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 in CUPW elections taking place May 6, 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.
Schmidt recently sat down with Orion Keresztesi a Spring Socialist Network member. In the first part of the interview they discussed the lessons of building rank-and-file power. In this second part they discuss the current stakes for CUPW members and what it will take to revitalize the labour movement. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said, on the podcast Victor’s Children, that unless things change you see a grim horizon for CUPW in the next decade or so. Can you talk about that?
Yes. I see two major problems facing us. One is an operational question: what is the ability of the company, Canada Post, to change as needed? And the second one is: what is the longer consequence–which is also reflected in the rest of the labour movement–of CUPW succumbing to proceduralism or bureaucratic unionism?
I’ll start with the operational question. A big part of Canada Post’s business for a long time was letter mail. The internet changed that. That’s a big problem because Canada Post put so much money into equipment to process letter mail and smaller items. If you go to a processing plant so many resources–space, equipment, a lot of staffing–are dedicated to providing that letter mail service. That part of the company is operating at a free fall loss.
For a while that was manageable because of parcels. The internet giveth and the internet taketh away. The amount of value we got in parcels easily eclipsed what we were losing in letter mail. And in addition we had some ad mail to subsidize operations. We had something like 20 years of consecutive profitability that were mostly based on the internet growing. We had more parcels than we had space in our facilities or vehicles and that was great.
But then Amazon enters the scene. Amazon was initially a huge boon to Canada Post. But Amazon needs to keep growing and growing. So we saw this play out in the United States first and then it became the business model in Canada too. Before they got big enough they used the public post office to deliver the product. But when they got big enough that they could employ their own fleet they were like “forget it, we’re not using your expensive union workers, we’re going to employ our own pseudo-uber service to deliver parcels.”
Our experience of this in Edmonton was that at first Amazon just asked us to do preferential delivery of their Prime parcels. Those parcels would skip our distribution hub and go straight to our depots. Canada Post knew where that was heading, but couldn’t say no to the money. Amazon did that for a year, and then once they had it in motion, we started seeing Amazon trucks appearing. So the only market advantage we had with parcels is now being completely devoured by Amazon.
The writing is on the wall. We don’t have letter mail. We don’t have parcels. The only thing that’s really making Canada Post money now is admail. How sustainable is that? When does our operation become a drain on taxpayers? We know what the political consequences of that will be. Canada Post will be carved up and privatized, probably a lot of the infrastructure going to Amazon. That would completely neutralize or destroy the union.
That’s the operational concern, and the way to solve it brings us to the second major problem facing us. The way to solve it is to expand Canada Post as a public service and Crown Corporation. One of the most powerful demands in this regard is postal banking. Postal banking would not only completely invigorate the revenue stream for Canada Post and provide good, secure, living wage jobs for Canadians, it would also provide a valuable service to everyone in Canada by competing with the big five private banks. It’s an amazing opportunity. But in order to realize it, we need to be able to collectively bargain, and CUPW has not been able to meaningfully collectively bargain because every time we try to improve our jobs we get legislated back to work.
This is the second problem. The union is so entrenched in proceduralism that we don’t know how to fight anymore. Again, our labour leadership means well, they want to win, but they’re paralyzed by the perceived risks. Our only response has been to challenge back-to-work legislation through the courts. And even when we win in the courts it doesn’t make a difference in reality.
When Harper legislated us back to work we challenged it in the courts. The Supreme Court came back and said “yeah, what Harper did was unconstitutional.” But by then Harper was no longer Prime Minister, and we had already had a contract imposed on us, and it sure didn’t change anything for us when Justin Trudeau legislated us back to work. We said “this isn’t fair! The Supreme Court already said it!” And the government was just like “nah, this is different, we’re going to do it anyway.” And everyone collectively shrugged and went back to work.
So now when we talk to our members about fighting, everyone just feels like “what’s the point? We’re just going to be legislated back to work.” We need to be honest about the challenge of back to work legislation. If we’re not willing to confront it we’re just going to keep losing and our jobs are going to keep getting worse.
We have to be honest with members and ask people if they want to fight, and if they don’t have the confidence to fight we need to build up that capacity slowly through things like educationals at the local level, engaging in smaller job actions, having locals coordinate on bigger campaigns and job actions. Through that we build up the confidence to have the bigger conversation of “hey, is our union going to do that thing we always used to do in the 70s and 80s where we would defy back to work orders, we’d face down the government, and as a result we’d win historical gains for postal workers and all workers in Canada, like maternity leave?”
That’s what’s facing our union. We’re not dead yet, but it’s imperative that not only the leadership, but the rank-and-file understand that we need to confront this question of back-to-work legislation directly.
Basically, some union is going to have to confront back to work legislation eventually, and I hope it’s CUPW. I think we have the tools to be successful, and if we are, it’s going to be the spark that starts a fire that revitalizes the labour movement in this country and the left more broadly. I think CUPW can play that role. But if any other union in the country is game for it, I want them in the struggle. I want to support them from my local. I want to do everything I can to help them be successful. Because someone is going to have to do it, and I think we’re all just figuring out how to play that role in our small little part of the world.
It’s my understanding that In 2019 there were leaders at the CUPW National Office who were ready to defy back to work legislation, but ultimately that didn’t happen. What are elected leaders scared of? What holds them back?
That’s the million dollar question. I don’t really know, but when we talk about workers not engaging in work floor actions it’s largely a question of confidence and believing that they’re a part of something that could work. I think it’s the same dynamic with national leadership. If you have a union that for 40 years has been committed to this procedural approach to workplace issues, then the only way they really know how to fight the employer is using those tools. That’s all the local leadership learns, and they become the regional leadership, and then the national leadership, and that’s all they know. You have people at the top who literally don’t know how to fight any other way. I don’t mean this as a criticism–it’s like asking a professional basketball player to become a professional hockey player. These are skillsets that need to be developed.
Yes, at the national level there were a few people interested in defying, but they didn’t have majority support on the board. I think the reason there wasn’t that confidence on the board is because they don’t have confidence in the membership, and that makes sense because how can you have confidence in something that you haven’t been actively building up?
I think the answer to that is spreading what has been successful in a Local like Edmonton to other locals. Build capacity. Take on a small-scale fight. Have success in a fight. Then, take on a bigger fight. Build your confidence. Build more capacity to take on an even bigger fight…and it keeps scaling up. If we had a national leadership that was willing to support locals like ours doing that, I think it would be easy to spread. I believe people are hungry for any sort of success. If you give them just a small example of something that is empowering and inspiring, they want to be a part of it.
If you have national leadership supporting that kind of process at the local level, they’re going to start having more confidence in the members. If you make space for people to be empowered– by being transparent and giving them the skills to succeed – and when they’re challenging their bosses do what you can to support them. When you’re doing that, the success grows on its own. And when there aren’t gatekeepers trying to suppress it, it will spread. We have all the tools to succeed. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to get back to basics and really commit to grassroots unionism from below.
The stakes of defying back-to-work legislation and failing are huge: huge fines for the union and big individual fines on every member for every day of defiance. These are not fines the union or individual members have the ability to pay. So when you’re talking about successfully defying back-to-work legislation you’re talking about creating enough of a political crisis that the government chooses not to enforce the fines, or is somehow unable to enforce them.
Right. Absolutely, and it’s important when you’re an organizer to be really honest with people and inoculate them to the risks. I don’t want to give the impression that there is a group of us going around banging the drum, “we need to defy! We need to defy!” No, we need to build the capacity so that defiance, one day, can be an option. That is an important distinction.
If a member is for-sure going to be fined $1000 a day for participating in an illegal job action, we’re not going to be able to sustain that. So we need to build enough of a critical mass that those fines become unenforceable.
You can look at the “trucker freedom convoy” as a twisted example of this. This was a group that is basically an astroturf organization. It doesn’t have any meaningful connections with any broad-based organization (including any trucker organizations.) Yet they were able to create such a political problem for the government that the government was pretty much paralyzed for a period. Now compare that to the potential organizational networks and community connections that the labour movement has. We have the resources, we have the membership logs, we have the relationships with broader social justice organizations. If we decided that we were ready and willing to take a risk we have the potential to create a much bigger crisis for the government, one that would be much more difficult to crack down on.
It looked bad on the government to crack down on the convoy the way it did even though the convoy represented something deeply unpopular. So imagine you have a movement that’s actually championing things like public postal banking or paid sick times for all workers or a liveable minimum wage.
We have all those tools, and for me it’s a no-brainer, there is no force in the world more powerful than the working class united. But of course the ultimate challenge is how do we actually get people to unite on an issue and fight? I think unions are the most important piece in that equation. We have the infrastructure, we have the resources. The only thing that is missing is the confidence of the members to push their unions in a successful political direction.
I want to ask about the importance of public support. When we as members are making decisions about taking strike action, or defying back to work orders, or even just campaigning for something like postal banking, how much do we need to consider whether we have ‘public support’ or not? And who is ‘the public’ for us, and how do we relate to them?
I think the question of public support is often used as a political pawn in our union. If someone wants to make a shorthand argument against taking some action, or demoralize members around an issue, they’ll just say “Oh, the public won’t support it.” Or, “if we defy back to work legislation the public won’t support us.” Or, like with the recent contract extension “We shouldn’t go into bargaining during a pandemic because the public will be upset because we’re lucky to have a job.”
There are always these excuses. But I do think it is important when you’re strategizing to think about finding things you can build public support for, and think about how you can build public support. Even if it’s not the centerpiece of your strategy.
Even though we haven’t done as good a job with it as we should, I think our Delivering Community Power campaign is an example with potential. It’s all about making the post office green, and expanding the services we provide, and having postal banking. It’s a beautiful idea that I think is very easy to sell to ‘the public,’ especially other workers. Because it’s essentially a pro-worker list of demands.
If you have a union that has enough organizing capacity–that has members actually inspired to do the work of the union–you have a built-in door knocking and canvassing team to promote these campaigns. Right now we just have a handful of true believers setting up tables at conventions of other progressives. That’s not enough to have success with ‘the public.’
If you have full buy-in from your membership then you have what you need for success with the public. Most of our membership are letter-carriers! Door knock the whole damn city with pamphlets! But to have that buy-in you need to have credibility as an organization first, and that goes back to the question of organizing. So you can see how it’s all tied together.
The public is a very powerful force that we could absolutely muster if we had enough numbers out there advocating. Think of the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns. Regardless of how you feel about them as candidates they had tremendous success by developing a grassroots ground game that actually talked to people.
Imagine our goal is to successfully defy back to work legislation, and say hypothetically we were making public postal banking the central issue of the strike: one of our tactics could be to mobilize our entire workforce to door knock and canvas on the issue. Then everyone would know why we’re defying back to work legislation and would know how the issue we’re fighting for benefits them. That’s a beautiful recipe, that in my mind could absolutely be done.
Let’s talk about the recent contract extension negotiated between our union leadership and the company. It was put to a membership vote. National leadership campaigned for a yes vote, and some locals including yours campaigned for a no vote. The ‘yes’ vote won, but the overall turnout was something dismal like 10% of members. Can you take us through how all that played out in the Edmonton local?
Before the contract extension proposal got announced we had been working on an organizing campaign to support bargaining and prepare for an actual contract fight. I think National had announced an organizing campaign because of pressure from locals like ours. So even though we felt that National was setting up the campaign to fail, we really wanted it to succeed, so we were really getting into it, trying to promote it as much as possible.
And then the contract extension was announced. It was very disheartening. We had just had a regional conference to develop our demands for the upcoming round of bargaining. The priority demand from our local was the demand for a public postal bank and the willingness to strike to whatever extent necessary to achieve it. That demand was debated and passed at the regional level and we were excited to see it be debated at the national level.
So we were in the middle of this process gearing up for bargaining, and then the National Executive was like “Oh, by the way, we’ve been having these meetings with Canada Post that we haven’t been telling you about, and we’re giving you this proposal which we’re unanimously encouraging you to adopt—and, oh yeah, the vote is happening in a month.”
Even the people endorsing the contract extension didn’t really like it, but they understood they were powerless to do anything else. The only coherent argument national made was “the union isn’t ready”. But even there, national saying we need two more years to organize our members, that’s a testament to locals pressuring from below. They had never said the word “organizing” outside of national convention, and then all of a sudden it’s so important to organize the members? Well, they’re right on that point (we weren’t prepared), but whose fault is that? You had all this time, all these resources…. it’s a self-inflicted wound.
In Edmonton, we knew the “yes” vote was going to win, but we wanted to agitate members around the idea that the union’s not doing enough. We used that agitation work to find allies that would push the union to embrace an organizing strategy once the contract extension was settled. So we debated nationals’ recommendation at our local executive, and by the end of that discussion, we had unanimous support to reject it. We then took that recommendation to our local GMM and made the presentation. I was surprised, but at our GMM we had unanimous support to run a “no” campaign. From there we found allies in other locals like Winnipeg, the Atlantic region, Toronto and beyond. I’m proud of the work the “no” campaign did. We raised the perspective that a union should be a militant and fighting organization.
If you imagine a rank-and-file CUPW member reading this right now, and they share your approach and vision but feel alone and isolated in their local, what would you say to them? How could they improve their local?
Reach out to me, or other CUPW members, like you Ryan, they see doing good work. I try to make myself as available as possible to talk to anybody who wants to do that work. It’s a big job but it can be done by an individual or a pocket of people. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will say what’s been successful and how I’m able to help.
For a lone militant, when you hear about people doing organizing, whether it’s on social media or through a bulletin or however, get in touch with them. They want to build relationships with you. They want the union to succeed because they want to see the workers win. The people who are doing the heavy lifting need your help.
I’ll talk to, say, a pocket of workers in Vancouver or in Toronto and I’ll try to gauge what level of commitment they have. Are they willing to have difficult conversations with coworkers to find the other ones and twos and eventually build up a group enough to start going to GMM’s and learning the rules of order and proposing changes in the local? I’ve shown people how to propose motions, how to build campaigns…if there is a committed person or group willing to do the work themselves then there are people like me out there that are willing to help every step of the way. As we say here in Edmonton, ‘more hands makes lighter work.’
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