Snake March

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Workers gather over one thousand strong to protest back to work legislation.

Workers gather over one thousand strong to protest back to work legislation.


Concluding Phineas Gage’s three-part series on struggles at the Canada Post during 2011, we present ‘Snake march’. In this final installment, he describes the moral as the lockout drags on. Parliamentary filibusters and symbolic occupations fail to turn the tide on contract negotiations. The postal workers return to work, determined to not let management bulldoze them in the shopfloor.

Check out here Part 1 of the series and also Part 2.


Snake March

A truck pulled up to the parking lot in front of the main downtown Post Office. Christine and I jumped up and started unloading signs from the back. Camera people were setting up all around the truck and The Local President was going over the notes her people helped her prep for the interviews. Slowly the crowd swelled as people walked in from the bus stops, then a big bus from the Nurses union pulled up and people filed out. Half an hour later the crowd was huge spilling out of the parking lot. Around 1,000 people showed up.

Gil McGowan, the President of the Provincial Labour Federation, took the microphone from a local executive member who was managing the speakers list. The shopfloor committees huddled on the other side of the crowd, largely ignoring the people who had their faces in the television cameras.

Sheila was chairing the committee meeting. “Okay so what’s the plan?”

Christine said, “I hear they may want to stick to the sidewalk”.

Christine and I shook our heads and frowned. We had both knew with 1,000 people sticking to the sidewalk wasn’t just impractical, it would undermine the strength of the turnout.

“Well we’ve got about a dozen of these and people to carry them, Christine held up her red and black flag, a standard IWW fixture at demonstrations. It was about two meters long and on inch and a half thick dowling. “I say we march out into traffic and take a lane, then we take a second one until we completely block the traffic going the same way as we are”.

Sheila had only just started going to street demonstrations and this all new to her. She was uneasy but saw a couple other workers nodding so decided to go with it.

“The local Executive doesn’t really have a planned route, I hear they’re leaving it up to Pete”.

Pete nodded, “yeah, but I’ve never really planned a demonstration before.”

“It’s easy,” Christine said, “just walk around, take a couple loops and wind up back where you started. The crowd will take care of the rest”.

“Okay, let’s do this,” said Christine, “Phinneas and I will take the right side where the more cautious people will likely stay to the sidewalk for a bit”.

“Let’s put it to a vote”, Christine said. All hands went up then down. Sheila breathed a sigh of relief, the unanimous vote made her feel a lot more comfortable.

As we broke, the cameras started moving towards the road to watch us fan out. Soon I saw red and black flags floating over the other side of the crowd as they stepped out into the street. The Local President walked passed and patted my arm, “what are you guys up to?”

“We’re going to take the streets, both lanes, Pete knows where we are headed so you’ll have to ask him about the route”. She nodded and kept walking with a CUPW flag, yellow and blue, slung over her shoulder. The crowd was cautious at first but eventually came out onto the street.

Postal Workers take the streets.

Postal Workers take the streets.

There was a dull murmur as the crowd swelled out into the streets. Soon from the murmur came bursts of chants then the chants drowned out the murmur. Flags and signs floated down the street while young people ran out to cars moving in the opposite direction. The young people usually had a chance to briefly talk to the drivers while they would slow down and look at what was going on trying to read the signs and banners.

Through the crowd I saw Christine nod to her left, probably to the other shop committee members down the line. They took five steps back in a break of traffic and cut off the second lane. Then I saw a police officer walk up to her. She walked and talked casually with him as she followed the crowd. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the officer from the first night of the lockout.

“Where are you guys marching?”, he was being typically cheerful and polite.

“No idea, maybe the president knows. Do I look like I’m in charge here?” I smiled.

“We knew you would say that.” He walked into the middle of the march towards The Local President. He talked to her and soon found himself walking towards the back of the march, not towards Pete.

Craig walked up next to me. “Word is the NDP are planning a filibuster in Parliament. We just need to hold up the disruption a little longer and then maybe we can negotiate a settlement”.

“I don’t think that is going to help us Craig, I still think we need to defy the back to work legislation”. He shook his head and started to say something but held it back. “The goal isn’t struggle without end, the goal is to get a contract Phinneas. People have a lot on the line here houses, families, their life savings.”

“You mean people your age have those things. You can’t get much for a mortgage if you’re my age on this income. The reason for that is because we keep backing down on these fights. One generation has too much to lose and the other generation has very little to risk. ”

“There’s another way though” Craig replied, “we can win a negotiated contract, we have in the past and we will again. The NDP will stall for us, we just need to hold on and keep up the mobilisation until Canada Post breaks”.

I just stared straight forward. I genuinely hoped he was right. It seemed too easy though, we didn’t win anything without tremendous pressure on Canada Post itself. Pressure from the Official Opposition was just business as usual, none of this went off script or did much force them to make concessions.

Craig drifted off into another part of the crowd and I went back to the edge of the crowd with my flag. Later I saw the previous police officer, he had a slight twitch in his eye and was clenching his jaw tightly while awkwardly trying to smile at the same time. He went back to The Local President and she shrugged and pointed to the front of the march. By the time he reached the front of the protest two blocks ahead of where he was, Pete told him that they were one block from the destination. Sometimes holding out and keeping steady pressure can work.

Delivery drivers march on the boss on their first day of work after the lockout.

Delivery drivers march on the boss on their first day of work after the lockout.













It’s An Occupation

“Look I’m kind of worried that it’s mostly just spectacle, you know?” I was on the phone with a CUPW activist in Vancouver. Erin was fixing picket signs while she talked to me on the phone. I could hear her stapling. “Yeah I know. But a bit of spectacle is kind of what we need. People out here are pretty resigned to a return to work, we need to keep some momentum up or we are just going to get trounced when we get back to the floor”.

“Let me think about it, I’ll bounce it off some of the other folks around here and see what people think”. I turned my phone off and walked into the coffee shop. Several other people from the Workplace Mobilisation Committee and the Depot Committees were sitting at a table together talking about the NDP’s promise to filibuster.

“Well, I got a call from some folks in Vancouver that are trying to build a similar committee and they said they were thinking of occupying an MPs office. What do you folks think?”

“I think if we are going to win this we need it to be a struggle that goes beyond just the post office.,” Keith spoke rapidly, “This can do that.”

“I agree,” I said, “I just worry it’s more media hype and symbolism, you know? Like doing this goes after the Conservative party, which needs to happen but it doesn’t actually hurt them in any meaningful way”.

“I dunno I would love to try something like blockading the Purolator building like they did in Montreal last week,” said Christine, “but I ran it by a couple people from the depots and they didn’t make the connection in the way I had hoped”.

“I think we should try and test the waters and see if the occupation at an MP’s office can maybe jump start things?” Said Keith.

Pete looked across the table at Keith. “Great I will talk to the President about it and get the ball rolling”.

The lockout stopped our work and our paychecks, and started several levels of negotiation. The most obvious ones were between higher ups in Ottawa, union and corporate higher ups over the national contract. Those negotiations were the reason we were locked out and were the reason the conventional union infrastructure held off and tacitly supported the militancy on the shopfloor. There were also negotiations with the local management during the lead up to the lockout and the first night of the lockout, negotiations with the police during the various pickets and rallies, negotiations with the staff of the local political officials during the occupations, and negotiations between the shop committees and the union leadership.

On the local level we won most of our fights, mostly by going around the existing local leadership, especially The Local President. “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” became mantra among many of us. How the local officials reacted depended on national officials. When the national officers were keen to fight the company, the local leadership stepped aside and we operated more or less without interference. As soon as we tried to fight the bigger fight, to reach outside of Edmonton, the infrastructure on the ground wasn’t there. Because of the limits of our networks we called on the Canada Labour Congress to call a general strike. The union bureaucracy called our bluff. They guessed, correctly, that the sort of organisation we had on the ground in Edmonton at the Post Office didn’t exist outside of Edmonton, or outside of the Post Office. We could achieve symbolic gestures like occupations and marches but more concrete actions like a general strike were outside the experience and confidence of the workforce outside the Post Office at this point. We knew there was similar militancy in the rest of the country, and even other workplaces around ours in Edmonton, but the organisation was just not there to coordinate these struggles and build a program of action out of it.

The strength of our organising approach was that we looked at the structure of the unions and identified where they were inadequate and then built parallel structures outside of them. We needed the solidarity of workers outside of what we had to win a struggle on a national scale. We just didn’t have that. During the lockout we had an opportunity to be less ‘ultra left’, less outside the union and take a step into the mainstream. As soon as we did that not only did we have the same limits as before but we had a much more difficult time distancing ourselves from the catastrophically bad decisions made by the National Executive Board, decisions that were the result of pressures they felt but we didn’t.

In the end we let the dynamic of being a union opposition dominate how we conducted the fight. We had gotten to where we were through independent struggles based on direct action on the floor and coordinated outside the union. When we stopped making that our focus and tried to use the opportunity to work within the conventional union structures – as an oppositional force but still a force moving through those official channels – we became just another bargaining chip. They encouraged us to take action when they needed us. Once we hit the limit of what could be done under the current bargaining regime they simply switched gears. They brought everyone back into work once the stakes were too high and we didn’t have a way to force them to keep struggling.

The House of Parliament and the House of Labour

“Did you hear the speech in Parliament last night?” Jay asked. Pete was dropping off firewood at line outside the Mail Plant. It was cold at night and they were going through a lot of firewood, even in June. Pete shook his head. He had tried watching the news last night but fell asleep after two hours of calling activists trying to get them to come down to the picket lines. Morale was flagging and we had to pull hard just to keep the lines up during normal hours at twelve different locations around the city. The NDP filibuster had begun the night before. The entire NDP caucus in Parliament opted to help us by stalling. They stacked the microphones and gave impassioned speeches, some that went on for hours.

Jay did his best to imitate the New Brunswick Francophone accent of one of the Members of Parliament. “Why do you hate da worker?! Why do you hate da Canada Canada Post Worker!?” Jay smiled as he spoke, “It was great Pete, really firey and all about us. It wasn’t like Parliament usually is”.

At this point even some of the newspapers were starting run some editorials that were mildly in favour of us, mixed in with the usual right wing abuse, like Lorne Gunter calling us “glorified paperboys.” Still, it seemed like when the legislation started to look like it was going to pass we were starting to become symbols in media stories about the Government’s poor treatment of unions across the board. The parts of the media that were criticising us referred to us as “militant” or “radical”; the parts of the media that supported us were probably more honest and referred to us as “formerly militant”.

Jay then asked Pete about the Canada Labour Congress and if there was any word on the motion that was passed at the big assembly. Pete shook his head, “I don’t think that motion went anywhere outside the room it was passed in. I know the local office is saying the motion had no standing under the bylaws as it wasn’t an official meeting”.

Later that day Pete asked a few people around the union office, “any word on stuff happening with the Solidarity Pact? That promise of help Dave Coles from the Communications Energy and Paperworkers had with us? Is CEP going to pull people out?”

The Local President said that there was money coming from them to help with a constitutional challenge. “When will that be heard?”

“Probably five years from now.”

“Is the CLC giving any money for the challenge?”

Pete shook his head. “No”.

Pete then ducked out of the conversation and went upstairs to talk to The Local President about the upcoming occupation.

Pete sat across from the The Local President’s desk and she started by saying “I think this is great and it’s nice to see the Workfloor Mobilisation Committee keeping us in the loop on what is happening”. Sheila was already up there talking about something else.

“Yeah well some folks weren’t sure, I think Keith and Phinneas in particular had some reservations about this.”

“Well the point is still to get the Corporation to negotiate. A strike clearly didn’t work but maybe the political pressure will. National still has a plan and it’s better if we can all play this way.” Pete nodded.

Legitimacy and Morale
An important factor in organising is legitimacy. This word is usually used to describe a few different things. Things like: the faith the workers have in their own struggle; the faith workers in the class more broadly (often called “the public”) have in the justice of their struggle; and the legality of the struggle, the legitimacy in the eyes of the law. Morale is often tied up in each of these factors. If the public is on your side but the law isn’t, the workers are more likely to see their struggle as a just one against an unjust law. If the workers don’t have faith in their own struggle but the law is on their side it’s largely meaningless because laws don’t enforce themselves and labour and employment are rarely enforced unless government agencies feel compelled to do so.

The single most important task for any radical is to build the legitimacy of actions done by working class people in their own interests. Often when people want to get legitimacy for organising they try and build it by appealing to the law. (“they can’t fire you, it’s illegal” or “your boss broke the law”). This is addressing the wrong problem. The problem with gaining legitimacy under the current system is your legitimacy will only ever go as far as those laws will grant you legitimacy. If people weren’t willing to challenge the legitimacy of the law itself there would never be any mechanism for changing the law. Instead the emphasis should be “if they fire you, we will support you” or “what your boss is doing is wrong and we’re here to stand up for each other”.

Christine had a note pad in her hands. “Okay Rachel you lead the charge in the door. There’s a chance they might see this coming and lock the doors so be ready for it. Sheila, you go around back just in case the front doors to the offices are locked, maybe the back doors with be open. Phinneas, you keep your eyes glued to your phone and talk to Winnipeg and Vancouver for us”.

Outside our huddle a crowd of about 200 people had gathered. The Local President was talking to the media. Pete looked over at her and nodded, she nodded back and patted Rachel on the shoulder. She then started walking towards the door while Sheila went around back to the back of the strip mall the office was in. The doors swung open and the twenty-year-old guy behind the desk stared in shock at 200 people gathering outside and a group beginning to pour in through the doors. Soon the room began to fill up as people who were not in on the action decided to join the fun. Then a middle-aged lady in a power suit came striding out from the back saying loudly “The Member of Parliament isn’t in today, would you like to take a message and come back another time?”

“Naw, we’ll wait,” said Rachel.

“It could be days.”

Rachel sat down square in the middle of the floor. “Works for me.”

The lady in the power suit walked across the room and closed the blinds so we couldn’t see the supporters outside. Keith looked at me and winked. As she walked back towards her office, he reached over and opened them again. She winced, turned on her heels and came back and closed the blinds again. As soon as she walked away he opened them again and we all started giggling. For a brief moment a look flashed through her eyes of abject, directionless, rage, the rage of people who expect obedience from their social inferiors, the sort of rage that sends drones to bomb weddings in countries on the other side of the planet, the sort of rage that starves entire countries through sanctions. Then it was gone, replaced by the calm professional indifference that borders on disdain. The kind of disdain that sends entire industries to other continents while people rot without jobs for having the temerity to ask for more money, the indifference that talks about dead children as collateral damage.

A little while later the cops came in, the same Labour Relations cops as always. They walked right up to me sitting on the floor. I guess you could say we had a rapport at this point. “How long are you staying?”

“As long as it takes.” The cop shook his head and smiled. He got on his phone and I checked my texts. The occupations were holding strong in Winnipeg and Vancouver.

As time dragged on our morale began to flag. Sheila was the first one. “Are you sure this is the time we want to get arrested?” Keith nodded like he agreed.

This put me in an awkward position, we had committed to see this through, but occupations like this were largely symbolic and media driven. The cameras were packing up.

“I’m not going to pressure anyone into staying but we do have a commitment to Vancouver and Winnipeg”. Pete nodded at that.

When I checked in with Vancouver, Erin texted back that I should hold out as long as I could but not to push my people. They would hold it down on their end and would talk to Winnipeg for us. At another point when one of the police left we took a quick vote, I voted to stay, Pete abstained (Pete abstained a lot), and everyone else voted to leave. I suggested one last thing.

When the cops came back into the room one of them said: “Okay guys, at 5pm this office closes and you need to leave, that leaves you an hour”.

Rachel then got on her cell phone, “hello? Panago? Yes I would like to order some pizza.” The cops frowned.

As the time came closer and closer we started unpacking sleeping backs and blankets. The police shuffled uncomfortably. Then the pizza came and we started eating. With three minutes left we started packing our stuff up. The police then waited ten minutes past the deadline for us to leave. As we drove home we heard reports on the radio about the arrests during the occupations in other parts of the country.

When you know your cause is just and the law is not on your side legitimacy becomes more important. Part of the task of building a world where the economy is something we use to provide what we need rather than it using us to provide capitalists with greater wealth is building the legitimacy of workers taking control. When we negotiated with the police we were asserting a kind of legitimacy and the law took that legitimacy seriously. When we negotiated with the employer it was not because the law recognised us but rather they recognised our ability to cause damage to their bottom line. However when the law came down and ordered us back to work we failed to put our own legitimacy against the law.

A just cause does not need to argue in favour of itself. It needs to defend its legitimacy, that legitimacy comes from an appeal to the power and interests of working people. We had reached the limit of our power in society and without pushing forward, morale collapsed. Instead of being something that carried a new world forward, the union, by ordering everyone back to work on the government’s terms, became something that was imposing the old world back on the workers. All strikes do have to end but how they end is a very important strategic concern.


“Why are we still out here if they are just going to order us back to work?” The member was trying to stay calm but he was obviously upset. Christine looked back at him for a second, choosing her words very carefully.

“We need to hold the line so that we can pressure the corporation to negotiate.”

“Negotiate?! What negotiation?! Before the strike they offered us 2% now they are offering 0%. What the hell kind of negotiations are going on over there?!”

“You going to negotiate with the bank when they come to take my house too?” Another person shouted.

“The back to work legislation is obviously going to pass, why are we bothering now?”

“Well maybe we can do something to take the financial pressure off somewhere else? I know some folks at the other depots are sharing food. Let’s grab a burger and talk this over.” The group all agreed to line up for burgers while someone from the local office started flipping the ones that were done onto people’s plates.

Once they were done eating Christine started her pitch.

“Right now the government and management think they won”.

“You mean they didn’t?” shouted a heckler from the back.

“Well we may not have won the negotiations, I think this contract is going to be a big hit for all of us. But we held ground in this depot, we had control of the floor, we can’t let them take that back from us when we go back. National may have lost the fight over the contract but we can still keep what we won outside of it. We need to go back in with our heads held high”.

Not with a bang…

It was raining and cold in a way that only Edmonton can be. Any time of year in that place there is this cold that stings, not because of the presence of something – no moisture, no early morning mist– but rather because of the total absence of anything. It’s a cold that eats at you. Pawel was at the back gate standing next to a burn barrel that was soaked. Sheila was a quarter mile away at the front gate of the plant standing by herself in the road by herself. Her picket sign was soggy and falling apart so she tucked it under one arm. Between her head and shoulder she had her cell phone while she talked to Pawel.

“You ever been on strike before Pawel?”

“Sort of. When I was a teenager I was part of a youth group that met at a church basement down the road from my house in Gdansk. My cousins were all on strike a few times, so we would go down and throw rocks at the police. How about you?”

“No. But my dad was a postal worker and I walked the line as a kid a few times in the 80’s. I also remember being at some of the rallies at Gainers.” Gainers was a meat packing plant in North Edmonton that had some very militant strikes and strong community support.

“Did you call anyone else, Pawel?”

“Yeah, the only person who picked up was Jenny. She told me we shouldn’t bother, the back to work order is coming any minute now”.

“We still need to hold the line though, Pawel.”

“Hey, I’m here aren’t I?”

An hour later I pulled up in my car. It was still raining. They were singing pop tunes to each other over the phone a quarter mile away from each other.

Sheila told me to take over for Pawel, she drove off as the sun began to rise behind the clouds. It was a dull white circle behind a sheet of grey.

With Heads Held High

In previous struggles like the Winter Campaign, St. Albert Wildcat or the Forceback Fight we managed to pick issues that were scaled to the support we had on the floor. Our network reached into most departments and actions were targeted at the level of management that was able to act on our demands.

Probably the biggest mistake we made was thinking that the lockout was going to be a continuation of this process. In the lead up to the lockout the union moved closer and closer to our positions and even at a few points openly supported our actions. The union also had access to the highest ranks of the Corporation. When we were fighting over piecemeal policies and control of the day-to-day operations, we got to be very good at winning. A comprehensive contract, however, is a matter of Corporation wide policy and required national coordination of a kind we didn’t have in place except through the union officialdom. Plus it’s almost impossible to turn down the institutional legitimacy that comes with support from the official union and its leadership when your ass is on the line, the cops are breathing down your neck and the government is ready to fine people a week of wages for one day of striking.

Conventional unions operate on the principle of being able to turn on workplace militancy in order to get agreements and then turn down that militancy in order to create an incentive on the part of the employer to sign an agreement. When we organised outside that labour relations framework, we tried to take that militancy and put it in the hands of the members. We prioritised fights that put more control over the work itself, as opposed to issues of monetary compensation and benefits, because those were harder to fit into the labour relations framework due to long established rules around the right of businesses to manage and unions to strike only at the appropriate time.

During this lockout the official union had to walk a tightrope. On one hand they needed the militancy to try and force an agreement. On the hand they needed to maintain control in order to shut it down at the point that the government was threatening the existence of the institutional union itself. The stakes were just too high for the union leadership to take the risks needed to win. Defeat was a possibility and the government was probably not bluffing. Ultimately the union leadership made a judgement call and they decided to end the militancy in order to save CUPW as an institution – at the cost of what made the union a living social movement. For our part, we failed to understand how the terrain had changed. We thought there was an opening that came with collective bargaining but realy it was a closing off. There were actually less chances to make real gains because we got swept up in a process and pattern that used our agitation as just one piece on a much bigger game board. We got played.

Sheila motioned for Jay to help her drag the barrels into the middle of the road. They were full of ash from the previous few weeks of burning. Once the barrel was in place she ran over to the woodpile, grabbed some wood and started throwing it in the barrel. Jay looked at her like she was nuts.

“What are you doing? The lines are coming down in ten minutes.”

“Exactly. If those fuckers want us off the line, fine, but they can’t fine a barrel $50,000, can they?” Jay smiled and started dragging the other barrels over and filling them with wood. Sheila brought over the can of gasoline.

She lit a cigarette while Jay poured gasoline in the barrels. She lit a few more smokes and passed them around. Everyone took a few drags off of them and then threw them in the barrels. The fires went up. A guy from one of the waiting trucks shouted at them, “what the hell are you doing? We need to get through there!”

Sheila turned, looked at him, and shrugged. They all made their way to the front of the building as the barrels started to glow red with all the fuel and wood. The deadline passed. The trucks were supposed to go through but the barrels burned for another half hour before they simmered down enough to be moved.

On the other side of the building a large crowd of a few hundred had gathered. Half of them were the first shift to go into the plant. The other half came from the depots and transportation department. As the start of the first shift came closer a bunch of us went to the front by the doors and formed two lines. Soon everyone fell in line behind us. I looked across at Ike and Toni and smiled.

Soon a member of the labour relations team came up to the doors from inside and pushed them open. Suddenly everyone started chanting “General Strike! General Strike! General Strike!” The workers started marching in the building and those of us there as supporters joined them. As we crossed the lobby the labour relations people began to panic. One of them started to close one of the inside doors. Another one started pushing them open and trying to stand in front of Ike.

“Ike, you can’t come in”

“Why not? I’m here on union business.”

“The hell you are”

Soon the crowd was milling around in the foyer and no one could get in. The chants continued. One guy was wearing a shirt that said “Wildcat, not just a beer”.

“You might have just got yourself a $50,000 fine Ike, the strike is over, you can’t just stand there like that. You’re blocking things.” Ike shrugged.

Then the other one got a call on his cell phone. He winced and shouted into the phone “get a fire extinguisher and put them out then!”

Eventually the crowd managed to file through and back in to work carrying orange whistles and wearing strike shirts. A week later I found out there was a series of investigations into sabotage including sending one container of mail bound for Regina Saskatchewan to Inuvik. They never did find out who did it.

Struggle leaves bruises. It is tremendously tempting to simply return to work and lick your wounds. There is also a rush that comes with struggle. That rush always eventually subsides, leaving everyone worn out. It’s important not to think that everything will be over with a new contract and instead to treat everything as part of an ebb and flow of struggle. Successes and victories will wash over the class as time goes on but the job of a militant is to help determine what stays and what is carried out to sea. I’ve written before about the phenomenon of waves of struggles but some waves are bigger than others and not every step is a step forwards. Some waves crash upon rocks, others roll into a beach.

The next morning Toni and I met with everyone in the Transportation Department parking lot. It was two blocks away from the Parcel Hub we worked in. A crowd of about sixty of us stood in a large circle next to a row of red mail trucks. Toni spoke up, “they forced us back to work by law. They can make us go back with threats but they can’t break us! First they locked us out of this place. The only thing that has changed is now they are locked in here with us!” The crowd cheered. It was Toni’s first speech.

The drivers then marched the two blocks with union flags in a large group. As they entered the building as one large crowd, management looked. Sam, who almost punched me before the day before the lockout, looked at us and ran into his office and closed the door behind him. Toni waved to Jay the steward for the loaders and Jay shouted something to his fellow loaders. They all put the boxes down gently and joined us on the floor.

Soon everyone started pounding on the door where management was hiding. Some folks started kicking the metal mail cages and others used pieces of broken pallets to bang on the railings around the highdock for the 5 tonne freighter trucks. The racket was like dropping a drawer full of cutlery down concrete stairs. We kept the racket up for about ten minutes before putting everything down and getting to work. Management didn’t leave their office until most of the drivers were on the road that day.

Across town at Depot 2 Christine stood in front of an assembly from her depot. A bunch of them carried picket signs with them. The doors were about to open.

“I know you all have had a shop steward tell you not to start early,” Christine said, “and I know a lot of you think it’s none of the union’s business when you start. I’m not going to do that here. But I am going to say this, if we start early for the next month going back in it sends the wrong message.”

“Just for this month we need to work to rule. We need to rack up the overtime, we need to make them hurt. Going back in, they are going to try and break us. They are going to try and make up some of the money they lost in the lockout. We can’t give it to them easy.”

Another worker raised his hand and made a motion that the depot committee draw up a roster of workers who would guard the door every morning for the next month to stop early starts. The depot voted overwhelmingly in favour.

Christine tried to make her speech stirring but she couldn’t hide the fact that she felt crushed. One of the old guys came up as they walked in and play punched her lightly on the shoulder. “You did good and this isn’t over, you know, there’s a reason the union has the slogan ‘The Struggle Continues’.”

Buffalo Jump

| Filed under Our writings


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.


“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.




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.”

“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.”

“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!”


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

Turning up the Heat

| Filed under Our writings

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.


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


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?”


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”.



On Bluffing

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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 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.



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.



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.

Scabs! Part II: The St. Albert Wildcat

| Filed under Our writings

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…)

Scabs: part I

| Filed under Our writings

Image 2014-01-30 This entry is 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. In the course of the strike, union workers had to figure out how to relate to contractors and where scabbing starts and solidarity ends. The experience of life under capitalism can reveal both the potential divisions that destroy struggles and the commonalities that can overcome them. These next two pieces can help us understand and try to go beyond the barriers class throws at us. 

Abraham looked down the row at everyone else sorting mail. Their heads were bowed, occasionally rubbing their eyes they worked slowly but steadily- the only way you can when you work fourteen hours every day. He reached over to the letter that was left on his desk for him by a Canada Post Supervisor, he was in late because his daughter was up all night with a cough. The letterhead was from Reynolds Diaz, the private contractor that hired him on behalf of Canada Post.

He read:

August 3rd 2010

Dear Abraham,
Due to recent business developments you will now be compensated 24 cents per point of call per route, the previous rate of 26 cents will no longer apply. This pay reduction will be implemented retroactively last Tuesday and your pay stub will reflect this. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to call.
Reynolds Diaz (more…)

It Takes Two to Tango

| Filed under life on the job Our writings

It Takes Two to Tango
by P. Gage

As I pulled the gearshift into drive my cell phone was flashing telling me that I had a voicemail. When I got to my next stop I saw I had three messages on my phone now and my voicemail was full. I rubbed my hands together over the vent trying to forget about December in Edmonton. I got curious so I opened my voicemail box as I listened to each message my heart sank further. (more…)