UnStriking - a British Columbia Invention

The first UnStrike involved the bus drivers and mechanics employed by the Greater Vancouver Metro Transit Authority, now called Translink, about 15 years ago. The drivers were faced with an intransigent public employer appointed by and polically on side with a then right wing provincial government whom controlled the finances and held them very tightly when it came to giving public employees a break.

The bus drivers and mechanics were members of ICTU - the Independent Canadian Transit Union, which was affiliated to the CCU - Confederation of Canadian Unions, a small democratic and militant labour central of nationalistic Canadian Unions mostly in Western Canada. A large number of the CCU unions, including my old union CAIMAW - Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers - merged into CAW Canada to constitute the backbone of CAW's western base. All of the unions were relatively small, with limited finances, and were in active and militant struggle against our respective employers. We had some long and bitter but ultimately successful disputes. We were attacked by governments at the federal, provincial and municipal level due to our militancy. We were also opposed by the majority of the conservative unions in the Canadian Labour Congress of the day, again because of our militancy and the discomfort our successes produced within the conservative union bureaucracies who were continually having to explain to their members why they had not produced the bargaining gains that so many of the CCU unions produced with regularity. We were making history doing more with less, and not only were we intimately aware of that fact, everybody else, friend and foe alike, was aware that our political impact was disproportionate to our relatively small numbers.

As in all political jurisdictions, public transit is a critical element of a properly functioning society, and no matter how much the public expresses sympathy with the strikers, in a traditional shut-it-down strike, that sympathy quickly wears thin as the dispute drags on and people find it difficult to get to work and go about their daily lives without access to public transit. The public authority always has more money, better access to public relations machines and generally gets a much more sympathetic hearing from the right wing business press in terms of getting its message out to the general public. If the corporate propoganda is well crafted, and enough money is spent to propagandize the public, as Joseph Goebells amply noted, people tend to believe it.

The bus drivers came to the conclusion they needed to develop a strategy that would allow them to put political pressure on the Transit Authority and the Provincial Government but they didn't have deep pockets and could not afford a huge public relations campaign to match that of their employer, who could count on the enthusiastic boosterism of the commerial media. They knew they had people assets, well over a thousand of them, the bus drivers. The mechanics were not as well placed to speak to the public. The problem was, if they went on strike and then picketted down their transit and maintenance depots, there would be no effective means to get to that section of the public that were regular transit users and who therefore had a greater interest in a properly functioning transit system. Very few people walk past a transit or maintenance depot as they tend to be off the beaten path from the perspective of pedestrians, and those in their cars are more likely to be regular car commuters, or if regular transit users who have been forced into their cars through the absence of public transit, would likely be less than sympathetic, even if you could get a pamphlet into their hands.

A critical piece of the drivers' strategy involved not simply arguing for improved wages, benefits and working conditions, but also for an expanded public transit. They positioned themselves as the front line defenders of public transit and carved out a large piece of public sympathy in the process.

Another critical feature that had to be dealt with was the overtly political nature of the bargaining given the belecosity of the provincial government. As much as anything the choice of tactics had to recognize that altering public polical perception needed more time than was possible in a full strike situtation. The membership would not likely willingly suffer months of loss of wages for the primary purpose changing public perception. In any event the animosity generated through the disruption of public transit would more than offset any sympathy generated and thus was a no-win strategy.

So...the drivers needed a strategy that was capable of using their numbers as public emmissaries rather than 'buy' a traditional media campaign they couldn't afford. They knew that to be successful they would have to keep the strategy rolling for many months in a way that would not bankrupt relatively limited union finances. They had to be able to do more with less and thus was born what I think was probably the world's first UnStrike.

Under provincial labour law, the right to strike is protected by the Labour Relations Code and its predecessor legislation. A strike is effectively defined as not just a cessation of work but also includes any activiy done in concert by two or more bargaining unit employees designed to put pressure on an employer for the purposes of extracting terms and conditions of employment. Not only is the right to strike protected by law, but the specific tactics employed by a union, provided it is not otherwise illegal, is similarly protected by law. If the employer doesn't like the tactics they can use their legal right to lock out, but then have to explain to the public and customers why the product or service is no longer available due to the management decision to lockout. In the public sector this is a very difficult argument to make with credibility. So while we call the tactic an 'UnStrike', from the perspective of provinical labour law it is nevertheless a 'strike' as much as a cessation of work is.

The tactics of the ICTU UnStrike were clear: the drivers would continue to provide transit service, building support for the union and for an improved public transit, but in order to draw attention to their dispute, they would not adhere to the dress code, ie. no uniforms. Most drivers wore things like t-shirts and jeans, baseball caps and the like to remind the daily riders that the drivers were 'UnStriking'. Some drivers were more creative. One driver spent the entire UnStrike, which lasted several months, in a clown suit, complete with face paint and a flourescent yellow wig. Other drivers drove in 'drag' complete with feather boas. Drivers wore special buttons identifying themselves as UnStrikers and wore ICTU caps. They passed out pamphlets to the transit public explaining their dispute and soliciting rider support. If riders wished to pay the transit fare the money was accepted but sinces drivers stopped asking for the fare, word spread quickly and it quickly became a substantially free transit system, which not surprisingly built enormous public support for the UnStrike. The Transit Authority was placed in a position of putting up with the UnStrike, including the loss of fare box revenues, or lock out. They were politically compelled to put up with it. All the while the drivers were payed their regular wages and were covered for benefits for themselves and their families. A variety of rallies and other events to maintain the public profile were schemed and dreamed, some with greater success than others.

In the final analysis, the ICTU UnStrike did in fact produce a significantly better financial settlement after over three months than what would have been possible without a dispute, and probably better than would have been achieved with a full shut-down strike. Most importantly, the UnStrike cemented the concept that a union could and would be a defender of the public interest in a way that had never been done before. It stretched the boundaries of trade union thinking of how to take on the boss and win. It built extraordinary solidarity among bus drivers, who often lack significant solidarity, because they work as lone operators, out of contact with fellow workers for the duration of a shift. And it built substantial solidarity with the general public.

Since that first UnStrike a number of public sector unions have employed the tactic on a smaller scale with varying degrees of success, but without the profile of the ICTU UnStrike.

I tend to look at an UnStrike as an example of urban guerilla war. If you have overwhelming force use it. If you face overwhelming force use diversion and public relations to counterbalance your oppenents forces. It is particularly useful where public relations is an important element of winning a dispute.

Starbucks UnStrike

When we negotiated our first collective agreement in 1997 we went on strike against the Starbucks Commissary which then supplied pastries ot the majority of B.C. Starbucks stores and went UnStrike at the then 7 unionized stores. Our tactics then involved wearing of street clothes, UnStrike buttons, passing out UnStrike pamphlets and a variety of public media events.

This time around, in 1999 we have expanded on the 1997 theme, 'branding' the campaign with our 'Warbucks Coffee' logo and slogan 'Hey! Get sick on your own time "partner"!', our t-shirts and using the Internet to 'Send Starbucks A Message' both via our National Union web page and via circulation of our email leaflet. We have been leafletting in the UnStruck units, on the street, at public gatherings and via union and progressive groups meeting and gatherings. Each regular work day, since the UnSrike began on Octber 4th, our office has faxed copies of the completed tear off cards to Starbucks' Seattle head office and their Vancouver administrative office. When sufficient cards are collected we bundle up and gift wrap a package of the originals and send them to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Each day, Howard Schultz gets a regular barrage of emails from and ever widening body of progressives from around North America and the world beyond. I would guess that we get copied in on less than half the messages sent, but the ones we receive demostrate some amazing creativity in their own right and are helping to maintain UnStrikers solidarity.

Jef Keighley,
National Representative,
CAW Canada