Ambush at the UFCW 1518 Corral
The Final Act in the OFG/Loman Tragedy?
The OFG/Loman dispute could have been a brilliant display of solidarity and the power of unionism in the struggle to maintain quality collective agreements. Instead, it turned out to be one of the more glaring examples of biz unionism. Despite the self-serving fluff contained in the UFCW 1518 Update magazine, largely a regurgitation from their web-site, UFCW support for the Loman dispute was a disgrace to everything unionism should be.
In the spring of 2002 solidarity within the Loman membership could not have been stronger - never was the membership so united, so ready to fight. If you have been following the Loman dispute you will know why. OFG (Overwaitea Food Group) had installed a shell company known as Loman. Then, Loman management and OFG essentially ran the operation into the ground. Loman management seemed capable of only one thing: producing huge quantities of paper indicating the membership was to blame for the various inefficiencies that arose from that agenda. UFCW 1518 remained virtually silent regarding this agenda, except to say how happy they were that it was providing work for new members (more dues).
Denied any real measure of funding or autonomy, a consistent pattern developed throughout the campaign: every time the campaign got effective, UFCW 1518 leadership would make a move to limit that effectiveness. By September 2002, UFCW 1518 leadership had effectively and predictably destroyed any hope the campaign had of achieving a resolution. So many hurdles had been placed in the path of the Loman campaign that there were, by this time, far fewer Loman members willing to jump them. It was clear that Loman members were fighting UFCW 1518 as much as they were OFG. The campaign became known initially as the "UFCW Econo-Fight", then as the "Two T-Shirts and a Hat Campaign." The common phrase used by the warehousemen was "We're on our own." Rick Pickering, Assistant Chief Shop Steward for Loman, describes the campaign as "One step ahead of a failure to represent complaint."
What is important to remember is that the UFCW constitution, similar to many union constitutions, gave no decision-making power to anyone employed at the warehouse. That power rested solely with the UFCW 1518 leadership at UFCW 1518 headquarters, none of whom had their jobs on the line. The fact is that UFCW 1518 leadership used their constitutional power like a choke chain. Ivan Limpright, UFCW 1518 Secretary Treasurer, was fond of mentioning his warehouse days and implying some special affinity for that membership. The truth is that he, and UFCW 1518 President Brooke Sundin, are regarded by the Loman members as largely responsible for limiting the effectiveness of the campaign from the very start. In June of 2002, following the MOU "I" debacle, I saw a clear pattern already and wrote to Ivan with many of the questions that were being asked at the warehouse. Almost a month later, with no reply, I phoned Ivan. He told me he had no intention of answering the letter nor were any of the things the letter requested granted.
All of this has been documented in previous articles on this web-site, so, back to the story.
October saw a reorganization of the leafleting campaign. There was a general consensus among those still committed to the campaign (about 75 guys) that October would bring a noticeable escalation. In the elite circles that make these decisions for us (by virtue of the constitution), it is generally acknowledged that it is a good idea to at least be portrayed as making additional efforts once a bargaining unit has lost their jobs. There is that nasty threat of a failure to represent complaint. They don't ever seem to go anywhere but they seldom fail to embarrass. They cast further attention where such is often not welcome.
So, in October, several more leaflet coordinators were enlisted to share responsibilities for the logistics of the campaign such as phoning, scheduling, and strategizing. Despite being given every indication that we were on our own, the campaign became very effective given the number of people involved and the lack of resources available. There are two reasons why this is so.
Firstly, this bargaining unit was characterized by high seniority, i.e., a lengthy term of service to an enterprise and compensation that reflects that fact. While this is now seen as anathema to corporate betterment, it also produced a very mature and highly trained distribution workforce. They knew the business of distribution, they knew what they had witnessed was not of their choosing, they knew they had something worth fighting for, and perhaps most importantly, they were very angry that it went down this way. Many of these guys had been with the company from its early days as a struggling newcomer to the grocery retailing scene. The entity that angered the members the most was OFG and it's owner, Jim Pattison. As a result of their maturity and anger toward OFG, the abandonment by the union was in itself not sufficient to stop many of the members from participating.
Secondly are the issues that fueled the anger of the OFG/Loman membership. OFG's decision to simply install a puppet company, who seemed incapable of running a lemonade stand let alone a warehouse, struck most of them as an obvious act of deceit. The move by OFG to destroy full-time jobs and replace them with the working poor was a betrayal the members felt strongly about. They were now fighting that very corporate dynamic, one that is at the heart of the declining fortunes of the family unit. The on-going litigation and the precedent setting decisions being decided via the OFG/Loman dispute will decide or affect some big questions. What constitutes a "third party"? What is the "signal effect" in the labour law definition of "picketing"? What freedoms of expression are you allowed in taking your case to the public? They all boil down to divorcing long term employees while limiting their ability to communicate the issues. The Loman membership knew they had some big issues that would resonate with the consumer.
Under these circumstances the campaign became much more organized and hence more effective. Once again, UFCW 1518 leadership made a move to end the effort. If the Loman members had any hopes for future support from UFCW, Brooke Sundin's statements at the November General Membership Meeting were a callous and brutal affirmation that UFCW 1518 would like nothing better than to end the campaign ASAP. By his own admission, Brooke was more concerned about the election coming up. The campaign resulted in fewer hours for some retail members and they were his major voting block. We'll never know what may have happened if UFCW had educated the retail members as to why this fight was also their fight, that they would likely face the same issues this spring, and that they would likely have to employ the same methods. Unfortunately, UFCW saw fit to keep retail members in the dark about all of this.
Brooke's comments were seen, amongst other things, as one more attempt to get members to quit the campaign. But Brooke misjudged the Loman members entirely. Those that were still active in the campaign were among the most committed. They did not entertain any illusions that UFCW 1518 would somehow reverse its spineless betrayal of the Loman members. They were present more to demand some answers and accountability from the UFCW 1518. Ivan Limpright had proven adept at saying very little and his inept bungling of MOU "I" pretty much destroyed his credibility with the membership. Now, finally, they had a chance to get these answers from the guy who had avoided them almost completely over the last 10 years - Brooke Sundin. (Brooke is fond of saying that the Loman guys never liked him. How can you dislike someone you never see?) They were outraged by his statements - how could you not be? But for most of the Loman members present that night Brooke's statements simply strengthened their resolve to keep going. Many of them had a good grasp of the legal issues and had gotten very effective at consumer leafleting. They knew they had a constitutional right to continue regardless of what the union said. They were the ones who said, "Fine, we've been doing this on our own so nothing has changed. Let's get busy." These were the guys who exhibited the stubbornness that only betrayal and rank injustice can muster.
But UFCW 1518's problem of how to end the campaign remained. For the reasons above, those still hard at it were stubborn, well informed, and getting far too effective once again. Even the new leaflet that removed the Jim Pattison and Gordon Campbell names from the language did not put them off.
As a leafleting coordinator I attended regularly scheduled coordinator meetings. The December 9, 2002, meeting was the last for me. I was so disgusted with what I had heard that I made the decision that these meetings and this union were no longer of any use to the campaign. Why?
At a previous coordinators meeting we were given the authorization to approach the community weekly newspapers with our leaflets and ask to have them published in the newspaper. We were asked by Tony Evangelista (UFCW 1518 Executive Board member and supposedly the chief coordinator) to get a response. If the answer was no, we should try to get a statement as to why not and the name of the person we spoke to. If the answer was yes, we were to get the details and the union would pay for the ad to be published. I had gotten a most definite yes from the Mission Record and proceeded to forward the information. Every time I asked about where this was at, Tony said it was in Ivan's hands. At the December 9 meeting Tony said the ad would not be placed in the Mission paper because it was too expensive, that we could fund a leafleting trip to the Island with that money, and that we had been too effective leafleting the Mission store anyway. The Island trip never happened, the ad was never placed. During the entire campaign UFCW 1518 placed only one newspaper ad, an ad that was so successful that many Loman members speculated that this was the real reason why it had not been repeated.
Tony then proceeded to talk about getting the spouses more involved. A few spouses had joined their husbands on the leafleting line and this was seen by all members as a great idea. When I pointed out that we already had someone who had been pursuing this idea (likely why those spouses had come out in the first place), Tony knew exactly who I was talking about. The person in question had done everything possible for the campaign: leafleted with us, did regular phoning of leafleting assignments, took part in other demonstrations, attended meetings and asked questions on our behalf, and then started seeing what interest there might be from the spouses to join in on the leaflet line. Although this person did not work at Loman and did everything on personal time because of a belief in solidarity (this person was a UFCW 1518 member), there was one aspect Tony and the Lords of Layback could not tolerate: this person was connected with MFD. Tony responded that there had been some complaints about giving phone numbers out to non-Loman members. So ended the effort to get spouses involved.
To me these two points represented the last straw, the last in a seemingly endless list of attempts to keep this campaign from doing what it could have. They represented the extent to which the dues-collection business model had taken over the union, a systemic disease that had crippled the campaign from the start. The leadership that UFCW biz-unionism had spawned seemed to walk hand in hand with the corporate agenda toward making the entire workforce part-time wage slaves, an agenda that was a dues-collection gold mine. UFCW 1518 leadership was careful to always have a layer of bureaucracy between themselves and the membership. This layer was always from the inner circle but had no decision making power themselves. Tony was that layer, merely a mouthpiece for those too gutless to defend their own decisions. The meetings were nothing more than 1518 keeping a lid on things with stalling tactics and broken promises. They would throw a few bones our way to keep on top of the Failure to Represent Complaint situation and keep their ears pricked for any sign of protest or backlash toward the union. From a practical point of view it was clear that we were going to get nothing more from the union so why even be there? The campaign's death knell rang less than a month later. It was in the first week of January that a meeting was held between Ivan Limpright, Tony Evangelista, Frank Pozzobon, Gord Carter (Chief Shop Steward, Loman), Rick Pickering (Assistant Chief Shop Steward, Loman ) and three of the leafleting coordinators. It didn't go well. Rick Pickering calls it "an ambush".
As far as the Loman members present knew, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategy for ramping up the campaign after a short Christmas break and to go over a new leaflet that the coordinators had drawn up. What happened was something quite different. As Rick Pickering describes it, "Out of the blue Ivan informs us he has decided to pull the plug. He made all the same points that Brooke made at the General Membership Meeting; it wasn't working, it hadn't succeeded in getting OFG to the table. Tony was totally against continuing with the campaign as well. I should have clued in after the last coordinators meeting when Tony insisted that we wait until after the meeting to begin leafleting again. 'Leave it up to me' he said. I wanted to continue at least until retail negotiations started and we could have helped with that dispute. We had plenty of guys that wanted to keep going but it didn't matter what anybody had to say, Ivan had his mind made up. I told Ivan that if that is the case then you'd better have a meeting with the members and let them know where they stand, you owe them that much. Ivan said, "Why would I want to have a meeting with 6 guys that want to kick the shit out of me and the rest of them hate me?"
I guess the bigger question might be why the Loman members felt the way that Ivan's statement acknowledges?
As for the leaflet, Ivan had one prepared that was quite different from what had been drawn up. Again, according to Rick Pickering, "The comment was made that the leaflet made Ivan and Brooke and the union look good and he openly acknowledged that it did just that. Ivan was prepared to allow the Loman members to hand it out for one weekend only. The way the members felt about the union and Brooke and Ivan, there was no way any Loman member would ever hand out this leaflet." The leaflet essentially asks customers to show support for the retail members although it is unclear how they are to do so. There is nothing wrong with that but the failure of the leaflet to say anything of substance about the warehouse members, and its implication that the campaign is over, also contributed to the utter dismay of the Loman members present at being asked to hand this leaflet out for one last weekend. One might fairly conclude that the language was designed so as to ensure that leafleting ended.
There never was a meeting to answer the question of why the campaign was summarily and arbitrarily ended. All the Loman members received was a letter, dated January 16, 2003, which contains a number of statements that the Loman members take great exception to. The letter states that "Based on all of the above, the decision was made to discontinue the leafleting campaign." Although "the above" refers only to the legal aspects of LRB decisions and the Loman bankruptcy, this logic is apparently sufficient to sidestep the fact that the campaign itself was having a big impact. The letter continues, "At some point, the decision was going to have to be made to move forward, and although we did have some ongoing support for the leafleting campaign, it is quite clear that OFG is not prepared to offer any settlement." The fact is that the campaign, as I said, was having a big effect and it is far from clear that OFG was not prepared to make any settlement. The union was only paying for leaflets and gas money anyway, so why not continue if that was what the guys wanted?
It goes on to say that "Our ability to impact the retail operation of OFG in such a way that they would finally come up with some sort of meaningful resolve for the warehouse membership has all but evaporated. The leaflet campaign had already ceased for over three weeks, and the decision has been made that it is now appropriate to bring the leafleting program to a close."
Certainly this has been written for the uniformed, those not close to the events. If, for example, one examines the 3 weeks mentioned you will find that the first is a Christmas break that was well earned. The second was a delay at Tony Evangelista's insistence. The third week is the time it took Ivan to actually write about the decision he had announced to the leafleting coordinators. Of course, you would not know this if you didn't read it here.
The real sticking point of the letter is the reference to "impact the retail operation". Here is where the UFCW 1518 leadership made certain to limit that very thing. To then forward this as justification for ending the campaign illustrates perfectly the huge gap between the rhetorical crap UFCW 1518 pumps out and the actual events. I can only guess that there is a minority of retail members who grasp the significance of how our dispute heralds the outcome of their own upcoming dispute and what lies ahead. Regardless of what promises have been made or slogans offered, I put forth the opinion that the two-tiered collective agreement will become a numbers game structured around voting blocks, political fortunes, and revenue streams (dues collection ).
There were those who suggested that the writing was on the wall, that the 777 deal made it obvious, that we were greedy, that we refused to even consider giving up ATO, and that we should not be surprised with how it all turned out.
The truth is much more simple. As I said, the constitution gives the membership and even their shop stewards no decision-making power. Once you have chosen a union to represent you, they then become your legal representatives in all matters. It is not legal for the employer to even speak to the members regarding any offers - everything has to go through the union leadership. Our choices were severely limited and at no time was any rational alternative ever presented to us. A deal was put before us a few years back, but it was a total gutting of the collective agreement. It was viewed by the Loman members as designed to be turned down, nothing more than fodder for the rumor mill regarding our failure to accept less, a way to paint us as greedy. It was obvious that OFG wanted to kill our jobs. What you may not know is that it is legal to run an operation into the ground, even for a labour relations purpose. We could do nothing more than watch it happen. What we didn't see coming was UFCW 1518 turning their backs on us. We thought the issues alone were big enough that the union would take a strong stand. We also thought that paying into the union for over 30 years might also mean something. We were wrong on both counts, very wrong.
The fall-out from the Loman dispute will probably not eclipse that of the 777 deal. How could it? Still, it has opened some very big doors. The extent to which a company may employ third party status has been given a new and frightening liberal interpretation in the litigation so far. Some see it as an invitation to other corporations to invoke similar strategies, however expensive, to pursue a labour relations goal.
The only good news is that one might take some comfort in knowing that much was accomplished despite this fact. To the extent that the Loman membership was left largely to it's own devices, theirs was a grass roots campaign. It was therefore a campaign that any group with enough solidarity could also mobilize. The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed certain constitutional rights for workers to express their views and the union cannot stop you. You don't really need the unions blessing or their help. This was our strongest form of attack largely because the truth was squarely behind us and the issues were ones that British Columbians felt strongly about. Known as the Parkinson Decision (BCLRB No. B322/2002) it essentially defines what avenues of expression are allowed in communicating to the public issues surrounding labour disputes. It is slated for a reconsideration (appeal) hearing on February 17.
The flip side of the coin is what a huge blunder the whole exercise was for Overwaitea Food Group (OFG). Although it may sound cynical or too sarcastic, I believe the following hypothetical conversation strongly reflects the dismay and utter confusion Loman members had over this simple question: What was in this for OFG?
- Number Two In Charge - "We have a purpose built distribution facility with one of the best efficiency records in the business so what should we do next?"
- Number One In Charge - "We want to break it up, run it into the ground, and divorce ourselves entirely from that bargaining unit. I know it sounds weird but if we're going to have our way with retail, we have to get these guys too. We'll work these changes under the "focussing on our core competency" rhetoric. By the way, we're also going to get into the business of trucking and load building. It doesn't mesh well with the rhetoric but it keeps us in control."
Ten Years Later:
- Number One In Charge - "Progress report please."
- Number Two In Charge - "We've succeeded in destroying the distribution center and that bargaining unit."
- Number One In Charge - "The union was no problem?"
- Number Two In Charge - "Hell, they're laughing all the way to the bank. It was just like you said it would be."
- Number One In Charge - "Excellent, excellent. Any problems elsewhere?"
- Number Two In Charge - "Well, we're losing market share, our distribution costs are going through the roof, trucking costs are astronomical, load building has had ongoing problems, damage is at an all time high, product isn't making it to the shelves, and employee loyalty is at an all time low."
- Number One In Charge - "Well, I'm going to have to let a few of you go."
It's a wacky world when you see something that worked so well suffer such an expensive and needless fate. What was in this for OFG? The common theme remains the shift from full-time work with benefits to the part-time wage-slave model, costs be damned, families be damned.
The Loman dispute illustrates the extreme lengths to which a company will go to achieve this goal. In the corporate accounting ledger there no longer is a column for human capital assets or the "quality of work" quotient. People and their value have no voice. To speak out against this agenda has been repeatedly portrayed as backward and outdated thinking by those who refuse to acknowledge the "new reality". In the new "service economy", people are now in service to the economy, instead of the economy being in service to the people. As far as I can tell, UFCW has no problem with this because the figures are just so very good. Hey, it's just business.