Worker Resistance Against Management, Part One

Some among the social-reformist left here in Toronto have accused me of being academic. They paint their activism as real as opposed to my own activities.

I thought it appropriate, then, to provide a story first about my own resistance as a worker. I will do so in order to be able to point to such resistance when I am accused of being an armchair activist (as I was by a community organization here in Toronto, JFAAP, or Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty when I criticized the limitations of their efforts).

I will probably eventually post a separate section on my resistance as a Marxist father.

I am copying (with a few modifications) something that I wrote when I was a member of the Toronto Labour Committee (TLC), headed by Sam Gindin (I withdrew from the Committee because it is an organization that fails to distance itself adequately from the union movement and therefore lacks critical capacity for questioning the class nature of the society in which we live). It was used as part of a course that Herman Rosenfeld (member of the TLC and a former educator for CAW for around a decade and a half) and Jordan House (member of the TLC and also a member of the International Workers’ of the World (IWW)) and I developed and gave for airport workers at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

In the brewery where I worked (at first it was Carling O’Keefe Brewery and then Molson’s Brewery, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada), the pasteurizer (the machine that pasteurized the beer) made the bottling shop very, very hot in the summer and even early fall. The workers had traditionally worn either their own clothes or company-provided coveralls.

Occasionally, there were tours of the bottling shop since there was a catwalk where visitors could see the workers below. One day, the foremen started handing out T-shirts and pants. Workers were given the choice to wear either their own clothes, the T-shirt or the coveralls. On the T-shirt was inscribed “Let’s Just Say OV” (OV stood for Old Vienna beer, one of the kinds of beer producer there).

A few nights later, the two night shift foremen started handing out coveralls to those who were wearing their own clothes, saying that they had to either wear coveralls or the T-shirt and pants from that point on. A few accepted this, but I, who was working in my own clothing, refused to so. The foremen waited until 6:00 a.m.., when the bottling manager started working. At that time (an hour before the end of the shift), I was told to leave the premises–I was being sent home and disciplined for insubordination.

After consulting with the local union president, Bill Flookes, I showed  up for my regular shift that night, wearing my own clothes. An hour into the shift, I was called in the office again. A foreman and the Union steward were waiting when I got there. In the discussion, I was that wearing the coveralls were too hot to work in. I willingly agreed to wear the company-supplied pants, but not the shirt that advertised the product. When asked why, I responded that I had nothing but contempt for capitalists and their representatives. The foreman sent me home once  again.

After I was sent home, unknown to me at the time, another worker was ordered to replace me. That worker also had his own clothes on and refused to change into the  T-shirt and pants or the coveralls after being ordered to do so. He too, was sent home. This occurred with another worker. The same thing happened; he too was sent home. A third worker was also sent home. Eventually, the foremen did not bother to send anyone further home; otherwise, they might not have had enough workers to operate the machines.

The issue was dropped, and the workers could wear their own clothes if they chose–or coveralls. The company withdrew the demand around the T-shirt and pants. A few workers resented what I had started, since they no longer received free T-shirts or pants, but in general there was support for the refusal: As one worker remarked, “The issue was a question of principle.”

There were three questions attached to this scenario (among other scenarios) for the course:

  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union local back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?

When this scenario was presented to mainly union representatives at the course for airport workers, interestingly enough, most of the representatives, in their conversations, found that I should have filed a grievance and followed orders.

This experience taught me both the personal difficulty of resistance–my heart was pounding–and the importance of solidarity. It also taught me the limitations of solidarity and militancy at the micro level; despite the support from others workers, none of the workers questioned the legitimacy of the power of the employer to direct our working lives. The workers were in general militant (we organized the sabotaging of machines when a particular foreman tried to intensify our work, for example), but their attitude was general acceptance of the employer-employee relation.

For the course, we did not include the discussion that transpired between the bottling manager and the local union president, Bill Flookes, the morning of the second day that I was sent home. The bottling manager asked Bill if he knew what “that Marxist son-of-a-bitch had said?” Perhaps it should have been included in the course. Any opinions?

 

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