Organizing in the Bad Old Days: The Harvest Collective drive, 1998-1999

Patrick McGuire recounts an organizing drive at a grocery coop in Winnipeg in the late 1990s, before the IWW developed its Organizer Training program.

I went to a Propagandhi concert in 1993 and decided to become a vegan. After becoming a vegan, I needed to find tofu, soymilk and lentils, so I started shopping at Harvest Collective. Harvest was a natural and organic food consumer co-op that had operated in the Wolseley neighbourhood (or the Granola Belt) of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada for about 20 years. The store was ridiculously small, crowded and always had some weird scent that I couldn’t quite place. Due to its relative longevity and success, a second location was opened across the Assiniboine river on Corydon Ave in the Little Italy district. Originally, this breakaway shop was a separate consumer co-op called Sunflower, but, due to poor management, it was eventually acquired by the original Harvest Collective. These two stores would come to be the first workplaces ever organized into the IWW and certified by the Manitoba Labour Relations Board in the history of our prairie province.

Wiccans, hippies, queers… and an intrusive board

I started volunteering at Sunflower in my grade 11 year. I needed some job experience and it was a way to put my food politics into action: I could bag bulk organic raisins and peanut butter for a few hours every weekend. It felt good, I helped out the co-op and I got a discount on my purchases at the store. When summer rolled around I got an offer to start working part-time. People would be travelling and there were always shifts to fill when the store experienced a hippy exodus to the Winnipeg Folk Fest. My job at Harvest was primarily working as a cashier, but I also stocked shelves, maintained the produce display, cashed out and cleaned the bathrooms and floors. In a small workplace like Harvest, workers needed to be adept at a lot of tasks (including catering to the food whims of an eccentric customer base). Between the two locations, there were probably about 25 staff employed by Harvest and this would include a general manager as well as produce and grocery managers in each store.

Conditions in the workplace were mixed. On the positive side, there was an amazing diversity of workers at the store who were fascinating and passionate. Anarchist BMX racers, feminist student organizers, revolutionary rappers, queer Mennonite folk artists, bookish wiccans, intense tattoo artists, flamenco instructors, sexy older punks, taoist bicycle ecologists, genuine slow-talking hippies, etc. It was an awesome group of people who shared an interest in sustainable food systems and who needed to work. Also, we had a decent amount of flexibility and job control because of the relatively laid-back nature of the workplace. We could listen to whatever music we wanted to — and there were a lot of musicians on staff. I remember sneaking off into the walk-in cooler to do shots of organic maple syrup and debate politics with my co-workers on the regular. It was a heady place for a suburban kid who was into the intersectional politics of the vegan, straight-edge, hardcore scene. I ate it up.

On the negative side, Harvest had a consumer co-op model where consumers bought memberships for a nominal fee and then elected a board. The volunteer board then hired a general manager to oversee the stores. The managers that Harvest had while I was there (I can recall at least 3 in the 5 years) were generally not very competent and mostly invisible. None were particularly authoritarian, but they didn’t provide amazing leadership or solidify the store’s bottom line well enough to be allowed to stick around for too long. In addition, things were loosey-goosey when it came to promotions and wages. Most of us made just above the minimum wage. It was a classic case of people being expected to put up with poor wages in exchange for doing “meaningful” work that helped the “cause” and built “community”.

Interestingly, the issues that started the IWW organizing drive at Harvest came mostly due to the actions of the board, not management. One overly exuberant board member (let’s call him Armand) wanted to get directly involved in how the store was running on a day-to-day basis. He wanted to lecture cashiers about the proper way to sell tomatoes. He suspected that two staff members who both had facial piercings and dreadlocks must be in a sexual relationship. He also thought that their image wasn’t right for the store and they were likely anarchist troublemakers. Rumours started to circulate that Armand was going to try to get these two staff members fired. This caused other workers to panic and want to band together to protect each other. Finally, Armand didn’t like jazz or rap music and so one day he decided to walk into the Corydon location and remove the stereo system without speaking to staff. As I recall it, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Workers were outraged by this attack on our ability to listen to music of our choosing during our shifts and union talk started quickly.

A union built around radical politics

The majority of Harvest staff identified as leftists and anarchism would have been the most dominant ideological tendency. Someone knew of the IWW and a dual-carder from the Winnipeg General Membership Branch named Bruce Mackay came to our shop and made the OBU [the IWW is referred to as the OBU or “One Big Union” –Ed] pitch to us. Eight of us joined in May of 1998 and then at a meeting a few weeks later another eight or so signed up. The five managers had the power to hire and fire so they couldn’t join. There were two or three holdouts who were either scared of the IWW’s politics, thought that the workplace was too small for a union, or were too friendly with management to want to challenge their power.

We did very few one-on-ones. People were already radical and they cared about each other enough to just get involved when the union drive started. The IWW was anti-capitalist and had a vision of green syndicalism which fit our industry nicely. It just seemed to make sense. Inadvertently, management had organized us by hiring a staff where 90% of us were radicals of one sort or another.

Our organizing approach in the “dark ages” of the IWW

I think one of the key things to understand about the Harvest drive is that it happened in the dark ages before the development of the Organizer Trainer program that began around 2002. In 1998, the IWW was about half (or even a third) of its current size. The GOB was still hand-typed and cut-and-paste assembled. There had been very few successful workplace organizing victories in recent memory and there was very little in the way of literature, supports or models to follow. There was no Recomposition or Organizing Work. Hell, there was wasn’t even Red Card Holders on Facebook. On the plus side, the IWW had recently seen the organizing campaign at Borders Books in Philadelphia and Portland seemed to have a number of IWW shops. But as workers in Winnipeg, we were pretty ignorant of all these things.

What the Winnipeg General Membership Branch did have in 1998 was a small core of dual-carders who were baby-boomer age and who had years of experience in established larger union struggles. In particular, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Canadian Employment and Immigration Union. These dual-carders had formed the Winnipeg GMB to express their frustration with the mainstream unions and to keep the ideas of the One Big Union alive. They were incredibly helpful to us and were amazing mentors, but their strategy for the Harvest drive was to run it like a traditional union campaign. There was no discussion of solidarity unionism or minority unionism. There was no strategizing of shop floor actions to build our power. We simply followed their advice about how to act like a “real” union and pursued certification by the Manitoba labour board. We held a certification vote around September of 1998 and handily won with around 80% of the vote. At the time this seemed easy and legitimate. Most of the workers at Harvest were between the ages of 18 and 30 and very few had any experience with unions or workplace organizing. But this strategy would end up having serious consequences in the long run.

How we changed the shop

We did take on some issues and enjoyed a few victories. To begin with, we forced Armand (the board member with limited musical appreciation) to return our stereo system. Further, the fears of the two anarchist “ring-leaders” being fired dissolved once management saw they had a organized workplace to deal with and didn’t want to go terminating anyone while they were under the microscope. Another small victory was the reclamation of the communication binder used in each store. The communication binders were originally for passing along routine information such as, “Give the romaine extra love; it needs it.” or “Don’t forget to lock the back door because the blowing snow is making it difficult to close.” One thing that we did was to start openly discussing policies and vision in the communication binder. It wasn’t used to directly call out individual managers, but it became a democratic internal discussion board that gave workers a voice and way to air grievances and support each other across different shifts.

We were far more organized than management and the board of the co-op. As a delegate, I recall joining a co-worker in a discipline meeting and serving as a shop steward of sorts. In this way we helped workers to not feel intimidated by management and we tried to keep records and hold them accountable.

Once our campaign went public we also had a button campaign and union members were pretty religious about wearing them prominently on their company aprons. One ambitious idea we had was to get union members and community supporters elected to the board. The short-term goal was to have a worker’s voice present in planning and visioning for the organization. The long-term goal was eventually to try to stack the board and move towards a worker co-op model rather than a consumer co-op structure. This attempt was beaten back by management and the board, but it was one of the few times that the Harvest drive tried to organize beyond the shop floor and draw on community allies.

Our dream contract, and the sudden end of our campaign

It’s sad to say, but the principal activity of the Harvest drive was to draft our first collective agreement. Probably 90% of our activity from the fall of 1998 through September of 1999 was dedicated to creating our dream contract so that we could present it to management when we entered bargaining. On the plus side, this proposed contract might possibly be the most democratically derived union document in Canadian history. We had monthly union meetings with 75-90% of our members present. For hours we hashed out how we could achieve living wages while simultaneously collapsing the wage differentials between all workers in our two shops.

We finally got to negotiations with a board member in the early summer of 1999. We sat down in a neutral meeting room on the University of Winnipeg campus and presented the volunteer board member with our 20-page contract. He just looked at it and said, “Oh, this is way more involved than I thought it would be. I don’t have the time to negotiate something like this.”

And that was our first, and only, bargaining session.

Then we got notice about a month later that the co-op was going out of business. When Harvest Collective shut its doors, all the workers who carried red cards lost their jobs. That would definitely have to be our biggest loss.

Harvest Collective went under, but a board member re-opened the store a few months later as a private business. Almost every worker who hadn’t been a wob (three of the five managers, and one holdout non-union floor worker) got a job under the newly branded Organza. In keeping with our legalistic approach, we filed for a Labour Board determination on whether or not the IWW had successor rights as the bargaining agent at Organza. The Manitoba LRB found that because it was the same industry and location we did have successor rights. But when we tried to get the jobs of individual members back, the labour board determined against us on a technicality. It turns out that it was just a coincidence that all the resumes submitted by wobs to Organza were “lost”. We did convince a few new workers at Organza to take out red cards, but they were vastly outnumbered and management had learned to be very selective about not hiring “activists” or employees who were “too political”. Two years later Organza applied for a de-certification and the IWW’s “representation” of any workers in the natural foods industry in Manitoba was officially snuffed out.


Use 80% direct action, 20% legal activity

I think the most important lesson learned from the Harvest drive is the dangers of relying exclusively on a the labour board and a legalistic contract route. Our initial victory with certification was so easy and we just thought that winning a contract was the next step. We spent far too much time creating our proposed contract.

Considering that we had an overwhelming majority of the workers as card-carrying members, it’s tragic and laughable that we engaged in practically zero collective, direct actions during our drive. We should have taken some dramatic actions (like a march on the boss or whistle-blowing to appeal to sympathetic consumers, etc.) to hit key improvements for ourselves while we had momentum. We could have gotten raises or some other concrete improvements rather than waiting for our promised contract to be negotiated.

A related mistake was that when we all lost our jobs due to the closure of Harvest in the late summer of 1999, we didn’t take any collective or public actions. We could have picketed Organza during its opening weeks and caused a disturbance. Instead we fought Organza in the labour court — far away from the job site. We won a pyrrhic victory with successor rights, but no one ever got their jobs back or established the union again on the shop floor.

If I were doing things over I would make our legal/labour board activity 20% of our activity and building the union through actions in our workplace 80% of our focus. I don’t think pursuing certification is inherently a bad idea, but when it replaces organizing and engaging workers in their jobs, it’s a dead end. And, as the Harvest drive shows, even if you have a super-majority of co-workers holding red cards, you can still lose if you aren’t taking it to the boss in the field of battle where we actually have power. This means that having one direct action is not enough. To keep the union “real” for workers, they have to see and participate in it in action. It’s so easy to get side-tracked into the legalistic trap of fighting in the courts or relying on the labour board. Don’t fall for it.

Organizing and activism are not interchangeable

To be clear, I don’t think the strategy we followed was entirely the fault of our dual-carding mentors. In their defense, they had spent years working in established unions. They had negotiated and defended their contracts numerous times. They can’t be blamed if, after having learned to use a hammer in their unions for two decades, they came along and saw our campaign as a bunch of nails.

Some of the blame for our strategy falls squarely on our own shoulders. We weren’t as bold or creative as we could have been. This is doubly frustrating because many of us were activists in other areas (feminist, ecological, animal rights, prisoner solidarity, etc. movements). We had experience organizing and taking action, but we didn’t transplant it very well into our own workplace. But perhaps this is another important lesson: that workplace organizing and much of what is considered left-wing “activism” are not interchangeable. There may be overlap, but direct action in your workplace has a different skill set.

We didn’t have a union prepared to support organizing; you do

Finally, some blame for our strategy can also be laid at the feet of the larger IWW. The union was just not in the place to support our drive in a meaningful way. There were almost zero written resources to support us. I remember reading the “Common Sense Arguments for Workers’ Self-Management” and “Fire Your Boss” pamphlets. While there was an “Organizer’s Guide” written by Jon Bekken, I don’t think I saw that document until after our drive was over.

Therefore, my other advice to workers in the IWW who are organizing today would be to access and study the Organizer Trainings 101 and 102. These trainings have been developed by experienced organizers who’ve drawn on years of successes and failures to build a quality curriculum of wobbly knowledge. The Organizer Trainings also force you to role play different scenarios. And trust me, if you can’t have a one-on-one with a fellow wob at a training, you sure as hell aren’t going to be able to have a one-on-one with a co-worker in the shop.

Also, read the debates and literature that’s come out of IWW organizing drives in the last 15 years. These campaign stories are being archived on and in websites like Organizing Work. Some great books also exist like Wages So Low You’ll Freak. I would have died to have these resources when we were in the thick of the Harvest drive.

I’ve been a member of the IWW for almost 21 years and, I assure you, you have the collective wisdom of so many capable wobs who’ve learned the hard way to inform your practice. Back in 1998, we were groping in the dark.