Pandemic work refusals, and how to build capacity for more

Jun 12, 2021

Pandemic work refusals, and how to build capacity for more

Work refusals are a key tactic in the fight for safety and dignity on the job. They have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, though infrequently. Rank-and-file organizers continue to build capacity for that kind of militancy, as they look to meet the crises to come.

“I have to admit to being really shocked by how few mass work refusals took place in the first wave [of the pandemic],” labour historian and union organizer Doug Nesbitt tells me in January. “It says that workplaces are highly unorganized, with no job action experience, and dominated by fear.” 

Nesbitt also points to key exceptions across Canada: the collective health and safety work refusal by 70 CUPE Local 5167 sanitation workers in Hamilton in March 2020, and the threat of similar action by Edmonton postal workers around the same time.

“Edmonton’s experience is that safety measures were only implemented with urgency by [Canada Post] once workfloors began openly discussing, and preparing, to refuse unsafe work,” the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) said in a statement. “We expect that any further improvements will require similar pressure.”

Nesbitt says that health and safety work refusals, like those undertaken in Hamilton and threatened in Edmonton, have the potential to be a crucial lever of collective power during public health crises – especially given the illegality of so many other forms of collective self-assertion on the job. 

“Where it does exist, the right to strike in Canada is basically outlawed except when contracts have expired and various efforts at bargaining have been exhausted,” Nesbitt explains. “So job action is going to be illegal and result in casualties – people can and will be disciplined, fired, fined, blacklisted, arrested, and charged.” 

An individual’s decision to refuse unsafe work, on the other hand, has a broader legality that could protect disruptions by a set of workers who aren’t otherwise in a legal strike position. “We’re in a pandemic now, and the crisis is in countless workplaces. The potential of an unsafe work refusal movement is really big,” says Nesbitt. “It opens up the possibility of a new workers’ movement emerging, and new kinds of worker organization.”

Nesbitt stresses that those possibilities need to be built workplace by workplace, through careful organizing. He suggests that individual organized workplaces might overcome their isolation by struggling together for shared demands, like paid sick days or public ownership of long-term care – common political goals that can bind, sustain, and scale worker militancy across different sites. In this way, scattered pockets of resistance might unify into a force able not only to shake individual bosses, but also to shift policy and confront the state. 

Educators’ work refusals

In Ontario, schools in the province have closed and reopened multiple times during the pandemic, with class sizes too big to allow much room for physical distancing, inadequate ventilation, limited asymptomatic COVID surveillance testing, and no employer-paid sick days in place to support parents to stay home with sick kids. These are conditions that rank-and-file educators’ groups like Ontario Education Workers United (OEWU), alongside community allies like Ontario Parent Action Network (OPAN), have been organizing to improve. “Ultimately,” says Julius (they/them), an educator in Toronto, “our greatest challenge is to get the larger population to care about the issues at hand. To see education as a central space where we can advocate for social change.” 

That kind of public buy-in is pivotal if work refusals or other militant tactics are to have a chance of winning their demands. Reflecting on last October’s health and safety work refusal by educators at Glamorgan Junior Public School in Scarborough, Julius suggests that community support for educators in such moments is inseparable from educators’ advocacy on behalf of communities. When educators show up in solidarity with local organizing, or make broad-based demands for justice (like the Chicago Teachers Union’s demand for affordable housing, a key plank of their 2019 strike), work refusals start to have whole neighbourhoods behind them.

Julius also points to the role of unions in enabling or discouraging such militancy. “Of the two unions [representing workers involved in the Glamorgan walkout],” they report, “CUPE took a strong stand and described the working conditions as a ‘terrible situation to be in,’” while the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) distanced itself from the action. The latter union, Julius says, claimed that “‘this is an individual work refusal’ and offered no further support.”

Nigel Barriffe, an executive officer at ETFO’s Toronto local and an organizer with OEWU, tells me he thinks all the public school unions see educator work refusals as a legitimate form of resistance but approach them cautiously, affirming only the letter of the law. “In my local … we’re currently in a struggle for what I feel is the soul of our organization,” he says. Barriffe explains that he and his allies are fighting for a “social justice approach to unionism,” which would allow the union to issue broad demands like the call for paid sick days, rather than a business unionism model that just manages economic transactions and reduces friction between workers and bosses. For Barriffe, there’s a clear need for educators to engage with community members’ struggles for justice, in whatever forms those take. “We teach their children! Their children come to our classrooms! How could we not be making sure that we’re staying with them when they say that they’re [dealing with] a bad landlord?”

Sarah Vance, another organizer with OEWU, worries that the educators’ unions in the province may have played a role in demobilizing rank-and-file resistance. “In September [2020], in the early parts of the fall, when there were a significant number of education workers talking about wanting to engage in work refusals…I think the fact that they did not get the degree of organizational, union support they should have gotten has really helped to undermine people’s confidence in a situation in which they already feel really shaky.” Vance, a high school teacher, also laments her union’s decision to ratify a new collective agreement toward the start of the pandemic, under pressure. “Many of us argued that it was a serious strategic mistake to sign off on a bad deal in the middle of a crisis,” she says. “We could have called for a pause in negotiations. Instead we lost a massive amount of political leverage and have been hammered by the government ever since.”

Vance’s work with OEWU is fuelled by her observation that where educators’ unions are powerful political forces, as in Chicago or Los Angeles, rank-and-file organizing is the reason why. “It has been rank-and-file organizers creating their own parallel structures and doing that slow build – of grassroots mapping, organizing, gradual building of confidence, connection with community – that has enabled them then to either profoundly influence the directions their unions are taking or eclipse their unions by taking action on their own.” 

In Chicago, for instance, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which formed in 2008 to oppose school privatizations and closings, ran a winning slate in the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2010 election and has since remade the union as a champion of the city’s whole working class. At the heart of such organizing remains the careful, long-term work of building relationships. 

As Barriffe says: “We need to be having one-on-one conversations … to really understand where the majority of our membership are.” Such conversations engage the whole political life of the person, not just what concerns them specifically as an educator, parent, or student.

All of the educators I spoke to emphasize the need for this kind of intersectional approach to worker organizing – one that not only prioritizes combatting structural oppression within workplaces and unions, but also, as Angela Davis puts it, recognizes “an intersectionality of struggles.” Coalitional organizing that builds practical solidarities, laying a foundation for unplanned, unplannable moments of political rupture where the relationship between individual sites of organizing stops being merely additive, but becomes generative. As exponential as viral growth.

The massive, short-lived Alberta wildcat strike of October 2020

For a moment last fall, it looked as though an opening of that kind might have appeared. On Monday, October 26, 2020, health-care workers in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) conducted an illegal strike against threatened privatization, outsourcing, and job cuts, among other issues. It was the first wildcat strike in the province since 2013, an act of defiance on a scale that has remained vanishingly rare in Canada during the pandemic: 49 worksites across nearly 40 towns and cities. “It was the scariest and most exciting day of my life,” says Victoria,* a hospital worker in Edmonton. And it was clearly a long time coming. “When I was going to work [before the strike], you know, I was getting the absolute sense that people were just fucking ready to go,” she says. “Every day it was like, well, when are we going on strike?”

The wildcat lasted only a single day. One reason it couldn’t be sustained longer, Victoria suggests, was hesitation within AUPE’s staff ranks. “I think that the union leadership should have taken a more active role … rather than just sort of leaving it to the members to initiate, basically on their own impulse,” she tells me. “A better fan-out of communication … more affirmation and reassurance from the union beforehand, a little bit more inoculation of the risks.” 

Another limiting factor, she says, was the relative lack of practical support from other unions. “A lot of nurses I talked to before, during, and after [the strike] were like, ‘Yeah, we would have loved to be out there with [you]. But our union instructed us to go out only on breaks.’ I think we really need to build solidarity between unions.” Support from the community, on the other hand, was overwhelming. “Even our conservative relatives … you know, I think people really got it, that these are our front-line workers out on strike.”

The rebellion was contained. Threats of disciplinary action from Alberta Health Services, in combination with those other limiting factors that Victoria describes, succeeded in breaking the strike. But the way it did spread, while it lasted, hints at how a militant mass movement for justice during the pandemic – and beyond it – might kick off. 

The spark that started this prairie fire was a number of housekeeping staff at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital simply deciding they’d had enough. Once in motion, the wildcat raced across the province, leaping between cities by word of mouth. Some workers joined the action after hearing about it on the news.

As Carly,* also close to the strike, puts it: “You’re on the picket line and you’re hearing people read lists of all the other sites that were on strike, and like, that really struck me, because so often that does not feel possible. Like it feels in fact completely impossible that something like that could ever happen. And I think that’s why strikes are so important, because they open up these feelings and moments of possibility.”

Of course, that thrilling spontaneity was the visible part of an iceberg of long-term capacity-building among AUPE’s rank and file. And it wasn’t enough on its own, Victoria stresses. “[The strike] just dissipated into the air,” she tells me. “It’s like that old analogy of the steam and the piston box. Neither works without each other, and we had lots of steam that day, but no apparatus or mechanism to actually direct that into a strike that wins.” The awakened fighting forces needed more leadership, more direction from among the rank and file themselves, since little help was likely to come from union officials who’d face jail time or ruinous fines for explicitly encouraging a wildcat.

Yet there’s also a real chance that if practical solidarities – support from other unions, other struggles – had helped to sustain the strike a little longer, it could’ve generated the leadership it needed, birthing the forms of organization that would’ve let it keep fighting. A real chance it could’ve grown and kept on growing, activating the tectonic seam of anger running through so much of this country that condemns so many people to needless suffering and death. 

“What I remember most from the strike,” Carly says, “…the morning … it felt like anything was possible. It was like anything could happen.”

*Names of sources close to the AUPE wildcat strike have been changed to protect them from reprisals.

Daniel Sarah Karasik (they/them) is a writer in Toronto.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Briarpatch Magazine with the title, "Uncontainable." This edited version is republished with permission.


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