Buffalo Jump - Phinneas Gage

Buffalo Jump - Phinneas Gage

The second in a three part series about a strike at Canada Post. Phinneas Gage describes how the strike rolled on as 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.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Buffalo Jump
by Phinneas Gage

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.

“WE FOUND SCABS EMPTYING REDBOXES!!!!!!”

“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.

Picketing

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.”
-Craig

“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.”
-Tony

“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!”
-Linda

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

Originally posted: January 22, 2015 at Recomposition