August 12, 2009

Story of Organizing a Retail Giant

-reprint from Rebel Youth issue #2 (new series) 2006

We lost the battle, but
won a wage increase
across the country

illustration at right: radical

By Johan Boyden

Last fall, a group of young workers, including several YCLers, tried valiantly to organize a union at the Staples Business Depot in Prince George BC. Although they lost the drive, they won a health and safety committee and higher wages for all Staples workers across Canada. Here’s the story.

“One of the most intense weeks
of my life.”

As Jason came into the staff meeting, he didn’t quite know what to expect. After they were organizing in secret for three months, the union drive had blown wide open. Now he was sitting with the rest of the captive audience, staring at a blown up black and white picture.

It was his photo. And he new exactly where
they’d got it.

A manger stood up. “We’d like to congratulate Jason,” he announced, “for running in the 2004 federal election... for the Communist Party.”

“The red-baiting only lasted for a day or two, but for those days,” Jason said, “nobody would talk, let alone make eye contact with each other. They were afraid. Everyone felt: ‘look what they did to this guy for speaking out, what will they do to me if I say something?”

The organizing committee wrote an open letter to management. “We went on the attack. We asked other workers in the letter if a person’s private life and political views was at all the business of the company and why were they getting involved researching associate’s backgrounds. More importantly we pointed out the real issue at hand. We were finally working together to get the respect we deserve and that Staples was trying to distract us from this fact. Their plan had backfired.”

In fact the other workers became more supportive. “The fear mongering actually worked against the managers, as we quickly signed up people who saw this was the kind of garbage we needed a union to protect us from in the first place.

A Race Against Lies
Staples Business Depot is the Canadian division of the giant American transnational, Staples Inc. With over 1680 superstores, it is one of the world’s largest office supply chains. In 2004 alone, sales hit $14.4 billion, profits increased 7.8%, and Staples “entered” nine new countries. Well aware of the link between profits, prices and wages, there is binder on union drive busting locked in the back office of every store. If that fails managers, they can call head office, where there is an entire department of lawyers and consultants ready to crush organizers.

After management’s first tactic back-fired, the corporate big-shots arrived. High paid district managers, lawyers and consultants flooded our otherwise quiet store. “It became a race,” Jason said. “The more time they had, the more lies and rumors they could get out. We made pamphlets and a web site explaining the issues and debunking rumors. We had to anticipate what they were going to say, and continue to press the key issues we were fighting for.”

Fighting for Dignity
Long before discovering the cameras monitoring them, the organizing committee (a group of five young men and women) had quietly talked with their co-workers about key issues. Guaranteed hours. Fairness. Schedules being on time and up to date. Ending favoritism.

There were also big health and safety concerns – like the joint health and safety committee, required by law, which at the time consisted only of a few managers and a few fictitious names of made up workers. The drive changed that. They challenged safety hazards like the forklift in receiving with a sticky throttle that could have run over someone. Organizes locked down the dangerous piece of equipment. Rather than repairing the machine, Staples turned it back on because the repair was 'too expensive’.

Management intimidated
Management intimidated workers, denied workers information, searched lockers and destroyed union pamphlets. They pulled staff into the office for two-on-one interrogations. On women on the organizing committee had to go through a two hour meeting and was threatened with termination because her pant hems were of different lengths.

We kept strong. We stood up to intimidation by organizing a comment card campaign asking workers in the community to tell Staples what they thought of intimidation of Staples employees. The response was overwhelming. We continued to have social events, pressed management on favoritism and work hours as well as attempted to diffuse their anti-union tactics.

“As one example, before a scheduled two hour meeting organized by management against the union, we handed out bingo like checklists of exactly what management would say.
Workers could avoid boredom at the meeting by checking off lies and rumors as they were mentioned by management to win prizes. The managers were so taken aback, that the two hour meeting abruptly ended after just 25 minutes.”

To buy some slack, Staples gave out a fifty-cent pay raise. “It wasn’t that large, but we pointed out: the second that we stop working together, [is] the second they will take it away”. Originally only Prince George workers got the raise, so the organizers asked the YCL to tell Staples workers across province about the union drive in Prince George and the raise. A few days latter the raise was extended across the province. “We said again: this is about the Union.” Staples extended the raise across Canada.

“One worker was
threatened with
termination because
her pant hems were
of different length.”

Eventually, however, Staples successfully pushed a wedge between full time and part time workers. With little solidarity between young and old, the drive stalled. Then Staples targeted the organizers until they all left the company.

Last Remarks
“I do think young organizers would be helpful to organize young people.” Jason says. “We first approached the UFCW. They suggested we shutdown our organizing committee so they could organize the store from the outside. CAW had a different approach, so our committee went with them.” But the organizer was in Vancouver; limited to what he could do. “We didn’t want to outstretch him,” Jason adds, “but its impossible to organize northern workers from a Vancouver office. The last time he contacted our committee was in September. We’d just fallen down from 60% to 40% of the workers signed.”

“We don’t know of any other attempt to organize a Staples in Canada,” Jason concludes. “We won a raise. Not much, but given their size, every penny raise represents tens of thousands of dollars for Staples. Sure we didn’t succeed – this time. But another drive will come again. It’s inevitable.”

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