The MFD Story: Part 1
The Bright Idea
As Chief Shop Steward for UFCW, Local 1518 at the Fleetwood Save-On-Foods store in Surrey, British Columbia (store 918), I held regular monthly meetings with my shop stewards to go over problems in the store, company policies and strategies for dealing with an increasingly aggressive management. Living with the '97 collective agreement was difficult enough but I was extremely proud of the job we were doing in that store policing the collective agreement and ensuring our co-workers were well represented. Fleetwood had the lowest number of junior clerks in the company and the highest number of service clerks still eligible for a transfer into the grocery department. We were a force at the joint labour management meetings and never once rubber stamped a company initiative. Grievances were dealt with quickly and often with positive results for the members.
Ivan Limpright was our store's union representative at that time and I would characterize our relationship as very positive and supportive. Ivan would always back whatever decision our shop steward team agreed was the best course of action and occasionally attended our meetings, which were held at my house in Cloverdale. He offered input and advice but respected the efforts of our team and took criticism in stride. Together we worked very hard to achieve the working environment we enjoyed at store 918 while in other stores management was running roughshod over people.
I felt at that time that the biggest problem members had was shop stewards who used their position to curry favour with management and obtain special privileges in exchange for "co-operation" on the application and administration of the collective agreement. This is precisely the kind of steward core that our team replaced at 918. As Chief Shop Steward it was often implied and, on several occasions even put straight to me, that "a guy like you, a leader with your experience, you could go really far in this company. You just have to learn to be a team player". My answer was always the same: "I am a team player. I'm just the captain of the other team".
I started talking with people around the company and I was deeply concerned with what I heard. I believed what our union needed was a strong steward core that looked after the members' interests and not just their own. That as a union we needed to weed out these dealmakers and encourage many of the good people we had to step up. The problem was that many of the really good shop stewards packed it in. As I talked to more and more of them the same theme kept coming back to me over and over again: The union wouldn't back them and the members didn't care. They all felt they had done what they could but it was a problem that couldn't be fixed and they were tired of taking all the heat and abuse from management.
Later, at one our monthly meetings, I put to Ivan my idea to help support our stewards. He too had been trying to encourage some of these same people to step up again and trust he wouldn't leave them hanging. I believed we needed to rethink our steward structure. We had 35 union Vice Presidents with little or no visibility among the membership and a steward core reeling from ineptitude. It wasn't any wonder that people felt like a target if they stood up against management. Encouraged by the accomplishments at our store, I proposed a steward structure that would put more power to police the collective agreement in the hands of stewards, freeing up our union representatives to handle grievances that seemed to take forever and bigger issues such as termination or long term suspension.
We had a forum in the joint labour management meetings [JLM] for a steward core to address internal issues directly with management and with a new hierarchy of stewards we could better support one another from store to store. By replacing the title "Vice President" with "area" and "regional" shop steward we would diminish the employer stigmatization of their roles and get them more directly involved with the members on a day-to-day basis. If stewards were able to rely on the "area" and "regional" shop stewards for advice and support, as well as their union representatives, and engage in the kind of monthly or bi-monthly meetings we at 918 were holding I believed the feeling of abandonment would evaporate and we could then encourage many of our fallen stewards to once again take center stage.
However, this utopia of unionism was short lived. In the later part of '98 Ivan Limpright was promoted to Director of Benefits and our new union representative was Brian Nasu, a local 1518 "vice president" and acting business agent. At our very first meeting I presented him with the employers' own paper work that clearly showed they were in violation of the collective agreement to the tune of $5K plus. He told me "I'm new and whatever has happened I want to just wipe the slate clean and give them the benefit of the doubt".
I knew I didn't like this guy. His whole mantra from day one was appeasement and he was constantly trying to undermine the strength of our steward team by encouraging the most moderate of our team to cut deals with management without any input from the rest of us. This was because "management felt better talking to him alone". At one point the members of our team invited him to my house for one of our monthly meetings without me knowing about it until just prior to his arrival just so they could jump down his throat. They hated him. I will never blindside anyone and he was allowed to participate without attack but at the end of that meeting, after talking it over with my team members, I resolved to run for the executive board of the union where we all felt I could help the union understand that these kinds of inept representatives were undermining us all and come up with ways to stop this from continuing.
At that time we had 7 vacancies on the Local 1518 E-board. Ivan suggested several times that I write Brooke Sundin (Local 1518 President) a letter asking him to put me on the Board. I never wrote that letter. I decided that I didn't want to be given such an important responsibility. I wanted to earn my way on to the Board and show the members that I was a fighter and would do my best for them. I took a petition around the Save-on stores to be placed on the Board as a legitimate replacement for one of these 7 vacancies. I had hundreds of signatures in just a few days and was excited about presenting this petition at the next general membership meeting. I thought the E-Board members would be beside themselves with excitement that they had this go-getter who didn't just come to them with his hand out, but went out and grabbed the brass ring and won the approval and trust of the members in the process. My excitement was short lived. I got my first bitter taste of what being a member of this union was all about.
It started after a JLM meeting when we were outside the coffee shop. After a heated debriefing [because Brian once again caved and undermined our team's initiatives] Brian brought up that he'd heard about a petition to put me on the E-Board. A little disappointed that my surprise was ruined, I proudly smiled and told him I was closing in on a 1000 signatures in just 5 days. What came next almost knocked me on my ass.
"Brooke doesn't like being pushed and I suggest if you know what's good for you you'll back off". Still angry from the meeting, I boldly said, "I'm not scared of him" and stormed off with 3 shop stewards equally stunned at what they heard. I didn't know what to do. I was certain they would be elated with my dedication and hard work and instead I had just been threatened.
I called Ivan later that night because of all people I trusted him like a brother. Ivan asked me what I was trying to accomplish with the petition and I told him. He said he kind of figured it was something like that - knowing me - and he would straighten everything out. Not to worry he said but "just do me one favour... drop the petition". I was crushed. Of all the people in the world I would have walked through fire for Ivan and here he was covering for Sundin and playing "good cop" to Brian's "bad cop". I thought he was going to be outraged and instead it seemed clear he knew about it even before I told him.
I knew then that my petition was worthless and so were my ideas to improve the union and make it stronger. I knew in that instance that being a member of an E-Board that still had Brooke Sundin as President and CEO was a useless waste of time. It was his union and if I wanted to change anything I had to replace him first and foremost. With executive elections on the horizon I decided that night that I would support any legitimate candidate who ran against Brooke for President of Local 1518 and that if nobody stepped forward, I would run against him myself.