The following is an excerpt from the interview I did with John Friesen, a long-time union activist with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Winnipeg. He talks here about his participation in rank-and-file and shop steward organizing in his local in Winnipeg in the late 1970s:
SN: Tell me more about some of the conflicts between the rank and file and the local leadership.
JF: [laugh] I don’t know how much I want to get into this! For the first two or three years there were some people in the local here that wanted to keep things in a very unmobilized sense, and wanted to keep control in a very precise sense. They had come out of the military and they had come out of a different time. It wasn’t a very political local. I was getting more information when I came to regional conferences and educationals; I ended up making more contacts with people outside the local, people in Edmonton and Vancouver and different people like that who would give me information about what they are doing there, so that we could start to mobilize and change the leadership here. It took a period of time but we were able to do that. [laugh] It did take a very intense period of time, and sometimes it wasn’t very much fun.
SN: What did that involve?
JF: It involved a lot of personal conflicts with individuals, so that they understood that you were going to stay there and that you were going to demand certain things of them. It also involved a lot of mobilization within my own section of work, and different sections in the Post Office, to make sure that I could give a presence on the work floor that we could mobilize around different issues. Also, to challenge the leadership within the local. We did that as well.
SN: You were obviously working in a particular section and were able to talk with the people that you worked with. Did you have allies in other sections?
JF: Yes. We built camps eventually through union meetings. You get to meet other people who are militants in their own sections, and at the shop steward meetings that we used to have. We built a really strong shop stewards body; that was probably the first thing we did here in Winnipeg when I was part of the local, is build a very strong shop stewards body out of that militancy. There was a difference between the executive and the shop stewards body itself, which became a threat to the whole executive. That was probably the most successful way of winning that over.
SN: How did you go about building the shop stewards body?
JF: Just by taking on different campaigns, mobilizing around different management programs on the work floor, mobilizing around individual supervisors on the workfloor, and to some degree taking over the work floor in places where we could. And making sure that management had to go through the shops stewards body rather than just through the executive if they wanted to change what was going on in the work floor. That was very successful.
SN: In terms of the powers that each had, how was, for example, the local executive able to interfere with the organizing that the stewards were doing?
JF: At the beginning they tried to keep total control of it, not giving the shop stewards body any leverage. Everything had to go through the executive. We took the by laws of the local and we challenged those. We put in notices of motion to change the bylaws at different meetings, mobilized people to fight for those changes. When I first became the vice-president of the Winnipeg local in 1978, one of the first things we did was try to make an amendment to the local by laws that any consultation with management had to be done not just by the president, but by the president, the secretary-treasurer, and the vice-president, so you had three people there at all times instead of just one. Those kinds of subtle changes. Also, requirements for shop stewards – before that they were appointed positions by the executive. We got elections by the people on the floor. That’s another one. The criteria for delegates, how they get selected and how they get elected; those were changes that we made.
We fought around the by-laws of the local as well as fought, in local meetings, around different issues. For instance, and I might be wrong, but I guess it was around 1979 or 1980 when Joe Zukin was running for mayor. Joe Zukin was the Labour Election Party candidate. We had never taken a political position on anybody running for mayor, but from a recommendation of the shop stewards body we got it on the floor of the meeting and passed the resolution that we endorsed Joe Zukin for mayor. We were probably the only union to endorse Joe Zukin for mayor at that time. The executive, the named officers, weren’t very happy about that. They were getting the sense that they were losing power, and that power was now becoming the power of the shop stewards body and the membership at large taking over the local.
SN: A lot of what I’ve learned about unionism is through friends who work at Stelco in Hamilton. Specifically I’m thinking about party involvement in politics within the local – the different Communist parties and the NDP vying for support, and so on. Was that a factor at all with the Postal Workers?
JF: Not here. I can’t say that generally about everywhere, but not here. I don’t think you could really find too much in terms of partisan politics, in terms of the membership. I mean, working during strikes there was certainly a lot of the left and support groups around the strikes. Basically every left group had people within those strike support committees. But did it have an overriding [impact]? No, I don’t think so. There were people who were attached to parties, whether they were Trotskyists, whether they were Communist Party. There was also probably as many anarchists as anything – you know, Zero Work and different groups like that that were involved in a lot of the shop floor stuff. Not really any of them had a lot of influence in that way.
SN: How did that shop stewards’ organizing and the organizing start to translate into electoral victories within the local, like a “reform slate” (if that was the way it was put)?
JF: I think that all the candidates for change came out of the shop stewards body. We were very successful in building our shop stewards body to be a fight-back committee within the local as well as a functioning shop stewards body. If anything there was kind of a relationship between a lot of the shop stewards within the committee that looked more at the English example of what a shop stewards committee can be. In terms of the strikes around ’78, we started flying pickets, which hadn’t been done in the local before. The shop stewards body did a lot of strike support around the city from 1978 on. On a regular basis we used to demonstrate and leaflet in front of MPs’ offices around different issues. We tried to function within the Winnipeg Labour Council as a group – I guess as much from the local as from the shop stewards body for that. The main support was seeing that the shop stewards body could never be destroyed in this union, because it is fundamentally a part of the constitution. The way things were set up it was probably the easiest place to organize to try and take-over the local, in terms of a progressive take-over of the local.
SN: What were the issues with management from those years?
JF: The big issue with management was the control over automation and technological change. We had a lot of machines coming in at that point. People were very suspect of those machines. We had a lot of work stoppages and a lot of potential work stoppages around those machines. There was a lot less emphasis on the grievance process to solve the matter and a lot less emphasis that somehow experts with health and safety knowledge were going to cure the problems for those machines. People had a basic mistrust of the machines, that they were going to take away their jobs or change their jobs to a position where they couldn’t do them any longer. That worked in our favour in terms of mobilizing people on the shop floor, a lot more than nowadays. I think that now we are a lot more dependent on our grievance procedure, our arbitration procedure, our health and safety procedure, our thinking that the leadership is going to solve the problems. I think at that time people really did say, “I’ve got to solve the problem.” We could mobilize people on the work floor a lot easier than we can today. Also, there were a lot more full-time jobs at that time; now there are a lot more temporary employees, a lot more part-time employees, who are harder to mobilize. Especially in terms of temporary employees: At that time we had none. Now, a large part of your workplace is temporaries, and a large part of your workplace, when they are temporaries, have two or three different job. Their stake is not at this job; their stake is at two or three jobs. I think it was a lot easier to mobilize then. There were also younger people in the workplace. The age was a lot younger than it is now; I think the average age of a postal work is forty-six. At that time [laugh] it certainly wasn’t that. It’s easier to mobilize people when they are younger than when they are older and have been there twenty or thirty years.