Stories from the CUPW Lock Out: or how to create a story that can reshape who we are and how we act
This story by our friend Bruce is reprinted from Linchpin, the publication of our comrades at Common Cause, about the CUPW lock out.
Stories from the CUPW Lock Out: or how to create a story that can reshape who we are and how we act
by Bruce ‘the Bruiser’ Darden
Before the Lockout
In the spring of 2011, during the rotating strikes and subsequent lockout of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), anarchists living in southern Ontario attempted to organize support and solidarity for their working class brothers and sisters. Specifically, members of Common Cause took an active role organizing community solidarity and fightback in Toronto and Hamilton. These members did not organize under the banner of Common Cause, but participated in the activities planned by the mass organizations that these members are a part of—especially Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP); the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (GTWA); Steel City Solidarity (a solidarity network in Hamilton); and CUPE Locals 3902 & 3907.
The Saturday before the lockout I joined some comrades, in a GTWA initiative, to flyer subway and transit stations. The flyer was created to inform the public about issues the postal workers were facing; it contained information about the two-tiered contracts, unhealthy workplace conditions being forced on the posties, and some history about the role of CUPW in providing maternity leave for all people in Canada. The results of this action were many brief conversations on the street and around 2,500 handbills distributed to various areas within Toronto.
Events in Toronto really started to amp up on June 14 when CUPW locals in the city walked off the job to take their turn in the national, rotating strike. The GTWA flying picket squad joined with many other community and labour organizers at Canada Post’s Mail Processing Plant on Eastern Avenue (or what we affectionately have nicknamed the Eastern Plant) to stand strong on the line with the members of CUPW. At eleven that evening only a handful of anarchists were present at the rally, with a larger contingent of Marxist groups and other unionists also present. With 70 people there, that is not bad for a solidarity action called hours beforehand—even if it is in a city of millions of people
The next day, June 15th at 6pm, the House of Labour called the first of their poorly attended rallies in support of CUPW. The rally had about the same attendance as the one called the evening before. This time there was an absence of Marxist banners, but still a lot of paper sellers. The entire branch of Common Cause attended this rally; we also succeeded in rallying members of the GTWA flying squad, CUPE local 3902, and OCAP to march with us under a plethora of different flags and colourful homemade picket signs.
After listening to the canned speeches we went out for some cheer and to celebrate one of our members’ birthday. Then we got word—Canada Post had locked out CUPW workers, just as the Toronto nightshift was supposed to resume work. Leaving the bar, we gathered up our black & red flags and placards and returned to the Eastern Plant. Most of the Toronto Common Cause branch (along with some allies: an unaffiliated anarchist and members of CUPE 3902) walked the picket with our soon-to-be friends from midnight till three o’clock in the morning.
Over the following two weeks, Common Cause members continuously returned to the lines at the Eastern Plant—both as groups and individuals. Some of our group would stop by the depots in our neighbourhoods to offer support to the workers there as well.
Off the picket lines and into the neighbourhood
A meeting was held during this first week by the GTWA’s Public Sector Campaign Committee. Most of this meeting were spent discussing the CUPW lockout, especially a debrief of the flyering action from the past weekend, and plans to do another the following Saturday. It was decided, following the suggestion of a comrade in Common Cause, that instead of spreading outreach across the entire city, the focus of our efforts would be in the neighbourhood around the Eastern Plant.
The GTWA is the ‘youngest’ of all the mass organizations Common Cause members work with. This does not mean they are new to politics—in fact, GTWA has many experienced and dedicated members from a cross-section of unions and socialist organizations. Still, the GTWA’s ‘newness’ means the body does not have an established manner of dealing with solidarity in local struggles, and the GTWA’s activity could have taken many forms. The fact that it did take the form of a strategy of door-knocking and public dissemination of ideas, rather than a lecture discussing the struggle after the fact, is a promising development in the greater Toronto Left.
The next Saturday morning about fifteen individuals from the GTWA showed up to door-knock and flyer the community around the Eastern Plant. We started off with a quick meeting to go over talking points and decided on focusing on two in particular: the two-tier contracts for new employees, and health and safety issues, due to how letter carriers were being forced to change the way they carry bundles of mail. Then, after walking over to the picket lines, we talked to the locked out workers about our plan and asked them if they had any stories they wanted us to tell the public.
After splitting up into pairs, the person that flyered with me asked me to go over the talking points again, as we began to wander to the streets that we had chosen. At first, we didn’t knock on doors. Picking the newly built townhouse on the corner, we just put the GTWA flyer into the door handles. It was a pretty embarrassing walk back to the first real house on the street, with the younger activist inadvertently, or unconsciously, scolding the more experienced organizer as we talked about how we had to start actually knocking on doors.
We started knocking on doors and passing out flyers to people out for a stroll with their dogs and kids. At first it was hard for some of us to get up the courage to knock on doors, but we kept trying and it became easier and easier. The embarrassment soon fell away. We took turns talking to people that answered the door; both of us paid attention to how the other person spoke and the phrases they used. We started off individually approaching people on the street and by the end of the afternoon we were on either side of the thoroughfare both knocking on separate doors. In two hours, we had distributed over 150 flyers and about half of those flyers started conversations on porches and boulevards scattered up and down a couple city blocks.
Most folks expected they would get a negative response from the public; yet the great majority of responses were overwhelmingly positive from all the report backs. From all the conversations the two of us had that day, only four were in any way negative. Overall, the GTWA managed to distribute 2000+ fliers in a geographically small area (roughly 15 city blocks and a few supermarket parking lots). As we walked back to the picket lines, my partner said to me, “I liked that better than last week. I found that less stressful than talking to folks on the street and I had so many more good two-way conversations today.”
Props, or the slips of paper we hand out
Just as we gave our information leaflet out at subway stations and at people’s front doors, the informational handbills our group gave to the workers served the same purpose—to start a conversation. The important role of a handbill is not that the text will instantly convince the reader to agree with a position, but is of a ‘prop’ to start a conversation with that person. The information on the handbill can be read later, so most of the time, folks did not use the information as talking-points. Our organizers offered out the handbill and quickly went on to engage the worker in dialogue, wishing them solidarity and asking them about their experiences in the present struggle.
Over the two-week period anarchists attempted to get out some more militant—dare I say radical—literature to the workers at the Eastern Plant. Instead of handing out Common Cause’s newspaper, Linchpin, we decided to print up oddly shaped handbills containing stories written by postal workers from out west. There was a very favourable response to Phineas Gage’s “Yesterday at the Post Office”, and Mordechai Eben’s “My Day: Others too”—both which can be found on the lovely blog Recomposition.
Common Cause also printed a pamphlet version of Rachel Stafford’s “Postal Worker Solidarity Defeats Compulsory Overtime”—this is the one and only item we put out which carried the name and contact information for Common Cause. It was important to us that we acted in an honest and straightforward manner with the posties; when they asked us about the red & black flags or if we were a political group, we told them that we were anarchists. Neither did we want to hide behind the mass organizations, nor did we want to put our specific group front and centre.
It was important to those of us in Common Cause that we did not rush or overextend ourselves to produce original and ground-breaking propaganda for the postal workers. We wanted to be able to hand out literature—without the jargon of the Left—which would help steer the conversation towards rank ‘n file direct action. Using previously written material from Recomposition helped us with this aim: we did not need to rush to create something from scratch. The literature spoke directly to the posties’ own experiences and everyday lives, because it was written by other posties and it told stories of collective resistance emerging from the shop floor.
In Toronto it was often the anarchists sharing news of the lockout with workers on the lines. Common Cause members were spreading the news from one picket line to another; often sharing stories about the Eastern Plant, solidarity actions, or other events occurring on picket lines across the country. Once, anarchists handed out hundreds of copies of the Resolution for a General Strike produced by the Edmonton and Vancouver CUPW locals: the picket line captains and shop stewards were not even aware that this had occurred. By this time we had established ourselves as a reliable source of news.
All of this was not quite as smooth as it sounds; not everyone agreed on what we should be handing out to the workers or our neighbours. A small voice in our mass organizations wanted to hand out more explicitly anti-capitalist propaganda—invoking the socialist jargon of both past and current tendencies—or to be more front and centre about the organizations that were showing solidarity. In general we agreed that having an explicitly Marxist analysis (which often contains old-timey terms) would not be useful in engaging with workers we had just met. There were also concerns that such literature would seem bossy and possibly restrict worker-initiated action. For examples of what we actually did hand out, there are two appendixes at the end of this article.
Linking up: the chasm between ‘users’ and ‘providers’
The government and media kept framing the Canada Post lockout as a struggle between the workers or ‘providers’ of a service and the citizens or ‘users’ of the service. Many of us believed that we could reframe the conversation by continuing the community solidarity actions we were already participating in. We felt what was most lacking in our community solidarity was any kind of joint action or discussion between the community members engaged in solidarity actions and the posties themselves. In an effort to build a strong link between the workers on the picket line and the various community-based actions, two Common Cause members tried to call a general meeting (in a bar, of course).
One hundred and fifty ‘invitations’ were printed and handed out to postal workers on the line at the Eastern Plant and during the House of Labour’s rally at Dundas Square (truly the centre of the universe as folks not from Toronto would joke). Email lists were flooded trying to get activists and organizers from across Toronto to attend. About seventeen people ended up showing up to this public meeting—not a single postal worker came.
During the meeting we decided it would be better to go to the workers at the Eastern Plant to have our meeting instead; the next day four people went to set it up. It was clear to us that the lack of posties in attendance was due to the short two-day notice, the wear-and-tear of the lockout, and location of the meeting (a downtown bar). While we were still at the bar, our loose network of activists and organizers decided to draft a quick agenda for the meeting and started planning how to accomplish the items on our agenda.
We decided on three ideas to approach the workers with: we wanted to talk to them about coming to show our solidarity when they were being forced back into the plant the following week; we wanted to know if any posties wanted to participate or had ideas about the door-knocking and flyering that the GTWA was doing; and we wanted to talk to them about an action we were planning at the (Dis)Honourable Minster of Labour, Lisa Raitt’s, office the following Tuesday.
The next day, Friday, I showed up to the busiest picket line I had seen at the Eastern Plant since the rotating strike. Workers that I had started to build a relationship with approached me to tell me about the rally that OCAP had called in support of them; they were really happy about it. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the rally was supposed to be a meeting, or that a large number of community groups working together were behind planning the meeting, not just OCAP.
At the main gate there was a TV station van setting up its camera, and members from all the groups represented at the public meeting slowly starting to show up. We were pretty nervous as we walked the lines with our fellow workers: what should we say to them? That this wasn’t a rally, or that they should not expect too many folks to show up? Some of our group mumbled that the union was using our support to bolster their line, but then, shouldn’t they be doing that—since the numbers on the picket lines were incredibly low? (Many workers had complained to us that most of their co-workers were not showing up on the lines.)
After a quick chat with the picket captain, an education officer, and the president of the local, we decided to make a bunch of noise and address the posties once the media had left. I was forced into making a short speech on the lines—about the different groups who had come out that day, how we all supported the posties, that we would be coming to wish them luck when the company forced them back, and lastly, the announcement of the planned action at Labour Minister’s office. Another Common Cause member went around collecting names and phone numbers of all those workers that wanted to join us on the action.
The community members present spread out among the posties and tried to have conversations about these ideas with them, some of these conversations went better then others. That evening was the first time any of the community organizers or the CUPW members had seen a uniformed police presence on the picket lines: more on that later.
Going back in: what can the community do?
Over the weekend most of the community groups did not do much solidarity work on the lines. The GTWA stopped their flyering and door-knocking, even though the idea was floated on its email lists. A couple of Common Cause members went to a picket line at the Eastern Plant, and at least one more made sure to talk to the workers at the depot in their neighbourhood.
That Sunday, Common Cause members and other labour activists got together to make more solidarity picket signs (in many colours and with glitter) and to write the message we wanted to give the workers who would be forced back to work the next day. Once the back-to-work legislation was given royal assent, we struggled to find out the time in which workers would be returning to work; this became a problem. It was after 9:30pm the evening before the rally, and we could not use our phone trees (either informal or those of GTWA’s and CUPE’s flying squad lists) because we still did not know what time to tell folks to come down. At least one of us, me, was really worried: what if no one came down to show the posties our support? Was it all for nothing?
On Monday, June 27th, we showed up to wish the posties solidarity as they entered the plant. A hair shy of twenty people showed up for the 2pm shift’s return to work. The picket lines were down (about seven hours before the 8:30pm deadline) and there were not many workers present. We stood in solidarity with the rank-and-file militants and picket line captains that came to show their support, and passed around an excellent handbill (written by a non-affiliated unionist that had just moved to the Centre of the Universe). Conversations started and ended like this; “Solidarity brother/sister. We are here to support you. Work safe. Don’t let them push you around.” The forty workers who were heading inside chanted, “So-So-So-Solidarity.”
As we smoked and shared stories of the picket lines we had walked in our past, other community organizers and workers for the 4pm shift slowly showed up. There were about forty-seven community members there by the 4pm shift, but only about seventy workers: where were the rest? It is a shift of over 400 posties! Did the majority of workers not show up for work? This time, as the workers walked in the front doors and chanted, about twenty community members marched to the doors with them.
It should be noted that virtually all of the forty-seven people who came to show support came from the mass organizations that Common Cause works in; especially OCAP and GTWA, plus a few from the CUPE flying squad. Virtually all of them! Not that all of these community activists and organizers share sympathies with Common Cause or anarchism (actually some of them hate us), but we work with all of these people in a variety of organizations across the city.
Damn! that pissed off Canada Post security. We were ushered off Canada Post property but set up nearby on the corner. A former member of Common Cause, who remains a good friend, brought out a sound system and we started to play some tunes while standing on the corner of the property. We held this picket for another hour and a half, as cars (and Canada Post trucks) honked their support.
Throughout the strike and lockout, there was a problem of how many individuals (and organizations) on the Left chose to act opportunistically in relation to their solidarity with the CUPW members. At this last solidarity action, we saw this again. When the workers where heading back into the plant, there was a single Marxist that was not wishing the workers a safe (and slow) day back on the shop floor but was instead focused on trying to sell his magazine to the workers heading back to face their bosses. Actions like this give the impression that the Left is not interested in workers—or their struggles—rather, these individuals/groups demonstrated that their interest lies solely in promoting their own organizations.
This ain’t over
About one week into the lockout, the House of Labour called for another rally in support of CUPW. This time it was downtown, at Dundas Square, but at 9am in the morning. This was definitely the largest solidarity event, with a hundred or more out of town posties joined by staffers and other paid unionists—since the rally was at a time in which most workers were on their shop floors: working.
There was an attempt by the other unions to get their membership involved in the solidarity support with the struggle at Canada Post. This activity was centred in Mississauga; a Canadian Auto Workers’ (CAW) organizer—who worked in the GTWA and had recently been a combatant in the Air Canada labour conflict—organized a shift of CAW members to plan and attend a rally at the Gateway Plant during their lunch hour. They were also instrumental in linking up the activities of people in Toronto, Hamilton, and Mississauga, as it was they who introduced us to the CUPE 966 organizers—and this started the planning for the joint action that occurred the day after the posties were forced back to work.
The Common Cause Hamilton branch also organized a going-back-in action at the plant in the Hammer. They brought out members of CUPW 3906 and members of Steel City Solidarity—two of the mass organizations that the Hamilton branch organizes in. While it was smaller than the Toronto action, their action was still a big hit with the workers on the line. The Hamilton branch had also focused their energy that weekend on organizing two cars full of people to come to the Tuesday action at Lisa Raitt’s (the Conservative Minister of Labour) office in Halton.
Tuesday, the day after CUPW went back to work, the Toronto community waited at a subway station to get a ride to Lisa Raitt’s office. There were only ten of us there, and the bus that was coming to get us could hold 50. CUPE 966 arrived in their super cool pink Flying Squad bus to bring us to Halton. As the contact person, I was a little timid about telling them that we could not fill the bus. They did not care; in the words of one of their members: “It only takes one person to cause a scene.” So the members of OCAP, GTWA, CUPE 3902 & 966, and a postie loaded onto the bus and headed off. We met up with our friends and comrades—folks from CUPE 3906 and Steel City Solidarity from Hamilton—and blasted Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Going to Take It’ as we unloaded in front of the (Dis)Honourable Minster’s office: it was closed for lunch.
We decided, instead of picketing an empty office, to march down to the Canada Post depot about two blocks away. When we got there, a bunch of workers who were on their smoke break, or entering the depot, approached us asking what we were doing. We told them we were there, as community members, to tell Lisa Raitt that we were not going to take these attacks lying down (CAW was also ordered back to work a couple weeks before), and that if she did not want labour peace that was cool, since we wanted class war. They were quite happy about our presence and even took our literature to hand out on their shift and in the lunchroom: another postie on her chopper joined us with a CUPW picket sign stuck out of the tail, constantly revving her engine: damn right it was cool.
After about an hour there (and being thrown off the property again), we headed back to the office. We went inside to talk to the MP’s aides and let the CUPE folks present our demand for answers. We told them that we were coming back—lets hope this was not an idle threat. We left pretty fast, since we were not planning a long occupation, and went outside to make some more noise and sing “Solidarity Forever.” Before heading back to Hamilton and Toronto, we marched back to the Post Office to sing the same song –which we had just practiced—to our fellow workers inside the depot.
The solidarity work done during the CUPW strike and lockout really helped the flying squads of southern Ontario. The GTWA’s flying squad did a great job mobilizing their members, and it gave them an opportunity to try out and refine their phone tree. It activated the CUPE 3902 flying squad (a Teaching Assistant local at the University of Toronto) in the summer months—a slow period with students. It allowed the folks in Hamilton to start building up a flying squad that incorporates individuals from a lot of the mass organizations that the Hamilton Common Cause branch works within.
For the majority of time we were on a picket line, no one saw a single police officer (except the one plain-clothes labour liaison that was there at shift change and at rallies). The two times we did see cops in uniform were at the rally/meeting at the Eastern Plant and at the action at the Minister’s Office. Both times, the pigs went up to the ‘respectable’ unionists and told them that we (specifically OCAP and sometimes ‘the anarchists’) were troublemakers and that they should be worried about doing actions alongside us. In the case of CUPW, the president of the local smiled, then came over to laugh with us; he had done a bunch of work with OCAP in the 1990s and did not think that we were that bad. A picket line captain and a shop steward at the Eastern Plant also joked about us being troublemakers as they reminisced about the 1997 strike—there was little love for cops with them. The president of CUPE 966 told us of her visit with the cops in Halton: as members of the mainstream unions looked at the black and red flags one said, “You should have brought the Black Bloc with you.” It is great to see public sector unionists openly welcoming the solidarity of anarchists—especially after the smear campaign from the media and the State revolving around last summer’s G20.
The CUPW solidarity actions show us the advantage of organizing in mass organizations, rather than organizations made up only of anarchists (or specific organizations). Anarchists were successful in organizing community solidarity because it was done through the mass organizations that we participate in; this allowed Common Cause members to draw on a larger group of people. More importantly, it allowed us to create new relationships and build upon old ones. It also took people from different organizations and put them in contact with each other as they worked together on a constructive and empowering project.
I hope that by telling the story of struggles by, for, and with the workers in Toronto during the CUPW strike and lockout demonstrates the strength available to those who do solidarity work through mass organizations and inspires more work in this direction as our struggle continues.
Appendix A: The handbill given out to workers as they went back into the plant
As the recent CUPW Negotiations Alert said:
Just as we were united on the picket lines, we need to be united and strong when we are back in the workplace. We need to send a strong message to Canada Post that the lockout was wrong, and that their reliance on legislation is shameful.
How that strength and unity is demonstrated will be different across the country, in each local and each workplace. Some will likely ‘work to rule’, slow down, defy, use the grievance process, or come up with any number of creative ways to resist a forced contract.
What’s common everywhere is that it’s the rank and file members that need to take the lead. Political lobbying and legal challenges can be useful, but the heart of any union is in the organization and mobilization of the rank and file.
For those that weren’t on the lines, we need to sit down with them as sisters and brothers and give them the confidence and inspire the commitment to continue the fight that CUPW has been waging for over 45 years.
CUPW led the fight for public sector unionism with the wildcat strikes of 1965 and the union has been at the forefront defending workers ever since. It was CUPW that first won maternity leave for members in 1981 and pushed for it to be included under EI, so other parents could have some security to take care of their kids.
And now, Canada Post and Stephen Harper want to divide and break the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
Not on Our Watch.
Appendix B: A handbill for passersby at the action in Lisa Raitt’s office
Communities in Solidarity with Postal Workers
The right to collective bargaining is outlined in Section 2(d) of Canada’s Charter of Rights- Freedom of Association. This was guaranteed only recently in a 2007 Supreme Court case. But before that, what did workers do?
We collectively bargained and went on strike to win our demands, including fair wages, health and safety, the eight-hour day and the weekend. For more than a century before unions were officially recognized by the government of Canada, workers got together to talk, fight, and negotiate with their bosses. We do not need the government to grant us the right to strike or the right to collectively bargain. Workers did it before the state gave us these rights, and workers will do it after the Harper government takes them away.
We all rely on our mail service but workers rely on our right to strike for a better life much more profoundly. This is why we will not be falsely divided as service ‘users’ and ‘providers’. We are one body of workers with the same economic interests.
Collective agreements negotiated by CUPW set the standard for the wages and benefits of many more people beyond their membership. If the rest of us hope to earn a livable wage for ourselves—and our loved ones—we must stand in solidarity with striking postal workers as they fight this battle for all of us. This means speaking out against back-to-work legislation and helping to defy it if needed.
Communities for the Right to Strike
“An Injury to One is an Injury to All”
“! NEGOTIATE DON’T LEGISLATE !”