Tuesday, August 25, 2015

UFCW 2013 Superstore strike documentary

UFCW 401 has just released a video documenting its (very short and successful) October 2013 strike of Real Canadian Superstore. 401 is one of the most innovative and assertive unions in Alberta these days. This documentary—which tells the union’s side of the story—is very interesting.

The video starts with a bit of background and then jumps into picket-line footage and employees explaining why they felt they had to strike the employer. You don't often hear the voices of strikers, although we need to recognize we heard only the voices the union wanted us to hear. It also speaks to how employers forcing workers to strike can empower workers and show them they are not powerless.

Superstore backed down within about a day. The video of the ratification meeting is perhaps the most interesting part. It is axiomatic in labour relations that it is easier to lead workers out on a strike than it is to lead them back.

The rhetorical strategies employed by the union leadership (starting at 13.20) in the ratification meeting start with a bit of fear: there is an offer; if you reject the offer it might disappear. Then there is an abrupt change in tone: you won, enjoy it! The workers ratified their deal with 85% in favour.

This management of the strike (or, less charitably, of the union membership) is a necessary part of trade union leadership. What is interesting is that this behaviour is almost never documented or seen.

There are some parts of the story that are missing from the video. For example, if memory serves, UFCW 401 was a hold out in cross Canada negotiations. This was a surprise to Superstore and perhaps the other locals of UFCW. 

An interesting effect of the video is that, by releasing it, the union has profoundly shaped how this strike will be remembered (i.e., as a quick, decisive win against a flint-nosed employer). This has implications for future rounds of bargaining (e.g., having tasted success, employees may be more militant which increases the union's power at the bargaining table).

-- Bob Barnetson

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