Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Two

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.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with resistance against management at the brewery, so we permitted them 25 minutes for both.]

Clapping for Lisa Raitt

When CAW (Canada Auto Workers union] Air-Canada reservation and air ticket agents briefly went on strike over a series of contract concessions demanded by management, the Conservative government [of Stephen Harper, prime minister at the federal or Canada-wide level], though Labour Minister Lisa Raitt quickly introduced a law to legislate them back to work. (It would have been the 5th time in 5 years that the Harper government had taken away workers’ right to strike.) An agreement was reached between the union and Air Canada.

The workers who handle baggage, members of the IAM (International Association of Machinists) rejected the tentative agreement bargained by their leadership and demanded that they go back to the table and bargain improvements.

After the rejection, the workers started forming “Action Committees” to prepare co-workers to organize rallies at the airport, to pressure the employer to bargain seriously. The IAM workers had previously supported the actions of Reservation and Flight Attendants, who had protested the elimination of their right to strike.

A key action was to write a letter to the company president, complaining about endless demands for concessions and the culture of entitlement for the top executives.

Some quotes from the letter:

“It smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order to be led by Executives that continually demand we make sacrifices for the “viability” of the Company and then watch those same Executives pocket millions in bonuses and receive raises in pay and pension benefits in excess of 70% in a year.

A day doesn’t go by without us hearing about how we are the problem and how management is trying to find ways to replace us with “low cost” workers from senior Executives whoa are never replaceable and must be highly compensated in order to maintain their loyalty to the Company.

Over the past decade we have agreed to take wave after wave of concessions and have watched this goodwill allow Senior management to make hundreds of millions in payments of “special distributions” to their corporate backers or in golden parachutes to departing millionaire Executives.

It is time to lead by example. It’s time to end this culture of senior executives viewing us workers as a cost in which to be squeezed for more bonuses at the top.

This will require a major change in culture including management not using their friends in Ottawa to threaten our unions into concessionary agreements, ending the disastrous habit of unilaterally imposing policies on us (lie the unilateral changes to travel charges) and ending the out of control greed at the top.

The workers planned to present the letter to the president at the private management celebration of the 75th anniversary of Air Canada’s founding. They stormed into the meeting and, after a scuffle with the police, agreed to select 2 representatives to deliver the latter. Rovinescu, the company president, received the letter, but was not happy about it.

Shortly after this incident, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, landed at Pearson Airport for a meeting. As she exited the plane, the worker who recognized her, started a slow, rhythmic clapping, as a kind of spontaneous protest against the attack on their collective bargaining rights, followed her through the terminal, as the crowd of clapping workers grew Raitt, who fancied herself as a kind of “friend of the workers” was angry, and called on the police to,” “arrest these animals!”

The police took no action, but Air Canada security guards sent 5 or 6 of the protesters home, in an action that usually signifies a discharge.

The word of the firings went viral. All of the IAM workers at Pearson stopped work and stayed out all night, demanding that the fired workers be reinstated, and that collective bargaining begin again. All 30 of the workers who went on the wildcat were promptly fired.

The morning shift workers refused to work. All workers in Vancouver, Montreal and in airports across Canada downed their tools as well. It made the national news.

The company and the union began talks, and agreed to send the issue of the wildcat to an arbitrator (one often used by Air Canada and its unions, but one not known for his friendliness to union and worker issues).

After heated debate, the workers decided to stay out until the workers were reinstated. The striking workers spent a lot of time talking with members of the other unions at the airport, building solidarity with their actions and issues. When the fired workers were reinstated (although further discipline was planned), the wildcat was ended. Bargaining on the contract began soon afterwards.

A few months later, after the contract was signed, Air Canada fired a number of activist workers using their private E-mail comments, as “incriminating” evidence against them.

Questions

  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 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?

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?