Building union power by getting rowdy on the shop floor

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Basia Sokal and Arlyn Doran.

They are letter carriers and activists in the Winnipeg local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), and they talk about how they mobilized with other rank-and-file workers over the last year to act up and speak out at the depot where they work, as their union engaged in a very tough round of negotiations with Canada Post at the national level.

In 21st century North America, it's very easy to develop a sense of unions -- even if you regard them positively -- as being at a bit of a remove from what actually happens on on a daily basis in workplaces.

There's an extent to which this is an image defined by the enemies of unions, whether that is the perennial lie of "outside interference" told by employers whenever workers are acting together to stick up for themselves, or whether it is told by mainstream media that rarely has any interest in portraying the struggles of working people accurately or sympathetically.

But there's also an extent to which the labour relations regime that developed after the Second World War and the forms taken and choices made by at least some major unions over the decades that have contributed to this image as well.

However solemnly and strategically they engage in collective bargaining, however enthusiastically they might take up workplace issues during the life of the contract and however willing they might be, when necessary, to invoke the last resort that is the collective withdrawal of their labour power -- the combination of the labour relations framework and the orientation of many unions tends to focus on legal processes and on service-oriented ways of supporting their members.

These can, indeed, accomplish some useful things, and can bring certain kinds of improvements to the lives of workers. But they are not the only way to operate -- some unions, in some places, continue to function at least partially on the premise that it is organizing by members on the work floor that must be the basis of whatever strength a union brings to improving conditions for workers.

Most Canadians who have heard about this year's negotiations between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have likely done so via the national media -- they have heard about the moves and counter-moves at the national level, the strong strike vote and the multiple moments where the employer almost locked out the workers, and the tentative agreement reached earlier this fall.

Those paying closer attention might have caught wind of the continued rule of Canada Post by Conservative appointees, the ambivalence of the new Liberal government to calls for a vigorous new commitment to public services, and the looming spectre of privatization that lurks in the background.

What even the keenest of observers were likely unable to detect is that whatever ability the union had to reach an acceptable tentative agreement was due not only to choices made nationally, but also to vibrant, boisterous, and sometimes disruptive workplace organizing by rank-and-file workers in some crucial work sites across the country -- including the depot where Sokal and Doran both work. They speak with me about this inspiring example of workers exerting collective grassroots power in their workplace, including the nuts and bolts of making it happen and the vision of unionism it enacts.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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