This entry is the second part in a two-part story from contributor Phineas 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”.
“Hi, it’s Castro here. Am I talking to Linda?”. Someone on the other end of the phone replied “yup”.
“Look Linda, you know how I took your number for a list to call you in case we needed some action to back up workers in another place?”.
Castro had built a long contact list of rural members in remote stations. These folks were notoriously hard to organise. He drove over six hundred kilometers to meet workers who sorted their mail together in groups of two or three or sometimes alone. This was the first tour like this the local had done since organising the workers eight years earlier, lots of small local grievances came up. Castro also brought spare Canada Post uniforms to give to the rural workers, something the local did because the corporation doesn’t provide work clothes to the rural workers.
Castro also collected the names and phone numbers of anyone who was willing to give them. He made a list to plan actions and coordinated with our organising committee on building a communications list by email, text message and a loose phone tree to mobilise RSMCs around shop floor issues.
When the workers walked Castro got on the phone and started calling around. He encouraged all of them to go for coffee together the next day in support of the ongoing wildcat.
“This is how you plan a coffee break meeting. You need to get everyone to take their break at the same time, make a show of it though, announce it loudly, something like ‘okay folks if management is going to act this way we’re out of here’, you see? The more scripted it all is in front of the boss the more smoothly it will go”.
Linda paused, she was really excited and a little scared. “Will we get fired?”
“On a first offense? Probably not, you’re allowed to take breaks and there’s nothing saying you can’t do it together as long as the mail all gets done they don’t really have a case for discipline. Doesn’t mean they won’t try but on an action like this it won’t stick. We’ve had dozens of these and the most we’ve seen was a five day suspension”.
When Linda hung up Castro repeated the call with about 30 other workers at remote post offices all over rural Northern Alberta.
Pete got on the picket line shortly before I did. He was texting furiously, when looked up at me he was frowning.
“They’re gonna scab these folks. Abraham just texted me and said all of Diaz’s guys are being asked to move that mail.”
I was shocked. “Shit, already? That was fast.”
“Almost like they thought about this already, eh?”. I nodded.
Pete continued, “look, when Christine and I were trying to rally support for these guys when they had their fight with Diaz I got to talking to a few of them. I know some of the restaurants and smoke shops these guys hang out in on 107th ave. How about I go and see who I can talk to?”
“Good idea, maybe we can get them to pay back the favour?”.
Pete smiled and walked over to his car and drove across town to the African coffee shops down on 107th ave. The third one he checked had Abraham sitting at the front reading the paper. Pete smiled and put out his hand, Abraham looked at him like a total stranger for a moment until he could place him. He stood up shook Pete’s hand and pulled out a chair.
“ Abraham right?”, Pete was always good with names, that and he always picked up three sentences in another language from anyone who cared to teach him.
“Yes”, Abraham stopped and scratched his head, “you’re a shop steward right?”
Pete nodded and smiled, ordered a coffee and sat down. “Look man, we need some help from you, you remember how we supported you against Diaz last fall?”
Pete didn’t really wait for a reply. “Well we could really use some help from you guys to return the favour”.
Christine grabbed her shop committee into a quick huddle before they went out for the day. “Did everyone get the text?”
All five of the others nodded. “We need to organise something to show support for these workers. The Corporation always kicks around the RSMC’s the worst out of all of us”.
One worker spoke up, “how about we raise some money for them?”. Another said, “We should march on management and demand no discipline, just to show we mean business”. Christine beamed.
“Think we can pull it off tomorrow?” she asked. The others nodded and fanned out on the work floor or started texting their row mates who had left already.
Conversations like this happened that morning at several workplaces all over the city of Edmonton. Through the forceback campaign (see The Committee in Action and Postal Worker Solidarity beats compulsory overtime) there was a system of shop committees in several different work locations, they would meet and plan, bring ideas to the coffee break meetings and then take action
Unionists Against Unionism
I went over and talked to Sharon on the picket line. She was uncomfortable with the situation. “Look, I’m going to support this but I don’t like it. Someone in management told me that they were padding their numbers on parcels and that they are claiming pay for work they didn’t do”.
“I don’t know about that…” I started to reply but decided to take a different approach to this, “we both know the RSMCs are really paid piece rates Sharon, there’s some work they do but don’t get paid for, I don’t know if they padded their numbers but what I do know is that I think all of us deserve more money from the Corporation, RSMCs more than anyone else. If they are padding their numbers then they are claiming extra pay on work they aren’t doing when they didn’t get paid for other work they did.”
“I think you just have a hard on for job actions and militancy. Just like why you supported those scabs at Reynolds when they walked. The RSMCs have a union and they should have at least asked before they did this, there’s a process that prevents these kinds of things. This is a mess, people could get fired.”
Sharon had a point. There were a lot of similarities between the Reynolds wildcat and this wildcat and those were the reasons I supported both of them.
Sharon is also right that there is a process and the problem could possibly have been solved through that process, pressure through a grievance, maybe a button campaign to shame management a little, having the local President bring it up on consultation over and over again. These tactics can pay off with time. Of course there is a chance they won’t work too, but that is the same as a wildcat. In politics you win some you loose some.
The workers didn’t choose the grievance procedure, they chose another path and that is because they started out in this direction months earlier when they had a taste of their own power during that first march on the boss.
Later that afternoon Pete and I were standing on the picket line together, he handed me his cell phone to show me a text he had just gotten. It read:
Diaz has us meeting across the street in the Tim Horton’s. He wants us to walk through you guys at the front door.
I said to Pete, “Tell him to try and get them not to cross”, Pete sent him a text in reply. He waited a second, his phone buzzed and he smiled and shrugged.
“Looks like they have to pretend to try, they won’t push or shove their way in but they also won’t try very hard. They walk up, we lock arms and they’ll refuse”.
I nodded. “That’s fine, maybe even better, it will show the workers on the line that they stopped them, that should keep morale up.”
I walked over to Castro who was pacing nervously. “How does support look in the stations out in the country?”
“It’s their first actions except in Leduc so we’ll have to see. Folks sounded enthusiastic but they have until tomorrow to get cold feet”. Castro was talking while he kicked dirt off his boots.
“Well we should have a pretty good story to keep spirits up, you make sure you spread that story by email to the post offices out in the country and I’m going to send word to the committees in the city that should give us some momentum going in to tomorrow morning”.
That’s when I saw about twenty people start pouring out of the Tim Horton’s across the street and into the parking lot. A tall skinny guy was shouting and pointing towards us as the crowd came lumbering across the road and into our parking lot. As they drew closer the pickets began to chant “nothing in nothing out!” and singing single lines of Solidarity Forever. The picketers closed ranks in front of the door and locked arms.
The Reynolds guys stopped in front of us and stared at their feet. The skinny guy started shouting and point at us urging them to go in. Canada Post security was filming us the whole time, Dick their lead security guy, a “mail cop” asked us “will you stop obstructing the movement of mail please?”. We shouted back we weren’t moving.
The skinny guy tried to press through, Pete whispered in my ear “he’s a Reynolds supervisor, he’s a keener but he’s also alone”. Pete was right, the rest of them were just watching him futilely shove up against the crowd. The skinny guy shouted and stomped his feet, management watched from across the parking lot video taping the encounter. The local President stood at the front of the crowd making it clear that the local supported this action, while the picketers and supporters locked arms. The confrontation lasted about half and hour before all the Reynolds guys were sent home with pay. We were elated.
The Next Morning
The pickets continued through the whole night with extra help from local trade unionists, the urban operations workers, full time union officers and folks from the IWW. The attitude on the line was festive and enthusiastic the attitude in the depots was confident and united. Word spread fast and word of this victory swelled attendance at the coffee break meetings.
Keith stood in front of the crowd at depot 2, “These workers took a stand for all of us and we all know what The Corporation has coming to them”, the letter carriers nodded solemnly. Various people shouted, “we’ve got to fight against any discipline!”.
One steward was in the back of the room selling hastily printed raffle tickets for a 50/50 draw to raise money for the lost wages of the strikers. Another was passing around a petition that they downloaded from an independent postal worker blog calling on the Corporation to not discipline the wildcatting workers.
Binyam and his cousin were non-union contractors who worked for Reynolds and covered one of the empty RSMC routes. They were among the crowd that were turned away the day before. Binyam was quiet through the meeting but his presence in the room was enough of a statement. He voted on decisions made in the meeting, contributed to the raffle and even signed the petition, even though he was a non-union worker.
Across town one depot marched on their boss with almost a hundred angry workers under the same demands. Rural carriers and non-union contractors participated in many of these actions. All told we received reports on actions from these work locations:
Whitemud South Depot (huge march on the boss demanding no discipine, raffle to fundraise for St. Albert).
Depot 2 in Edmonton (shop floor meeting).
Depot 3 in Edmonton (coffee break meeting, fundraising raffle).
Depot 1 in Edmonton (petition signed by close to 100% of staff).
Depot 9 in Edmonton (coffee break meeting).
Transportation Department in Edmonton (jammed c-v radios for 10 minutes)
St. Albert Letter Carriers and inside workers (coffee break meeting)
Strathmore (coffee break meeting)
Wetaskiwin (coffee break meeting)
Airdrie (coffee break meeting)
Fort Saskatchewan (coffee break meeting)
Stony Plain (coffee break meeting)
Spruce Grove (coffee break meeting)
Sherwood Park (coffee break meeting)
High River (coffee break meeting)
St. Paul (coffee break meeting)
Nisku (coffee break meeting)
Saskatoon main depot (coffee break meeting)
Saskatoon East depot (coffee break meeting)
Wainright (coffee break meeting)
McKnight Depot in Calgary (coffee break meeting)
Edmonton Mail Processing Plant “Off Site” location (petition demanding no discipline)
Edmonton Mail Processing Plant (petition demanding no discipline)
Bonnyville (coffee break meeting)
If you measure politics strictly by the dominant ideology in the local papers or by how people vote rural Alberta is one of the most conservative places in Canada. It’s almost guaranteed outside of a few actions at a few depots in the city very few of the workers involved even voted any way other than conservative. What is radical about the working class is not that it expresses radical opinions; many workers are probably more conservative than many small business owners. But what is radical about the working class is that it acts socially, in groups to advance a group interest. It has an inherent knowledge of the power it has to hold a business hostage by withdrawing labour or by disrupting discipline on the job. The radical actions come before the radical thoughts but eventually it does begin to express itself through ideology. Solidarity grows out of this necessity.
This action may have been a drop in the bucket but it moved people and it struck at the heart of the electoral base of the right wing in Canada, not by electing a left wing candidate or passing out a flyer with some challenging ideas but by having workers for a moment take a stab at the very notion of a bosses right to run their business as they please. This was done not in words but in deeds. Not because of some blueprint of a future society but because they know they have no other choice if they want to be human beings and not just equipment for moving mail.
On The Third Day…
“Damn it’s cold out”. Pete was rubbing his hands together to stir up some warmth. Christine was standing behind a big pickup truck to block the wind that kept blowing her sandwich board up in her face.
“I know. This is pretty bleak, I think the strikers are getting discouraged”, she shouted back over the wind.
Two strikers were covering the back loading dock with a small group of wobblies that were called out to help over the line. The rest of the strikers were at home with their families, or working second jobs. Holding a picket line for 72 hours with 14 striking workers is gruelling schedule.
After a brief pause Christine stepped in closer to Pete. “We need to keep folks spirits up and try and come off as cheerful as possible, I’m sure the corporation can’t hang on too much longer”.
It was Pete’s turn to shout over the wind. “You’re right. No matter what happens though these workers are going to be treated a lot more carefully by management. I really hope they beat the pay cut but no matter what happens they learned some things about how the world works and that together they have some power”.
Christine shook her head. “You’re starting to sound like one of those wobblies around back”.
The next morning the corporation called the Local President and said that the cuts to the RSMCs pay would be retracted. She put management’s proposal to the group and they agreed to accept it knowing that there might be suspensions and discipline facing them for humiliating management. As soon as the picket line was down management also brought in the Reynolds guys and forced them to sort the mail at night to clear out the backlog before the rural carriers started work again. Without a line to pretend not to cross they couldn’t refuse the work and had to comply or face firing. The local also fundraised enough money to cover most of the lost wages from the RSMCs for the time they spent out on the line. Some strikes end spectacularly, others are long and drawn out and eventually collapse but all strikes do eventually end. A year later management had failed to discipline any of the striking workers the cut to their pay was also postponed indefinitely. The workers won but that was far from clear at the end of the strike.
In every meaningful struggle there is a point where it seems hopeless this point usually looks like some sort of a standoff. Often if you fight past that point is when you win. What usually pushes people past the witching hour in a standoff is a conviction that is based on more than a material pay out. Direct action may get you the goods sometimes, but if you are only in it for the goods you will often not make it past the feeling of being lost in the desert. Any working class organisation needs to decide whether it is more like an insurance company or a church. This decision also determines whether the organisation of workers will live on as a zombie or if it is willing to die for its principles.