Lessons from CUPW on Delivering the Goods: An Interview with Mikhail Bjorge

Lorenzo Fiorto

Mikhail Bjorge is a letter carrier and shop steward for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) in Edmonton, Alberta. He serves on the CUPW Edmonton Organising Committee and is the CUPW representative on the Alberta Federation of Labour’s political action committee. Lorenzo Fiorito interviewed Bjorge in the Fall of 2011, just months after CUPW became the first union to strike against Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority federal government. CUPW was legislated back to work after 13 days on the picket lines, setting a precedent for anti-union forces in the new age of austerity. This interview conveys Bjorge’s personal ideas and does not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations with which he works.

How would you characterize the relationships between rank-and-file CUPW members, union leadership, and Canada Post Corporation management?

In our current context, unions are structurally constrained. Union leadership is under the strict control of labour legislation and governmental stricture, which is profoundly anti-worker. Thus, the union can actively attempt to prevent or constrain wildcat strikes and direct-action activity while advocating for better working conditions through measures like the grievance process and traditional collective bargaining. This approach is designed to transfer power “up” toward a leadership that can be controlled through intimidation, threats of fines, or imprisonment. To this end, it doesn’t matter who holds power within the union – it could be Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman or Mikhail Bakunin.

If unions acted like the militant working-class organizations that many workers desire, the government would fine and legislate them out of existence. Barring such state action, they would be put into receivership, stripped of their executive power, and forced to defer to the larger labour body of which they’re a part. Avoiding this risk produces a situation wherein many members complain that “The Union” isn’t doing anything about “Problem X.” However, if unions exercised real power, the government wouldn’t tolerate them. This conception of “The Union,” which is often a shameful reality, reflects the belief that it is somehow separate from or “above” its members. This isn’t true; members are the union.   

Canada Post’s lower management is supposed to enforce discipline, “make numbers” (meet quotas and rates set by upper management), and push through unpopular changes. They are constantly in a battle with rank-and-file activists for shop-floor control. As a result, managers are typically tolerated or loathed, although some are liked.

Currently, letter carriers have some autonomy in their daily work – specifically in selecting how they “walk” their routes and how they physically deliver mail. Having autonomy and respect on the floor is important for safety, empowerment, and efficiency. Management desperately wants to take away what other industries have stolen from workers throughout the twentieth century: autonomous skill on the shop floor. Letter carriers have staved this off, but it’s literally a daily battle to maintain shop floor control.

Upper management is universally hated. To our credit, CUPW members have few illusions, and no “if the Czar only knew!” complex.1 The 2011 strike and lockout came about because Canada Post wanted massive concessions. Employees knew this was outrageous. And, sure enough, after the strike was over, Canada Post Corporation revealed the numbers they’d been hiding from the public: they made a record net profit of $448 million dollars in the 2010-2011 fiscal year and has been profitable for the last 16 years. This is the context in which they’re asking for massive concessions.

What issues precipitated CUPW’s 2011 strike vote?

One major issue is the so-called “Modern Post,” a scheme by upper management to actively slash jobs and increase the workload for remaining employees. Essentially, Modern Post is a proposed system intended to restructure how Canada Post’s mail and parcels get delivered. If implemented, it would undermine worker 
autonomy by sorting our routes for us and eliminating letter carriers’ allotted sortation time. It would also eliminate the group of workers who currently deliver only parcels, clear out depots, and sweep street letter boxes, thus forcing all of these jobs onto the letter carrier. These significant job cuts would greatly increase injury rates. Naturally, they would also lead to ever-greater profits, which are unlikely to trickle down to the workers. Moreover, 
longer days and heavier loads will make it physically difficult for anyone to carry letters for more than a few years.

The Modern Post has been a massive problem in Winnipeg, where it was first introduced. Injury rates skyrocketed, and very long days have become “the new normal.” Although management has not addressed the significant problems with the Modern Post system, it’s exporting the scheme to other Canadian cities and towns. This is pretty unambiguous evidence that our managers don’t care about us. The Modern Post is going to hurt workers if they don’t fight back effectively.

What was the political mood and mentality with which workers approached this battle?

CUPW is a union with an institutional consciousness. Workers radicalize on the shop floor. New employees learn about all the old strikes and battles just by delivering mail alongside the many folks who lived through them.

CUPW members generally hate the Conservatives – from Brian Mulroney, who closed rural post offices and eliminated door-to-door delivery for millions of Canadians in the late 1980s, to Harper for his Bill C-6 back-to-work mandate this year. At the same time, I don’t think many members harbour illusions that the New Democratic Party (NDP) or the Liberals would have been much better. After all, both parties have also forced workers to get off the picket lines using judges, legislation, or cops with guns.

That said, I obviously can’t speak for every member. Political ideas within the union are well within the curve of public opinion. But most higher-seniority members remember the tough, important battles. They fought for things like maternity leave, real sick time, benefits, autonomy, and control of the floor. These gains were won through bitter struggle, and that has not been forgotten. Most contractual gains were made through traditional bargaining and strikes; however, others required long battles with lower management over control of work and how it’s done. These experiences, along with stories of how wildcat activity got serious results, are passed on. One always hears old strike stories of fighting off scabs, blockading depots and plants, and wildcat activity. This indicates a broad consensus about how we got to where we are, even if the tactics are contentious.    

Some wildcat actions preceded the 2011 strike. Why were they necessary? How did workers organize at the rank-and-file level in preparation for the strike vote?

Working conditions in Edmonton were atrocious during the year leading up to the strike. We were forced to work overtime (referred to as “force-back”) just about every day over the entire winter 
at my depot. Force-back is a contractual “emergency measure” whereby – when there’s a “lack of staff” – workers can be forced to schlep mail for another hour (or three) after completing their normal eight-hour day. This usually entails delivering in the dark, often when it’s freezing. To be clear, Alberta’s 2010-2011 winter set new records for heavy snow and extremely cold temperatures. It was far from pleasant.

The reason for the excessive use of force-back was that Canada Post didn’t want to hire anyone new under the existing contract; it wanted to push through a two-tier hiring scheme in the upcoming contract negotiations. So, entirely by management design, we were extremely understaffed. The unending force-back made the mood in the depots poisonous. It was really bad. In Edmonton, my depot organized a mass refusal. This was accomplished by a very courageous bunch of folks who, under tremendous stress and despite the potential for major disciplinary repercussions, acted collectively.

In November 2010, staffing for relief carriers – who do up to five walks in one week – was deplorable. It was really affecting our quality of life. So we organized a march on the bosses. All the relief carriers marched into their office and told them that staffing issues had to be solved or we would escalate our direct action. We threatened them with “sick-ins” and “go-slows.” Our problems got solved the next day. This built a real sense of solidarity among the relief carriers and showed the members with more seniority that we were willing to fight.

Following this action, a small group of stewards and militants formed a shop-floor committee (essentially a direct-action committee), which planned meetings to address problems in the depot. The committee tried to coordinate actions with other groups that had sprung up around the city, and with isolated militants in other depots. The union had already been doing direct-action workshops as educational sessions, so when workers at Depot Nine (or D9) marched on their boss to support wildcats in Winnipeg, it was easier to organize collaboratively since some folks had taken the training.

Which tactics proved most effective during this period of organization?

Being a relief carrier, I move throughout the depot a lot. I often hear workers say “Our row is really solid and wants to fight, but I don’t know about them.” So the marches, meetings, and joint coffee breaks not only solved immediate shop-floor problems and helped disseminate useful information, but also helped us to develop real solidarity. Our actions scared the bosses. They stopped holding their weekly shop-floor meetings at D9 for months, because workers used them as opportunities to agitate. As a result, we were left to do our work with our autonomy and self-respect intact.

In D9, rolling direct actions occured on an escalating basis over several months. When the time was right, the entire depot was able to organize and get behind the mass refusals that preceded the strike. People were buoyed by previous victories, by their experience of solidarity, and by their sense that things were profoundly unfair. Workers at D9 undertook the mass-refusal direct action intelligently; we “individually” refused forced overtime using the health and safety clauses in our collective agreement. This insulated us from charges of “illegal” strike action, which the corporation had successfully used before.2 The feeling on the floor was really good; there was lots of talk about “the good old days” and pride in the fact that we’d fought back against something so unfair and unsafe. It was a tremendously important victory. And, because of our text-message relay, news of the action spread quickly.

CUPW Edmonton had a member who ran a really good communication system. The member received and sent out text messages, relaying information about direct action underway at different depots across the country to different militants and stewards. This tireless work not only helped spread ideas and information but reminded the militants that they weren’t alone. Through this member’s efforts we were able to stay one step ahead of the bosses and fight in a serious, effective manner.

Shortly thereafter, a city-wide meeting was called for letter carriers. It was extremely well-attended, even though it was organized entirely outside of official union channels. At the meeting, well over a hundred letter carriers talked about our problems: force-back, staffing issues, work volume, and job security. The meeting prompted workers from other depots to join the mass refusal, which then expanded across Edmonton. The 
local couldn’t directly support us without facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines; nonetheless, the city remained under a blanket mass refusal for the remainder of the winter. No carriers were working overtime. This was months before the strike.

Broadly speaking, what was achieved through this direct-action campaign?

The city-wide campaign forced Canada Post to hire hundreds of new workers in Edmonton. This was an enormous victory for direct action over the grievance procedure, and for shop-floor militancy over bureaucratic unionism. The local had been filing grievances over lack of staff for years, going through all of the official channels, but that’s a slow process with diminishing returns. It’s designed to transfer power and agency from the workers on the shop floor to a small group of trained bureaucrats. It was the same with “consultation” – the union demanded to be consulted on staffing, but the corporation ignored them for years. Legal procedure has its place but, while contracts are a decent shield, they’re a very blunt sword. The local did what it could, but labour law functions to soften the class struggle, not to help people live a decent life. Unions exist within these laws; the leadership isn’t incompetent or lazy, but they do exist in a very difficult place. So, it was very encouraging that militant and democratic direct action carried the day. 

What were the repercussions for workers?

During the mass refusal, the bosses were actually trying to play nice. Canada Post released memos to its low-level managers to be “decent” to us in an attempt to get us to vote against a strike. But they were also really hard on militant shop stewards, for whom it was an extremely stressful time – after all, being a steward is unpaid volunteer work. Many good stewards and good militants (who 
often aren’t stewards) spent a tremendous amount of time and energy on this campaign. My story is one among many.  

Once the momentum had gathered, how did workers 
feel going into the rotating strike and subsequent lockout?

The eventual strike and lockout actually felt anti-climactic after the direct action campaigns. Although the union leadership attempted to prepare everyone for the possibility of a strike, unpaid shop-floor activists did most of the leg-work. It was the shop stewards who set up the phone trees, coordinated the pickets and strike boxes; it was the stewards who tried to field questions and led the meetings pertaining to contract issues. A lot of workers felt that they were being poorly served by the leadership; it was very difficult to tread the line between being some toady for the union president and buying into the garbage chucked about by anti-union workers and management.

During the direct-action campaign, all of the power was on the floor with the workers. During negotiations, a great deal of the power seemed to be at the top. It wasn’t demoralizing, but it was very different. We had a 94.6 percent strike mandate – testament not only to workers’ anger at a fundamentally insulting contract offer, but also to the militancy of the floor. Leadership can say whatever it likes, but without a strong mandate from a group of workers aware of the power intrinsic to their class position, the word “leadership” is moot. The strike mandate we gave to the negotiating team emerged from our militant culture.

When the strike finally started, how did management behave and how did workers respond?

The strike was originally a “rolling” strike; different cities struck every day. In response to this, Canada Post decided to lock out all “term” employees. Terms are workers hired on a “short-term” basis who, at the employer’s discretion, might be offered permanent employment in a few years time. All Canada Post employees start as terms, except managers. As all terms were essentially fired, we passed an “in-depot” motion that taking any overtime was equivalent to taking the locked-out “term’s” jobs. So we decided to refuse overtime.

When Canada Post slashed delivery to three days a week, workers at Depot 9 showed up anyway on their “off” day and demanded to work. This put the bosses in the position of ordering workers not to do their jobs even though there was work to be done – work that served the public in a very real way. The CUPW local executive organized a march that day. Hundreds of Posties came out. We marched down Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue to D9, which we then briefly occupied, chanting “Whose mail? OUR MAIL!” These situations build immediate solidarity and power. Management announced the full lock-out that night and many workers in Edmonton felt that the occupation played an important role in that decision.

Canada Post tried to turn postal workers against each other and to pit them against the public. How successful was this strategy?

It’s tough for the bosses to divide us; we’re a pretty tight-knit group on the shop floor. It was vicious and underhanded to effectively lay off all the term employees and cancel all vacation time; and the two-tier contract idea was also divisive. But rank-and-file meetings helped us navigate these challenges. Strikes and turmoil are nothing new at Canada Post, so our solidarity in the depots remained relatively high. 

The public actually brought us coffee and doughnuts on the picket lines. Informal and ubiquitous working-class solidarity of that sort was quite heartening, as was the fact that we got far more honks and thumbs-up than middle fingers from passing drivers.

In Edmonton, perhaps the most striking example of solidarity was our big rally at Depot 11, a downtown depot beside City Hall. This CUPW rally was certainly one of the largest union actions in Alberta since the Gainer’s strike in 1986, the big nurses’ battles against former premier Ralph Klein, or the massive wildcats of building trades workers in 2007.3 Several local unions showed up with thousands of their members and we took over downtown 
for a few hours. It was powerful to have that degree of support from the rest of the labour movement, who saw the state’s “legislation instead of negotiation” tactic as a massive assault on the working class.

How was CUPW’s strike vote shaped by the election of Harper’s Conservative majority government and the 
first NDP opposition in history?

It was fairly plain to see that Canada Post walked away from the table as soon as the Conservatives got a majority. Upper management knew that, whatever happened, they could go to our owners – the Government of Canada for political support. That the NDP had become the opposition was beyond irrelevant; majorities in parliamentary politics are essentially four-year dictatorships. No other government would have been any different. The Liberals would have – and have – forced us back to work. The NDP would have done exactly the same thing, but would have felt really guilty about it.

What are your thoughts on being legislated back to work after your employer locked you out? What does this demonstrate about the relationship between labour and the legislative system?

It’s logical from Canada Post’s point of view. Remember, at the highest levels, our ownership and management is indistinguishable from the government. Our experience just reinforced our perception of the state: it screws workers and protects capital. Labour plays a very minor part within the legislative system; it’s essentially an afterthought – at least until it stands up to fight back. Capitalism and the state have evolved together in a dialectical fashion and one can only do so much within this dynamic. The Canadian Labour Congress or the provincial federations cannot compete with the chambers of commerce, business lobbies, and the like – every significant lobby is a capitalist one. The organized working class is not, and cannot be, too effective within the realm of the state. Even when we work together, we don’t have sufficient money or clout.

But workers do have the ability to fight back. The powerful might have all the guns and a monopoly on “legitimate violence” but, as workers, we can use the power inherent in our class position to make all of that a footnote. Fighting on a class basis is far more effective – and far more realistic – than trying to play a game intrinsically rigged against us. Everything that makes working-class life bearable has been won by struggle; it has not been not given out of benevolence by the state.

Some workers have argued that back-to-work legislation merely pushed the strike off the picket line and into the plants and depots. How has the strike/lockout affected 
on-the-job relations with management?

Canada Post may have locked us out, but now they’re locked in with us for four dirty, toxic years. The feeling in the depots is just noxious. People are mad, many are humiliated, and a great many very rightly feel cheated. We workers fought within all of the legal channels and the state still won. It’s been tough for stewards – all our normal activities have been complicated by post-strike questions and, on rare occasions, by taunts and accusations from fellow workers (though the latter have been fairly minimal). Bosses have ramped up their retribution against militants, many of whom are reporting increased discipline. The bosses watch them like hawks and then jump on minor mistakes.

Several occupations of MPs’ offices occurred across the country. Where did this tactical initiative come 
from? How successful was it? What other tactics do you believe the Canadian workers’ movement should adopt to get its message across and achieve its goals?

A whole bunch of Edmonton militants occupied our local Conservative MP’s office. I don’t know if it was very successful, but one has to explore all avenues. It did get the postal workers’ struggle into the local news and – because of widespread actions – the national news. We did get parts of our message out; we were able to convey that we’re employees of a massively profitable corporation and that our employer needs to negotiate with us instead of using political connections to shove a nasty contract down our throats. Because Conservative MPs were actively fighting against postal workers’ interests (and against working-class interests more broadly), we took the battle to them. The occupations had good moral foundations, which invigorated internal solidarity and made the pickets “active” again. Without a broader movement, these occupations were one way to directly challenge the state on its actions.  

Since the rise of the New Left, there’s been a drive to engage in media events that will “shock” the public into “thinking differently.” Education and agitation are extremely important, but media events are not necessarily education, and they’re always refracted through the lens of a generally hostile media. Even the CBC has to provide “balance.” But when the other networks are proactively anti-union, it drags the spectrum of “objective” reporting toward an effectively anti-union conclusion.

Actions like these reveal the need to better organize workers to fight for a better life. Every worker in Canada could agree with our demands. Without the organizations there to produce action, tactics like occupation become alienated solipsism. Perhaps actions like these can help us build solidarity; however, effective organizing takes tremendous effort, not just theatre.

One only has to read polls to see that most working-class folks are pretty dissatisfied with their condition; they’re not blissfully ignorant “sheeple.”4 People are not stupid, or “bought off.” What working-class people are is under attack, and cognizantly so. The organizations that can push proletarian interests have nearly been eliminated. The problem workers face is one of organization, not of consciousness. The odds are stacked against us in a massive way; the real question becomes how to fight back effectively.  

The postal strike/lockout seemed like the first in a series of battles for better social conditions, and it inspired Air Canada workers to take labour action. How should the Canadian labour movement strengthen itself and prepare for the future?

The CUPW strike should be viewed as a lesson, much like the massive plant occupations of the 1970s.5 The working class is seriously on the defensive again. Workers have been getting hammered for the last 30 years, and killing CUPW would be a great way to eliminate the gains workers made during the labour peace after World War II. Remember, it was CUPW that won Canadians maternity leave. We were also one of the first unions to take LGBTQ rights seriously. CUPW also sets the basic wage in Canada, because all employers must compete with Canada Post for workers. CUPW’s militancy sets an example for other workers who face cuts to their benefits and wages. If we fight back, others might too. The business class would love to get rid of CUPW or get a two-tier contract; it would mean massive savings for them.6

This government will pick off organized labour bit by bit if unions continue to fight as if the labour peace of the 1950s were still alive and well. It’s dead; advanced capitalism killed it. The way our strike played out is just more evidence of this. If the labour movement was serious about defending itself, it could have called a general strike. I honestly think that would have seriously stymied this attack. Instead, many sat on their hands and noted how “unjust” and “debilitating” the situation was. It was and it is, but there are very real ways to fight back.  

To achieve our goals, which are shared by the vast majority of people in Canada and internationally, we need to build real solidarity. I don’t mean writing letters of solidarity, although that’s all well and good. I mean that we have to be willing to set up secondary pickets, where workers refuse to accept struck goods. We have to ignore reactionary labour laws that were largely passed during the state diktats of World War II. The Canadian working class is not currently embroiled in a war against a vile, nationalist, anti-Semitic, and fascist state. Nevertheless, the state continues to treat workers as though we are still in this condition of emergency. Workers have to be willing to call general strikes in order to get what they want, need, and deserve.  

The ballot box is a dead end. Electing the NDP is a dead end. Last time I checked, provinces with NDP governments weren’t workers’ paradises. Everyone can see that the traditional approach to collective bargaining, punctuated by small local strikes within a blatantly anti-worker framework, has failed. We need union activists that decry the legal process as the sham it is and drive toward real, radical democracy within their working-class organizations. We also need to make a serious commitment to organize all workers. As long as organized labour is trying to protect its fiefdoms, confining itself to previously won gains or trying to elect this or that official, the working class will continue to lose massively. Maternity leave wasn’t a gift; CUPW won it. Minimum wage wasn’t a gift; we won it. The weekend wasn’t a gift; we won it. Whether the end goal is a bargaining unit or not, we need to organize all workers, and we need to put the general strike on the table as a tool to make gains, not just protect them.

Notes

1 Before 1905, many Russian workers and peasants believed that the Czar was unaware of their exploitation by capitalists, landlords, and tax collectors, and that if he were properly informed, he would take measures on their behalf. Instead, when a peaceful mass demonstration humbly petitioned for help outside his palace, Czar Nicholas ordered them shot. The experience created an abortive uprising that year.

2 The Delton wildcat of 2007 erupted because new employees were being forced back to work. As these workers had little seniority, they did the longest walks with the most mail and the least training and experience. Their force back had new carriers working until late at night and, because they had little union protection, they “had to” finish, or face termination. It got to the point where they were delivering mail until midnight, in the winter. The wildcat strike was an attempt to rectify this. The wildcat carriers each got five-day unpaid suspensions for their action. http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/my-introduction%E2%80%A6/.

3 Gainers was a really nasty, violent strike in 1986 when the labour movement in Alberta faced off against a real monocle-and-moneybags villain named Peter Pocklington, who tried to scab out an entire abattoir. The nurses fought hard, often illegally, against Premier Klein, who was perpetually trying to gut public healthcare so he could bring in a private option. In 2007 the building trades rank and file launched a massive wildcat against unfair government intervention into their bargaining, costing millions of dollars to the oil and gas industry (see http://libcom.org/library/wobble-job-building-trades-wildcat-alberta).

4 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/are-canadians-more-conservative-no/article1895649/.

5 For more, see Walter Johnon, The Trade Unions and the State, (Montreal, Black Rose Books: 1978).

6 http://recompositionblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/on-strike-at-canada-post/.