Solidarity and the service model
by P. Gage
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ unionism is one of worker organizers servicing a contract that is negotiated with the employer. A large body of volunteers and a handful of paid staff provide a service to workers who are expected to come to the union with their grievances.
Servicing a contract is pointless if the union doesn’t know who is in the shop, how many workers are in the shop and what the issues are. A contract is even more useless if the workers don’t know it exists. In this shop the collective agreement required the employer to come to us when they hired new people. They pulled a fast one on us, as the grievances roll in it is becoming apparent they have pulled a fast one on us for three years.
The point of a contract is to mark gains negotiated by the bargaining committee. In exchange we trade off our right to strike and submit to a grievance procedure where issues are settled off the floor allowing the business to run smoothly. Most of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers is based in the post office and we have a large volunteer steward body that can help people with filing their own grievances in our postal sector bargaining units. A situation like this can’t happen at the post office because the union is institutionally a part of the culture of the workplace.
Small shops face a real challenge to this model because there isn’t a concentration of shop stewards to enforce the contract. When these workers took action they acted as most workers in most industries do when confronted with an injustice at work, they withheld their labour. Trade unionists tend to see non-union industries as static and without struggle but in a lot of cases the struggle is far more direct and personal in nature when the union is not there. In fact the union, through the contract is what puts limits on this struggle and determines its course.
Al seemed to think that if we had better contact with the shop we could have filed a grievance and these guys would still have their jobs. Al’s probably right. But the problem was that a contract cannot enforce itself, a contract does not make a union. Contracts are pieces of paper; unions are relationships between workers and their work. The reason we didn’t have better contact with the shop is all the workers who voted for the union were gone and replaced with new workers who weren’t told about the union. These workers did not have the chance to struggle together as a group to get the organization needed to enforce the contract.
When they did struggle they did the one thing the contract says you can’t do, they struck and then got fired. Next week they will be working at another courier firm and a new batch of drivers will be working at this company. When these new drivers are hired they will be union members as soon as they walk in the door, the company will inform us of their membership and their contract and everyone will follow the rules. Not because they want to but because the company wants to avoid this from happening again too.
What is most ironic about the whole situation is that it was these workers did not know about the contract and so they went out and acted against the contract and were fired for violating the contract and that is what gave the contract life again. It was no longer a piece of paper but a document that outlined a relationship between a group of workers and their boss. It also ensures that as long as the contract is followed what gave the contract any real meaning on the job won’t happen again.