A Short List of the Largest Employers in Quebec According to the Number of Employees

The following is a list of the twenty-two largest companies in Quebec according to the number of employees for 2019. The silence of the social-democratic left concerning the power of these employers over the lives of employees reflects the incapacity of the social-democratic left to face up to the reality of most people’s lives these days. As I argued in another post (An Example of the Inadequacy of the Canadian Left, or How the Canadian Left Contributes to the Emergence of the Canadian Right), such disregard for the experiences of regular working people feeds into the development of right-wing attitudes.

The information is drawn from The Largest Private Employers in Quebec:

Company                                                                              Number of Employees in Quebec

  1. Metro                                                                           59,660

  2. Desjardins                                                                  40,868

  3. Sobeys                                                                         35,000

  4. George Weston                                                          27,500

  5. McDonald du Canada                                              20,000

  6. Hydro-Quebec                                                           19,904

  7. Banque Nationale                                                     15,981

  8. Walmart Canada                                                       15,000

  9. Bombardier                                                               14,500

  10. BCE                                                                              14,100

  11. GardaWorld                                                               13,500

  12. Le Coop federee                                                        10,294

  13. Societe de Transport de Montreal (STM)             10,029

  14. Lowe’s Canada                                                          10,000

  15. Quebecor                                                                    9,900

  16. St-Hubert (Groupe)                                                   9,300

  17. Alimentation Couche-Tard                                      8,500

  18. Costco (Les entrepots)                                              7,492

  19. Air Canada                                                                  7,477

  20. Banque Royale du Canada                                       7,000

  21. CGI                                                                                7,000

  22. Rio Tinto                                                                      7,000

Total Number of Employees: 370,005.

The average number of employees per employer in Quebec for these 22 companies is 16,818.

Does this situation express the freedom of workers? How many of those workers can direct their own lives at work? How many have their lives directed at work by a minority?

Certainly, workers are not forced directly to work for a specific employer, but ownership or rental of the conditions of work (buildings, chairs, desks, computers, photocopiers, printers and so forth) by these employers and the exclusion of such ownership by the workers indirectly obliges workers to work for an employer (though not a specific employer–although even then, given certain skills or lack of skills, workers must work for a specific employer within a specific group of workers. Thus, a worker with teaching skills will unlikely work as a flight attendant and hence can only work for certain employers.)

The relative–and restricted–freedom of workers to choose a particular employer has as its counterpart the much greater freedom of employers to choose whom they will hire. How many of you have gone to job interviews and felt the unequal power relations between you and the interviewer–even in a unionized setting? Why is that?

Management Rights Clause in a Collective Agreement in France: Progressive Discipline Is Better Than Arbitrary Discipline–But It Is Still Oppressive

Introduction

Discipline permeates our world–family. school and work. In an earlier post, in the context of schools, I have already explored, briefly, the difference between intrinsic or internal discipline and external discipline (see  Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Ten: Intrinsic or Internal Discipline Versus Extrinsic or External Discipline). I have also, indirectly, explored discipline within the family in the personal context of the physical abuse of my daughter, Francesca, by her mother and the official response of a government body of the capitalist state (see, for example, A Personal Example of the Oppressive Nature of  Public Welfare Services).

In this post, I look at, briefly, discipline at work in the context of working for an employer. It also begins to widen references to collective agreement outside Canada in order to show that collective agreements in other countries do not somehow magically transform the employer-employee relation into “decent work” or “a decent job.”

Progressive Discipline in a French Collective Agreement

It was difficult to find a collective agreement from France that explicitly expressed the managerial power of the employer over employees. The following clause in a collective agreement, however, does express one aspect of that power–the power to discipline if employees do not follow the rules set out by management. The collective agreement is between Employers of Social and Family Cohesion (Employeurs du Lien Social et Familial (ELISFA)) and several unions (for example, National Federation of Health and Social Services (NFHSS) of the French Democratic Federation of Labour (FDFL)) (Fédération Nationale des services de santé et des services sociaux (FSSS), de la Confederation francaise democratique du travail (CFDT).

The clause outlines what has come to be known as “progressive discipline,” or discipline that begins with  the least amount of discipline and, progressively, becoming more severe.

The following is a rough translation of the clause (the original French is provided at the end of this post). From page 24:

Article 5

General conditions of discipline 

5.1 In accordance with law 16, the disciplinary measures applicable to the personnel of the enterprises or services are exercised under the following forms, which constitute the scale of sanctions [disciplines]:

–Observation (Remark)
–Warning
–Suspension with or without salary (in the last case [without pay] for a maximum of             three days
–Dismissal

Progressive discipline is certainly better than the arbitrary discipline that non-unionized employers have, but it is still discipline from an authority that originates from an economic structure characterized by, on the one hand, an impersonal and oppressive system that involves the use of workers as means to ends that they do not define and, on the other, by a class of employers (and their managerial representatives) that try to ensure that those impersonal and oppressive structures function independently of the will of the majority of workers (see The Money Circuit of Capital). As such, however “progressive” progressive discipline, it is still oppressive and hardly justifiable–unless using workers as means for purposes which they do not define is itself justifiable.

Article 5

Conditions générales de discipline

5.1
Conformément à la loi16 , les mesures disciplinaires applicables aux personnels des entreprises ou services s’exercent sous les formes suivantes, qui constituent l’échelle des sanctions :
– l’observation ;
– l’avertissement ;
– la mise à pied avec ou sans salaire (dans ce dernier cas pour un maximum de trois jours) ;
– le licenciement.

Conclusion

What do social democrats or social reformers have to say about such clauses in collective agreements? Here in Toronto there is no or little open discussion about such clauses or the power of managers, a minority, to dictate to workers, the majority. Do union members agree with the view that progressive discipline is indeed progressive? That it is fair? That such progressive discipline contributes to the transformation of the employer-employee relation into a relation among equals?

Such is the nature of social “democracy.”

Frankly, I doubt that social democrats and social reformers really want to discuss these issues. Nor do union officials. They hide behind such euphemistic phrases as “decent work,” “decent jobs,” “fair collective bargaining,” “fair wages,” and the like in order to prevent discussion of issues relevant to the interests of workers as a class.

Progressive discipline is better than the arbitrary discipline characteristic of non-unionized settings–but it is still oppressive and external discipline. To achieve internal or intrinsic discipline at work, it would be necessary to abolish the class power of employers.

A Short List of the Largest Employers in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Mainly Based on Revenue

The following is a list of the 20 largest employers in Vancouver in 2018, based on revenue (rather than based on the number of employees, profit, assets or other criteria). For a couple of other lists, using profits or number of employees as criterion, see A Short List of the Largest Private Employers in Canada, According to Profit and A Short List of the Largest Employers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

For a short list based on the number of employees and profit in Sweden, see A Short List of the Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profits and the Profits per Worker.

How many among the left in Vancouver (or in Canada) consider such companies to provide “decent work?” “Fair contracts?” How many in Canada?

The information was obtained from the following site:  Largest Employers in Vancouver Based on Revenue.  rounded off to the nearest million in some cases.

  1. Telus Corp.: $14 billion 368 million ($14, 368,000,000)
  2. Teck Resources ($12 billion 564 million) ($12, 564,000,000)
  3. Jim Pattison Group ($10 billion 600 million) ($10,600,000,000)
  4. Finning International ($6 billion, 996 million) ($6,996,000,000)
  5. B.C. Hydro and Power Authority ($6 billion 237 million) ($6,237,000,000)
  6. West Fraser Timber Co. ($6 billion 118 million) ($6,118,000,000)
  7. H.Y Louie Co. ($5 billion 560 million) ($5,560,000,000)
  8. Insurance Corp. of British Columbia ($5 billion 442 million) ($5,442,000,000)
  9. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. ($5 billion 350 million) ($5,350,000,000)
  10. First Quatum Minerals ($5 billion 139 million) ($5,139,000,000)
  11. Methanex Corp. ($5 billion 94 million) ($5,094,000,000)
  12. Canfor Corp. ($5 billion 44 million) ($5,044,000,000)’
  13. Best Buy Canada ($4 billion 129 million) ($4,129,000,000)
  14. GoldCorp ($3 billion 929 million) ($3,929, 000,000)
  15. BC Liquor Distribution Branch ($3 billion 498 million) $3,498,000,000)
  16. Westcoast Energy ($3 billion 473 million) ($3,473,000,000)
  17. Lululemon Athletica ($3 billion 433 million) ($3,433,000,000)
  18. British Columbia Lottery Corp. ($3 billion 267 million) ($3,267,000,000)
  19. Premium Brands Holding Corp. ($3 billion 26 million) ($3,026,000,000)
  20. London Drugs ($2 billion 575 million) ($2,575,000,000)

Total Revenue: $115 billion 842 million ($115,842,000,000)
Average Revenue per Employer: $5 billion 792 million ($5,792,000,000)

To gain an understanding of how much money that is, we can divide that amount by the 2018 Canadian population of about 37 million: $3130 per person. If we confine ourselves to the population in British Columbia (5 million 16 thousand–5,016,000), the per person revenue would be $23,094 per person.

Of course, revenue must cover operating costs and initial purchase of means of production (buildings, machines, raw materials such as electricity) and workers. These numbers would have to be further analyzed in order to determine profit in relation to total revenue.

Furthermore, it would be useful to determine the number of employees per employer to determine the approximate amount of profit produced per employer in order to see how workers are used to produce that profit. (The problem is that the statistics may not distinguish between the revenue obtained and whether it is confined to the province. For example, is the total revenue from Best Buy limited to total sales in Best Buy in Vancouver or does it apply to the total sales throughout British Columbia or indeed throughout Canada. It would be necessary to inquire further, of course.)

Finally, we can certainly ask how such employers can be justified as social organizations that use workers as means for ends not defined by the workers. Do you find it legitimate to use people for ends not defined by them? (See   The Money Circuit of Capital). In particular, do you find it legitimate to treat workers as mere costs, on the same level with the machines, buildings, office supplies, electricity  and so forth that workers use? If so, why do you think that? If not, what can be done about it?

What are the implications of the control of such revenue by such employers for the control of the lives of those who live in Vancouver? At work? Outside work? Does such a situation express the freedom of workers? Of consumers? What does it say about the power of employers? Of the power of their representatives–management? The best possible way of organizing work? Of organizing our lives? Or is there an alternative way of organizing our lives?

A Private Employer’s “Humanism” in Sweden: The Dream of Social Democrats Everywhere

As I pointed out in my critique of Jane McAlevey’s reference to Sweden’s so-called ‘leveling of the playing field for children’s opportunity for success from birth onward,” (see   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two), social democrats tend to idealize the Scandinavian countries. I began to more directly debunk this social-democratic myth in the post  A Short List of the Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profits and the Profits per Worker ).

Let us look at the behaviour of one private employer in Sweden, which supposedly instituted humanistic methods for helping workers to become more healthy: the private employer Scania, a multinational capitalist manufacturing firm (from page 140, Christian Maravelias, Torkild Thanem, Mikael Holmqvist. “March Meets Marx: The Politics of Exploitation and Exploration in the Management of Life and Labour”. Published online: 2012; pages 129-159):

Scania is an internationally leading manufacturer of heavy trucks, buses and coaches, and industrial and marine engines. It operates in some 100 countries with approximately 34,000 employees [in another source, it says 45,235].. Scania was founded in the late nineteenth century and has built and delivered more than 1,500,000 trucks, buses and engines.

Scania is well known both for its products and for its stable and long-term strategic focus. It has grown organically, primarily through internal financing, and it has remained in the same product category for more than 80 years. This conservatism has been successful, yielding annual profits for more than seven consecutive decades and helped avoid regular lay-offs since the 1940s. Today Scania is regarded a stable and attractive employer known for combining continuous improvement in production with safe and professionally stimulating working conditions.

Workers in Scania were subject to a scientific management system, with a top-down management style. As a consequence, (page 145):

the previous system was associated with high levels of personnel turnover (30%) and illness absenteeism (25%),

To deal with this problem, the union pressured for the development of a lean production model in the style of Toyota (pages 145-146):

the union was able to exercise considerable bargaining power, almost forcing the firm to accept a version of lean production that was aligned with principles of health and well-being.

However, Scanian management turned the situation to its advantage by coopting the process of a move towards  so-called health and wellness:

Like many lean production initiatives, Scania’s turn to this kind of system in the 1990s implied an emphasis on self-managing teams, continuous improvement and individual responsibility (see, e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler, Goldoftas, & Levine, 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge, Turnbull, & Wilkinson, 1992). Despite an emerging concern with well-being, the most apparent aspect of this related to the objective dimension of exploiting labour. As new tasks and responsibilities were added to all factory jobs, Scania was able to extract more value from the salary they paid workers. Making workers take individual responsibility for constantly improving the production process intensified work, as it meant that they had to do more for the same salary: in addition to take responsibility for executing predefined tasks, workers in self-managing teams were expected to set goals and find ways of reaching these goals.

This meant that each team member had dual roles: both as an operator and as a reflective practitioner. As operators, team members carried out more or less pre-defined tasks according to standard operating procedures. As reflective practitioners, they stepped out of these same processes and observed them from a distance to identify opportunities for improvement.

As reported through previous studies of lean production (e.g. Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992; Parker & Slaughter, 1990), the enhanced exploitation of labour and consequent work intensification was deeply related to speed, posing production speed in a tight relationship to production error.

The shift from strictly hierarchical managerial structures to more horizontal managerial structures (with, of course, the hierarchical managerial structure still prevailing “in the last instance”) led to the employer engaging in the exploration of new organizational structures to exploit its working force, a feature characteristic of capitalist firms as they are subject to the dual constraint of the need to exploit their working force while being subject to competitive rivalry from other capitalists (page 132):

The basic problem facing firms subject to increasing competitive pressures is to balance exploitation, which is incremental and may facilitate short-term competitiveness, with exploration, which is radical and might enable long-term competitiveness. The reason for this balancing act is that exploitative pursuits tend to undermine explorative pursuits.

This exploration of new ways of exploiting labour led to a focus on managing the health of workers (page 140):

To deal with problems of high costs and accident levels as well as high levels of production error, illness absenteeism and employee turnover, Scania decided to implement a lean production system inspired by the justin- time and total quality management principles of Toyotaism. This was later combined with investments in health promotion, and it is the emphasis on health in particular which makes this case distinct from previous studies of lean production.

The exploration of control over the health of the workers led, on the one hand, to attempts to control their subjectivity (their “mind set” or their “attitude”) (page 142):

Having the right job skills was only seen to constitute one part of this. Perhaps more reminiscent of previous research on service work (e.g. Callaghan & Thompson, 2002), high performance was just as much about having the right mind-set, that is having the motivation to be an active, committed and ambitious employee. It was acknowledged by managers and workers that this was not an easy task, because a partly new type of employee was required for the lean production system to work properly. Since working the production line was hard work, workers needed to be in
good shape. But since this also involved efforts to enhance output and quality, it required a particular person who was motivated and committed to change and improvement.

On the other hand, the attempt to control the subjectivity of the worker also led to attempts to control life after work through what programs that seemed to benefit workers (pages 142-143):

This approach blurred the boundaries between work and life. In the words of one team leader, ‘being active and motivated is not a capacity you can switch on and off, [y] it comes down to who you are and how you live your life’. Hence, workers were expected to go far in adapting to the system. But if Scania was to live up to its goal of being a ‘responsible and caring employer’ as well as a lean firm, this obliged them to make far-reaching adaptations, which go beyond what has been reported in previous studies (e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler et al., 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992). The mutual responsibilities of employees and employer were expressed through two company programmes known as the Employeeship and the 24 Hour Employee. These programmes were also pinnacles in the firm’s integration of lean production and health promotion, involving anything from safe machinery to helping employees lose weight.

These programs were not just window dressing; workers were conceived as resources in a similar fashion to the machines and buildings that Scania owned; workers were expected to take care of themselves outside work and inside work in order to increase the productivity of the company, and if they did not productivity would suffer (page 143):

Scania’s objective exploration of labour, which was aimed to enhance productivity, improve quality and increase profits, required them to re-socialise workers by subjectively exploring their lives, bodies and personalities and what potential they offered in terms of being exploited as labour. This was expressed in rather explicit expectations and norms concerning employee lifestyle. To be physically, mentally and technologically equipped to handle their work, one nurse emphasised that workers were expected to keep themselves in a ‘healthy workable condition’ and
show competence in ‘health-related things such as physical fitness [and] mental strength’.

Although there was no formal right for Scania to control the workers’ lives outside work, on a practical level the two programs did lead to pressure to conform to the requirements of Scania to exploit the workers (page 144):

Of course, Scania had no formal right to interfere with what workers did in their spare time, but when a worker’s private life started to impact
negatively on their work, the firm was able to intervene in the opposite
direction, subordinating life to labour. As argued by one line manager:

If one of my employees doesn’t get enough sleep because he plays poker all night, it is his own business – as long as it doesn’t affect his ability to work. But if it  does  […] – and most likely it will – it is not just his business but my business as  well.

Workers were somewhat ambivalent about how they experienced this. In the words of an IT specialist:

a couple of years ago I went through a divorce. I started drinking a little bit too            much and somehow my boss found out about this. At first, he didn’t say  anything,  but after some time he did, and he also explained that he had spoken to a counsellor at the Health Office who he wanted me to contact. I did, and the therapy helped. But it was somewhat creepy to see how my family problems  were turned into a work problem.

This worker’s life, then, was subjectively re-socialised and explored to fit the new organisation of production which Scania was objectively exploring in the interest of more intensely exploiting labour.

The far-reaching nature of the employer–employee contract, their shared responsibilities and the blurring of the objective exploration of labour contra the subjective exploration of life was further reflected in the 24 Hour Employee programme. More specifically, this involved a mutual sense of caring, where the programme aimed to show how much the firm cares for its employees, on and off the job, by helping them live healthier. However, this programme also emphasised how workers were expected to take care of themselves during and after working hours. Workers did not necessarily view this contract as consensual, and some workers called it ‘a give-and-take thing’. While Scania promised a safe work environment and helped workers take care of themselves, the firm was seen to expect ‘an awful lot’ in return – that workers ‘live in accordance with its standards’.

Lean production did result in some workers feeling stressed out, but rather than attributing the problem to lean production itself (and the nature of the capitalist firm as capitalist firm), the problem is identified as an individual problem (a similar approach is the current psychological fad called “mindfulness”–a variant of the ancient Stoical philosophy of disregarding the real objective social constraints on our lives); used by management, this led to manipulation (pages 148-149): 

Through a therapeutic and reflective approach, the Health School sought to help workers gain better self-knowledge, set limits and prioritise. Again, this was anchored in an emphasis on individual responsibility, where participants had to accept responsibility for their own life and work. This was important since many participants initially tended to associate stress with outside factors, such as their job being too demanding or managers expecting too much. Hence, the therapeutic process was embedded in a somewhat contested terrain where therapists and participants tried to allocate responsibility and blame in opposite directions. Although therapists sometimes relaxed the responsibilities and performance targets for individual workers in the short term, there was never any doubt that participants were required to adapt to the system should they continue to work for the firm. Indeed, therapy made most participants accept individual responsibility for adapting to the system, who thereby ended up subjectively participating in their own exploitation (cp. e.g. Burawoy, 1979; Delbridge, 1995; Thompson, 1989).

The first step in the therapeutic process was to establish a trustful atmosphere where participants were ready to accept and commit to ‘the fact’ that they have a problem with stress. The second step involved mapping out the daily routines of individual participants and their colleagues. Participants were then taught how to become more aware and reflective about their own behaviour and attitudes, and taught to think in more strategic terms about all parts of their lives. While the integration of lean production and health promotion blurred the work–life boundary, this particular task encouraged participants to make distinctions between work, self and private life, and to define goals for all three areas. According to one health coach, this mindset was pursued in the spirit of helping participants gain control over their lives and ‘feel that their lives were the result of their own conscious and informed choices’ rather than forces beyond their control.

Failing to cope, then, was seen as an outcome of limited self-management skills. Incidentally, life became just a bit more like work. Although this might be seen as an example of skill expansion, we would argue that this chimes less with Adler’s (2007) upgrading thesis than with Thompson’s (2007) argument that multi-skilling does not necessarily lead to up-skilling. Here, the subjective exploration of life did not unequivocally make work more varied, diverse and interesting; it also involved a division, simplification and management of life to make it more appropriate for work.

It should be evident now that working for Scania is a double-edged sword since workers’ health, which involves the whole life of workers and not just the working part of their lives, is used as a means for enhancing the company’s bottom line. Ultimately, Scania follows the same process of subordinating workers’ lives to the pursuit of  more money on an ever increasing scale (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

The idealization of the Scandinavian countries by Ms. McAlevey and other social democrats thus does not stand up to scrutiny. Even on the assumption that children have equal opportunity at birth (as Ms. McAlevey claims–without further evidence), when they grow up many become employees–and as employees, they are used by employers as things for obtaining more and more money.

Working lives may in some ways be better in Sweden but in many ways they also may be worse under the social-democratic approach that co-opts workers’ own subjectivity.

This case also illustrates the importance of ideological struggle since employers have many resources to co-opt workers into their own schemes. Organizational struggle in itself is insufficient; it is necessary to engage in a simultaneous struggle both organizationally and ideologically.

Implied Management Rights in a Collective Agreement in Mexico: Workers’ Obligations and Prohibitions

When looking at collective agreements in Mexico, I was unable to find a readily available management rights clause. Perhaps there are some, and if anyone has information concerning them, please make a comment so that I can incorporate them into this blog.

However, perhaps Mexican management rights are expressed in a different way. The obligations and prohibitions of employees, of course, is the other side of the coin of management rights.

I did find that Mexican collective agreements do contain provisions that specify the obligations and prohibitions of workers. For example, in the collective agreement in force from 2016 until 2018 between El Instituto Nacional Para la Educacion de Adultos (ENPA) (National Institute for Adult Education)  and the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion para Adultos (SNTEA) (National Union of Adult Education Workers), pages 50-57, indicates various obligations (clause 87) and prohibitions (clause 88).

Below is a rough translation of some provisions from Clause 87, page 50.  Since I am not a translator, the translation is approximate:

The following are obligations of the workers, in addition to those imposed by law:

II. Attend conscientiously to the carrying out of their work;
III. Carry out the functions appropriate to their job with intensity and care, abiding by the directives of their bosses, laws and rules;
IV. Obey the orders and instructions that they receive from their superiors in matters relevant to the carrying out of their service;
V. Fulfill orders that are dictated in order to confirm one’s attendance;
VI. Contribute with total efficiency within their powers and functions to the realization of the programs of the Institute and keep in all their acts total dedication and loyalty to the Institute;

Do these provisions express a “fair contract?” Or does it express a situation of hierarchy, where workers, because they lack control over the conditions of their work and employers control those means, are expected to follow the orders of their “superiors” unless they are willing to face punishment in one form or another?

Do these provisions express the freedom of workers? Or do they express their lack of freedom?

From Clause 88, pages 54, 56

It is forbidden for workers:

VIII. To foment by whatever means disobedience to their superiors;
XXXIII. To realize acts that relax the discipline that must rule in the workplace.

The same questions could be asked about these provisions.

The left here in Toronto (and in Canada in general), however, are incapable of answering such questions. They do not ask such questions. There is no discussion of such questions. Such is the lack of democracy in Canada these days.

Should we not be discussing such issues? If so, why are we not? What can be done to stimulate discussion of these and related issues?

What do you think?

Son obligaciones de los trabajadores, ademas de los que imponen las leyes, las siguientes:

II.

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?