In this post, Phinneas Gage tells a story about action on the job, management retaliation, and workers’ responses.
Harjit stood outside the depot in the cold for 15 minutes before anyone else arrived. He had a stack of picket signs next to him. The sticks poking out from the garbage bags the signs were packed in. They were slowly collecting snow. It was going to be a long day, at work a half hour early to get people their picket signs and whistles, eight hours of work, and then whatever overtime was coming. Sheila was the next to show up in her beat up rusty pickup truck. She walked up to Harjit, trying to pull down the last of a cigarette as she yanked one of the signs out of the garbage bag. The sign read:
“End Forceback-Hire more staff”. She smiled. Soon the parking lot was full of letter carriers, a sea of blue and red Canada Post uniforms. All of them chattering and talking, mostly about the forced overtime called “forceback” in the post office.
Harjit stood up on a mail tub saying: “I don’t live to work at Canada Post, I work here because I believe in a public post office and I need to feed and clothe my family. I’ve never heard of a job where when you are done your work they can make you work in the dark, for another two to four hours. We need to get management to stop using forced overtime to solve a staffing problem. Let’s go in there and tell management what we think!”
The crowd, armed with noisemakers and signs then pressed through the front doors of the depot. Harjit smiled and held the door for everyone as they filed in. The crowd marched through the rows of sorting cases for about ten minutes. They were chanting and making noise while management watched from their office. Eventually everyone walked to their work stations and began sorting that day’s mail. Later on Harjit joined Sheila for a cigarette, “great job Harjit, I’m glad you bottom lined this action, the speech was great too” she said, Harjit smiled. “You didn’t see because you were talking but management was watching and they look scared shitless!”
A few days later Harjit and Sheila went through the drill one more time with the row captains. “Okay, Jan you’re job is to interrupt, they know you are an activist and they will just blow off what the usual suspects have to say”, then it was Sheila’s turn. “Katie, you don’t speak up much that’s why we picked you to talk about how the forceback is affecting your childcare arrangement, they’ll listen to you because they don’t think you generally complain much”. Harjit then put the demand letter on the table, and looked at an older man, “We need you to read this letter last Bill. This works just like a formal complaint or a grievance, Jan is the interrupter, she keeps them from turning it into a management meeting, Katie provides the documentation of the problem, and Bill gives our proposal for a solution”.
When the rest of the depot arrived outside they gathered as a group with signs and noisemakers they marched through the front door just like last time. This time management’s heart sank as the large crowd marched in a straight line towards the office and confronted them.
Harjit can feel his hands shaking slightly. Today was a roller coaster day. It started with the thrill of getting a text with a link saying Canada Post was hiring hundreds of temps- their main demand. They won! As soon as word spread there was an incredible buzz on the floor as people joked and cheered. But as soon as he got to work he found the letter from Canada Post on his desk, saying they wanted a meeting with him to discuss the labour troubles in the depot. He thought about what his wife would say if he got in real trouble, a suspension could stretch the budget a bit and he was feeling pretty broke just after Christmas. What if he got fired? He didn’t even want to think about that.
“You okay man?” Sheila asked. Harjit nodded and smiled thinly as he handed the letter to her. She didn’t have to read it to know what was going on. “We’ve got your back no matter what Harj”, he nodded but felt pretty alone.
Craig held an envelope in his hand with corporate letterhead on the top left corner and Harjit’s name on it. The rise of militancy brought with it new pressures on the office. Craig was feeling it most as the local grievance officer. First off there was the very real fact that refusing overtime was a direct violation of the collective agreement, the contract was clear on this and it was not a guarantee that an arbitrator was going to agree that the overtime was a real threat to the workers health and safety. The local was always a combative one but the local union officials always carried themselves with an air of professionalism. They knew that it was the offices job to cut a deal that would make the workers happy. Craig was worried about what would happen between the union and management over the long term if they couldn’t make a deal.
The local had recently paid out a fifty-thousand dollar fine for an illegal walkout four years ago. People in the union office were feeling a bit gun shy. This was on top of a five day suspension handed out to over 100 workers. Another violation of the collective agreement could bring even more fines; there was plenty of reason to believe that as we escalated the government would in turn escalate their response in order to maintain labour peace. The corporate labour relations officers knew this and said this to the full time members of the executive. One of the labour relations officers would say: “you are the certified bargaining agent, tell your workers to obey the contract and get back to work”. There were also various hints that if we would give them a little breathing room on the issue of forceback they would give ground somewhere else.
Like Craig, Ike was pretty worked up but for different reasons. Ike hadn’t been off the floor long and he considered the end to forceback one of the most exciting things he had seen happen in the local since he started at the Post Office. Ike then asked Craig about the cost of taking a grievance to the last stage of arbitration. There are a lot of different ways you can crunch the numbers but the total cost after hotel rooms and arbitrators honoraria is still in the tens of thousands. When you take this into account the Delton fine was not actually much more expensive than a few high profile grievances. Craig was pretty willing to hear this out but there was something else he was worried about.
“Come on Craig”, Ike interrupted, “the solidarity on the floor has never been this strong among letter carriers. The union is stronger because of it we also forced the corporation to solve the staffing problem. What could possibly be the downside to this?” This was also true the corporation was hiring more staff than they had in years. Even the labour relations people in the corporation admitted this was directly a result of the campaign. But it was Craig’s turn to interrupt now.
Craig waved his arms angrily. “You want to know what the downside is? The downside is this!” With flourish Craig slammed the letter with Harjit’s name on it. The letter was a disciplinary letter. Management was talking big and one of the bosses said they wanted to fire Harjit. “You know what is going to get Harjit off the hook? If we have a good relationship with management we can save this guys job. If not he has to go home to his wife and kids and tell them he got fired.”
Ike blinked and swallowed. Maybe Craig was right. It’s not that he hadn’t thought of the possibility of a firing. We all talked about firings a lot in our organizing committee meetings. We talked about how this was probably going to come and we had to fight discipline. This was real though, it wasn’t a hypothetical. He knew Harjit and liked the guy. They had gotten a beer just the week before at a bar by Harjit’s place. He had met Harjit’s wife and kids. Ike thought about Harjit’s wife and what it would be like for him to tell her he’d been fired. At that moment Ike saw where Craig was coming from, maybe we do need to try and keep one part of the union in dialogue with management. There comes a time when we also have to look out for our militants.
Harjit hangs up the phone after his call with the union office. They said management was out for blood. He imagines telling his family he’s been fired and feels slightly nauseous. His co-workers are angry. He tells himself to be calm while he explains that his seventy co-workers should not march en-masse into his disciplinary meeting to break it up. His voice quavers a little while he talks. Sheila is outraged at management and she wants blood. She shouts, “We stand up for our health and safety and our jobs and this is what they do? We can’t let this happen!” Harjit tries to calm her down then he starts the walk towards the office with his steward for the meeting.
It has been said that ‘mediation’ in the cardinal sin of trade unionism. This is undeniably true. Nothing holds union back like the need to always negotiate, to cut a deal. Unions are often forced into a position where they are not waging a struggle against the boss but rather mediating between the workers and bosses. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on union officers and activists to put a brake on direct action. Depending on the scale of action there can be fines against the union, its officers, or even the members who participate themselves. There can also be court injunctions, jail time or even termination depending on what happens. It’s often tempting to say that nothing can be done when there is no legal case. Repression is obviously part of the struggle and should be expected but when compromises are made in the face of people making real world sacrifices denouncing sin does not address the perceived neccessity of that sin in certain, very bleak, circumstances. This can lead to union officers acting according to a different mindset and timeframe than militant union members on the job.
Mediation needs to be seen not as a bad choice, but as a result of a certain balance of forces on the job and in society at large. It’s easy to think that avoiding mediation is just a question of good political education. It’s easy to think that if the workers and their organisations had the right politics they won’t fall into this trap. Good politics does not feed your kids or pay the rent.
As Harjit and his steward walk away Sheila pulls everyone off the floor for a meeting in the break room. She knows the bosses want to make an example of Harjit. Slowly the letter carriers and inside workers start walking in to the break room and taking their seat on the other side of the depot, the workfloor is empty. She worries that management will fire Harjit. She is thinking about what that will mean for him and his family and for the organising at work. She knows Harjit doesn’t want anyone disrupting the disciplinary meeting. She also knows that management had their people in the room who will report back to them about the conversation in the break room. She tries not to think about getting a letter from management with her name on it. Sheila begins to facilitate the meeting in the break room. It is rowdy and it goes off track a lot.
One letter carrier suggests a sick in and a lot of nods and a quick show of hands indicate there is a clear majority. If Harjit is suspended this means a sick in for the duration of the punishment, if he is fired it means an indefinite wildcat strike. The workers at Harjit’s depot agree that they will call in sick every day that Harjit is not on the floor. Small actions also happen at a few other depots and in the postal plant organized by a local committee of activists all over the city.
In our struggles at Canada Post we had a political position that we would not mediate between the workers and the boss. Even more important, though, has been our long term relationships with co-workers and our experience organizing on the job. We created a pattern of slow escalation and building solidarity on the floor through actions. Harjit had a broad layer of leaders developed on the job, through many job actions starting with coffee break meetings, then marches on the bosses’ office and ultimately leading to the workers refusing forceback. This meant that on the ground leaders like Sheila were able to act independently and quickly enough to enforce demands.
A few days later management says that they will put a letter on Harjit’s file but there would be no suspension or termination.
We have had a taste of our own power.
Originally posted: February 16, 2012 at Recomposition
This is a really great
This is a really great article. Well written as well!
It makes a good point about the attitude of the union officials. I feel this too in my role. I represent a bit over 1000 workers, and you do feel responsible for their livelihoods, and them being able to pay their rent/mortgage and look after their families.
It is a big weight on you, and does make you reluctant to push people into taking any sort of militant action, in particular outside of the union form, which wouldn't be protected from repercussions. Especially as I wouldn't be putting myself at risk alongside them.
It is a significant problem with "representation" as a whole. I was thinking about writing something about it myself at some point.
The union official here, however, says things that I wouldn't. If he thinks that workers "playing nice" would mean that management and the union would have a better relationship, and so they would better be able to save someone's job he is completely wrong. If the workers weren't prepared to take collective action, the employers wouldn't listen to the union officials at all. When management want to get rid of someone, that is generally the hardest kind of decision to try to turn around. And you can't get that by just asking nicely.