By Deanna Allain
Member of the Union of Taxation Employees Local 00014 (PSAC)
As a young worker new to the workforce, I never imagined I would be lucky enough to be a union member, and I certainly never expected to experience a strike firsthand, let alone a general strike, 155,000-members strong. I don’t take that for granted; within my first year on contract, I signed up as a steward, supporting members in the grievance process and supporting my local with policy research and analysis.
As labour organizers know very well, it’s often up to an all-hands-on-deck approach to pull off major actions like picket lines in a very limited time. We were less than a day from striking and still hadn’t been given information on our picket shifts, training for picket captains, or a valid login for the check-in app. So, the executive of the UTE Local 00014 did what it took to get it done.
In a matter of hours, we compiled a picket captain schedule, developed and ran a training session, and even created our own paper backup systems, knowing that technology can fail and that not all members would be able to use the digital system.
On the picket line, members were patient, helpful, and encouraging, doing what they could to keep spirits high despite the rain, wind, and cold. I was fortunate to connect with PSAC Ontario staff who supported grassroots organizing and encouraged us on the executive to operate by consensus in Hamilton, and involving pick captains to address concerns and set a game plan for bigger actions. As the only local running the Hamilton-area picket, the sky was the limit in terms of UTE 00014’s picket locations, escalation strategy, and plans to collaborate with other locals for bigger actions.
On the line
By Monday, we had a burn barrel on the picket line, and by Wednesday, we were running a priority picket on the Burlington Canal Lift Bridge, holding up boats much like historic PSAC pickets in 1991 and 2004. Hamilton is a labour city, with no shortage of organizers, and I am so grateful for the folks from other unions who stepped up and showed up when I needed guidance and support to lead with fellow PSAC members.
I’ve always experienced organizing as a community activity. At the start of the strike, I first found it to be a pretty isolating process, with many late nights and very early mornings navigating email lists, schedules, maps, and estimating things like porta potties and busses.
Gradually, a community formed itself and I found myself in an amazing support system of members, leaders, and picket captains jumping in to answer questions, helping wherever needed, and even build our own whisper network on the picket line to organize overnight job actions.
Picket lines don’t have to be hundreds of members strong to be effective. We had 10 to 20 members who personally committed to secret picket hours, often around 12:00am or 3:00am, allowing us to organize strategic job escalation without the risk of word spreading past the membership and losing an element of surprise. Through this strike escalation, we were able to bridge members into learning how to liaise with police, media, bridge management, and communicating with members to maintain a safe and effective action.
The strike ends
My experience with this strike was empowering and unexpectedly unique. I felt safely bubbled from a lot of toxic union politics and bureaucracy, and when those challenges did present themselves, I felt and actively heard from members and mentors that they were prepared to intervene if it became too much.
Recently, it seems union leaders have a bad habit of cutting the rank and file members off at our knees, and right when we’re on the cusp of incredible and history-making levels of mobilization.
UTE was left out on the picket line on May 1 after a tentative agreement was reached with the Treasury Board and 120,000 PSAC members went back to work. We were left out knowing we wouldn’t be getting the deal we deserve as we watched our brothers, sisters, and friends in other components return to work just as angry as when they started, but a little more defeated. It should be a strong reminder of who holds the power in the labour movement. UTE had a tentative agreement on May 4.
Rank and file power
PSAC members voted to strike, organized to picket, mobilized to shut things down, and we can vote to send our bargaining teams back to the table to get us a deal that sets a better standard for labour unions across Canada.
It’s not always the contract that measures the success of a strike. For me, seeing and supporting members in becoming picket captains and organizers, developing their own roles, skills, and capacity to drive change, is the reason I believe in the movement and I hope the community we built on our picket line sees it that way too.
The great thing about union organizing, much like organizing outside the labour movement, is that everyone offers what talents they have, and we support each other in growing, developing, and honing skills to best serve each other and the membership. In these past weeks I’ve done things I never thought I could, simply because I knew it was up to me to step up and I knew there was a team of members, a network of organizers, and a union behind me.
Workers deserve better and we’re fully prepared to go back on the picket line and get it done. Union leaders don’t drive the labour movement. All credit belongs with the rank and file members doing the work every day.