How can workers defy anti-strike legislation?

Postal workers in Canada were on rotating strikes around this time last year when they were legislated back to work by the federal government. Negotiations have since been subject to an arbitrator, who has asked for two extensions. Postal workers were also legislated back to work in 2011, in an act that was later found to be unconstitutional by the Canadian Supreme Court. But that did not stop last year’s strike from being ended in the same way.

Workers face all manner of legislation hemming in their strike activity, from the Taft Hartley Act in the US, which prevents sympathy strikes, to the Taylor Law in New York State, which bars public sector workers from striking.  Some have argued that unions must defy this legislation in order to reverse these draconian laws and bring back the militancy that workers need in order to make real gains. But how do we get there when the penalties for defiance are so high? In the case of Canada Post, individual workers are subject to fines of $1,000 per day for participating in a strike.

I spoke to Roland Schmidt, President of the Edmonton-region Local 730 of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Workers in that local have a vision for defying the current back-to-work legislation and pushing back against these kinds of laws in general, which starts with building up the capacity for taking action “on the workfloor,” and then disseminating that through a training program.

How did these workfloor actions start?

Back in 2011, our local had a very positive experience of various activists fighting from the workfloor against a forced overtime crisis. Basically, if we are short-staffed, the corporation can force letter carriers to stay out. Instead of staffing properly, managers would use this provision in the contract to just force people back until the work was done. We called it “forceback.” People would be finishing their route, and then have to go do another hour and forty-five minutes of another person’s route. If that happened once or twice every few months, fine, you get some extra money. But it was happening three times a week. So that helped springboard to a lot of militancy in the local. These workfloor committees sprung up, and coordinated refusals, backing each other up. A citywide campaign emerged, with all carriers in all stations pushing back. We had mass meetings. Canada Post backed down from its suspension threats and changed its staffing levels and the problem was solved.

Building from this experience, we developed a course called “Taking back the workfloor,” which drew inspiration from some workshops put on by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), an organization which has been steadfast in their support every time our rights are violated.

Ironically, around this time, we were going into a strike, and then [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper legislated us back to work, and that took all the wind out of our sails. We didn’t have a plan to defy the legislation. We went into long period of inactivity that didn’t correct until just the last six to eight months.

There are a lot of concerns that still haven’t been addressed – we have all these work structure and short-staffing problems, which leave a quarter of our members injured every year. When we were legislated back to work again last year, this pushed people over the edge, [making them] give up on process as usual. I was part of a small contingent of activists in Edmonton that decided we have to be open about the fact that the procedural models — grievances, arbitration, the court system, constitutionality — have let us down, and we need to get back to reclaiming CUPW’s militant legacy.

I was organizing officer at the time, and we dusted off this course, and trained people through that. Our contingent grew from five people to thirty. We decided to really go for it, so I became president of the local in June. We fully recognize the limitations of becoming part of the union bureaucracy, but we thought we would leverage this platform to promote a local-wide organizing campaign. Because I am no longer a carrier, my day is in the [union] office, [so] I get to spend half my day going to different work facilities, and explaining why the union keeps losing, why this legislation keeps happening, and how the only meaningful course we have forward is to organize ourselves and apply pressure. I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived, but with the help of other activists, people signed up en masse for the course, and we ran six, with twenty people in each course, in July. That represented the nucleus of this new organizing contingent, and we had representatives [activists] in all our different [job] classifications.

We’ve had various job actions, at seven of our eleven main locations, involving people who have never been involved in this stuff before, from confronting bully bosses, to addressing pay problems, etc. With direct action, we can see positive change in these in the space of a week after seeing no movement for years.

Are you worried about penalties with these shopfloor actions, considering you are under back-to-work legislation?

It’s a very real concern. Some of us have the belief that it doesn’t matter what the fines are but the reality is with our membership, it’s a fear that’s very real.

A lot of our action circulates around the fact that our collective bargaining agreement says we have the right to complain. So if you have a bully boss — just last week, there was a section of 25 parcel workers in a plant, who had a supervisor who would stand over them and badger them. Wouldn’t let people leave until the very last minute, which is deeply frowned upon because it takes five minutes to travel across the giant facility. They got sick of filing grievances and harassment complaints, so 20 of 25 marched across the worksite to manager’s office, and demanded he hear them out. The manager left, and they [the workers] said, “We will wait for you until you come back.” He came back, they told him all their problems with this supervisor, and the manager reprimanded the supervisor, who then apologized, and he’s been better since.

The company then gave everyone disciplinary letters saying they stopped production for a half hour. We disputed this — in my capacity as president, l said, “We used our right to complain. This guy ran away, thereby extending what could have been a minute of talking to you into a half hour.” Even if we did stop production, why didn’t they sic the legislation on us? There have been a few instances where they could have tried, but I think they’re afraid of stoking the fire.

In Rosedale, the biggest letter carrier depot in Edmonton, there was a flyer that wasn’t properly categorized, and so they wanted us to deliver them to every person’s house. This could add as many as four extra kilometers of walking to an already overburdened carrier’s route. I was still a carrier there at this time, and we marched on management and said, “You have to get this reclassified.” The manager of this station then gave people a direct order to deliver it. Instead, workers took a vote right then and there [on whether to deliver it], and they voted no. So the manager said, “We will have to discipline you,” and we all just laughed at him. Out of the 60 who refused to deliver the flyer, only 5 people were targeted, and they were given one-day suspensions. Normally that’s a 5-day suspension for such a blatant act of insubordination. In the end, they were twice given a direct order to comply and still refused.

So that’s another opportunity to use the legislation, and they didn’t take it. Why didn’t they, and why didn’t they come down more heavily on the people who participated? We feel it doesn’t take much to spook them.

What is in the “Take back the workfloor” course?

The AEIOU (Agitate, Educate, Inoculate, Organize, Unity) toolkit teaches workers how to build support in their workplace. Mapping the workplace to develop your spectrum of allies. How to hold a workfloor meeting. We do a lot of roleplay of workfloor meetings and confrontations — all squeezed into one eight-hour day.

We try to convince as many people as possible – we don’t just want the ideologically committed people to go. We book people off work to come to the course. They participate with people from the same work classification. Then we ask if they are willing to maintain their activity with the group, and plug them into a Facebook group, Signal chat group, and email list.

It’s been so successful that the different levels of our union are compelled to take up the same program. We are part of the prairie region – Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — and the rest of our region is feeling inspired to support the activity in Edmonton. Other locals are asking, “Why isn’t that happening here?” We’re rolling out the same organizing program to other locals – Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Saskatoon, Winnipeg. So we’re going to be sending our trainers to these locals to administer this course. Help them get it off the ground so they can run it themselves. And then use that to springboard to creating a regional organizing committee — a first for our union.

How has CUPW national reacted, if at all?

It’s mixed. As far as the organizing, it’s interesting because we are having this unprecedented success. We’re almost tripling our general membership meeting attendance, having these huge turnouts in voluntary committees, getting together for organizing, people sharing it on social media, and the discourse on national Facebook groups turns to “why isn’t this happening elsewhere?”

It’s kind of tough to differentiate between folks at national who, maybe because they didn’t initiate it, they’re gun-shy to shine more light on it, [versus] maybe some that are hostile to it. I like to say a union is like a bird. One wing is proceduralism, crossing t’s, grievances, arbitration, consultation, etc. The other wing is organizing. Our union has relied mostly on the procedural wing since 1985. That’s when it changed from jail time to fines for back-to-work legislation. Then the strategy became “we’re going to be the specialists in the room, we’re going to have the better testimony at arbitration.” I don’t think the intention was to demobilize the workers or to take the teeth out of the union, but this focus on proceduralism came at the expense of collective empowerment. And if you do that long enough and see world through that lens, that’s how you come to understand how you should fight. I don’t want to attribute something malicious. So if another approach emerges, I can see how someone who has spent their whole career just doing grievances would feel threatened by members wanting to try out a different strategy.

I understand you guys polled members on the question of defying back-to-work legislation. Why did you decide to do that, and what was the outcome of the poll?

It’s interesting because we were doing our organizing drive, and training members, and once they felt empowered, they were looking at the work situation and thinking, “How do we confront this?”

One facility, their routes were being reevaluated. Every four to five years, they count letters and parcels, and add or subtract routes. Though letters go down, growth in parcels outstrips that, so we should be gaining work. Our collective agreement doesn’t have strong language to hold the corporation accountable to provide accurate numbers in these audits. These numbers, provided by union observers, then go into Canada Post algorithms, and they get twisted. We’ve asked for their calculations, and they smirk across the table from us, because they’re not obligated to give them to us, [so they] tell us, “If you don’t like it, grieve it.” So we got a city-wide petition signed by almost every letter carrier in city, 800 people, demanding they release the numbers and create three more positions, which was the calculation based on union numbers. We sent it to the CEO of Canada Post (CPC) and our national union executive, and said we would escalate matters if CPC did not meet our demands. Going into this, they were going to cut eight positions, and instead they only cut three. So we saved five jobs because of organizing, but it was still unacceptable that any cuts were happening at all.

A mass meeting was called where 120 workers came out to support workers in that facility, and said, “How are we going to escalate this, still being under back-to-work legislation, which would fine every member $1,000 a day?” Because no one can pay this. But we said, “Do we have enough support to fight back so the fines wouldn’t be enforceable?” And we decided, at that stage, we didn’t have the capacity to escalate. This is too big for us to take on, on our own; we need more support.

I was tasked with holding a referendum through October, and I went to every work facility in Edmonton with a ballot box and ballots, and made a little bit of a presentation on our work conditions, and the back-to-work legislation, and how workers’ rights were not being taken seriously, and made it clear there was no wrong answer – if people were too afraid to defy — we don’t want a strategy based on delusion. And the city-wide vote came back 83% in favor of defiance. But that defiance rested on the premise that we would have the support of the entire local, as well as national.

Then I wrote an open letter on behalf of the local, “We have to get out of this cycle of back-to-work legislation,” and we said there is nothing special about Edmonton postal workers, just that someone was willing to ask our opinion, and we believe if all postal workers were asked the same question, they would be willing to fight, so we asked national to help us expand this referendum beyond Edmonton.

We had our first call with them [the national union] in early November, then our second last week, and to their credit they were honest about the fact that the union cannot financially support defiance. I don’t see anything wrong with being honest about that. If we had $20 million, half our membership could defy for one day; that’s not gonna cut it. But the idea has always been, if we’re going to be successful, it’s not because any of us can afford the fines, but because we have the sheer capacity to make the fines unenforceable.

National acknowledged they didn’t have the financial means to back us, and weren’t at the place where they were going to publicly advocate for defiance, but they were very supportive of our organizing. So they artfully sidestepped the whole idea of a referendum.

But if you’re going to have that defiance, it’s not going to be through national telling you that’s the way to go, but actually getting on the workfloor to train workers. And that sort of thing will scale eventually. Dealing with local problems, then regional, then eventually on the national level you can have conversations about defying back-to-work legislation. So it’s a good framework.

Despite national’s apprehension, they’re at least not standing in the way, which for anyone who has watched how these bigger unions operate, that’s a victory right there. Because often, even if it’s well-intentioned, it’s our own organizations that limit our potential as a movement.

How do you plan to expand this approach?

We know that other levels of the union – regional, national – are not going to embrace an organizing program without overwhelming evidence. So in Edmonton, we said we’re just going to focus on process. Plant seeds and wait for harvest. Turns out if you give workers who are upset by their working conditions the tools to fight back, they inevitably do. And sure enough, word started to trickle out. Social media has been very helpful in that regard.

I also had the pleasure of sharing stories of what happened in Edmonton in one of our educational forums, and said Edmonton would be willing to share their materials and get trainers out to anyone interested. Immediately, we got interest from four other locals that we’ll be helping out come the new year. At the expense of the host local, they could fly out one of our course facilitators. We could work with one of the facilitators to run the course there, then afterwards they could build up their own nucleus of activists, setting up their own courses and eventually coordinate their own workfloor job actions. We figure when there is job action popping up in these other locals, then other regions will buy in.

There is no such thing as too many trained activists and organizers. I just keep promoting the course as long as members are willing to sign up. The more job action we have, the more confident people are to engage in it. The longer we keep building up this model, the better prepared we are to take on challenges in future, like unacceptable working conditions, or being legislated back to work. Because that’s what’s hanging over us. That’s the history of how we’ve been treated, and we know it will happen again. So we just need to hold the line on this organizing. Once upon a time our union represented the vanguard of the labor movement in Canada. We established maternity leave by defying back-to-work legislation – our national president went to jail for a couple months; that was before the fines. Defiance is the only way forward for the labor movement because things keep getting worse.

If it’s only one station in Edmonton, they’ll come after you, full weight. But all of Edmonton? One of the things I said in my presentation during the referendum was that it’s going to be organized workers somewhere who are going to stand up. It’s inevitable. And they’re going to start something beautiful. But it’s one thing to encourage that, and another thing to organize to make it happen.