marxism 2012 program notes: the 1965 postal workers strike

One of the best talks I attended at this year's Marxism Conference was given by my friend Pam Johnson. I know little about Canadian labour history; my knowledge of labour struggles is mostly about the US. Learning about the 1965 postal workers strike was thrilling, both in the discovery of history, and in the possibilities for the present and future

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The 1965 Postal Workers Strike
May 24, 2012
Pam Johnson, dancer, educator, union member, labour activist

The 1965 postal workers strike was a milestone struggle in the history of the Canadian labour movement, leading to unionization of public sector workers. It was a militant strike that was organized and led by rank-and file postal workers.

The story of the 1965 postal workers strike is important right now. This is a volatile moment. On the one hand, there are harsh austerity attacks by employers and governments. On the other hand, we see the wonderful response of the Arab Spring, Wisconsin, the Occupy movement, and now Quebec students.

We are also beginning to see workers willing to fight back in Canada: Air Canada's wildcat strike, solidarity for locked-out and striking workers, a pushback against Rob Ford in Toronto. Will these actions reach a tipping point? We don't know. But we may be moving out a period of a low level of working class struggle to something new.

But there are huge questions about the state of the Canadian labour movement. Will it fight or are workers still too comfortable? And what is the role of the labour leadership, which has come under fire for not leading a fightback.

This is critical for socialists, and the heart of Marxist theory: that the working class must fight for itself, and we must do this at the sharpest point of exploitation - the workplace. And it is through this struggle that ideas about the way the world works evolve. It is also through the struggle that we get the skills, build the networks, and build the confidence to develop the struggle to emancipate ourselves.

The question is: how does this begin?

We can look back to a historical struggle when the postal workers in 1965 - without the right to collective bargaining and against their employer, the government, and their unions (which were really associations) - organized a nationwide strike and won.

The 1965 postal workers strike has a lot to teach us.

- It was organized by rank-and-file.

- It was organized nationally, all across the country, despite a huge obstacle - geography: the sheer size of Canada! The technology available was only the telephone; there was no email, no texts.

- The strike was organized across traditional political divides: French and English. Organizing centred in both Vancouver and Montreal.

- The strike was the spark for public sector unionization for all in Canada.

- The strike involved women, who were part-time workers - the first inclusion of part-timers in an industrial union in Canada - and this was before a widespread women's movement in Canada.

- The strike was a success because the rank-and-file leadership had the confidence of the workers who were willing to go on strike with no pay and no rights. This led to a confidence among postal workers. They fought militant strikes, including a 42-day strike for maternity leave in 1981.

Of course this has to be seen in the historical context of Canadian labour.

The 1965 postal strike occurred in the middle of a fairly long period of gains for workers, starting in the 1930s and continuing through the 1970s. This coincided with the expansion of capitalism after World War II, when workers made gains in unionization, wages, benefits, and pensions.

In the 1930s, workers faced the hardship of the Great Depression and began to organize, particularly in the auto sector, similar to their American counterparts, and with support especially from the United Auto Workers.

The Oshawa 1937 GM strike was the first significant push toward industrial unionism in Canada.

With WWII, in 1939 Canada shifted to a 'war economy,' in effect a partial nationalization of the industrial sector - but there were still strikes. Immediately after the war, with Canada's industrial output hugely developed from the war, there was an attempt to continue the 'war economy' for workers - that is, low wages and bad working conditions, even though profits were soaring. Veterans, especially, returning from putting their lives on the line, refused to accept this. With the support of the UAW, workers had massive strikes, including the 1945 strike at Ford in Windsor, which eventually solidified the labour movement. The Ford strike gave rise to the closed shop, and to a significant judicial victory, when Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand ruled that gains made by unions benefited all workers.

This was followed in 1946 with steelworkers, after a militant strike at Stelco in Hamilton, and the 1949 Asbestos strike in Quebec.

The post office was part of the post-war boom. There was an increased volume of mail in the early 1960s, but the government, instead of hiring more people, initiated mandatory speed-ups, and kept workers at poverty wages.

At this time, industrial unions had not come to the public sector. In some cases, such as the postal workers, there were company unions or association. They had no collective bargaining rights, so they had no teeth. As conditions worsened, these company unions did nothing to defend workers, and by the early 60s, rank-and-filers - inspired by examples of militant actions by workers in the private sector - started to organize.

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[Here Pam showed a clip from the 1995 film Memory and Muscle, about the 1965 postal workers' strike. It is based on interviews with the people involved, including some of the Montreal and Vancouver organizers. The clip we saw was amazing! I highly recommend, when you have the time, watching the whole thing: "Memory and Muscle" on YouTube.]

[From the clip we watched:

The "company union" said, "You can’t strike the government! Christ, they’ll have the army in here, they’ll have us all in jail!" And we said, "We’d rather be in jail than work under these conditions!"

"We were French and English Canada together. We speak different languages but we have the same ideas and goals. Vancouver and Montreal would walk out at exactly the same moment."

They won all their wage demands. And they gained strength and self-respect, and the knowledge of how struggles are created and how they can be won.

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There were some twists and turns, but the postal workers held their lines, won their demands on wages, and opened the door for public sector unionism.

Now we can look at the lessons to be drawn and how, as socialists, we understand the dynamic of workers' struggles and intervene to help build them.

Workers' consciousness is mixed, but not static, and it changes in struggle. The consciousness of workers makes the difference between whether they struggle for change or accept their situation. This is one of the most powerful ideas in Marxist theory.

Workers' consciousness is mixed; people can hold both progressive and regressive ideas at the same time. But, these ideas are not static. The material 'objective' conditions and the 'subjective' conditions, the ideas in workers heads, can and do change, and that change impacts how workers will act.

Most critically, it is when workers move into struggle to better their own conditions that their consciousness changes, especially their class relation to their employer and the role of the state. They also see that their allies are other workers, and that the divides of race, religion, gender, and sexuality that are often held up as divisions are much less significant than the commonality of class. They see their own potential for power.

It is often some significant change in material (objective) conditions or ideas (subjective) conditions that kicks off action. In the case of the Canadian postal workers, there were real material conditions - speed-ups - and the contradiction that some workers in the private sector had bettered their condition through unionizing.

The postal workers in the video say the choice was between a bad situation and the unknown, and they chose the unknown.

If we look at the Arab Spring, and particularly the overthrow of Mubarak, it was a subjective condition: people in the Egyptian revolution talked about losing their fear of fighting against the regime that had held power and oppressed dissent for 30 years - although the material conditions of the economic crisis helped push forward the struggle.

The Quebec student movement is also posing the subjective question, 'Can we fight austerity in Canada?'. And of course material conditions are also pushing this question forward.

The significance of consciousness changing in struggle - and that it is through the process of struggle that greater class consciousness, confidence, and skills are gained - cannot be overstated. At the end of the film, a female former postal worker says, "We gained respect for ourselves". We've heard a leader of the Quebec student movement talk about how within Quebec, there is no longer talk of the students as spoiled elites, because so many people are having to choose sides between the government or the students, and have chosen the students, thus broadening the debate. This helps build and legitimize the fight against austerity. So often people report that being on strike, even with loss of pay and uncertainty, feels like a powerful thing.

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A very big issue for all labour activists right now is the nature of the trade union bureaucracy. Many activists blame the low level of labour struggle and militancy on labour leadership. I don't disagree, but I think we need a very clear understanding of the role of the labour bureaucracy or we will not be able to build effective struggles. The 1965 rank-and-file postal workers had to move past their
leadership in order to make change.

Today, trade union bureaucracy is no longer working in the same jobs with the same conditions the workers have. They are often well-paid, and insulated from lay-offs and benefits concessions. Their job is to negotiate with the employer - to negotiate a greater or lesser degree of exploitation.

So the union leadership is inherently compromised. They don't automatically (or possibly ever) see themselves as the leaders of militant workers struggles. They see themselves in a more paternalistic role of negotiating on workers behalf.

Yet... it is not an either/or situation. There are some traps for activists and socialists to navigate. One is to conflate the leadership with the membership - assuming that the leadership represents the workers or that the workers won't move without the leadership. Workers will move independently when they are confident, but questioning the leadership may not be the first instinct of workers moving toward struggle. The first instinct is to assume that leadership is looking out for your best interest.

Rank-and-file organizing and networking within unions is the key. Who will start this? In the case of the postal workers, a few people in Montreal and a few people in Vancouver starting to talk to workers about the situation. They begin to coordinate, and they raise a demand: wage increase. In other words, this struggle was rooted in the workplace. It wasn't people preaching from the outside or creating a vanguard group of class-conscious workers.

Often workers' uprisings appear to be spontaneous, but in fact grow out of years of organizing in workplaces. The Egyptian revolution came out of years of organizing in workplaces. The Quebec protests grew out of a history of student organizing, and more than a year of organizing specifically against Charest's attacks. They only appear to come "out of nowhere" to the media and public who don't know the context.

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The current situation is different than that of the postal workers in 1965. They struck in a time of expanding capitalism, when the struggle to gain a union was not easy. In the 1930s, capitalism was in crisis, so organizing was, in some respects, easier. Yet in the 1930s, the bosses hired thugs, and the police and national guard were called in to brutally attack strikers.

While the situation now is not exactly the same as the 1930s, this is a time when capitalism is in crisis, and we are seeing the dual attacks of austerity and a reduction of democracy.

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Building workers' confidence and consciousness is a process - a long process - and there are no shortcuts. But it can be done.

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