A Union on the Horizon
Shortly after the BC teachers’ strike, we began a discussion about organizing a union at Horizon between just a few key people. Over the next 3 to 4 months this discussion continued with no real developments in terms of getting people signed up. During this period, the company made record sales – which translated into record volume needing to be moved inside the warehouse. With an ever increasing staffing crisis, against a background of historically low unemployment rates – we simply had enough. Quantity had translated into quality. After months of patience and explanation, enough cards were signed over a four week period to be able to file for a vote at the Labour Board.
We had all the cards signed underground without the company knowing. The week before the union filed, the company began to hear rumors that unions were being talked about. The same day the rumors began to spread, the company announced an increase in the base rate by $1/hour. Promises were also made of a wage review and a cost of living allowance to be handed out in September. The warehousers interpreted this as a “carrot and stick” tactic and stuck to their guns.
We filed for a vote to certify the union on 24 July. On the morning of Tuesday 25 July, the union had faxed a letter to all the fax machines in the office indicating that the phone call they had received from the Labour Board was real, and that I was the main organizer. By that afternoon, during the shift change, we had four comrades on the edge of the property handing out leaflets to workers as they left. This was significant. By this time, the company had not yet prepared an adequate response. Every worker who did not know about the state of the organizing drive (or simply had heard a rumor) found out what was going on from those organizing it, and not the company. Because we were the first to inform everyone of what was going on, it helped to turn us into a greater pole of attraction –we came across as knowing how to effectively change things.
We leafleted on Tuesday, Thursday, Monday and finally again on Tuesday 1 August. The vote took place the following day. We made sure that the leaflets spoke to the workers in their own language, and were based on how the situation in the shop developed. For this to happen, it is important that workers themselves play a role in the creation of the leaflets and information packages. The company has an email system in place to communicate with us. Our methods of communication are necessarily limited to spreading information by word of mouth and leafleting until we have a collective agreement. During this critical point in the organizing drive, the spreading of rumors could have broken the movement, and therefore had to be responded to quickly and correctly.
A Reaction on the Horizon
For the most part, the company behaved quite well once they became aware of the situation. During the 10 day period the company held 3 staff meetings. Only one letter was distributed a couple days before the vote. We were clearly more organized than they were.
The first meeting was for the day shift, in isolation from the night shift. At this meeting most of the workers kept their eyes to the floor. There were 3 vocal anti-union workers at this meeting. I was the only one to speak in defence of it. Although the company was repeatedly saying “our doors are open,” I pointed out that because of the lack of legal protection afforded by a collective agreement, workers are still going to fear voicing their opinions. This was evident by people staring at the floor throughout the meeting.
The second meeting was a general warehouse meeting on the same day as the first. Again, we faced a situation where the silent majority in support of the union had to sit through an onslaught of anti-union slander and personal attacks with their eyes to the ground. I criticized the meeting for taking place as a way to pressure supportive people into voting against the union. Organizing a union is a decision to be made by workers, and management has no place interfering in our business. After an hour had passed, it was decided, by management, that we were starting to go in circles, and so everyone was sent back to work.
The third meeting took place the day before the vote. This time, the anti-union workers were a little more prepared. They succeeded in widdling away some support by using more personal attacks and slander. My own interest in politics and history as an activist was used against me – with me being accused of having ulterior motives. In the end, I believe most sympathized with my history and understood these personal attacks were merely a way to try and distract from the real issues – low pay and an increasing lack of respect.
The day of the vote was the most stressful. Conversations were taking place in every corner of the shop. The anti-union workers were actively trying to break down support. Keeping tabs on what was being talked about was critical. With things like accusing me of using the company photocopier for personal reasons – we had to go onto the offensive.
One of the anti-union workers used to be the loudest complainer about working conditions. This change of heart happened just as he was quitting – because he wasn’t making enough money. We found this strange, since a concrete way of changing this situation was being presented. This was pointed out to undecided workers sitting on the fence. Using such methods we acted to defeat the “no” vote.
On 2 August, the Labour Board conducted a secret ballot vote to certify the Retail Wholesale Union in the first aid room at Horizon. 32 of 35 workers voted, 17 to 15, in favour of unionizing. Although a victory, had just one more vote changed positions it would have created a tie and we would have lost.
Immediately after the vote, an email was sent out by the General Manager to the effect of wishing the vote had not happened, a willingness to work together, and a complaint of how half the staff dragged the other half somewhere they did not want to go. In reality, a significant layer of the “no” vote can be won over on the basis of experience, patience and explanation. This makes it all the more important that we initiate our own methods of communication. We have started up a bi-weekly newsletter. We cannot allow ourselves to rely upon the company’s system of communication. Instead, it needs to be engaged with our own.
Depending on how the company proceeds, the negotiating process could be relatively streamlined. A lot of how the company already runs things is loosely based on what you would find in a collective agreement, such as pay bands, methods of promotion (usually, seniority is key factor), and of course the fantastic benefits package for our line of work. And since they already agree in practice with many of these things, there should be no reason or opposition to writing them into a legally binding contract.
The narrow margin of victory could mean the company takes a more aggressive stance at the bargaining table. They are consulting corporate lawyers and maybe even anti-union companies on how to bust our union. They may try to drag out the negotiations until a decertification campaign can legally begin, meanwhile launching attacks against union support. In the event of this, building solidarity with workers in other warehouses and shipping companies will be essential. Raising the profile of the warehouse will also be key in the event the company takes this path. The fence sitters and semi-soft support can be won over to the side of reaction if they do not see concrete results from getting a union. A systematic and organized approach must be taken to win over and solidify these layers, as well as new employees. Support from the movement outside the warehouse will help to win over these elements inside. The industry has an image to maintain, and this can be used to our own benefit as workers.
What is to be Done?
The work of building a strong RWU presence in the organic food industry has only just begun. Horizon Distributors is only one company under the larger umbrella of the Horizon Group of Companies. Within our warehouse we share a small side with Christmas Natural Foods – also part of the Horizon Group of Companies. Their employees are treated much worse than we are and our victory is acting as a source of inspiration. Horizon’s office staff need to be organized as well, now. During leafleting, we strategically waited for the office staff to leave to give them our leaflets as well. There are sympathetic layers. We need to agitate to organize the unorganized, as well as to put ourselves in a position to deal with what the company has in store for us.
Bi-weekly meetings after shifts are being organized and a committee to oversee the union’s activities and represent the workers who don’t show up to the union meetings has been formed. These meetings will direct the content of the bi-weekly newsletter. We need to actively strive for more workers to participate in the activities of our union. Only through militancy in dealing with the company and solidifying support for the union will we be able put ourselves into a position to win the kind of contract we truly want.