This will be the first in our series “Reconsidering the strike.” Strikes are probably the most idolized of all the tactics workers use in their struggles, and the one people most equate with worker power.  This series will dig into real stories of strikes to bring the tactic back down to earth, and critically reassess it. This piece is about a strike and lockout at Canada Post in 2011, which undermined worker militancy. –Ed.

Nothing is more alien to a strike than its end. – François Martin

There’s a tendency among leftists and labour organizers to romanticize strikes. It’s understandable—they’re a distilled expression of the source of workers’ power. Strikes also make the news. When the workers win big, it’s heroic; when they get crushed, it’s still heroic, only tragically so. But strikes and their outcomes are rarely so cut-and-dried. In reality, strikes are oh so human: messy, dynamic, contradictory.

I don’t pretend to speak for every striking worker or union activist, but I was on strike once, and it sure fell short of my high expectations for it. This particular strike of Canadian postal workers in 2011 has been pretty well documented (see in particular Phineas Gage’s series: Turning up the HeatBuffalo Jump, and Snake March), so I won’t get into details. The quick and dirty is this: local organizing that was heavily influenced by the IWW organizing model helped build a successful direct action campaign over forced overtime (the “forceback fight”). This fight took place just as the union was beginning negotiations over a new contract, which ended up in a national strike and lockout.

During the strike, the union tried hard to contain and limit the militancy and mobilization developed through the forceback fight, and was mostly successful. Ultimately the government forced us back to work under draconian terms, targeting individuals’ life savings as a threat against continued militancy by threatening hefty fines against agitators, even if they weren’t union officers. We tried hard to keep the struggle and organizing going after returning to work, but the fighting culture was largely dismantled under persistent employer onslaughts. I was among several organizers who got totally burned out and left the job within a year or so after the strike.

I don’t really remember what exactly my hopes were for the strike, but I guess I assumed that it would continue and deepen the tangible shift in power that had developed over the course of the forceback fight. After forcing management to solve an ongoing workload issue by hiring more letter carriers, we were confident that we had the bosses on the run. Surely this shift in power would be in our favour during a strike.

But it wasn’t. If anything our confidence worked against us because it raised our expectations too high. We had waged a local battle with local organizing and forced concessions from relatively low-level managers. We had a complicated relationship with the union local but they mostly consigned themselves to hand-wringing and rarely tried to actually undermine our organizing. With a national strike/lock-out, the entire corporate and union establishments were intent on running the show. There was a network of us more militant union organizers across the country, but it wasn’t big or independent enough to make a big difference.

So we went from feeling like masters of our own domains, holding the cards and keeping the bosses on the run, to feeling like pawns in a game being played out in the capital, Ottawa. Even though we were still employing a lot of the same tactics we had during the forceback fight—even ramping them up in some instances—as negotiations and the strike played out we felt less and less in charge. We showed up on the picket line and participated in more militant actions where possible, but it all felt super scripted. The union was very invested in stage-managing the whole affair. When some organizers started to discuss how we might push the envelope, union officials stepped in to prevent unsanctioned actions with a weight that we hadn’t seen during the forceback fight. All this meant that, even before the back-to-work legislation demolished the strike, demoralization and burnout had begun to set in.

There’s a lot to be said about strikes in the big picture, but my experience was that this particular strike killed the organizing momentum that we had developed through local struggles. No matter how well-organized and militant we were, as one city in a national union we were easily isolated, targeted, and undermined. Though I’m pretty resentful of the actions of some union officials, I do think that the national union did about as well as it could have with bargaining given all the complicated factors. But locally, we weren’t sufficiently inoculated about the fundamental limitations of collective bargaining, which is designed to undermine direct action and funnel decision-making power upwards in the union hierarchy.

The entire labour relations system (across Canada and the U.S., and probably elsewhere too) puts contracts and collective bargaining at the center of the union’s existence. The last 80+ years of labour history clearly show that this system works in the employer’s favour. Organizers should look at bargaining as a distraction from the real work of slowly building power and capacity through small struggles that are controlled by the workers themselves and use direct action to force concessions from the bosses. Participate, but don’t get caught up in the “make or break” kind of thinking that tends to take over during negotiations. Take care to inoculate yourself, your committee, and your coworkers about the fundamental limitations of strikes and bargaining.

This goes for militants within mainstream unions as well as IWW organizers following a solidarity unionism model: forget about contracts, forget about bargaining, forget about recognition, forget about strikes. Those are not the things that develop workers’ confidence and shift the balance of power away from bosses.

What does work is developing relationships through one-on-one AEIOU conversations, building democratic and sustainable committees, taking action on winnable demands, and scaling up over time. Consciousness and confidence come through direct struggle. The kinds of demands that are winnable start small but expand as workers gain direct experience of their own power.

This kind of organizing is not usually flashy and rarely makes the news, but it’s still heroic. It’s still messy and dynamic, and very human, but it puts us, the workers, in charge.