Roland Schmidt is a postal worker and 2nd term president of CUPW local 730 in Edmonton, Alberta. He is currently a candidate for 3rd National Vice-President (Organizing) in CUPW elections taking place May 6th, 2022. A CUPW activist for close to two decades, Roland was a key leader in the 2011 Edmonton local overtime refusal actions, setting a precedent against forced overtime. With his colleagues he has helped build a culture in his local that encourages rank-and-file members to see themselves as the union, and address workplace issues through collective workfloor actions. This has increased participation in the union, and increased the number of members who have the skills, unity, and confidence to successfully challenge the boss.
Schmidt recently sat down with Orion Keresztesi, a Spring Socialist Network member. In this first of a two-part interview, they discussed Schmidt’s experience building shop-floor power in his local, and how those lessons can be scaled and replicated across the union. In part two of the interview they discuss defying back to work legislation and what it will take to revitalize the labour movement. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the culture in your local when you first became a CUPW member?
It was not a vibrant organization. They had a lot of difficulty getting people out to General Membership Meetings. The local, like the rest of the union, was completely mired in what I call proceduralism.
Proceduralism is essentially an emphasis on grievances and arbitrations or court appeals. Anytime workers get upset about something they’re told: “obey now, grieve later.” That is a demoralizing message. It individualizes the struggle. You, as a worker, are frustrated and you are told your only option is a grievance. You’re told to just suck-it-up and see where the grievance goes, and the grievance is going to take between 9 and 16 months to resolve itself. That makes it easy for people to lose faith in the process and the union. Because the union is limited to being this apparatus that says “here is what you can grieve, and here is what you can’t grieve.” In the case of forced overtime we couldn’t even grieve that. So it was like “what do we do?” Unless you have people that are willing to step outside of this rigid model of just grieving and waiting to see where arbitration goes, you really are trapped.
So in the beginning, it was very tough times. I was quite disenfranchised with my experience and it took a few years to establish myself as a trusted activist in the local and a trusted steward.
I had read about Jean-Claude Parrot. I had studied what CUPW had fought for, and I thought, yeah this is the place; if there is any union in Canada that is going to offer this militancy and a chance to change the political current — because the left has been losing for so long — it’s CUPW. But when I got there, those people weren’t there. They weren’t on the workfloor, they weren’t in the local leadership groups. That was an eye opener for me: to be someone who had these big ideas about working class empowerment and then go into a place where I realized that people don’t give a shit about these ideas unless someone makes a compelling case that inspires them.
How did you and your colleagues begin changing the culture of proceduralism and building a culture of collective actions and rank-and-file power?
It was slowly building up those Ones and Twos [colleagues who already share your view]. When you have a good enough pocket of people, then you can actually start properly building. For us, once we had that pocket we became active on the organizing committee.
The organizing committee went from two people in a basement to 20 people in the living room, to 30 people at a restaurant. We would talk about what campaigns or what job actions we wanted to work on. Because Canada Post is an awful employer–and every boss is inevitably going to provide an opportunity for struggle–what ended up popping up was this forced overtime crisis.
What started as a provision for the company to use in an emergency turned into a regular staffing solution. Initially, people didn’t mind working a little bit of overtime, like once a week. But, when it turns into “you have to do it three times a week,” it breaks morale. It breaks people’s bodies.
And then you have that anger, where people start developing that class consciousness. They start understanding the boss as an adversarial force. And in those moments, if you have a group ready to agitate around the issue–to educate people on how they could come together to successfully confront the problem and to inoculate them to the risks–then you have an organizing opportunity.
So in summary: you plant the seeds, you find a handful of people that find common cause in a broader vision of building the local. You just keep encouraging and inspiring people on those grounds, and inevitably a point of tension emerges to organize around.
When the forced overtime crisis hit, how did your group know that this was an issue that was, in the language of Labor Notes, widely felt, deeply felt, and winnable? How did you know it was an issue where you had the potential to get a win, and build the confidence of your group and the other members you would pull into the organizing work?
I think Labor Notes does really excellent work around this. And I think the beauty of this kind of from-the-ground-up unionism is that it’s not creating anything new. What we did isn’t anything new.
It’s not about, for instance, me as a leader deciding what everyone else should feel agitated or enraged about. That was a huge learning experience for me in my first four years, because I had big ideas about wanting workers to be running the workfloor. You know, here’s an issue I’m passionate about, but if no one gives a crap about it, there’s no traction. When you have something like forced overtime it’s an easy issue because it presents itself in such a big way it’s clear everyone is caught up in it.
There were different instigating moments popping up in the various letter carrier depots in Edmonton. My facility was about 50 carriers, and was a depot that was traditionally very anti-union. They saw the union as this nuisance–another layer of management that was just creating rules that got in their way. I had a very hard time as a steward there because people were immediately suspicious of me and mostly ignored me until they needed something. But with this force back issue they couldn’t just focus on their own job and get through it and go home. This was something that everyone was dragged into together.
We had this gentleman in our depot who is seven foot tall and very, very large. He was known as having a very excitable personality. Normally he was a joker but he also had a very short temper. Management came to him and said “you’re up for overtime today” and he’s just like, “this is the second time this week.” It was a Wednesday. They’re like, “you have to do it” and he just lost it. He said “are you telling me I can’t see my family today?” And he just started looping, getting louder and louder. The rest of the depot got dead quiet.
One of the managers came running over to me and was asking me “Roland, you got to get him under control.” I went over, and waved off management and talked to the member. I asked him “what’s going on? How can I help?” He calmed down, and together we went to the manager’s office. We said “look, this is unreasonable. He’s doing all this overtime, you guys can’t keep pushing this on people.” They responded, “It’s out of our hands.” So we asked “Okay, can you tell your superiors that this is unsustainable? Can you ask about staffing?” They just repeated “It’s out of our hands”. I asked “Is there anything we can do to help you move this along?” Again “No, this is out of our hands.”
So I said “hold on a second.” I stepped out of the office and I called out “Hey Everyone! Workfloor meeting in front of the Manager’s Office.” Everyone came over, and right there we asked ourselves, “can we all agree that we’re going to demand that our supervisors get a hold of their managers immediately to see when they can hire new staff to alleviate force back?” Everyone said “Hell yeah.” So we turned back to our supervisors and were like “Here’s something you can work with.” We said “this guy’s not doing force back,” and we walked away.
From there it built. We started coordinating with other activists in other stations who were having similar experiences of people basically having melt-downs. The key thing was that we had people in place to channel that energy into something constructive. If you don’t have those groups in place what ends up happening is people have blowouts and they end up getting suspended individually and no one knows what to do. It demoralizes everybody.
When these things started popping off we already had a group and we immediately started texting each other, being like “this just happened in my facility.” The really cool thing was that up until this point none of us really had a lot of confidence. Like for me, public speaking was the most difficult thing, I had tremendous anxiety about it. So it was the adrenaline of the moment, and feeling the support from other people in similar circumstances that helped me. It helped us all get over that hump, realizing “Oh, ‘the local’ is not coming to save us.” When we called local leadership about forced overtime they just said “it’s in the collective agreement, there is nothing to do there, you can’t even grieve it.”
As we started giving voice to all these people that were frustrated, that’s where that class-consciousness and that solidarity started to emerge. I had been at the post office five years and that was the first time I witnessed a group confront management. And it exposed the power differential: management completely buckled. They were wide-eyed and freaked out. They had nothing to say. There were no reprisals at that moment. It took them a long time to regroup. And when we’d done that, everyone wanted to be on the bandwagon. They saw the success.
From there other stations that didn’t have any activist presence started asking questions. We found volunteers and we started building-up until we had representatives in every facility. We escalated the campaign to start issuing joint demands across facilities and responding together to various tricks by management or suspension threats.
Can you talk more about how your network of activists or leaders operated?
It started with a small group that became the core of the organizing committee. That group started with the five elected members, but you would also have 15 or 20 more people at the meetings. As the force-back issue ramped up we expanded.
We started meeting weekly at this dive pizza restaurant. People would come and give updates from each facility and we would strategize about how we wanted to escalate and what kind of demands we wanted to put forward.
There are videos of some of our lunchroom meetings, and group confrontations with management, and facing down suspension threats. One worker at our station had a phone camera–they weren’t that prevalent back then. So they quietly filmed some of our interactions. You can check them out on the Red Rose Rising YouTube channel set up by an ex-postal worker.
We would decide on a day and then we’d be like, okay, at this time, on this day, we will call a workfloor meeting and demand management be present and then the whole workfloor would stand together and we would read a statement being like “here’s our demands” and that scared the hell out of them.
The committee was meeting weekly to give updates, but as things developed in the moment we’d be texting each other, and in some cases we’d have emergency phone meetings in the evening. People were so energized by the campaign that they just naturally wanted to commit that time. And it brought new people into the fold with us as we had more and more success.
How did your elected local leadership respond as the campaign developed? Did they change their tune?
They weren’t doing anything helpful. At one point we held a citywide activist meeting. We were the ones who hosted the meeting. I had an ally who was able to get us access to one of the labour halls to meet in. We set the agenda, we were the main speakers, and we ran the meeting having workers from different stations sharing their stories about how forced overtime impacted them.
We had one ally in the union office, who would call me and laugh about how the labour-relations guy from Canada Post would call the union office and be like, “you have to get these people under control, or we’re going to start firing people” and the person in the union office would just start laughing and say “they’re not listening to us.” That just chilled the company because the company was relying on the union to muzzle us, but in fact ‘the union’ was not in control of the situation.
Ideally, you would have local leadership supporting those sorts of actions, or at least facilitating them in a creative way, but it’s not necessary to have local leadership’s support. Although, if you’re going to be potentially bumping up against the bureaucracy, you do need a coordinated group that knows what they’re doing so that they’re not going to back-down because the elected labour leadership is saying “you have to stop, you’re going to get in trouble.”
“Aim at the bosses and catch the bureaucrats in between” like in Teamster Rebellion
That’s exactly it. Clearly we’re not operating at the same level as those heroes, but it’s so cool to read that stuff and see how universal these principles are, and scalable. A little outfit like ours, 2000 people in Edmonton, fell ass-backwards into these good organizing traditions. We didn’t have a lot of training, we were figuring it out on the go.
What happened in the aftermath of winning the forced overtime fight? Was it a smooth transition into becoming a more high-participation local?
This is, unfortunately, where the group splintered. Our core group of folks were largely united by the belief of fighting to strengthen the union, but we had some pretty divergent philosophical views, in particular about how to relate to the elected local leadership. You had some folks that came to the struggle just by being pissed off by their boss. They felt we shouldn’t be challenging the status-quo elected leadership because they felt everyone was on the same team and well intentioned. You had some other folks who came out of the IWW tradition and were very critical of the idea of taking on formal leadership roles.
I come from more of a socialist background, and I was advocating very strongly that workfloor leaders from the 2011 struggle should offer for elected leadership positions. I felt that what we did was great, running on pure adrenaline, but we can’t expect members to be in a perpetual state of conflict. And when there isn’t a hot issue where people are fighting you need infrastructure to train people and keep things going. So for me, it was important to try and form a majority on the executive so we could control the local’s budget. With that we could keep running courses and building up our activist capacity so we wouldn’t keep just relying on the same people and eventually burning them out.
How has the 2011 forced-overtime fight changed your local?
We made mistakes along the way but there were so many inspiring lessons. A group of us decided to try to enshrine those lessons in a training manual. We built a course called “Taking Back Our Workfloor.” It uses the videos of those confrontations and goes through the whole process: how to build up your base; find your Ones and Twos; develop a heat map; find your allies; take the temperature; identify natural leaders in the workplace; find an issue; and how to prepare people properly for job action.
What I think is unique about our training course is that we put an extreme emphasis on roleplay. We’ll get 30 people in a room and we really push them to practice their public speaking. When I facilitated the first courses, I would be a manager. I’d be really harsh with the group about an issue–I’d be a bully boss demanding them to do certain work methods that aren’t safe. We’d really push them to fight back. At first they don’t have any training or skills, so in the first roleplays when I start yelling, everyone just freezes up. That feels like it should. That’s realistic. We don’t have the skills, we don’t know what we’re doing, so we freeze up. That’s okay. Then we slowly build people up, and by the end of it, you have a group of people laughing, really supporting each other, and shouting down management.
Is it the same as actually fighting the boss? No, but it gives people those repetitions and a little bit of confidence. I’m really proud to say that after running those courses we saw an immediate response from our workfloors. Within months we had job actions that had never occurred before.
I talked earlier about having big ideas about unions and expecting everyone to be at the same political level and then being frustrated when people weren’t. That’s a pretty individualized approach that doesn’t have reasonable grounded expectations. My experience helped me shift to “hey, how do we bring people along? How do we give them the skills and the confidence? How do we meet them where they’re at, understand their issues and build something around that?”
We were just a group fumbling along trying to figure it out. We learned those lessons the hard way. I’m proud to say that the new leadership group that’s emerged in our local is very eager and willing to provide those education opportunities, and to mentor people in developing those leadership skills themselves. What was once, in my opinion, a gatekeeping local has become a very open organization that invites involvement from members.
How did the 2011 fight inform your eventual run for Local president in 2019, and how did you go about trying to change the Local?
In my campaign I said do not vote for me unless you support an aggressive commitment to internal organizing. And if you elect me and after a year I don’t get the rank-and-file support of actually doing this work–because it can’t just be the bureaucrat at the top, it needs to be the whole local–if I don’t get the support I will resign. So it was very conditional, and kind of standoffish, but people responded positively. I was elected.
I started with an aggressive schedule of workfloor meetings to say: “Yes, I understand, you’re upset with the union. We haven’t done a lot. But we’re trying to start a new chapter. Here’s an invitation for you to be involved. Here’s all these educationals for you to take. We are trying to rebuild the local.” It worked. We did inspire a whole bunch of new people to take the courses. In turn the courses yielded new activists who then became shop stewards. We quintupled attendance at our GMMs –GMMs aren’t the most important thing in the world, but they’re a good gauge of people’s interest in the union. We had people filling up committees. We were running a record amount of educationals. We quadrupled our education budget for the year.
And it was going gangbusters until the pandemic hit. We were doing such a good job of leading by example that other locals in our region were wanting to get involved. We had trainers like me lined up to go to Winnipeg, Calgary and Lethbridge to run the Taking Back Our Workfloor course. We were going to train their trainers so they had the tools themselves to run it for their members. Now that restrictions are loosening up again we’re hoping to get that going again.
What do you see as the main challenges to replicating Edmonton’s success in other locals?
It comes down to trust issues, fear and a sense of hopelessness. So in my role, I’ve cold called presidents in pretty much every major local and been like, “hey, my name is Roland, this is what we’re doing in Edmonton, this is why it’s successful. Is this something we can work together on??” Most of the people I contacted were like, “why are you calling me directly? Did you talk to my region? Does national know you’re talking to me?” Well the answer is no.
And it’s not so much that they’re against what I’m trying to offer, it just comes down to informal hierarchies in the union. A local officer doesn’t want to make problems for themselves by getting on the wrong side of their regional director. Because if unionism is mostly proceduralism, the relationships between officers is based on support on a technical and procedural basis, not on building the whole union.
But we just need to stick to the process and build up our allies slowly and keep nurturing relationships between the locals. If Edmonton is able to go to Winnipeg and then to Calgary to share our training and then they start doing it themselves and also sharing it, the union starts building that broader capacity to take the next step in the struggle. The problem with Edmonton is that we hit a wall with our ability to escalate the struggle on our own. We’re able to have successful job actions within our local, but those struggles are largely self-contained. For example, if we wanted to fight a letter carrier restructure, that’s a bigger project that needs more than one city doing a work stoppage. You need more locals supporting you.
In 2019, we had a mass meeting where we asked what we were willing to do to fight a restructure at one of the depots in Edmonton local. Questions came up about picketing and going on strike outside of a collective bargaining round and people said “we’ll do this but what support do we have?” The honest answer was “we’re on our own”. We had an honest conversation about it, people voted and they weren’t ready to take that step. That’s realistic. You don’t want to push people into a situation they’re not ready for. That is what people were ready for and making that decision helped us continue to grow beyond that particular job action.
So we keep on trying to spread the tools to other locals to build up capacity. Then if something pops off, like maybe a sexual harassment problem or a staffing problem, or a restructure or whatever, if there’s enough locals who have the training then that means we have liaisons in each location. Those liaisons can have conversations similar to what we did in Edmonton: “hey, what are people pissed off about?” “Here’s how we can support each other.” You build confidence that way. All of a sudden, more locals want on board and it develops its own momentum.
I’ve seen it. It’s absolutely real, and you can do it. You just have to build it brick by brick.
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