Activists, not allies: Organizing in a distributed workforce

Bob Barnetson describes a campaign by his faculty association at Athabasca University, a public, higher education distance learning institution in Alberta. During a contract fight, the union made the bold move of just mobilizing members for pickets and not relying on community supporters.

In 2017, my 400-person union faced a crisis as a result of new labor laws. For the prior 30 years, bargaining impasses had been resolved by a combination of interest arbitration over wages and a “stonewall” clause over language (i.e., absent agreement, the existing language continued). This resulted in a disengaged membership that viewed bargaining as primarily a technical exercise and would rarely take direct action against the employer.

New laws imposed by a putatively labor-friendly government meant an immediate switch to strike-lockout for faculty associations across our province (including some who were well into bargaining). Like the other faculty associations, my union had no credible strike threat. Not surprisingly, Athabasca University opened the next round of bargaining seeking a wage freeze and serious rollbacks in working conditions backed by the spectre of a 24-hour lockout. These aggressive demands were part of a broader employer strategy of union busting.

A key part of my union’s response to the move to strike-lockout was to engage and mobilize our members in order to create both a credible strike threat and, more broadly, a base of power in the workplace. In addition to a culture of passive unionism, a major challenge we faced was that half of our members worked from home offices spread across the country while the other half worked on campuses in three different cities. The employer’s aggressive bargaining position—a position much more aggressive than required by the government’s mandate of a freeze on the lost of living—created an opportunity to agitate among a relatively privileged set of workers. We then moved towards educating the members about ways that they could push back. 

We began with low-risk actions, such as running a series of straw polls. Each week, we would outline one of the employer’s proposals and its implications in an email. We’d then poll our members on whether they would accept such an outcome. These polls were a dress rehearsal for a strike vote. We used the results to agitate and to demonstrate to the employer that, if they really wanted each proposal, they were going to have to chance a lock out. Over time, the employer withdrew or otherwise abandoned these proposals.

Our broader goal, though, was to lay the groundwork for direct action that was not mediated through the union. In particular, we were interested in developing a set of picketers to normalize the behavior (since a work stoppage was looming) and exert public pressure, in the hope of forcing an acceptable contract on the employer. We began by hosting a series of picket sign-making lunches, where we encouraged staff to repurpose university slogans and logos.

Our picketing goals were twofold: (1) to get 100 different members (25% of the unit) out to at least one information picket, and (2) to increase the size of the information pickets each time. While we had access to allies—both from other unions on campus and in the broader labor movement—we decided early on not to rely upon allies for picketing. Although many allies turned up and their support was helpful and heartening, our goal was always to build our own power base, where none had existed, rather than stretch existing labor power by embroiling allies in yet another dispute. Relying mainly on our own members for picketing demonstrated—to both the members and the employer—that we were able to mount a strike if necessary.

Over the space of four months (March to June), we staged four information pickets. Our first picket of a Board of Governors meeting saw 14 members and 1 ally force Board members to sneak in the back door. A second picket saw 32 members (including 27 first-timers) and 5 allies picket in conjunction with the 19th (!) day of bargaining. A third picket (at the Board Chair’s place of business) saw 20 members (including 12 first-timers) and 4 allies make the Chair’s employees and customers aware of how badly she was allowing us to be treated. Our final picket saw 35 members (including 10 first timers) and 20 allies picket a university meeting during the downtown lunch rush in Edmonton, much to the surprise of the university executive. (The high numbers of allies reflects that the university paid these staff to be onsite that day.) An acceptable contract was concluded shortly thereafter.

While we didn’t fully meet our numeric member engagement goals, we did achieve the strategic goals: thwarting the employer’s rollbacks, both by demonstrating we had a viable strike threat and attaching reputational costs to the employer’s bad behavior. More subjectively, the pickets built up the confidence of the members in expressing their dissatisfaction and in realizing that they were not each alone in their opposition to the employer’s terrible behavior. We were very careful to inoculate members about potential employer countermoves. As it turned out, the employer was unable to mount any kind of effective countermove.  

Normalizing activism and having an internal group of activists proved important a few months later when the employer escalated its union-busting strategy by taking advantage of Alberta’s unusual labor laws to try and carve two-thirds of our members out of the unit. We immediately organized member actions including petitions, a march on the boss, disrupting four meetings, and an email campaign that applied a lot of social pressure, to support our legal and media campaigns. This issue remains ongoing.

As we head into another difficult round of bargaining, we’re focusing on generating buy-in to our proposal so that members will support making gains, not just defending existing rights. Changes to past practice have included more member engagement in proposal development, members ratifying the opening proposal, regular surveys and blog posts about member issues, and one-on-one telephone contact with members.

While our allies, particularly among the other unions on campus, have been very helpful in our confrontations with the boss, in the end our power flows from the willingness of our members to take actions that attach costs to the employer’s behavior. Our assumption is that, if the cost of bad behavior is high enough, the employer will behave differently. Workers, not allies, can generate the highest costs to employers. Social disapproval, work slowdowns, and work refusals are powerful tools—arguably more powerful than grievances and media campaigns—to resist employer attacks. These require focusing on mobilizing our own members, not coat-tailing on the power of other unions.

Bob Barnetson is a professor of labor relations at Athabasca University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.