The first part of an account by Phinneas Gage of a wildcat strike by employees of a private mail contractor, and the difficulty the postal worker's union had in going beyond 'bargaining unit unionism'.
This entry is a two-part story from contributor Phinneas Gage about a wildcat strike by contractors at the Canadian postal service, and continues our coverage of struggles within Canada Post. In the course of the strike, union workers had to figure out how to relate to contractors and where scabbing starts and solidarity ends. The experience of life under capitalism can reveal both the potential divisions that destroy struggles and the commonalities that can overcome them. These next two pieces can help us understand and try to go beyond the barriers class throws at us.
Abraham looked down the row at everyone else sorting mail. Their heads were bowed, occasionally rubbing their eyes they worked slowly but steadily- the only way you can when you work fourteen hours every day. He reached over to the letter that was left on his desk for him by a Canada Post Supervisor, he was in late because his daughter was up all night with a cough. The letterhead was from Reynolds Diaz, the private contractor that hired him on behalf of Canada Post.
August 3rd 2010
Due to recent business developments you will now be compensated 24 cents per point of call per route, the previous rate of 26 cents will no longer apply. This pay reduction will be implemented retroactively last Tuesday and your pay stub will reflect this. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to call.
He frowned, deep creases appearing in his brow. He walked down the aisle to Binyam stroking his beard trying to stay calm. Binyam was reading the same letter, he was less composed. “This is bullshit!”, workers looked towards him from all over the depot. He looked at his feet embarrassed at the outburst, Abraham smiled weakly put his arm around him and the two walked out the door for a smoke. The rest of the contractors followed them.
It took less than ten minutes for them to decide they weren’t going back in. When they called Reynolds and told him he spurted back some bluster about them regretting this decision. They hung up the phone got in their cars and went to a restaurant across town that was owned by a friend. They quickly sent a text message to the boss saying their terms were simple, 30 cents per point of call per hour and they would move the mail again.
Informal Work Groups
Most of the contractors were new Canadian immigrants and most of these folks came from east African countries. They dressed differently, they looked different and the talked differently than the rest of the Canada Post workers in Edmonton. They were hired by a labour contractor to do work that Canada Post claimed it could not find people to do. At first Canada Post said it was the economic boom in Alberta in the early 2000`s. As a result the workers were paid below union rates when you factor in pension, vacation, other leave and benefits. They also were not legally considered union members. The Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers were justified in seeing this as a move by Canada Post to undermine the gains that they had made by unionising in 2002. This created a situation of isolation among the contractors.
Many of them faced racism because they were black. Many of them faced cultural isolation because they were recent immigrants- even the more established immigrants would sometimes talk down to them. Finally they faced a workplace that was at times hostile because they were viewed as a means for the boss to attack gains made on the floor and in arbitration. Their legal status as `non-union` isolated them even more.
However, when workers don`t have allies outside their community they turn to each other even more. They took their breaks together, they had a vibrant social network that extended outside the job and included their community, and they had each other`s back. When one worker was fired or injured others would step in and help them get jobs at other companies this network extended well into the private sector and non-union courier companies. Some of them were even starting to get jobs at Canada Post inside the CUPW unit. The workers had a community and they had solidarity. According to the Provincial and Federal Labour laws these were non-union workers, they were also thoroughly organised.
“Hey Phinneas, it’s Christine”. She was a steward at Depot Two. “Looks like something is going on with the Reynolds guys, they just walked out of our depot. The word is they walked out all over the rest of the city too”.
“Christine, try to figure out what their demands are, in the mean time try and talk to the Rural Carriers and see if we can keep them from touching the mail, any pressure we can put on Diaz is one more reason for him not to do business with Canada Post”. I started drafting a bulletin to be sent out on CUPW letterhead pledging support for the Reynolds workers struggle.
I checked my cell phone and saw a text from Sheila at Whitemud depot saying the same thing. It was the height of summer and everyone in the union office was on vacation. This made me acting President of the local. My job was to answer the phones and field questions about the collective agreement. It was a lot of taking notes and leaving message for when the full time officers got back but also a lot of research into the collective agreements and previous arbitration decisions.
The bulletin also instructed Rural Service Mail Carriers to honour the job action of the Reynolds workers. This turned out to be pretty controversial.
Abraham sat in his chair and tried to look relaxed while he drank coffee. Binyam smiled at him and said “it’s a good sign that it is taking him this long, if he was going to fire us he would have by now, he’s going to come back with a counter offer”.
“I hope you’re right Binyam”, Abraham sighed and looked at the newspaper in front of him, casually running his finger along the “want” ads for courier companies.
The standoff lasted the rest of the afternoon before Reynolds replied by text to Abraham.
The text simply read:
26 cents and you all work tomorrow?
Abraham looked up from his phone, Binyam and the rest looked at him intently. He smiled. They cheered.
The next text was more ominous. It read:
26 cents and you all sign a contract saying you won’t strike again.
Collective bargaining is not always a legal process. It is also a way for working people to take back the wealth that they create. In every society with economic classes there is an unspoken contract between working people and those that rent their labour- political thinkers call this a “social contract”. This contract goes from being a silent agreement most of the time to a very noisy disagreement at other times. Sometimes it is a disagreement about the rate at which workers are exploited and sometimes it is outright revolution. The wages and working conditions on the job, whether written or unwritten is a part of the social contract that exists between workers and those who profit from their work.
“Well how do our Rural Carriers feel about this?” Sharon was peering down over her glasses. “I mean those people are moving our mail, they’re basically scabs”. The “s” word always turns up the heat, and the words “these people” made Harjit shift in his chair uncomfortably. “Look” said Ike, trying to keep things calm, “I think a worker is a worker, and struck mail is struck mail, if we don’t touch Reynolds mail we put pressure on Canada Post too, the enemy of our enemy is our friend in this case”.
Obviously irritated Sharon continued. “It’s not Reynolds mail, it’s the Canadian public’s mail, and we are the legally certified bargaining unit that has a right to move that mail- if we support them we support scabs. What if they take more of our jobs, do we just decide to organise the new workers there too”.
The local President was going through the meeting stack quickly trying to get everyone a chance to talk without taking up too much time.
Craig’s turn: “I agree that the contractors probably didn’t know they were crossing a line by taking a job with this Reynolds outfit but we need to stand up for our members, that’s what they pay dues to us to do for them, not to stand up for contractors that haven’t even asked to join the union”.
I raised my hand to speak.
The Slippery Slope
Abraham shook his head, “typical”, he said as he looked at the crowd gathered in the restaurant. Binyam’s cousin spoke up “we should take it. How long can we hold out for really?” Another agreed “this is steadier work than the other courier companies in town I will take less money if it means reliable work”. Binyam shook his head.
“What happens if he goes back on something else tomorrow? What if he makes us deliver two routes on the same pay next week, then we can’t strike over that. I think this is a bad deal.” Abraham was speaking softly, not entirely sure of himself.
Binyam’s cousin wasn’t done yet. “If we don’t take this we could wind up in the same situation but signing for less money. Then we sign the no strike deal and will have lost out on the money”.
“Then we may as well go get jobs at Dyanmex (a private courier company across town) where they will pay us an honest rate. Look we don’t have a bad deal right now but Diaz needs us, if we handcuff ourselves now it will be a lower rate eventually anyway.”
Abraham counted the nodding heads in the room and took it as a sort of vote. He sent Diaz a text back saying they would take the twenty six cent rate but would not sign any agreement promising not to strike again.
Diaz sent a one-word reply, “Yes”.
On Being Union
“I mean what does it mean to be union?”. I asked innocently enough. “When we organised the RSMCs in the first place they were legally barred from unionising at all, we won the right to represent them in negotiations. It seems to me that they have some leadership, they have meetings, they have solidarity and they are de-facto a union”.
Sharon, and Craig among others were shaking their heads, though many in the room also agreed with me. Eventually it was agreed that we would support the workers as best we could behind the scenes but we would not issue a statement asking workers not to touch the effected mail. I texted Christine the news from the executive and she passed it on to Binyam who expressed thanks for what support we could give.
The formal legal process of collective bargaining mirrors the informal social process of collective bargaining. However the social process still goes on, in union and non-union workplaces and this process exists independently of the legal process. When workers find power in each other they become more confident and they press for a greater share of the wealth they produce. The current legal rules for this bargaining came about through bitter struggles. Some parts of the law, like the right to form a legally protected union and not get fired were gains. When workers make gains under a legal framework they need to also give things up in order to appear “reasonable” to the Government. So according to Canadian labour law all contracts must also contain a clause saying the union will not strike. The union must also acknowledge management’s right to make whatever business decision they want as long as it doesn’t violate what was explicitly outlined in the contract.
When pressed, workers turn to solidarity to defend themselves. If they succeed they become more confident, if they fail they withdraw and turn on each other in order to secure a position for themselves. There is a chain reaction that happens with workers once they succeed, the workers then often push forwards on the offensive demanding more and becoming more daring in what they ask for. They also often extend that solidarity in order to replicate what was effective. The legal process is designed, through the no strike clause and the management’s rights requirements, to favour defensive fights. The legal process favours workers that are meek and subservient, or at least appear to be; workers that stand up and fight can make gains outside that process but need a deeper level of organisation and solidarity.
Ike and I had a brief chat after the meeting. “Man I just don’t get it, it’s like we build these unions to practice solidarity, but when we see the same thing happening with another bunch of workers our first reaction is to feel threatened by it”.
Ike nodded, “I know, it’s funny because I’d rather be in with those guys than half the folks in the Alberta Federation of Labour, if their organisation had a name I’d see if we could get CUPW to affiliate!”
Originally posted: January 30, 2014 at Recomposition