By P. Gage
The first permanent job I got at Canada Post was in the early weeks of the spring of 2007.
It was an ‘inside job’ processing and splitting up flyers between one hundred or so letter carriers. I had been working for Canada Post as a Term (read temp) for a year before getting a permanent position. Because of the labour shortages in Alberta I moved up in seniority quickly.
Being the flyer guy in the depot made me far from the most popular person. Letter carriers like delivering flyers even less than their customers like getting them, they see them as a waste of time and not worth the $0.15 piece rate they get paid to deliver them. It did mean that I got to talk to almost everyone in the depot and hear their opinions on everything. Sometimes those opinions were not just about how much they hated seeing me every morning.
Within one week of working at the depot the labour shortages really hit home. After months of being told that the forced overtime would end with the Christmas rush (by this time it was spring) the letter carriers staged a partial walkout. Approximately thirty-five of one hundred letter carriers walked off the job along with a half dozen inside workers walking off in solidarity, myself included. The other sixty-five letter carriers stayed at their sorting cases and quietly continued their work. For those that participated there was a lot of frustration directed towards the majority of their coworkers, and a quiet acceptance of defeat. We stayed off the job about twenty or so minutes and returned to work.
The action certainly didn’t feel like it built much confidence in our power as workers, in fact we considered it a defeat. In the coming days we braced for the backlash; I remember one senior letter carrier waving his middle finger at the supervisors as we marched past their office, I definitely thought he was going to get it. But nothing happened, later a shop steward told me he suspected the Supervisors and Superintendent of the depot didn’t even report it to their superiors, not wanting to reveal what happened in case they appeared to not be in control. The walkout nonetheless was mentioned in the union newsletter. In the long run this did build our confidence.
Rural Carriers Wildcat:
On September 24th 2007 Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (referred to as RSMCs) in mail depots serving the outlying areas around Edmonton Alberta walked off the job. The next day much of Calgary walked out in Solidarity. Rural carriers were only recently organized into the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and because of this their contract was typical of a first contract agreement: it was weak. The union’s strategy was to sign cards in order to prove interest by rural carriers in being represented by the CUPW and at the same time to negotiate voluntary recognition of the rural carriers during the contract talks for the urban postal workers. In the end CUPW successfully organized the rural workers into their union through pressuring the employer while negotiating with another bargaining unit to voluntarily recognize the new organisation. Big concessions were granted by CUPW; urban workers gave up a large amount of money in their severance packages, and accepted a very slight pay increase. The rural carriers got a contract that promised they would not strike for eight years, and every two years the contract would be reopened and renegotiated. Gains for rural workers included a promise of relief workers for sick, injured, or vacationing carriers and paid vacations. The union still considered this a victory however, and in some ways it was; after all six thousand new members were added to the union across the Canada and collective bargaining rights were established.
The union organized workers across the entire country and negotiated nationally. But the red-hot economy in Alberta, and the rapidly increasing cost of living combined with better prospects elsewhere created a situation where the rural workers were put with their backs against a wall.
In spite of the contract and some small gains, unionization was a let down for many of the Rural and Suburban carriers. The corporation did not act upon any of the things that were negotiated and the worst aspects of the job such as workload and payment were not addressed in the first round of negotiations. In one instance a relief pool that was promised by the corporation was not actually delivered even though it was negotiated and put into the contract over a year prior to the work stoppage. Overall their working conditions were terrible and in some cases fell well below the legal minimum standards for workers in Canada. In many cases in Alberta the working conditions were so awful no one would take new jobs, creating a staffing crisis.
Management reacted to the staffing crisis with a short-term solution of hiring new contractors to do the work of the rural carrier bargaining unit. They were paid much better than the long time employees and enjoyed far laxer discipline from management. Naturally the relationship between the contractors in Alberta and the Rural and Suburban carriers was less than cordial, as the new workers were unwitting scabs.
There were rumblings of wildcat activity before September 24th 2007. One year earlier some top executives in Canada Post Corporation visited a letter carrier depot in Sherwood Park, a suburb of Edmonton, to investigate the working conditions and staffing crisis. In response all of the Rural and Suburban mail carriers walked off the job, and refused to return to work until the executives left the depot. They won their demand and made their point.
With the rural carriers facing new hires making as much as twice what they were working alongside them, increasing workloads, and bearing the brunt of much of Canada Posts own overhead this group of workers became a tinderbox. What set everyone off was a pilot program by Canada Post to address the concerns of the Rural and Suburban workers. They proposed a wage increase of 35% to only two depots, Sherwood Park, and Depot 11 in Calgary as part of a pilot program. The dozens of other locations across Alberta would operate under the same wage rates for the time being.
The RSMCs were incensed. Many workers were pushed to the brink already and this put them over the edge. One group of workers in a small town outside Edmonton decided they were going to take action. In the meetings called afterwards it was discovered that they honestly didn’t think anyone else would walk. They called a couple other depots, more as an afterthought than any serious attempt to spread the struggle beyond their small workplace. Word spread quickly. In all half a dozen rural offices walked out for most of the day.
Coincidentally the weekend before the walkouts the National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Deborah Bourque, was in Edmonton for a union convention. When told of the rumours of what was going to happen that Monday she did not seem concerned, or impressed, in fact she didn’t give any evidence of it being very significant to her at all, in retrospect she probably didn’t believe the reports. On the local level however the union in the initial stages reacted admirably. They dispatched several organizers to depots across the area to talk with the RSMCs and give their support and pledge their aid. Some basic demands were issued, and the employer said they wouldn’t talk until the workers returned to the table. Under the threat of mass firing, and with an agreement that there would be no retaliation against those that participated in the Edmonton walkout the RSMCs agreed to return to work as a group. On the workers part they promised that there wouldn’t be any more walkouts as long as their demands were taken seriously.
Immediately after the first walkout the local union called a mass meeting of rural carriers, it was attended by dozens of workers. Many of the people in the room had never participated in a walkout before and were worried for their jobs. The local President facilitated a discussion where everyone related to each other what happened in their workplaces and how they independently organized themselves through cell phone contacts. Many workplaces were organically linked through a network of personal acquaintances from rural workers who had worked at different postal installations.
Another source of connection was the need for relief workers to replace those who were sick or injured on the job. Since Canada Post did not provide the promised relief the workers were forced to cover for each other creating bonds between people that might not have otherwise existed. At the end of the meeting the room voted by a strong majority to continue the direct actions if anyone was fired by management in retaliation for their walkouts.
The next day Calgary walked out. Calls were flooding into the Edmonton union office from remote post offices in Northern Alberta asking why they were not told job actions were planned. The local union replied that they were building a list for future actions and would keep the workers posted on future developments. In reality the reason why the union didn’t tell these workers of course was that the union played no role in executing the action at all.
By this point the workers got the attention of the national union. While the national office claimed to be impressed by the actions they did nothing to build on them, generalize them in the rest of the postal sector or encourage the actions. In fact their first reaction was to try and pull the leadership of the actions off of the work floor and send them to Ottawa to help negotiate some concessions- effectively cutting the head off the movement by removing the rank and file leadership from the floor. The initial problem though, was that the concessions that had already been negotiated were not acted on, and with no legal right to strike there was no meaningful way to enforce the agreement. In the end what was granted to rural carriers was more empty promises from both the national union, as well as the employer. While the local in Edmonton was calling mass meetings that were well attended by rural carriers who were charting a strategy of escalation the national office was trying their best to get everyone back to work. With time the enthusiasm of the rural carriers began to wane and several of the key instigators quit in frustration, there was a general sense among the workers that the union could have done more to support them.
The process of forming a union can also be a first step towards the confidence needed to take an action as bold as defying management and holding the mail hostage, if even for a brief amount of time. At one point the union is necessary to build the confidence to fight the bosses, to promote solidarity on the floor and to build the workers willingness to stand together and fight. Once this fight is in full swing the union turns into something that is counter productive and a fetter to the development of working class militancy. At best it carries some of the militancy upwards into its own ranks, removing rank and file leadership from the floor and at worse it smothers the burgeoning movement in the cradle with red tape and a call for naïve policy reforms.
Delton Depot is nestled on scenic banks of the Yellowhead freeway in Edmonton. From this workplace you get a stunning view of strip malls, cheap hotels and the fractioning towers and oil refineries that mark the eastern boundary of Edmonton. The workplace itself provides a place for one hundred and fifty postal workers to sort and load their mail every weekday morning. One Morning, on a particularly brutal Monday February 15th things did not go according to plan.
Like the rest of the post office in Alberta forced overtime and staffing are a major issue of contention between workers and management. After months of forced overtime as well as the stock platitudes of the overtime ending with the Christmas rush postal workers were beginning to get fed up. The Supervisors in the Depot in a creative flourish decided they would try and solve the problem unconventionally: they would force the new hires into over time.
Now there is an unwritten rule between the union and Canada Post that newly hired letter carriers are not to be forced into overtime. The reason for this is simple: a new letter carrier often works over ten hours on an eight-hour route on a good day anyways. The job takes a while to learn and if pushed too hard new hires tend to quit, in fact even if not pushed too hard new hires tend to quit. The workers quickly came up with an alternative proposal, instead of forcing the new hires to work overtime they would continue to rotate the forced overtime among the higher seniority permanent staff. The Supervisors rejected this proposal out of hand, they had committed to this plan and they were not backing down.
Even though Delton is the home of several senior managers in charge of letter carriers requests to bring this issue to senior management by the activists on the floor were met with an order to do as their supervisors told them. The response from the Delton workers was to walk off the job in order to stand up for workers who had no rights (temps can be fired on a whim). The entire depot walked out, there was one hundred percent participation in the action from the workers. What makes this action even more stunning is that it was in defense of just three new staff and their working conditions. In addition to this Delton is not a strong union depot; there are only two shop stewards for 150 workers.
Management quickly folded, they granted their initial demand that new hires not be forced back and instead the list continue following the seniority list for permanent employees. They also retaliated giving every employee who participated in the action a five-day suspension. There were also serious concerns that one of the two shop stewards would be fired for instigating the action, however after talks with the union the stewards discipline was downgraded to just another five-day suspension.
Follow up from the union local was a disappointment to many Delton workers. They were expecting an escalation strategy on the part of the union once they walked out, and wanted to up the ante even further. Also there was also a perception on the part of the company that these walk outs were not spontaneous but rather that the union was behind it.
This perception on the part of the workers that union was capable of just pulling a depot, and the perception on the part of the company that all of these actions were instigated by the union is worth noting. On the inside the story is much different, the union local was stuck with a stunning silence from the national office in regards to the walkouts. Some support was organized by the local afterwards including large placards that were circulated around different sections of the mail plant and several other depots, the placards read: “Delton First -We’re Next”. As well a solidarity barbeque was arranged in order to celebrate the occasion a couple weeks later.
But the desired escalation, the pulling of another depot or even the mail plant (which would effectively shut down mail for all of Northern Alberta), was never considered a realistic option by the union leadership. The leadership of the local was entirely reliant on the initiative of the militants on the shop floor to capitalize on unpopular blunders by management.
The lack of shop stewards in Delton not only lead to the inability of the union to play more of a positive role in the walkout, it also meant that no one could advise caution or tell the workers they might not win. Given the company’s perception of the ability of the local union to lead a wildcat movement, and the workers in Delton’s perception of the local’s ability to lead a wildcat movement one must wonder if the workers and employers are overestimating the agitation of the workers or the local leadership was underestimating the willingness of the rest of the city to act. The problem is that the only way one knows is by taking a massive gamble, which is perhaps why the Delton workers felt so let down, they stuck their necks out- they felt it only natural for the rest of the workers and their union to do so too.
Grande Prairie is a small city about 700 kilometers north-west of Edmonton. The main industry is the petroleum and natural gas sectors as a result of the rising costs of energy the town has become the kind of boomtown Canada hasn’t seen since the Klondike. The cost of housing alone is on par with major world-class centres like Toronto or Vancouver. While wages are incredibly high so is the cost of living. In January of 2008 the Canadian Union of Postal Workers began to enter into negotiations with Canada Post Corporation on behalf of their Rural workers. This was the third and final ‘open period’ of the initial eight-year agreement signed with Canada Post.
As in much of Alberta staffing is a major issue at Canada Post and forced overtime is the preferred solution. In many places Rural postal routes are structured to be unreasonably long with some rural carriers working as long as 16 hour days during the peak of the mail flow. The route measurement system used by rural workers is a joke with many time values undervalued and many parts of the workday simply not counted. It’s not unusual for a run that takes twelve hours to be rated at eight hours. Rural Carriers are not paid by the actual hours they work either instead they are paid a fixed rate according to how their route is calculated by the crooked route measurement system. Finally rural carriers must pay for their own vehicle, gas and maintenance as a condition of employment.
In a smaller workplace solidarity between different workers is much easier than a larger workplace. Job classification is less of a division when everyone works together in the same building and the workforce is small. In Grande Prairie there was considerable sympathy for the struggle of rural carriers among the workers in the urban operations. Divisions between the working conditions of workers that would be a source of strife in a larger workplace can become a place to rally everyone around a common cause.
On February 18th 2008 also known as ‘Family Day’ 1in Alberta, in order to add leverage to the negotiations that had already begun the Grande Prairie local decided to go for a solidarity breakfast at a local diner while on shift. The action was well attended by members of all classifications and was considered a success. Mail was only slightly delayed if at all, however it sent a clear message to the local management. Clear enough that the retaliation was swift and severe, Mark Boudreau, President of the Grande Prairie local was suspended for thirty working days (a loss of six weeks pay) and the other members of his local received five working day suspensions (a loss of one weeks pay).
While the action was somewhat mild it was clear that management was starting to get quite nervous about the militancy on the floor in the post office and had resolved to stomp it out, starting with the perceived leaders as quickly as possible.
Fort Mac Murray
Fort Mac Murray, or Fort Mac Money as many workers call it might be the biggest bunkhouse in North America. It a very typical boomtown feeding itself off the oil that is scraped from the tar sands and rendered into oil. Wages were high and at the height of the boom workers were in short supply and that drove wages up. Canada Post sets wages nationally however and you get twenty-two dollars an hour if you work in Cape Breton Nova Scotia, or if you work in Northern Alberta. In Cape Breton this is a very good wage in Northern Alberta its only about five dollars an hour above a typical retail job and just barely enough to cover your rent.
Young workers and those without attachments often try and start out at the post office in Fort Mac Murray. It is not uncommon for workers from parts of the Country where the economy is depressed to get a job at Canada Post in Fort Mac Murray where they are always hiring and then try and get hired on somewhere else as quick as they can. The issues in this city were just like the ones in Grande Prairie and Edmonton only more so. Letter Carriers were on forced overtime for months due to staffing problems.
On Friday February 22nd 2008 a strong majority of all classifications walked off the job. They shut down the mail for the whole day. When they returned to work on Monday morning management was belligerent and threatened them with termination so they walked off the job again shutting down the mail for a second workday. In the end their punishment was the same as the folks who shut down the mail briefly in Delton and Grande Prairie. The lesson here was clear, go big or go home if you stop the mail for 15 minutes the punishment is the same as if you stop the mail for two days. Everyone in Fort Mac Murray that participated was handed five-day suspensions, but they never served them because the staffing situation was so dire. Management could not afford to lose them.
Confrontation in Medicine Hat:
Tensions over staffing were running high across the province, on November 17th 2007 a confrontation in Medicine Hat led to the police being called. During a dispute about forced overtime an influential militant, and former President of the local was called in to negotiate for the workers. He was on vacation during the dispute, upon entering the letter carrier depot local management called the police. Management wanted to argue that the steward was trespassing even though he was there in an official capacity to discuss the situation on behalf of the workers.
As the police escorted him off the premises almost the entire depot followed him off. A short wildcat ensued where a meeting was held in the parking lot. Eventually the workers returned to work to finish their day. The corporation retaliated with five-day suspensions for all those who participated and no charges were laid against the militant who led the walkout. Medicine Hat is a small city and as a result the CUPW local is too small to support paid full time staff, everyone involved in the union is on the floor and does bargaining unit work most of the time. Representing workers and other union work is either conducted on booked-off time or on the personal time of the union activist.
The vast majority of these struggles either occurred where the union was previously weak, or the leadership was on the floor and not made up of full time officers. In the instances where the leadership was on the job the union played an active role and initiated action and used its resources to develop the struggle and promote solidarity. In the larger locals some of the leadership was enthusiastic in its support for the wildcat activity but was constantly racing to catch up to the workers on the floor. The further away one got from the floor the more the bureaucratic inertia set in and less keen the support for such actions became. After these struggles many members were developed into shop stewards. It also stoked the ambitions of some to try and run for officer positions within the local replacing what they perceived to be complacent union leadership. There is a dynamic tension between the full time union bureaucracy as a mediator of class antagonisms and the union as a breeding ground for the confidence necessary for rank and file self activity.
“This Anarchy has got to stop!”
-A comment made in passing by a senior plant manager to the Vice President of the Edmonton local of CUPW in the fall of 2007.
There were other walkouts and actions that were less well documented; over one hundred letter carriers in Saskatoon were disciplined for taking an extended break to protest poor staffing and too much overtime. A section in the Calgary Mail Processing Plant walked off the job creating a major stir in the post office there. When the dust settled the regional office based in Winnipeg reported that in 2007 there were over 500 five-day suspensions handed out by management in the prairie region in retaliation for direct action on the floor. Not everyone who participated in work stoppages was disciplined, myself being just one example. A big part of what drove these walkouts was the situation created by the economic boom that was going on across Western Canada at that time.
A strong demand for more workers, and the ability to find a new job with ease fed the confidence of the workers at Canada Post. Blaming it entirely on economic circumstances is too simple though. There is also a strong tradition of rank and file militancy inside CUPW. The idea that direct action is an acceptable means of addressing grievances, even during the life of a contract, is a controversial one in the labour movement as a whole but there is much more sympathy for these tactics inside CUPW.
In one instance the influence of the IWW was obvious. One of the leaders of the Calgary RSMC walkout stated after the fact that a direct action workshop based on IWW trainings and put on by the IWW for the Calgary local of CUPW, it played a major role in developing the confidence and abilities she used in helping her co-workers walk off the job. As well some of the leadership in the other walkouts carried red cards or were sympathetic to and familiar with the IWW and its practices though the vast majority of those who participated had little or no knowledge of the IWW. What the IWW contributed most was an analysis of the limits of grievances and arbitration without taking the fight beyond these things to the nature of work itself.
There is a collective memory on the floor among the postal workers themselves of these tactics not only working but in fact working very well. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers did not have real collective bargaining rights until a nation-wide unlawful strike in 1965. From that point until 1997 the CUPW was one of the most militant unions in Canada, going so far as almost getting kicked out the Canadian Labour Congress for its radicalism and willingness to take struggles to the floor. In fact much of the original impetus for the CUPW was a desire to work outside the Public Service Alliance of Canada, a civil servants union that sought to avoid strike action through binding arbitration in all disputes.
A Strike Wave
At the same time as these actions in the Post Office workers were walking off the job in defiance of their own unions in the construction industry. It also followed a high profile strike in Brooks Alberta by the United Food and Commercial workers. During that strike 200 workers, mostly Sudanese immigrants, defied a government imposed return to work order only to have the union roll over on them after pressure from the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers definitely stands out as the only union that had elements actively encouraging workers to walk off the job during the life of a contract. In Brooks hundreds of workers were sacked and in the construction wildcat many high profile rank and file agitators were kicked out of their unions and effectively fired. In the Post Office no one was terminated, nor did the union blacklist anyone.
One evening, I was out for a beer with an IWW member who recently got a job at Canada Post. He said his depot tried to give himself and his co-workers forced overtime. A heated discussion occurred on the floor and a hush fell over the depot as the new workers tried to explain that they were not ready for overtime yet as they were still learning their jobs. Slowly a crowd assembled around them as an agitated supervisor explained that they had to deliver the mail until their job was done- no matter how long it took. Then one person just casually mentioned to the Supervisor that forced overtime for new workers is why there was the Delton wildcat. The Supervisor immediately backed off on the issue. There is no doubt that many workers walked away from this strike wave pretty let down, but they also are holding their heads a bit higher. Often in these kinds of struggles you don’t get what you want, but you do get something else very important- a little bit of dignity.