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‘Direct Action Revitalized Our Union’


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Source: Labor Notes

A letter carrier who helped organize a militant campaign of refusing forced overtime has won national office in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, with the goal of taking that direct action approach nationwide.

Roland Schmidt, president of the local in Edmonton, Alberta, won a national election in May to became CUPW’s third vice president in charge of internal and external organizing.

Three years ago he won his local presidency on a platform of reviving shop floor militancy. Under his leadership the local has trained hundreds of members in direct action, revitalizing its workplace culture.

Schmidt has been a postal worker for 18 years. He was first drawn to Canada Post for its storied union history—CUPW had won collective bargaining rights for the federal sector, and maternity leave, which eventually became mandatory for all Canadians.

But “when I joined the local, it definitely did not represent the historical heights of what the union had accomplished in the past,” Schmidt said. “There was not much appetite for militant work floor unionism.” For him and a handful of like-minded activists, “it was a lonely road in the beginning.”

The break came five years in, when Edmonton letter carriers’ anger bubbled over at the company’s overreach on forced overtime, or “forceback.” The union contract was weak on this issue, allowing Canada Post to force carriers to work overtime on uncovered routes. This had become the company’s routine solution to chronic understaffing.

A grievance couldn’t fix the problem. But that meant “it was an opportunity for activists to come in with the solution of direct action,” Schmidt said.

FORCEBACK FIGHT

The letter carriers started holding meetings at work. Management tried to consider this a job action, Schmidt said, “and we would just say, ‘Nope, we’re just all taking our coffee break at the same time.’”

They decided to start by confronting management to air their concerns: “This is how it’s hurting us, how it’s impacting our personal lives. Why can’t you get the staff?”

These confrontations unfolded over a period of months. When local managers couldn’t solve the problem, workers demanded to meet with upper management. Upper management arrived but offered only empty praise: “You’re all heroes. Let’s just get through the holiday season. You’re working so hard; you’re a credit to Canadians.”

“People got sick of the platitudes,” Schmidt said. “They started demanding staffing solutions, and saying that they would be willing to refuse forced overtime unless it was addressed.”

As word spread, letter carriers around the city wanted to join the fight. “People were very invested in the struggle,” Schmidt said. “This ties to this larger issue: are workers apathetic? Or are they maybe just waiting for the confidence to be a part of something that could work?”

Management threatened to suspend anyone who refused a direct order; workers talked over the risks and decided to continue. The citywide boss came to browbeat them, but they laughed off her threats.

The next week, “the station managers were coming around very sheepishly with a clipboard,” Schmidt said. “They would go up to a letter carrier at a case and say, ‘You’re up for forced overtime today.’ All the workers in the area would go and stand by the worker who was being given the direct order—10 other letter carriers all gathered around, quiet, crossed arms, just waiting.”

When the first worker refused an order, the manager came back with a notice of a disciplinary meeting. “The next day we marched on management and said that the worker will not be attending this meeting, and if you discipline this worker, we will escalate,” Schmidt said.

“Then the next day the worker didn’t show up to the meeting, which means the company proceeds unilaterally.” But management held back from punishing workers.

“That was when we knew we had broken them,” Schmidt said. No workers were disciplined, and Canada Post backed off from ordering forced overtime.

TRANSFORMING THE LOCAL

As thrilling as this struggle had been, though, the energy dissipated. “People don’t want to fight all the time,” Schmidt said. “You have to build up the institution, train people and sustain the memory in between those big fights, so that when the next fight comes, people are ready.”

Several years later, hoping to build that change into the union, he decided to run for local president. When he took office in 2019, the local developed a one-day curriculum based on the campaign’s lessons, “Taking Back Our Work Floor.”

In four months, the union ran the course at least 10 times, with full classes of 25-30 members participating each time.

“That formed a very powerful nucleus in our local of people that understood how to confront the boss,” Schmidt said, “big enough pockets in each work facility that job actions started to pop up—refusing extra overtime for extra ad mail, or challenging a bully boss, or confronting management about chronic payroll errors or pressure to do extra work in the processing facilities.

“We got to share those stories in our newsletter, and when people read those stories, they also wanted to be involved. More people started coming to general membership meetings; more people wanted to be a part of committees.

“It had the effect of revitalizing our union.”

GOING BIGGER

Schmidt wants to take this successful model on the road to other CUPW locals. He’s hoping with a national platform he’ll be able to help more locals to “embark on a proper internal organizing campaign, which, by building up the capacity of our work floors, would help people feel a part of the union again.”

The next step would be for locals to begin to collaborate with one another, and then regions, “and that all builds to the overarching problem facing our union—which is that the government, instead of collectively bargaining with us, just legislates us back to work.

“If we just build properly without taking any shortcuts, we could absolutely get our union to the place where we could have that discussion with our members about what it looks like to fight the government—and that would be a turning point for not only our union, but the entire Canadian labor movement.”

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