complain about your attitude and driving? It’s actually this last one that you worry the most about. Vitriol and violence you can deal with, management is worse.

You worry. It’s hard not to, when you’re wound as tightly as you are. You’ve always worried about everything and now that you’re stuck in your own head for most of the day, your worries grow wild. You never see any of your old friends anymore, you work such a weird schedule as a low seniority driver. Will your friends decide it’s too much work to see you? Will you lose all the people who you care so much about and be alone? Why did you decide to rent a one bedroom apartment for the first time in your life, just because with your union wages you could finally afford it? Your girlfriend has been spending so much time with that girl she has a crush on. Does she love you as much as you love her? Will she leave you for this new girl? Is she embarrassed of your job? Almost 90% of your male coworkers self-report being overweight and diabetes runs rampant. Will your sedentary job and your inconvenient hours, breaks spent eating gas station food, lead you with no option but to gain weight? You have a college degree and you have realized that what you really want to do is become a teacher. But you’ve done nothing your entire adult life but work in blue collar jobs. Will you ever find a way into being able to be paid for the thing that you’re best at? Or will you just volunteer teaching English on your days off at the immigrant community center and drive this fucking bus until you retire? Between the rings of the bell, you have nothing but time to sit and ponder, to worry.

Ding.

You are required to have a certain level of health to drive the bus. When you got your Department of Transportation-mandated physical just before you were officially hired, the nurse said your blood pressure was too high. “Oh shoot, I’ll have to get that looked at,” you said. No, she told you, too high to work at this job. You could have a heart attack behind the wheel. Your pulse started blasting in your ears. Unemployed, and having burned through all your savings, you had spent weeks pursuing this job to be denied it because your heart ticked a little fast? This possibility had never occurred to you. They sent in the doctor. Have you had any coffee this morning? “Sure, of course.” You feeling a bit nervous? “Yes sir, she just told me I’d not be able to get a job because of my blood pressure.” The doctor looked at your results for a moment. You stared, heart racing, praying. He shrugged. Okay, we’ll let you go. You had the feeling that he just frankly didn’t give a shit. A cut-rate doctor practicing medicine at an occupational health clinic on the side of the highway, finding ways to screw workers out of compensation claims, on the payroll of their bosses, what did he care? If this bus driver keels over behind the wheel, we’ll just say hey, he said he’d had some coffee before coming in for his physical, we didn’t know.

Now you take a pill every day for your blood pressure. It’s gotten higher since that physical, since you started driving the bus, but now you’re working on it. At the doctor’s office, the irony that the job which keeps driving your blood pressure up is the same one that provides you the insurance to pay to keep it down is not lost upon you. You and the nurses chuckle about it. “So how long do I have to take these pills for?” you ask, a newcomer to the world of chronic conditions. Well, until you die, the nurses say. Probably from a heart condition.

Every day you leave work and your shoulders hurt. They kill. They shouldn’t. None of your coworkers or trainers have this happen to them. As long as you’re properly employing the “push-pull” method, your rotator cuff shouldn’t be damaged. But you know that it’s not something that you’re doing to your body, it’s something your body is doing to you. Your stress rides high in your shoulders. You’re too neurotic for this job. Yet here you are. Stuck. Making a living wage for the first time in your life. Your insurance is beyond just good, it’s actually amazing. Big ups to your local on that account. But it means you’re trapped. Ouch. Take a few ibuprofen. Remember the money. Hope that tonight as you sleep on your shitty mattress that you will somehow relax, that when you awaken your shoulders will be less tense. Hope that you feel less sad, less snared.

Ding.

Brought back into reality, you look to the right. Where is the stop? One, two, maybe three blocks away, your eyes search for it in the darkness, in the bright sunlight. At night you stare down the stops and drive slowly, even as your schedule tells you to speed up because it’s not rush hour and probably you’ll have fewer customers. People wearing dark colors quickly fade away into the night and you’ll drive right past them, maybe get in trouble for passing someone up. The dusk trip is the worst, your circadian rhythm naturally making you sleepy while the light from the sun fades. Daylight means squinting, especially after rain or when the snow melts. With your crappy vision, you need glasses and can’t bring yourself to wear prescription sunglasses. Your father has the worst squint-lines on the sides of his eyes, making him look considerably older and happier than he is. Already, you see the same lines mar your otherwise youthful but sardonic face. Goddammit. You thought you had a lot more years before you started turning into your father.

When it pours you can’t see anything, but you pull over and let everyone on and tell them that you hope they’re not too wet. You just wave them past and don’t charge them because you’d have to be inhuman to have a line of people standing out in the rain, waiting to pay. When it’s snowing you’re so late that no one is mad at you because they think that you’re the next bus anyway. You’re so far behind that you don’t get any breaks for eight hours, but at least the passengers are grateful. When it’s foggy you drive slower than the schedule wants you to, eyes straining in the gloom, but good God what a beautiful view when the skyscrapers downtown shine through the clouds. When it’s sunny you curse that you aren’t out with your friends enjoying the weather, drinking a beer on a patio somewhere. Still, you open the driver’s window all the way, sit as far back in your chair as you can, and tell yourself that at least you’re getting paid to be outside, the sun tanning your left arm.

You try to have a positive attitude. This job may be hard but at least you get some independence. After all, it’s your bus. You’re the chief and you decide how to govern. You’re just some asshole, thank goodness you’ve found something that you’re reasonably good at. You try to sit back and cruise down the road, enjoying the sights. But then –

Ding.

The sound is a needle pricking your ear, deep in the guts of the machine, pulling you out of your quiet thoughts and that moment of contentment. Reminding you what it is that you’re here to do.

Ding.

You look up, to the right, down the block, now where’s that damn sign?

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We Carry Our Failures

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Vicious Care - sketch by Monica Kostas

Vicious Care – sketch by Monica Kostas

 

This week’s piece comes to us from fellow editor Scott Nappalos, a healthcare worker in Miami. He writes about the challenges of salvaging human interactions and compassion while working in a profiteering healthcare system that renders impotent patients and healthcare workers alike.

We Carry Our Failures:
Working With People in a Dehumanizing System

My patient would come back to the hospital just as soon as he left. We’ll call him Mr. Jones. His arm was mangled by a rare cancer that took his digit and much of his sensation and movement. He wore a hat over his thinning hair that read ‘Vietnam Veteran’. Rare cancer, God only knows what he was exposed to there. He took to me and would greet me and discuss his condition even when I wasn’t assigned to him, “it’s miserable” looking to his hand “living like this”.

Everyone took him to be a problem. They accused him of being a drug addict and using the hospital like a hotel for room and board, as he would sneak off the unit to smoke, talk to vets, buy junk food, and tool around outside in his wheelchair. Doctors would discharge him and he’d come right back. No one believed the stories he gave that were enough to get him readmitted, essentially living in the hospital for months despite discharges.

He liked to receive his pain medication intravenously, and always demanded it which didn’t help his reputation. Most health workers in my experience don’t take cancer pain seriously, and its common to find physicians giving minimal medication despite frequent studies showing that pain medications are under prescribed with real detrimental health effects. He was routinely given only minimal oral medications without anything long-acting to smooth out the ups and downs of pain.

Maybe he was addicted, but what does that mean, and what impact does that have with diseases like painful types of cancer where pain is unrelenting and constant? Studies continue to show that pain medication for painful illnesses do not tend to produce debilitating drug addiction in the sense we are used to beyond the course of the disease; addiction is a social disease at least in large point. I wondered what it was like at home that he would constantly return, despite being accused, harassed, and gotten rid of. I wondered what would make him want to be in a hospital more than in the free air of society. Friends and family would visit him, but I had a sinking suspicion that he was scared of the misery he lived in, and feared more than anything being alone; dying alone.

Working with people puts you into situations where you face problems without much to go on, problems made of people’s lives. You rack your brain, maybe even read research, but when faced with a person with needs unfulfilled all your experiences and knowledge can be rendered useless. The system is set up to limit resources and deprive people of basic assistance, usually through trying to extract it from them and their families. The health worker sits between these problems and they bear down on them every day. These failures linger in our minds buried beneath the harsh words, insurmountable work, and caffeine propelling us through long hours, but making appearances in our sleep, in quiet moments, and for those who can’t cope disastrously in our personal lives.

Part of the challenge is to change the narrative around the tug-of-war and where the failure lies. Authorities, medical or political, would have us believe it is individual initiative, professional incompetency, or economic mismanagement. We need to find ways to put into words how the system fails us and what our needs really are. Had my patient been able to verbalize his fears it would have been clear both how valid and truly human his problem was and the bankruptcy of the entire medical establishment.

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On Bluffing

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Rage

Rage – contribution by M. Kostas

 

This week’s piece comes to us by fellow editor at Recomposition, Phineas Gage. In it, he analyzes three instances in different organizing scenarios where bluffing, whether premeditated or spontaneous, helped leverage reactions that would not have otherwise happened. A running theme through these experiences is the desire to struggle, but to struggle together, paired with the glaring fear that people won’t have each other’s backs when push comes to shove. His insight not only lets us in on the small details that can make or break actions, but also shines a light on how every step we take in our organizing, as in our life, is a gamble.

 

 

 

On Bluffing.

by Phineas Gage

All warfare is based on deception.
                                     -Sun Tzu

I.

I was standing there shaking with rage. I was chosen by a few co-workers to try and go upstairs and talk to the supervisors about a problem we were having. Management, in their benevolent and eternal wisdom put us on a floor that was being renovated. It was twenty below zero outside and all that stood between us and outside was a few strips of plastic sheeting. All of us were mad but most of us, including me, were pretty timid. We were all in our late teens and didn’t want to get in trouble.
We were keenly aware that the company was taking us for a ride, but some of us were young single parents, others thought if we just held on another better job would come, and all of us didn’t think we would get much done by trying to fight back. Our hands ached from the cold and our joints were getting stiff. We had to dial three times just to get the numbers right, our fingers were so numb they just weren’t doing what they were supposed to do.
While talking to each other something snapped inside all of us. We worked ourselves into just enough of a frenzy to call the ‘team leader’ over. Jeff the pimply, lanky introvert who monitored our calls came over and recited some platitudes about not being able to move any of the equipment to a warmer floor and returned to his desk at the end of the row. After some bullying on our part he agreed to call up stairs on our behalf. This led to him being told what he just told us.
We went back to our seats and started calling again. After a few minutes we started grumbling again, this led to us agitating each other. Eventually we decided we should send someone upstairs to talk to management. A few people suggested me because I drank on the weekend with the burly skinhead who was the call centre supervisor.
When I entered the office I opened my mouth, my supervisor cut me off and asked me not swear. He was putting me in my place. I started to explain the situation downstairs in a now calm and reasonable manner. He explained to me the same thing we’d been told twice before downstairs. Something inside me snapped. I stayed calm but I started spouting total bullshit.
I cited legislation that didn’t exist, I told him I would call government agencies on them (for the record getting people to work in the freezing cold is perfectly legal in Alberta), and then I said that if they didn’t give us what we wanted we would walk. None of us discussed this, and few of us were ready to do something like that.
He flinched; I winced. He made a call to the owner at her home, at eight o’clock at night. Half an hour later we got moved upstairs to a warmer floor. For the next couple weeks we all held our heads a bit higher at work.

 

II.

Andy and I sat in the Tim Horton’s drinking our coffee and talking to an East African worker by the name of Binyam. He worked at a courier company we were trying to organise. We were explaining the process of unionizing his company to him. He was obviously not against the union; he had a few kids and a wife at home. I told him that it would help his family if they were able to negotiate with the employer. He was still nervous. I told him he had nothing to worry about in signing the card, that he was legally protected and that no one would know he signed the card unless he told someone.
Andy smiled, leaned back in his chair and said that everyone was already on board. The worker asked us why no one told him they had signed, Andy said because they were scared just like him. Binyam could relate to this and understand this so he took the card out of Andy’s hand and said he was in if everyone else was. The thing is they were not already on board. The drive was going well but to say ‘everyone’ was on board was a stretch. We needed more than 50% to sign cards for us to get card check certification, we had just over half what we needed with a few months to go. That put us at bout 30% not 50% and certainly not everybody.
Somehow after that word got out that the campaign was taking off and spreading like wildfire, shortly after that it did. Once word spread that everyone was signing up everyone started to join. Before Andy’s bluff everyone sensed each other’s fear and so they wouldn’t sign a card.

 

III.

Malwinder and Linda walked out of the supervisor’s office; they were frustrated as hell and ready to escalate. They went in trying to address staffing issues, they left the supervisors office and immediately started planning how to put more pressure on management. When they went to the floor with the issues the workers were pissed too, right until they asked them to do something about it. While Malwinder was trying to talk to Pete about the problem, Pete wouldn’t look Malwinder in the eyes.

“Look if we just slow down for a couple days the overtime will drive them crazy and they’ll have to give in”.

“Yeah, but you know not everyone will slow down”, Pete said as he prepped his flyers for the next day.

“Look, all we have to do is stand together you know they’ll buckle after a couple days”.

Pete looked over his glasses, and looped his thumbs through his suspenders and thought about it for a second. “They sure will, if we all stick together, but we won’t, this ain’t the eighties any more’. Pete was referring to a time in the recent past when Letter Carrier depots were a hotbed of militancy. Pete had enough and continued his work turning his back on Malwinder.
As Linda worked the rows of letter carrier cases it became clear that everyone was angry with management, and everyone thought that a slow down would work as long as everyone participated. No one ever said they thought it was a bad idea their big problem was that they thought that nobody else would be on board.
Malwinder and Linda talked about this on their coffee break that afternoon and they hatched a plan. They decided to tell everyone they had a lot of support for the action and that they were going ahead with it.
The next morning they began to work the letter carrier cases and people were much more receptive. Lots of carriers slowed down and they all recorded their overtime, management had a hard time singling people out because so many were on board. It also covered for the newer, slower and more timid letter carriers; they were getting static for taking time to learn the routes that they weren’t familiar with. The budget for the depot soared and management relented, after all it is cheaper to hire more carriers on straight time than it is to squeeze everyone for overtime.

 

Confidence and Class-Consciousness:

Most people are uncomfortable with dishonesty and some of the tactics used above are definitely dishonest. Telling everyone there is strong support can also backfire if you don’t have it and someone calls you on it. There is a fine line between bluffing and lying, and while I am comfortable with a bit of deception towards the boss, like in the first example, the other two examples are different in that they were deception towards co-workers. However it is worth noting I have yet to see a boss call a militant’s bluff; the shadow of an all out workers revolt lurks in the back of the mind of any boss. The fact that a scenario like that seems so hard to get to for most workers is actually pretty plausible to most workplace supervisors is very telling indeed.

The fact that these examples were effective points to something important about the nature of class struggle. Confidence is at least half the game, workers actually want to struggle and they know they are being screwed. What keeps them from struggling is not ‘ideology’ or being brainwashed, they don’t struggle mostly because they are responsible adults and do not want to struggle if nothing will come of it. Most workers at very least have plans for their life that don’t involve work and don’t want to screw these plans up by doing something rash. A lot of people have other people depending on them, spouses, kids and other family members and other dependants and they aren’t going to risk being able to provide for these people if it isn’t going to pay off.

Its easy to be hard on progressives for their dim opinion of workers and no one has a dimmer view of the typical worker than one of those workers themselves. Our society boasts a lot about how democratic it is out of one side of its mouth but it never quite manages to hide a darker side: a deep seated hatred of the ‘ordinary person’. This holds us back as much as anything else; there is no doubt that there are a lot of idiots in the world. There are also a lot of lazy selfish people, but the thing about class struggle is you don’t have to be a genius or a saint to get it. Everyone knows what is going on, the single most important thing a militant can do is not convince workers of the need for a better world. The single most important thing a militant can do is convince workers that the only thing that stands between them and that world is their own fear and distrust of each other.

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May 1st 630pm EST Lines of Work Book Launch Live in Miami!

| Filed under Administrative/housekeeping Our writings

PrintThe South Florida IWW and Recomposition present a live online launch of the new book Lines of Work on 630pm EST May 1st. Two authors will present the book at a Miami bookstore, Books & Books, with readings from the text and discussion. For those outside South Florida, you can tune in by checking the Live stream address the day of the event. The text brings together stories of work and workers from the US, Canada, and the Uk reflecting on their experiences grappling with what they do to earn a living, and struggling for something better.

“Half our waking hours are spent on the job, consuming the lion’s share of our time. Our years are woven with stories of work told around the dinner table, breakroom, and bars. Yet these stories are rarely put into print, investigated, or seen as they should be; as part of workers’ activity to understand and change their lot under capitalism.

LINES OF WORK offers a rare look at life and social relationships viewed from the cubicle, cash register, hospital, factory, and job site. Drawn from the writings of Recomposition, an online project of worker radicals, the text brings together organizers from a handful of countries sharing their experiences with the trouble of working and fighting back.

Rather than professional writers or activists, the authors are workers reflecting on their experiences, aspirations, and how to improve our situation. Through storytelling, they draw out the lessons of workplace woes, offering new paths and perspectives for social change and a new world.” (more…)

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Industrial Unity: A Response to “Locality & Shop”

| Filed under For discussion Our writings

foodservworkWe received a number of replies and great discussion from the piece by S Nappalos on the IWW’s locality versus industrial structures. E.A. Martinez has sent a lengthy response raising points of criticism and agreement that is worth engaging. While the discussion centers around structures of the IWW, bigger issues are at hand. In reality the debate centers around the role of the workplace organizer, how they relate to their job and neighborhood, and where we situate their struggles. We’re glad to see this thoughtful reply, and hope it generates some reflection and responses.

E.A. Martinez

The division between local organization and industrial organization – and which should prevail over the other – has been a hot topic of debate within revolutionary unions for decades, and the IWW is no exception. Locality and Shop Inside Revolutionary Unions provides one perspective on whether the local form (the General Membership Branch, or GMB) or the industrial form (the Industrial Union Branch, or IUB) is superior.

After examining attempts by the Portland IWW to build a patchwork of IUBs in the early 2000s, the author concludes that industrial organization is not suited for the present socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves, or for the present state of the IWW. Rather, we should look to build the IWW as local groups of militants and political radicals who “take [their militancy] with them through their jobs.”

The author points to many Wobblies’ opposition to activism as one of the chief causes for the preference of industrial units over local units, which is not untrue. Many Wobblies have argued that locality-based IWW branches are often mistaken for merely another acronym in a city’s alphabet soup of revolutionary groups, book clubs, NGOs, and non-profits. To combat the perception of the IWW as anything but an industrial union, Wobblies have pushed for more workplace- and industry-based organization, as this will demonstrate to activists that we are in fact a union, and not one of many political clubs. (more…)

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Joe Burn’s review of Lines of Work

| Filed under For discussion Our writings

our jobs our storiesJoe Burns, author of the influential book Reviving the Strike put up a review of our new book Lines of Work on his blog. We want to direct to the discussion to the Reviving the Strike blog where he posted it. His comments are flattering and we aspire towards and contribute to the sort of revival he advocates. “Although written in terms of stories and experiences, the book’s approach offers a different approach to union revival, one deeply rooted in the workplace and rooted in the daily experience of workers.” This Saturday we remind our readers near Miami, Florida that there will be a Lines of Work worker story workshop.

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Locality and shop inside revolutionary unions

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autoplant iwwThere’s been a long debate within the revolutionary union movement about structure and specifically about the relationship between locality-based units and workplace/trade/industrial based units. Though not well known, the IWW also had battles with these concepts with different factions trying to abolish the General Recruiting Unions, the predecessor of the General Membership branch uniting all workers based on a local who lacked a Industrial Union Branch, and other trying to support it. The recruiting unions were banned at some periods of IWW history and had to be brought back though not without controversy. Other revolutionary unions such as the CNT of Spain and FORA of Argentina maintained both locality based grouping and workplace based ones. This piece explores the debate around these issues within the IWW and experiences both with locality-units and workplace-units from recent activities, and attempts to get at the issues of our tasks and objectives beyond only looking at structures.

Area, Shop, and Revolution: a case for both locality and workplace unitary organization

Scott Nikolas Nappalos

In the early 2000s a series of experiments were carried out in the IWW that led to the formation of Industrial Union Branches (IUBs). Alongside the handful of IUBs emerged ideas around why IUBs should be prioritized and their superiority to other structures. The IUBs primarily were initiated in the Portland IWW after a series of struggles that produced the largest and most dynamic area for IWW workplace organizing in the union for decades. The Portland IWW ballooned to its peak with membership in the hundreds in the early 2000s after a decade of organizing attempts in the 1990s, and some high profile contract campaigns, strikes, and actions at the turn of the century. As membership grew, Portland moved from a General Membership Branch (GMB) towards IUBs in areas where there were a concentration of members: social service, construction, education, restaurants, grocery/retail, and transportation.

General Membership Branches were created late in the IWW’s life. At it’s peak, the IWW was built on active workplace branches centered in industries. The IWW arose in a time different from ours in which workers were actively seeking out alternatives such as the IWW. Before the IWW existed, groups like the German brewers, Western Federation of Miners, La Resistencia of the Tampa cigar workers, and others openly moved to revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas, and workers struggles moved towards insurrectionary militancy in conflicts with the police, militias, and military. Workers ended up far to the left of the unions through their aspirations for a better world, their actions, and the necessity of confronting a hostile system. The IWW often organized by going to these wildcat strikes, and attempting to organize the striking workers. In other cases radicalized workers would move to the IWW as part of their trajectory against the political and union establishments. In an environment where there was already active workers struggle that outpaced both the political parties and unions of their day, centering the structure of the IWW on workplace structures made sense. Though other formations existed such as Industrial District Councils (where multiple IUBs coordinated in a city, which the Portland IWW also had in existence) and General Recruiting Unions[1] (similar to GMBs today, where workers without IUBs could begin to plan their IUBs), it wasn’t until after the total collapse of the IWW’s workplace presence and in a new regime of State-Labor-Capitalist collaboration that GMBs were proposed. (more…)

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Scabs! Part II: The St. Albert Wildcat

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Image 2014-01-30 6-2This entry is the second part in a two-part story from contributor Phinneas Gage about a wildcat strike by contractors at the Canadian postal service, and continues our coverage of struggles within Canada Post. 

The phone rang irritatingly early, early enough I ignored it the first time. Apparently Lise-Anne called several other executive members after she left a message for me. I later found out the message she left me said: “they’re cutting our pay by 30%, we had a coffee break meeting and we vote unanimously to walk out in response, what do we do now?”

The phone rang again, this time I picked up. “We just walked out, we’re sitting across the street in the Tim Horton’s”. Eight months prior I had talked to the workers at this depot about racial discrimination and harassment one co-worker was facing. They marched on the boss with eight people that sent a strong enough message it put an end to that issue. Even if the racist supervisor was still around he was a lot quieter. The workers became more assertive, and very strong on the floor. A series of small actions built the solidarity among the rural workers to the point where they felt strong enough to fight a change to the work measurement system that was going to cut their pay by almost a third.

“Did you make any demands?” I asked groggily, sometimes folks are so angry they forget to say what they want.

“Yeah, we wanted a repeal of the policy and he told us that the union was going to be upset we did this”.

“What did you say to that?”

“I said we didn’t need their permission to do this, but the local President and Sharon are coming down to talk to us and see what they can do to help”. (more…)

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