Last January we said “Good riddance!” to 2020, imagining that the worst of this pandemic was behind us. After finally breaking through the Delta wave, we are somehow facing our biggest challenge yet with the Omicron variant. The theory is that between ever-increasing vaccination rates and greater availability of the Paxlovid tablets to treat COVID symptoms, our health care system can stay stabilized long enough for restrictions to be eased.
The vaccine mandate continues to be a polarizing issue for a fraction of our members. As it stands, roughly 5.4% (3000 out of our 55,573) of our entire CUPW membership are on LWOP for vaccine-related reasons, with Edmonton reporting a ratio of 3.3% (77 out of around 2300). Everyone wants this pandemic over as soon as possible but, unfortunately, our society is still too fractured to successfully buy-in to an exit strategy. Until that happens, we just roll the dice and hope a more destructive variant doesn’t come along. As always, our office is here to update members on important developments and help you navigate the ever-changing landscape.
Everyone is suffering in this situation and is frustrated with the mixed-messaging from health authorities and governments but that pain only deepens when it is misdirected at our co-workers or union officers. As explained in my last President's report, CUPW only currently only has two coherent options to confront the vaccine mandate: 1) the slow, procedural route via arbitration and court challenges (which was just extended to late March); and 2) a mobilization effort requiring mass buy-in from the membership. Bluntly, I feel the legal challenges will fail because the courts will uphold government crisis protocol during an international health emergency. Mass mobilization is also a non-starter because 95% of our members are already vaccinated and aren’t worried about vaccines enough to risk fines or other penalties.
Between the contract extension referendum, the vaccine mandate, or the lack of a general plan on how to effectively fight to make things better, it feels like our entire membership is frustrated with our union. When people feel powerless, the resulting anger is often misplaced at those least deserving and least capable of resolving the problems. Despite persistent efforts to explain otherwise, many of our members still think a union is just a group of officers that have the power to protect them from anything the company throws at them, and blame those same officers for the hardships they experience instead of the company or government actually inflicting those hardships. It is not commonly understood that a union is only as powerful as the extent its members are willing to organize and mobilize to achieve their demands. This level of solidarity is difficult to establish unless all levels of the union are deliberately trying to nurture workfloor empowerment by training workers to organize themselves. Understanding how CUPW, and unions generally, have fallen away from this approach requires a deeper look into our labour history.
It is no coincidence that the plummeting rate of worker unionization in North America parallels basic misunderstandings among unionized and non-unionized workers of what the actual role of a union is. Circumstances may not be as dire for workers as they were 100 years ago but the underlying power dynamic in our workplaces remains the same: a worker has no power to successfully demand workplace improvements from a company as an individual. Very simply, a labour union is a collective way for workers to create leverage to demand improvements. When unions first came into existence in the 1800s, this collective power was expressed primarily through direct job actions or strikes. Didn’t like how a boss was treating you or a co-worker? Slow down production. Felt like you were not being paid fairly? Picket lines would be deployed.
Sensing they were losing their monopoly on power, business and government interests devised a legal apparatus to enforce labour peace and de-tooth the labour movement. In the USA this began as the Wagner Act (1935) which later served as a sinister inspiration for the Rand Formula in Canada (1946). In each case, the labour bureaucracies of the day formally agreed to not conduct any work stoppages outside of sanctioned strikes in exchange for automatic dues and the “obey now, grieve later” procedural model. At the time, most unions welcomed this trade because the prospect of automatic dues guaranteeing revenue for union activities seemed too good to be true – they should have read the fine print.
Before the Wagner Act and the Rand Formula, responsibility to create change could only come from a workfloor collectively willing to organize and mobilize; after, this responsibility was diffused into a procedural system where you can, for example, file a grievance about a boss harassing workers, have to suffer those same conditions until the grievance receives a final hearing months or years later, then have an arbitrator, not the workers who suffered this treatment, decide on a “fair” outcome for the victim. In hindsight, it is easy to see how giving up our greatest expression of power as workers would have a detrimental effect.
This trade-off enshrines a major way the role of unions are misunderstood. If unionism is now structured to incentivize individual specialists, or non-elected staffers to draft, process and arbitrate labour disputes, as well as avoid mass workfloor action against management, why would anyone look at a union as anything more than another ineffectual bureaucracy? This is a deeply uncomfortable realization that can be seen played out at most major union conferences and conventions: every delegate will give a standing ovation at the mention of general strike or defying back-to-work legislation, but as soon as a delegate advocates concretely building capacity to do something similar, everyone stops making eye contact with them and backs away slowly. If this is how the commanding heights of our labour movement perceive the struggle, it is no surprise that our rank & file members, and society at large, do not view the work of unions as credible or impactful.
By trading our collective power for individual procedure, unions are like a hockey team insisting on playing in the Stanley Cup finals without skates and sticks – a self-sabotage so perfect that no one has any illusions as to what the outcome could be. While it would be tempting to lay the initial blame for this disempowerment on compromises made by the labour bureaucracies almost 100 years ago, it would be more constructive to take them as lessons on why we should never, under any circumstance, surrender our collective power and, instead, focus on the best way to fight forward.
Due to relying exclusively on the proceduralism of court appeals and grievances for decades, the current union leadership of most major labour unions have not directly experienced the true transformative might of the working class. As a result, these leadership groups either do not believe in the collective power of their members; or, they aren’t against the idea, but have no plan on how to build the capacity for that power to assert itself. Alternatively, the membership, who have been coached into relying on advocates and staffers to navigate problems on their behalf, seldom consider what they could accomplish organizing together, among themselves. Instead, they blame the union leaders for not solving all the problems they face. As cathartic as we may think it feels, blaming each other accomplishes absolutely nothing.
If our union officers had the power to solve every problem by themselves, help their members out of a hardship, and then be acknowledged for their efforts, they would gladly do so at every opportunity. The reality is that a ranking union officer, such as myself, is a figurehead at worst, or a mere facilitator at best. We have absolutely no influence outside what is explicitly stated in the collective agreement or the mass pressure exerted on management by membership. Sadly, our union has a clear timeline stretching back 37 years showing what happens when our members stop exerting that mass pressure. In 1985 the Trudeau Sr. government signaled that the only answer it had for unions prepared to go on prolonged strikes to win substantial gains, like we had in 1981 for maternity leave, would be back-to-work legislation. Our jobs have only gotten worse since.
Here lies the heart of the problem: Canadian labour promised labour peace from 1946 on in exchange for legalized collective bargaining and a grievance model despite not having an ability to enforce the terms. When this deal was repeatedly twisted or broken by government and business, labour generally did nothing but unsuccessfully appeal to the courts committed to maintaining the status quo. We can all lament how unfair this is and we can blame our union leaders for not doing more but, if we’re being honest, outside of a mass uprising, nothing will stop this trajectory of defeat.
Our leadership has no power on their own to out-smart or legally out-maneuver the trap set for us but they could play an invaluable role in preparing our union to finally fight back. If the true power of a union resides in the workfloor organizing capacity of its members, the true mark of union leadership is to do everything it can to facilitate this empowerment. Reasonable expectations that should be demanded of our union leaders include:
1. Are they being honest about the obstacles our union is facing to achieve better conditions?
2. Are they prioritizing opportunities to train members to build workfloor direct action organizing capacity to overcome these obstacles?
3. Are they fully supporting, and amplifying, elements that are already pursuing this strategy?
It must be repeated until it is fully understood: back-to-work legislation is the reason that we are not able to freely collectively bargain and, if necessary, strike to win our demands. If our leadership was willing to acknowledge this and spare no effort to build up our internal organizing capacity as well as support activists and locals already doing so, they have done the expected minimum to help restore the purpose of our union.
The bad news is that no one is ever coming to fight for us to make our working lives better; the good news is that the source of our strength as workers has always been, literally, all around us. If our leaders are up to the task, they will provide ample opportunities for members to volunteer, train and develop as organizers in service of building the collective strength of our union. Conversely, if our leaders are lacking, we should primarily invest our energy into leading by example at the local level and building alliances with others in the union fully committed to an workfloor organizing-first strategy (like the collaboration between Edmonton and Winnipeg locals).
It isn’t fair if you are a member of a union, or a specific local, where your leadership group has no ambition or inclination to support empowering your workfloors to confront management directly to resolve problems. If faced with this unfortunate reality, the best thing is to focus on what you are willing to do to make a difference where you are instead of roiling in resentment. CUPW has an exceptional democratic structure that persists despite years of relative inactivity from our members. A tremendous vacuum exists at most levels of this union that could easily be filed by any group of activists willing to band together and get involved.
The crisis of purpose facing CUPW can be solved by returning to the fundamentals of true unionism: leadership must do everything it can to develop and nurture the organizing capacity of our membership, and our membership must go about growing our own organizing capacity whether supported by our leadership or not. This is the only direction forward that will equip us with the skills and confidence to collectively confront the bad bosses, governments and laws aligned against us. Anything less means CUPW persisting in the same ineffectual way we have for the past 37 years.
The next 16 months may be one of the most important hinge points in the history of our union as we prepare for our CUPW National Convention and our next (post-extension) round of negotiations. As CPC’s business model collapses, and their parcel market share is increasingly devoured by Amazon, we will need something monumental like a public postal bank to subsidize their operations to maintain our jobs. Without a dedicated strategy to confront back-to-work legislation, we have no hope of winning any substantial gains, let alone a game-changer like public postal banking.
Now, more than ever, we need our members to get involved in our union. Three hours a month to attend a GMM is a small commitment when compared to the possible benefits of an invigorated local supporting our workfloors. Attend meetings, get ready to apply for paid educationals as they roll out, share information with your co-workers, and encourage them to see where they can contribute in some small way to our shared cause. As always, without struggle, there can be no victory, and more hands make lighter work.