Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Contracts

On Contracts
by P. Gage

I was in for one hell of a shock today. I finally got the names and addresses of the four ‘Rand’[1] members working at the courier company I was re-organising. In the same day I saw them threaten to wildcat and then get fired. I had the pleasure of introducing them to the glories of union representation only ten minutes before Sylvain, the boss, accused the workers of blackmailing him and then fired them.

By talking to the workers I pieced together what had happened. The boss used to run a thirty-person outfit that was unionized under the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). When they lost their major contract the company shrank down to one driver. Now they are building their business back up; as they hire new drivers they do not tell them about the union. There are now eleven people working in the shop, well eleven minus four fired men. These guys will likely be replaced by a new batch on Monday.

The boss was bullshitting the union too, he never told us when he hired more guys on. Even though the contract said that they had to inform us of any new workers, they also had to send them over to the union office to sign cards as a condition of work. The employer also had to provide us with regular seniority lists. In every instance they simply ignored the contract. They even hired these four guys on as independent contractors under a separate deal than the collective agreement we negotiated with the company. They pretended the union didn’t exist and the strategy worked for them for three years.

While the workers were getting their letters one of the fired workers looked across the room at me as he took his dismissal letter out of the boss’ hand. He smirked at me and winked. That’s when it hit me- these guys didn’t care. They agreed to certain terms and conditions and the employer broke their side of the deal. They didn’t have a union as far as they knew so they created one on the spot. They drafted up a letter with a list of demands, all four signed the bottom and handed it in. If Sylvain didn’t meet their demands they said they would try and convince the courier company’s clients to stop using them as a courier and would show up for work Monday but refuse to do anything until their demands were met.

These workers didn’t know about the union, then we show up saying we ‘represent’ them. I looked across the room at Al the local president who was negotiating with the boss. He was a model of restraint; Sylvain on the phone was not. I could hear words not fit for print from 15 feet away. For a brief moment I saw how comical this all was, I saw things from the point of view of the four guys who just got fired. The workers invited us along for the ride; they didn’t need us to represent them, they wanted outside witnesses to support a struggle that they took on themselves. We were frowning; to us this was serious business. They were smiling; to them it was a joke.

We all had a conversation in the parking lot afterwards. I told them that we would grieve the firings, and our reps would also bring up their return to work at negotiations for the new contract. Their odds of getting their jobs back were pretty good, and the odds of them getting back pay were even better according to our regional office. They said a settlement would be nice and they would think about their jobs, but what they really wanted was to cause as much trouble for that business as humanly possible. I said I would see what I could do, returning the smirk.

Later that day while driving back to the union office Al was horrified to hear me call the situation funny. He didn’t like my take on things at all; he said I enjoyed the conflict too much. Al and I have been through a lot and I respect him, he’s got thirty years at the Post Office under his belt and hasn’t been afraid encourage workers to take action. I told him I would think about what he had to say.

[1] A Rand member is someone who is paying dues to a union but has not signed a union card. Named after justice Rand who set the precedent for dues checkoff for unions in Canada.

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