| 11-19-2021

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Is the vaccine policy an effective organizing issue?

[21.11.19 - This President's report was first given at the November 6, 2021 GMM but has been edited to include the latest updates on CPC's vaccine policy.]

Comrades & friends,

After almost two years this pandemic has ground everyone down into a frustrated, demoralized husk. Instead of building up our local organizing capacity to fight to improve our jobs, we’ve been backed into a defensive posture to bide our time. We were told by our governments that a high enough vaccination rate would lift the pandemic but they underestimated just how many people would be unwilling to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, the end still seems a long way off due to the bitter division deepening between the vaccinated supermajority and the rest that will not vaccinate for religious, health or conspiracy-fueled reasons.

As stated in a previous dispatch, personal opinions and fake news don't eclipse the facts of what we are facing: the pandemic is devastatingly real and still poses a serious threat to our healthcare infrastructure. A high vaccination rate remains one of the most effective safeguards we have in modern society to reduce severe health outcomes from bogging down or completely collapsing our entire healthcare system. No one wants this to be happening, but here we are, doing our best with the hand we’ve been dealt.


What is ‘the union’ doing?

Before detailing the implications of CPC’s vaccine policy, I want to acknowledge the exceptional work being done by my colleagues in the local office, and those who have recently covered for us. It is not widely known but officer jobs in our local require longer hours for less overall compensation than the floor positions left behind. Officers don’t get admail values, or paid for their overtime or weekend work but they persist in their duties because they believe in serving and empowering our membership. It’s an incredibly demanding and stressful responsibility even under normal circumstances.

This pandemic has been an unimaginable hardship for everyone. I can’t speak for my CUPW comrades who have been on the workfloor this whole time but I will say that the working conditions in the local office have deteriorated to a point well below what would be acceptable in most Canadian workplaces, nevermind CPC workfloors. No one should have to come to work to be verbally abused, threatened with legal action and personally blamed on a nearly daily basis for mask and vaccine policies they have absolutely no control or say over. Disagreement is an essential part of any democratic organization but what’s happening here has nothing to do with disagreement and everything to do with misguided expectations of who dictates health protocols and what is realistically needed for a labour union to effectively mobilize on an issue. 

To be clear: neither our local or CUPW National created, or supports, CPC’s current vaccination policy. CUPW leadership believes in the science of vaccination and seeks to challenge vaccine-hesitation with alternatives like rapid testing while patient and persistent education gets us to the needed vaccination rate threshold to end the pandemic. Guiding our members through this uncertain chapter and being honest with them about the consequences of CPC’s vaccine policy is very different from supporting the policy. Again, CUPW does not support CPC’s current vaccine policy. When it comes to navigating CPC’s vaccine policy, it is important for membership to understand the two major options at their disposal:


1. Procedural (grievances and legal appeals)

a. National group grievance: Since CPC expressed intent to introduce a vaccine policy, the higher levels of the union have been seeking constant legal advice on what options might be available to our members who will not be vaccinated for whatever reason. CUPW National now feels prepared to proceed with a National group grievance it announced early November to challenge CPC’s vaccination policy. If we require individual members to file grievances to support this, we will let everyone know; until then, we’ll wait for further direction from National.

Please understand, this grievance is not something that is guaranteed to resolve quickly or favorably. If you want to avoid CPC disciplinary measures, our office is advising that anyone not wishing, or able, to vaccinate, to still truthfully attest their status, and apply for indefinite administrative leave without pay while the group grievance makes its way through arbitration -- a process that could take months.

b. Cease & desist application: Back in October, CUPW proposed a rapid-testing option for the non-vaccinated that was ultimately rejected by CPC. CUPW publicly announced Nov 18, 2021 that it will challenge CPC’s flip-flop on the rapid-test option by submitting a cease & desist application. Despite how legally intimidating these words may sound it is important that our members do not assume this challenge will be successful. Anyone promising you it will be successful is giving deeply irresponsible advice; it may work, but do not plan your future around the possibility of getting back all the wages you lost while on leave.

Beyond the group grievance and cease & desist application, the only solid legal ground established was the option for non-vaccinated members to choose administrative leave without pay instead of termination. At this time, no other credible legal options have materialized. As always, up to the minute information on the vaccine policy and our legal challenges can be found on our National union website or by subscribing to the National union email list.


2. Workfloor organizing & mobilization

As we’ve experienced over the decades, legalities are more likely to undermine working class power than reinforce it. Our union is at its most powerful when our members are unified and organized on an issue and willing to fight for our demands directly from our workfloors, regardless what the law of the land currently states. This process, however, is not a switch that can be flicked on or off at will. Serious job actions necessitate tremendous risks that should only be undertaken with proper training and when there is mass floor support for an issue. Here are a couple core organizing principles our local teaches in the “Taking Back Our Workfloor” course that are especially applicable in the context of this pandemic:

a. Shared belief: An effective organizer understands that they must always meet members where they are at, not where they would like the members to be. If an organizer is passionate about fighting for an issue that the vast majority of the members currently and vocally disagree on, a good organizer realizes this issue will not have the immediate solidarity required to overcome inevitable reprisal from management.

It would be counter-productive for the organizer to try and belittle or lecture members for not supporting their position as it would only serve to ruin the organizers reputation moving forward and isolate them from their peers. Potentially winning someone over to a new belief takes openness on their part and an incredible amount of time.

b. Strength in numbers: Organizing is, at heart, not about the hill that you personally want to die on but about how many people can actually be rallied to that same level of belief. As stated in the point above, you can’t force or berate someone into sharing your beliefs. The moment you try to blame or shame the very people you need to organize, you move further away from the change you intend to create.

Organizing success can only be achieved if there is considerable unity around an issue among a strong majority of the affected group, and a mass willingness of that group to risk consequences to create change. An effective, trained organizer inoculates their peers by making them aware of, and preparing them for, the consequences of their intended actions. Group capacity as determined by mass participation and preparedness are exponentially more likely to deliver success than wishful thinking or spontaneous bravado. Simply put: you need the numbers to have the strength to challenge power to force the change. 

To summarize, a labour union has two major tools to navigate any given crisis. In the context of this pandemic, the legal route has been exhausted pending any new developments. This means the only substantial option the union has left to (theoretically) confront the vaccine policy would be workfloor organizing. Here are some questions to help frame if this member-dependent strategy is even viable:

a. Where does union power truly come from? An individual paid officer demanding a specific response from membership, or a workfloor united on an issue and collectively willing to risk discipline to disrupt production?

b. Is vaccine refusal a position with popular support among most of our members? Would those that are vaccinated be willing to risk any degree of discipline to fight for the rights of someone they believe is prolonging the pandemic?

c. How many of the members attempting to rally workfoors against the vaccine policy are widely trusted by their peers as well as properly trained as workfloor organizers?

Does answering these questions leave you with the sense that a mass majority of our membership would be willing to risk the unlawful job action needed to overcome state enforcement of a vaccine policy during a once-in-a-lifetime international health crisis? If your answer is ‘yes’ you must also be willing to risk personal legal consequences and share responsibility for jeopardizing the livelihoods of everyone involved. If your answer is ‘no’, you are back precisely where you started, without the support necessary to organize around this issue, and no amount of abusive or disrespectful behaviour towards fellow union members changing that fact.

These questions are a mirror for any worker serious about creating change in the world. We, as workers, do not have great personal wealth or influence -- we only have the potential to organize our overwhelming numbers to collectively fight for a cause. Unlike the comments sections on social media, real world interactions have lasting social consequences. Online is not real life: do not assume everyone agrees with you and don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can rally people to your cause by ridiculing their beliefs or demanding that they respect your own -- doing so only turns people further against you. You can have thousands of internet friends like your posts but if you’re unable to have respectful face-to-face conversations with your co-workers, the change you desire will never become a reality. Solidarity is about enforcing collective power over a shared belief -- it is not something that can be demanded from those with fundamentally different beliefs.

The power of the union begins and ends with the membership, and the membership belongs to and answers to no one person. What is ‘the union’ doing? Precisely what it is legally able to and what the democratic majority of its membership are willing to do, for better or worse. I am not an opportunistic lawyer telling you what you want to hear in exchange for grotesque consulting fees. I am not a politician manipulating your emotions with misinformation so I can win my next election. I am not a social media personality saying whatever sensational nonsense I can to manufacture a subscriber echo-chamber. My intention with this report is to honestly detail the reasonable options our members have to face this crisis. 

We are stuck with whatever the courts and governments decide for us until enough of us agree to collectively fight for something different. This truth applies to our struggle against back-to-work legislation just as much as it does the current CPC vaccine policy; the difference between the two is that only one of these fights actually has the broad support to muster the solidarity necessary to win. Either those advocating change adapt to how worker power is actually built or they will keep alienating themselves from the very people they need to win to their cause. This truth may be frustrating to some but accepting it sure beats trying to wage a war armed with nothing but wishful thinking.

We all know this pandemic and vaccine controversy is not ending anytime soon. Fighting with each other on our workfloors over irreconcilable differences can only result in CPC disciplinary notices. Please be patient and respectful with one another because for as long as this pandemic keeps dragging on, and long after it’s over, your workfloor family isn’t going anywhere, and we are all stronger when we focus on what unifies us rather than what divides us.

In Solidarity,