This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.
Getting a Shift Back to Work and Overtime Action
- This is a Small Group Activity
- Read both short stories and answer the questions below together
- Be prepared to describe each collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers
- You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise
In the later 1980s, at an auto assembly in Toronto (closed in 1994), there were two rotating production shifts, of approximately 1,000 workers per shift. Once shift worked on days , often with a sixth day shift (Saturday), scheduled as an overtime day. Another shift worked afternoons.
The plant churned out full-sized vans that were popular with companies and recreational buyers. The vans were extremely popular across North America, and with only two plants producing them, it seemed that the jobs were secure.
The union local had a history of militancy, with wildcat strikes, overtime boycotts, and various forms of collective resistance, often in response to things like difficulties getting washroom breaks, work intensification, and excessive discipline issued for minor offenses. as well, there had been a number of collective work refusals over health and safety issues that seemed to get resolved rather quickly.
One day, the plant superintendent announced that the market for vans was softening and that they would reduce production to one shift.
After a transition period, the plant laid off the low-seniority workers, eliminated the afternoon shift and began production with the one-day shift with higher seniority workers. Soon after, at a union meeting, people were wondering if there truly was any downturn in sales. The meeting decided to strike a voluntary committee to investigate with car dealers just how large their inventory for vans really was. The committee was made up of elected committeepersons, members of the Local Union Executive, and volunteers from the group of laid-off workers. They also resolved to organize a biweekly meeting of all the laid-off workers, to regularly discuss their situation and develop a common strategy to force the boss to hire them back to work.
They found that no matter where they called, dealers all claimed that they were short in their inventories of vans, that demands for the vehicles was rising and that there seemed to be no need to cut production.
After about 2 months management announced that it would schedule a Saturday overtime shift. This caused huge debates and divisions within the membership, especially those who were working. A number of the higher seniority workers argued that they needed to have their Saturday overtime, and that it was their “right” as a consequence of seniority. A minority threatened violence against anyone who tried to keep them from getting to work on Saturday. Others were angry, and saw it as an attack on the rights of all the workers, scheduling a Saturday overtime shift when half the local was on layoff. Further, they asked, how could they need overtime if, as they claim, they don’t have enough orders to justify full production here?
The laid-off workers, along with the union activists on the voluntary committee, also asked that question. And, collectively, they debated what they should do about the scheduled Saturday.
Doing nothing would be out of the question. Organizing a picket line to stop workers from coming into work on Saturday would make sense, but the level of opposition from the minority of workers who supported the scheduling of the overtime, might lead to sharpening divisions and even violence. After a heated discussion, a group of about 100 people decided on the following course of action: they would organize an informational picket line, explaining why it was wrong for the boss to schedule Saturday overtime while a shift was laid off–reminding people about the true state of the van market, and asking people to make their own choice about working. They would also make a push–through phone calls and personal visits–to bring out large numbers of the laid-off workers to the picket line around the plant.
As well, they made a push in the local and national media: press releases; calling up every media outlet; massive distribution of leaflets announcing the informational picket and an educational leaflet, explaining the links between the ease of management’s shutting down Canadian facilities, in the context of the looming debate over Free Trade with the U.S.
The day of the picket-demo was cold, with sleet. But there were hundreds of laid-off workers handing out leaflets to the workers entering the plant. Some turned away, and they barely had enough to work the shift. But there were discussions and no violence. There was also national and local press coverage–of the absurd reality of a plant with over 1000 people on layoff working a mandatory overtime day. People across the country read, heard about it and watched it. The laid-off workers got some recognition of their collective plight. Rank and file workers, activists and union officials were interviewed. The shift ran, but there were a number of stoppages, due to the low level of staffing for the day
A week later, the company announced that the laid-off shift would be brought back in in a couple of weeks.
Three years later, management announced that van production would end at that facility and 3 years after that announcement, the plant closed.
- What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
- 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?
- What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?