One worker's account and analysis of a wave of wildcat stoppages and collective refusals of "forceback" compulsory overtime in the Canadian post office.
For those of us who get excited about workers sticking up for themselves and fighting the bosses, I have been pretty lucky to have been able to participate in what has turned out to be a really inspiring wave of struggle over the past few months. My national union has been in negotiations for a new collective agreement over the past seven months, but what people are agitated about on the floor isn’t up for negotiation.
Understaffing has been a huge issue every winter since long before I started at the post office here in Edmonton. When there are not enough relief to cover all the routes, letter carriers have to do ‘forceback’ which is compulsory overtime where you deliver a portion of another route on top of your own full route. I have not heard of many other workplaces where workers can be forced against their will to do overtime, and this kind of arrangement sets a pretty terrible precedent for labour standards. But the union agreed to it lo those many years ago because they saw that the company would love to leave more and more routes uncovered and mail undelivered as it undermines the post office as a public service and serves their ultimate goal of privatization.
When forceback was introduced it was seen as something to be resorted to in exceptional circumstances – intended so that the mail would still go out even if half the workers came down with some terrible illness simultaneously. But more and more management has been using the compulsory overtime as a staffing measure, expecting carriers to do forceback on a regular basis. Management likes to blame the forceback on people that call in sick or have supposedly ‘fraudulent’ injuries, but the reality of our job is that in the winter all of the things that make our job difficult get much worse – more people get injured, sick, and stressed out and mail volumes are higher than in the summer. It’s no secret that the bosses want to cut jobs and make us work longer hours, but the status quo was not so much to suffer silently as to take the anger and frustration out on our fellow workers.
This year, though, workers decided they’d had enough. One Friday morning in late January, the workers at Depot 9 refused to do forceback en masse. What before was the daily march of dejection to the bosses’ office to pick what portion they were being forced to work after finishing their own route suddenly turned into a spectacle of the supervisors coming onto the floor, tail between their legs, into an empowered, laughing group of people. The workers got the attention of upper management, who visited Depot 9 to placate them and said they would accept fatigue or other health and safety reasons as a refusal that wouldn’t be disciplined. The word about their refusal spread, and within a couple of weeks another four depots had begun collective refusals. This meant that mail was sitting undelivered, (which it had been in some cases already), and in two cases the supervisors offered Saturday delivery at double time to clear up the mess.
February was an intense month filled with all sorts of actions surrounding the forceback issue. We circulated petitions, held plenty of coffee break meetings, voted on demands, refused forceback, and – my personal favorite – turned our backs on a supervisor during a staff talk. Workers at a few stations had set a deadline of February 28 for when the company would have to have shown that they’re dealing concretely with the understaffing issue, and on Sunday, February 27 we held a mass meeting where 160 angry postal workers attended despite a late-winter storm. At the meeting people shared stories of what kinds of actions they had been participating in at their stations and how they felt about it. It was a really inspiring atmosphere, and kicked off a week of heightened mobilization where more and more workers were getting on board.
The next milestone was a couple weeks later when the workers at Depot 6, who hadn’t been in good contact with either the local or our ad-hoc mobilization committee, organized a collective refusal on a Friday. This time, though, management didn’t just roll over as they had been all along. The superintendent (who has a reputation for being particularly nasty) expelled a visiting shop steward from the location and issued all the workers a direct order to do the forceback, and each and every one of them refused the direct order – a fireable offense, as far as the collective agreement is concerned. Word spread about this repression and we organized a ‘phone zap’ for the following Monday to put pressure on management to not discipline the workers. It worked – from the perspective of the collective agreement, we essentially got away with murder. As well, a steward at another depot was targeted and issued a notice of interview where they were threatening the worst. During the interview, his coworkers rallied and held a meeting of their own where they vowed that if he was suspended to stage a sick-in for each day of his suspension. Direct action and solidarity across the city turned over what could have been very serious discipline had the bosses felt emboldened to make an example out of these workers.
In fact, though the struggle with the bosses is far from being over, in this battle, we won. Since the refusals started in January, the company has been hiring at a furious pace, and forceback is close to being eliminated in most depots. We are continuing to agitate for refusals because there are stations that are experiencing forceback, but we have glimpsed the power of direct action to ‘get the goods’ and that should give us confidence. What’s more, we have essentially re-written the collective agreement, because forced overtime is no longer looked at as a necessary evil that we have no choice but to suffer silently and comply with, but we now have a choice and can decide whether or not we feel safe enough to do the extra work.
How we did it
The overall characteristic of the forceback struggle was that it was initiated and organized from the floor and because of this it was pretty messy. There was no grand scheme or plan that some very smart people drew up about how to end forceback. The reason it was successful at all was because it was coming from the floor, and I think that had there been such a plan it could have been rendered irrelevant by the course of events or, worse, even stifled the actions as they inevitably would have strayed from the outline. On the other hand, it wasn’t entirely spontaneous or completely lacking in coordination. IWW members were involved in this struggle from the start, though I don’t wish to overstate our role.
Everyone involved in this struggle will have their own perspective of key events and timelines. For me, part of it goes back to last winter when the local organizing committee was really getting off the ground. There were some isolated actions that at least in part stemmed from educationals aimed at direct action. The committee used the experience from those actions as well as some existing CUPW and IWW training materials to develop a course that would further spread skills for organizing direct actions. As well, the local organizing officer had been collecting cell numbers from many members and building an impressive list to use for mass texts. In November, letter carriers in Winnipeg staged a wildcat protesting issues resulting from technological changes, and it was a good chance to test some of our new skills and text lists. We had a strong show of solidarity with marches on the boss and coffee break meetings in many locations. By the time the carriers at Depot 9 refused forceback, there were a good number of people who had already participated in an action and felt empowered to do more. The mass text list spread news of actions quickly and helped create a sense that we were part of something larger than the actions at our stations alone.
The struggle was waged for the most part outside of the official union channels, though it wasn’t always in direct conflict with the local officers. There was tension about who should be kept in the loop, but overall the sentiment of many activists was to ask for forgiveness, not permission. There were some on the local executive who were actively supportive from the start, but others found themselves forced to support the actions because of the sheer numbers of members who were participating.
Our union officials were definitely not blind to the issue of forceback; in fact they were very busy in their own way to address the problem, which mostly meant preparing for a national arbitration on the issue while we were still expected to suck it up and keep working the overtime – following the union’s mantra of ‘work now, grieve later’. Their main argument was that it wasn’t forceback as such that was wrong, but rather its excessive use as a staffing measure rather than a last resort, as it was intended to be when the union first agreed to have it in the collective agreement. That still leaves the issue pretty wide open: how do you define excessive in this case? More than once a week? Once a month? I recall one coworker telling me that as a father of small children he thought 2 times a year is still excessive. As the forceback situation returned and worsened each winter, our officials were busy preparing for this arbitration, gathering evidence and arguments about how the employer was in violation of the collective agreement. But for us on the floor, forceback was experienced as a daily reality and we felt it in our sore muscles, weary bones, strained relationships, and short patience.
This is key to underline because it points to a fundamental part of solidarity unionism: we seek to organize around grievances that are issues on the floor and not because they are violations of the collective agreement. This is really where the word ‘grievance’ came from: in the early days of unions, workers would organize around the things the bosses did that pissed them off, and they’d use their collective will and solidarity to try and effect change. As unions became more legalistic entities, these grievances became a form that you fill out and wait for an answer and maybe a payment if you’re lucky. Forceback is a good example of this: as workers we wanted forceback to stop not because it could be construed as breaking some article in the collective agreement, but rather because it was getting people angry, because we felt strongly about it.
Now, all this doesn’t mean that we threw the collective agreement out the window throughout this struggle (though sometimes I feel like throwing it at the bosses’ offices – it could do some damage!). The solidarity unionism approach advocates for a selective use of legal procedures, depending on what we have to give up. I think what happened in the struggle against forceback is a really good example of how this can happen.
With the first collective refusal at Depot 9 the workers crafted their own line about how to approach the issue: it really was a flat out, collectivized refusal, but they were careful to say to the bosses that it was an individual choice to invoke their right under the collective agreement to refuse unsafe work. It just so happened they were all making the same choice. I think initially there was a lot of hesitancy on many officers’ part to throw their full weight behind the action; partly at least because they were worried about how the employer might retaliate, with a freshly imposed $50,000 fine from a wildcat at the Delton depot in 2007 hanging over their heads. The refusals didn’t look like what many union officers would have advised – they weren’t particularly subtle and the employer probably could have come down hard on it being coordinated union activity.
You can also bet there was plenty of debate over the tactic on the workfloor. Some suggested that we attempt the delivery – as in you deliver a few houses – then decide it’s unsafe and bring it all back. That probably would have been the safest route, and indeed that’s exactly what some officers were advocating. But think of how that plays out: instead of feeling the power and solidarity of many workers refusing all at the same time, you would be totally isolated and alone when coming back to the depot, plus the bosses could monitor what time you’re finishing. On the other extreme, at least one coworker approached me and said he felt uncomfortable claiming it was a health and safety issue when for him personally he felt he could have done it. His alternative was outright insubordination: to say I’m not doing it because I stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters at Depot 9 so take your forceback and shove it! While I really admire the sentiment and many days I feel like saying something similar to the bosses,I try not to give them too much ammunition against me. I can imagine a tiny fraction of my coworkers would be comfortable with sticking their necks out like that and taking the inevitable suspension – or worse. There was also a lot of discussion about how not doing the forceback and leaving mail undelivered plays into the company’s agenda of decreasing services over the long run.
I think people instinctively understood the power of the health and safety refusals over other approaches. We were very aware of the risks involved and wanted to cover our buts as much as possible, and we were in this unfortunate position of seeing mail not delivered when we want to expand and improve services, but we had to do something. We chose to put a lot of emphasis on one part of the collective agreement – the article on health and safety that establishes our right to refuse unsafe work – and completely ignore the article that refers to forceback being compulsory. But again, we weren’t willing to sacrifice the solidarity we could build by doing it all together in favour of either the safer or riskier tactics because they both would have isolated workers instead of pulling us together.
It’s not necessary to know your collective agreement or the labour laws inside and out to be able to use them selectively. It’s good to have and share at least a basic understanding of the laws or contract and how to do some research in that area, but for solidarity unionism the more important knowledge is of how the workfloor is already organized and what people are agitated about, and choosing to focus on issues and tactics that can be collectivized.
One of the actions that we organized at my depot was to get everyone to turn their backs on the supervisors during a weekly staff talk as a follow-up to a petition that had been ignored. It was a fun action, no real risk but made a good statement, and it got the supervisors into quite a tizzy. Later that day a notoriously anti-union fellow worker cornered me while I was talking to a supervisor about something unrelated, and started yelling and laying into me about this action. He was fuming mad and almost incomprehensible, but he was shouting something about who the f**k’s idea was it, who the f**k do we think we are, how could we do something like this without 100% support, and so on. The supervisor was pretty shaken but I’d kind of steeled myself for some kind of confrontation with this guy that was going to happen at some point, and I simply played dumb because I wasn’t going to be baited into an argument or outing myself so blatantly in front of a supervisor. Shortly after I noticed he was doing a similar thing to another steward, this time with a bigger audience of workers and supervisors, and that steward played it pretty cool too.
This guy knew what was going on. He was scared. He was aware, and very much afraid, of who currently holds most power over his life: the bosses. So, from that fear, he chose to try and show those with power that he’s not going to try and challenge them; even further he showed that he’ll defend them when push comes to shove. What I’ve seen over the past few months is that fear melting away. My coworkers are holding their heads a little higher now and more and more people are stepping forward, supporting one another and sharing their opinions about the company and the world. Many people who would have blamed the forceback on people who call in sick two months ago are now placing the blame solidly on the company for not staffing properly. Others who would have said ‘I don’t mind doing it every once in a while,’ are now shouting ‘f**k forceback, I’m not doing it!’ The mobilizations around forceback have definitely caused a shift, and the only way to keep that from regressing back to the every man for himself environment is to keep organizing and participating in actions.
It’s impossible to negotiate this kind of shift. This kind of solidarity can’t be legislated; nor can it be called upon as a last recourse for brief periods purely for the interests of improving our position at the bargaining table. It must be built and sustained over the long haul through empowering people to take action. I’ve read and heard it said before that action precedes consciousness. This means that the way to create change is not to convince people or change their opinions or ideas about things and then ask them to participate in actions on the job. Rather, we must encourage taking action regardless of what people’s opinions might be because it’s through this participation that will spark confidence and solidarity.