1 | Facing New Challenges
From Safeway to Shaw
On 10 June 1997, eighty-three hundred UFCW Local 401 members who worked across Alberta for the grocery chain Canada Safeway glumly returned to work after a seventy-four-day strike. It was the union’s first strike in more than two decades and it had not gone well. Despite two and a half months on the picket line, workers earned a deal little better than the employer’s offer at the eleventh hour before the strike. In short, the strike had failed and members were angry.
The story of the Safeway strike provides a key road marker in the evolution of UFCW Local 401. The local, like many unions, was unprepared for the changes that rocked the grocery industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The industry had long offered quality, stable jobs for its workers in Canada and the United States. It had also bred a cozy, cooperative relationship between management and the unions representing the workers (Tannock 2001, 15). Employers did not resist unionization and offered decent wages and working conditions, and in return, unions did not adopt militant or confrontational positions. Many bargaining units in Canada were achieved via voluntary recognitions rather than normal organizing efforts. Voluntary recognitions are certifications negotiated privately between the employer and the union without involving labour board processes, including a membership vote. They are controversial in the labour movement, since they are often used by employers to prevent more militant union organizing (Taylor, McGray, and Watt-Malcolm 2007; Merit Contractors Association 2006), and they signal a desire by the union to pursue a less confrontational relationship with the employer (Tufts and Thomas 2014).
In the 1980s, the rise of global markets and a new breed of competitor that aggressively sought out cost reductions and passed savings on to consumers destabilized the entire grocery industry (Hurd 2008, 1–2). Demands for concessions from employers, intensified union avoidance efforts by nonunion chains, and the introduction of labour-saving technologies such as electronic scanners (Hurd 1993) caught grocery unions unprepared. One long-time observer of UFCW framed it this way:
[UFCW] lived on voluntary recognitions. If the grocery stores grew, we grew. Voluntarily recognized, there wasn’t a lot of fights, not a lot of battles. You didn’t need to have a fight. You just got them. . . . So as a president, your job was to hire—we used to call them baggage carriers, who typed your letters, and you just floated on the membership rising. You didn’t have to fight, no organizing, you didn’t have to be smart, didn’t have to think. Then all of a sudden that fell apart. The whole grocery industry changed . . . [and] we have a whole bunch of bag carriers, so we weren’t fighting, we weren’t socially minded, we weren’t out there. (knowledgeable outsider [KO], 38)1
The Canada Safeway strike was Local 401’s first-hand experience with the new realities of the grocery industry. The outcome revealed the type of challenge to which the local would have to rise if it were to survive. It also laid bare—to others, if not the leadership itself—the fact that Local 401’s structures, leadership style, and stunted democratic processes were significant barriers to engaging in the kind of reform needed to respond to the new challenges. The 1997 Safeway strike can also be seen, in hindsight, as the last traditional strike run by Local 401.
THE SAFEWAY STRIKE OF 1997
The first Alberta store of Canada Safeway was organized in Edmonton in 1953 by the Retail Clerks International Union, a precursor to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (formed via a merger in 1979). The unit was numbered Local 401 and over the next couple of decades it organized Safeway stores in northern Alberta. In 1984, it became a province-wide local by merging with the southern Alberta local. The only known strike between Local 401 and Canada Safeway before 1997 took place in 1974 and lasted five days.
The seeds of the 1997 strike were sown in 1990, when Safeway settled a four-year deal with UFCW Local 401 that, essentially, continued previous patterns of bargaining, with decent pay increases and improvements in contract language. The newly appointed Local 401 president, Doug O’Halloran, was uneasy about the length of the deal. “They wanted four years of labour peace,” he recalled years later. “We tried to convince them not to negotiate a four-year agreement, because the unknowns were out there. They brought the deal. They put a lot of money on the table” (ALHI interview, 2005). The apparent stability was short lived. As a long-time Local 401 activist remembered, “In July they’re back knocking at the door to see if they can reopen it. They kept coming back. Eventually we went in and . . . started the process. That was the end result sort of thing. It was a bad deal. But, again, they were putting so much pressure on it, as a union we couldn’t do anything else” (Connolly, ALHI interview, 2001). O’Halloran described the dilemma the union was in:
Some six months after the deal was signed, they’re crying poverty, they need to renegotiate. They tried to get us to the bargaining table. We wouldn’t agree to go to the bargaining table. In 1992, they started making some serious demands. In January of 1993, they said, if you don’t give us these, we’re getting out of the province by February 28th. I called in a negotiating committee . . . and said, What should we do? Should we talk with them, should we not talk with them? The consensus was that we should sit down with the company and see what they had to say. (ALHI interview, 2005)
At the time, Safeway cited cost disadvantages compared to its main competitors, Save-On-Foods (Pattison Group) and Superstore (Loblaws), with whom the corporation was fighting a province-wide price war. Safeway workers earned five to six dollars an hour more than equivalent workers at the other companies. Safeway pointed to the fact that Save-On and Superstore were faster to adopt the models of cost containment, including increased use of part-timers and higher turnover, putting Safeway at a disadvantage. However, the situation was also in part attributable to the actions of Local 401 itself, which represented workers at the low-cost Superstore. The local had signed a voluntary recognition with the company in the mid-1980s, agreeing to lower base rates, longer periods for wage step-up, and more part-time workers. The local’s willingness to agree to lower conditions at Superstore and inability to bargain parity between the two companies put wages between the two sets of workers into competition, leading to Safeway’s complaints. Complicating matters further was the fact that Save-On-Foods was represented by the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), a union widely regarded as collaboration-oriented and employer-friendly (Tufts and Thomas 2014, 72–76) and which had negotiated agreements favourable to the employer.
The local agreed, in the reopened negotiations, to rollbacks of $40 million in 1993, including a cut of two dollars an hour to the average wage. The agreement also included a one-time buyout package, which more than four thousand employees took advantage of. Safeway used the buyout to replace mostly full-time, long-term employees with ten thousand part-time, lower-cost workers (King 1993). The concessions were widely criticized in the labour movement and Local 401 members were angry. Despite the criticism, O’Halloran defended the deal. “The labour movement was absolutely upset with us because of having agreed to these concessions,” he said. “But we made the decision based upon, Do we want to keep this company in business or do we want to put them out of business? We were convinced that they would leave the province, and if they left Alberta, they would leave Canada” (ALHI interview, 2005).
As much as the wage rollbacks hurt, it was allowing Safeway to replace full-time with part-time workers that is now seen as having had the most enduring effect on the company and the industry. “The major cave-in at Safeway was allowing the employer virtually unlimited use of part-time workers,” said one observer. “What had been very well-paid full-time jobs, if you look at them now, are not-very-well-paid part-time jobs” (KO, 13). Especially problematic was the pairing of the growth in part-time employees with the local’s rare and controversial flat-rate dues structure. At the time, Local 401 required all members to pay $9.25 per week (in addition to a $25 initiation fee), regardless of income or hours worked (UFCW Local 401 2007, 11). Ironically, the union’s membership revenue increased through Safeway’s adoption of part-time workers even though its members, in general, were worse off. This perceived injustice sparked much anger at the union leadership from both members and the broader labour movement.
In the two years following the concessions, Safeway’s profits quickly rebounded and the company’s market position improved. Yet when the contract again reopened in 1996, Safeway came to the table with another round of rollbacks. Anger at the union turned to the employer. Longtime UFCW activist Jim Connolly, commented about the union, “Because they’d been decimated and promised so much when they gave up so much to help the company who had come pleading, they were in trouble” (ALHI interview, 2001). The strike came as a surprise to the leadership as much as to the employer. “It’s the first time people came together,” a union member recalled. “They were really tired of the situation. The way people were treated, it finally got to a point where people were fed up. I think he [O’Halloran] was surprised when Safeway [workers] went on strike ’cause he didn’t think people were ever motivated enough to do it” (member, 4). For his part, O’Halloran was reluctant to strike, calling it a “last resort” (Stewart 1997).
The workers walked out on 26 March 1997 at seventy-four of seventy-seven Safeway locations in the province: two had voted against striking and one was under a different collective agreement (Kent 1997a). From the first days, the logistics of running a province-wide strike proved overwhelming to local staff and leadership. One staffer described the strike as “a gong show” (staff, 24). The strike was beset with communication breakdowns, confusion, and a lack of clarity regarding the members’ settlement needs. The staff were stretched to handle dozens of store locations each. “It is pretty stressful, seventy-five days on a picket line,” recalled Secretary-Treasurer Theresa McLaren. “I know myself: I was in Red Deer and I got one weekend off the entire three months.” In addition, the union leadership was aware that the union could not really afford a long battle, which was costing it more than $1 million per week in strike pay (Kent 1997a). “A lot of presidents would be nervous at taking eighty-five hundred or nine thousand workers on strike,” said a union staff member. “Particularly back in 1997, when that was the lion’s share of our membership. . . . We didn’t know how long it was going to be and it felt like it was going to be a long one. We were going to go broke” (staff, 2).
After seventy-four days, the workers accepted a mediator’s recommendation that looked very similar to the one presented by the company in the hours before the strike. The deal made no gains on recovering lost wages from the 1993 rollbacks and offered a basic floor for minimum hours for part-time workers. Notably, the bargaining committee remained neutral on the deal, reportedly succumbing to a threat from Safeway that the employer would revoke its support if the committee recommended rejection (Kent 1997b). Neutral recommendations are often perceived as a lack of leadership on the part of a bargaining committee, which is expected to offer direction to the membership based on what the leadership is thinking.
The aftermath of the strike was mixed. While many thought that O’Halloran had made the best bargain possible, a larger group, including many members, felt betrayed. As one union member explained, “They figure that Doug O’Halloran let them down in 1993 and again in 1997” (deli worker, quoted in Geddes and Jaimet 1997, A1). A veteran Safeway worker, though, saw some positive long-term consequences: “We could have settled earlier. We didn’t get anything more by staying out. But I think they also set a tone for future negotiations. We got a better working relationship with Safeway after that. Because they took us more seriously” (member, 4). However, the same member sensed “a feeling in the stores from people who were on strike. I hear it all the time, I am not going on strike again.”
The Safeway strike, and its controversial ending, left an indelible mark on UFCW Local 401 and its leadership. But it also sparked a period of transformation within the local, setting into motion some significant changes in how the union organized and represented workers. Although many of the local’s dynamics have remained constant over the years, subtle adjustments in the two decades since the strike have had a large impact on the union’s approach. A close look at the local’s structure, leadership, and internal processes will set the foundation for an examination of those changes.
LOCAL 401’S STRUCTURES AND LEADERSHIP
The structure and processes of union locals are influenced by a number of factors. First formal structures and rules conform to the constitution of the local’s national or international union. The decisions made about executive composition, decision-making processes, and the formal authority structure within a local shape how union business takes place. Second, the specific approaches of individuals who fill leadership positions within a local affect its personality. Third, because unions are officially democratic organizations, members and their wishes, expressed collectively, shape the direction of the local. Fourth, informal processes and dynamics emerge from the interactions of the first three influences, creating a picture of union life within a local that is constantly changing.
Like other locals, then, the dynamics found within UFCW Local 401 are an amalgam of various inputs, responses, and consequences. While all such dynamics are always in flux, we can identify key tendencies that come to define a particular local. A glimpse into the internal world of Local 401—its formal structures, leadership styles, and the interaction of those factors with members’ responses—will provide important context for understanding the changes undertaken over the past twenty years.
A Top-Down Structure
UFCW Local 401 operates under a set of bylaws that closely conform to the terms and conditions laid out in the constitution of UFCW Canada. The constitution and bylaws set forth all the legal parameters of the organization’s objectives and jurisdiction and outline membership eligibility, rights, and obligations, as well as the processes for amending bylaws. Furthermore, the bylaws specify the officers and executive committee of the local along with their responsibilities and areas of authority. Finally, they lay out the processes for elections, general meetings, and other events.
UFCW is an international union with headquarters in Washington, DC. As is common for unions operating in both Canada and the United States, UFCW International has a semi-autonomous Canadian arm—UFCW Canada, based in Toronto. The international constitution does not provide UFCW Canada with direct authority over Canadian members, but instead requires UFCW International leaders to “consult with the [UFCW Canada] National Director . . . and consider any recommendations of the International Officers in Canada prior to carrying out their respective authority on matters directly affecting the membership in Canada” (UFCW Canada 2008, 5). In practice, the international union leaves matters within Canada to the authority of UFCW Canada unless those interests conflict with the international organization. This arrangement has allowed for some independent action on the part of UFCW Canada.
While UFCW Canada is a separate entity for legal purposes, its self-determination is informal. UFCW Canada’s constitution is almost identical in wording to that of UFCW International, and UFCW Canada holds no authority to amend its constitution independently of the international union. Similarly, UFCW Local 401’s bylaws adopt, for almost every section, the exact wording found in UFCW Canada’s constitution. The local cannot amend its bylaws without the approval of the international president.
The UFCW International constitution centralizes decision making, establishing a clear hierarchy between locals and the international officers, with the latter given final authority. It also provides the international Executive Committee with sweeping powers to take over locals that are deemed to be “working against the best interests of the International Union” (UFCW Canada 2008, 8); this authority is commonly referred to as “trusteeship.”
In large part, Local 401’s bylaws reflect the centralized and authoritative tendencies of the international constitution. The local’s bylaws establish twenty-one local officers, who constitute the Local Union Executive Board (LUEB): president, secretary-treasurer, recorder, and eighteen vice-presidents. The vice-presidents are identified geographically, representing different regions of the province (UFCW Local 401 2009, 9). The president and secretary-treasurer are full-time officers, while all other positions have no ongoing remuneration and are booked off to attend meetings and events.
The Local 401 bylaws grant extensive authority to the president, referring to the position as “the chief executive officer of the Local Union” and mandating “general supervision over the affairs of the Local Union” (UFCW Local 401 2009, 10). In addition to traditional authorities, including chairing meetings and interpreting bylaws, the president is awarded the power to appoint all committees, to hire and supervise all union staff, and to determine the compensation levels of staff. As well, the president “shall have the authority to appoint stewards, or to determine that stewards in designated locations be elected by the affected membership, and shall have the authority to remove stewards in either instance” (10). Furthermore, the president is given the authority to “disburse the Local Union’s funds and . . . disbursements shall be authorized or ratified by the Local Union Executive Board” (10, emphasis added). It is noteworthy that the bylaws allow for post hoc approval of spending by the president.
In contrast to the two pages of powers and duties of the president, the roles of the secretary-treasurer and vice-president are defined jointly in a single sentence: they “shall assist the President in the discharge of the President’s duties” (12). The role of the LUEB is paradoxical. The bylaws explicitly indicate that the LUEB “shall have full and complete charge of all business of the Local Union not otherwise delegated to a specific officer or officers, or reserved to the membership” (13), suggesting a rather sweeping scope of authority. However, read in tandem with the description of presidential authority, the LUEB’s mandate appears to contain little of consequence.
Unlike the considerable space allotted to the leadership positions, the bylaws are sparse when addressing the issue of general membership meetings. They require that such meetings occur quarterly, at times and places determined by the LUEB, that adequate notice of meetings be provided, and that quorum be set at seven members. A special meeting can be called upon petition by 10 percent of the membership, and “informational meetings” can be held at the discretion of the officers. Aside from a requirement that a financial report be provided to the membership “not less than once a year” (12), there are no mandatory items or topics to be discussed at general membership meetings and no predetermined procedures.
We can see, then, that the formal structures of UFCW Local 401 suggest a highly centralized organization that vests a high degree of control and authority in the position of president. Like most unions, nominal control over the local rests with the membership through general membership meetings and the election of officers; however, most key decisions and actions rest with the president and others, as delegated. Also, the high degree of similarity between the local bylaws and the international constitution indicate that Local 401’s formal structures and processes have been largely determined by UFCW International and reflect the outlook of the international body.
The Leadership Team
The current leadership team consists of President Doug O’Halloran, Secretary-Treasurer Theresa McLaren, and Executive Director of Labour Relations Tom Hesse. While there are other long-serving staff members and activists within the local, close observation of the union shows this trio as constituting the central leadership.
O’Halloran first became president in 1989, when the previous president resigned in mid-term. As O’Halloran admitted, he was virtually hand-picked by the national director:
So the Canadian director asks me to go to Toronto. I go and he says to me, I’ll recommend to the Executive Board that you become president. I was like, well I don’t want to become president, I am too young. He says, it is like this, the ship only comes in past the breakwater once, and if you don’t take it now you will probably never be president. So, I basically said no and he said no problem but I think you can do it. As long as you don’t steal or lie to membership, I will get you out of everything else. So I finally agreed, became president in ’89 and have been president ever since.
At the time, O’Halloran was an international representative working for UFCW Canada. It was common practice in UFCW Canada to elevate staff to positions of elected leadership. One ex-UFCW staffer who is very familiar with the internal operations of UFCW Canada in the 1980s said that locals usually had little say over who became their president. The attitude was that “we were in charge—the national and international office” (KO, 33).
As an international representative, O’Halloran was deeply embedded in UFCW Canada’s culture, which has been described as an “old boys’ club” by labour movement activists. “Back in those days . . . United food and Commercial Workers, it was a man’s man arena. Drinking at lunch time? Yeah. Almost mandatory. And not just having a beer at lunch, you would have three or four. . . . It was really critical if you wanted to succeed with the guys” (KO, 33). In one famous incident, reported by Kim Moody (1988, 203–4) in his treatise on the decline of US business unionism, O’Halloran participated in a violent raid of a recalcitrant local. As one observer described it, “The Vancouver Safeway local rejected a concession agreement the union wanted them to take and were basically talking about breaking away. The international put them under trusteeship, broke down their office doors, terrorized the secretaries, seized all the books and assets, and kicked the existing executive out of office” (KO, 13). O’Halloran subsequently ran the trusteed union for three years, immediately prior to being appointed president of Local 401. This connection indicates that at the time of his appointment, he was an integral part of its closed circle and its heavy-handed practices.
O’Halloran quickly took advantage of the centralized structure of the local, taking firm control. In the almost thirty years he has been president, UFCW Local 401 has become almost universally regarded in the Alberta labour movement as “Doug’s local,” so ubiquitous is the awareness that every important decision in the local is made by O’Halloran.
In many respects, O’Halloran’s tenure as president has conformed to traditional UFCW expectations, but he has, at times, used his authority to chart a new path for the local. While continuing the UFCW practice of top-down leadership, he has added a populist and more militant approach, in both rhetoric and action. A recurring story in O’Halloran’s narrative is his rejection of the traditional title given to local leadership. “That was the first thing I changed when I became president,” he said. “My business cards said Chief Executive Officer. And I said why is that on there? [I was told] because that is what the presidents in Canada are. They are president and chief executive officer. I says, fuck that, get me new cards.” That a twenty-five-year-old story of largely symbolic importance remains a regular feature in O’Halloran’s repertoire speaks to the value he places on appearing down-to-earth and on the side of the members.
Some of O’Halloran’s deviations from the traditional norm were more substantial. For example, he ended the local’s practice of negotiating voluntary recognitions. He described how, early in his presidency, he cancelled a voluntary recognition negotiated just before his appointment:
When I first became president in ’89, 401 had negotiated a contract here with Superstore for a warehouse. At that time, Safeway had a Cadillac warehouse plan, which they still do. I find out we have got this deal we are going to vote [on], and it was a substandard contract. So I go to Gibb [the outgoing president] and say, you know, you gotta get me out of this deal because I am not going to agree to it. He says, you know, the people are already signed up and have UFCW cards and stuff. I said to him, I know you are the president but I can’t agree to that deal. So he phones up the company and the company says, sure, no problem. They go and tear up our cards, invite the Teamsters in the next day, they sign the cards. And that warehouse today is a million square feet, out by the airport, still a shitty deal, so you always wonder, you know, should you have these high of principles or shouldn’t you?
In another instance, O’Halloran bucked UFCW Canada in his refusal to accept a nationally negotiated voluntary recognition. In 2007, Loblaws’ (Superstore) discount arm, No Frills, expanded to western Canada. UFCW Canada negotiated a voluntary recognition and initial agreement with the company that provided lower wages than other Loblaws and Superstore locations. Local 401 was the only local in the country to refuse the arrangement.
The company went to our national union and said, look, we are prepared to give you a contract but this is what it has to be. So we are the only province that didn’t take those workers because the contract was the shits. So I said to UFCW National, you know we are not interested. . . . It would have gotten us three thousand more members, which would really help financially, but I made the decision in good conscience. We could not . . . put our Superstore members or our Safeway members under a deal where another company has six dollars an hour labour advantage. And so we, um, we walked away from it. Subsequently, they are nonunion today. (O’Halloran)
O’Halloran has been re-elected seven times by the membership, facing an opponent for the position only twice. In both cases, he won fairly easily.
Theresa McLaren was appointed secretary-treasurer in 2002, after the retirement of her long-time predecessor and based upon a recommendation by O’Halloran. McLaren had been a staff representative for the local since 1994 and a member since 1978. She, too, has embraced the centralized power dynamics within the local and has kept a firm eye on financial matters and internal staff relations. She has run, unopposed, for re-election four times. There have only been two secretary-treasurers during O’Halloran’s tenure.
The third member of the leadership team is Tom Hesse. While he is a hired staff member rather than an elected official, the role he plays in the union identifies him as part of leadership. Multiple interviewees identified Hesse as a key leadership figure. As one staff member put it,
It is [because of] the leadership—and a lot of it goes to Doug, a lot of it goes to Tom, and a lot of it goes to Theresa—that we are able to make it work in taking on these fights and these disputes while still being able to manage the membership of the union. I have seen the three of them, who are truly our leadership, take on those roles, take on those challenges, and make it possible. (staff, 24)
Unlike other staff members, Hesse is not assigned bargaining units or particular functions. He describes himself as a troubleshooter:
I have been director of organizing, director of advocacy, I did arbitrations. I am now a project manager. I lead major negotiations and organizing drives. I manage big projects. I am a troubleshooter and, well, my job is what I would call vertically integrated collective bargaining. I will write the communications, meet with the members, I’ll do the proposal meetings, I’ll sit at the bargaining table, I’ll design the ad campaign, I will speak with the media. It will be this ball of representation.
Hesse was a representative for Local 401 in the 1980s before becoming an international representative. He returned to the local in his current position, executive director of labour relations, in 2001. In this role, he is positioned to establish the strategic direction of the local and manage all significant issues and campaigns.
As a staff member, Hesse is not directly accountable to the membership, but he often fills high-profile leadership roles within the local, such as leading bargaining, selling tentative agreements, and acting as a media spokesperson. His eloquent, more intellectual approach contrasts with O’Halloran’s down-to-earth style. Hesse is a somewhat divisive figure among Local 401 members: some think of him positively as the “brains” behind the local, while others feel that he oversteps his authority.
The three leaders are widely seen by the members as the key decision-makers. In particular, Doug is perceived as having firm control of the local. “Doug runs it,” said one member. “I think that is pretty much end of story. Doug runs it. I believe he has great foresight and understanding with how to be almost as ruthless as companies” (member, 16). Many described the dynamic bluntly: “It is Doug’s local” (staff, 9). The current leaders rose to their positions through nondemocratic means—all three of them from staff positions, either in the local or nationally. O’Halloran and Hesse had no significant links to the local at the time of their original appointment; O’Halloran and McLaren gained democratic legitimacy only after serving in their positions for a period of time and through the use of significant incumbent advantages.
The Leadership Style
As can be gleaned from the profile of the individuals involved, the leadership style within Local 401 is heavily influenced by the personalities of the three leaders, especially that of the president. The mixture of top-down authority and down-to-earth populism makes for a complex, somewhat paradoxical form of leadership.
The type of leadership displayed in Local 401 is not uncommon. The so-called strong leader is the norm in the labour movement, reflecting traditional male dominance over union life (Frager 1983). Nor is the authoritative leader only a feature of business unionism. The accounts of, for example, Buzz Hargrove (1998), of the Canadian Auto Workers, or even Jean-Claude Parrot (2005), of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, suggest that the “top dog” leader approach is widespread across different types of unions. However, the president plays such a central role in Local 401 that his leadership practice is an important point of inquiry. President Doug O’Halloran is without doubt the dominant figure in the local, supported by McLaren and Hesse.
O’Halloran executes his position with a combination of stern authority, rugged populism, and a focus on members’ needs—as he defines them. Members, staff, and outsiders commented on his firm hand on all aspects of the local. Referring to a particular arbitration case, an observer noted, “Doug pretty much dominated that. … Let’s be clear. I am not going to pussyfoot. . . . Doug dominates any situation he is involved in” (KO, 20). A member of the local confirmed that perception: “I think Doug very much wants to be in charge, and he does need to be. . . . I know the executive feels bullied sometimes. The only time I ever really saw them challenge him was when he wanted Chris [his son] to take over” (member, 4). Staff members also clearly saw him in the same way: “Most of the time he can be a consensus leader; some of the time he can be a dictatorial leader,” said one staffer (staff, 27), and another commented, “Someone comes to us and Doug says, alright we’re taking this on. Okay, that decision has been made” (staff, 24).
There is also, however, a strong perception that Doug is open, accessible, and puts the interests of his members first, as the following comments show:
I think Doug has always been a members’ president. (staff, 9)
Very people oriented. Very workers oriented. He wants the best for the workers. He doesn’t like seeing the company take advantage of the workers. He’s that kind of leader. He is also very friendly, understanding. (member, 7)
Doug will literally put himself in front of a bus . . . [or] between the bus and his member. (staff, 2)
Doug has been very clear . . . [that] it is always about the membership. So when the national office says, you guys need to do this, and we know for a fact our membership doesn’t want that, we’re not going to betray our membership. (member, 6)
Members and staffers also sense a common touch in his approach:
He is very down to earth and he never—he treats us all on an equal level. It doesn’t matter what your job description is, as a member, there is no levels. I mean somebody—[there] may be a plant manager and there may be someone who is a casual maintenance worker, and he’ll talk to both at the same level and . . . give you the same consideration. (member, 36)
Doug’s around, my members know who he is. . . . He goes to Calgary—he can’t go into a Safeway store, he can’t go into a Coop, they know him. He goes into Superstore, they surround him. They know him. (staff, 22)
Nobody has ever walked a picket line and not had him there. And that’s where I think his strength in leadership and the loyalty that comes from the membership comes from. There have been a lot of picket lines in a lot of places where, when push came to shove, nobody else is at the front of that line. (staff, 24)
He is our president but he doesn’t act like one of those big people. . . . He is just like ordinary person. (member, 17)
These reports are supported by my own direct observation. At a stewards’ conference, Doug played up his connection to the members, contrasting himself with the employer and reminding the attendees, “I am no better than you.” He made himself available and accessible, appearing to have an easy, friendly manner when interacting with members.
O’Halloran’s leadership style is somewhat paradoxical. In one corner is the controlling, domineering authoritarian: “He comes across as a bully” (member, 4). In the other is a caring, down-to-earth fighter: “He’ll give anyone the shirt off his back. . . That is just the man I have always experienced him as. I have never experienced anything ungenuine with Doug” (member, 16). Some interviewees described these two sides in the same breath:
I’ve seen Doug be so analytical in a professional way and I have seen him in situations where he has spoken to people in such a compassionate way. And then I have seen him do things where he should be charged, in terms of harassment, bullying, or you know what I mean. (KO, 20)
Doug is a big bully; Doug is a big pussycat. (KO, 38)
So he gets the reputation as being an “it’s my way or the highway” kind of guy. And that is who he is. He believes what he is doing is right. I think he could be convinced if something he was doing was wrong, but you would have to prove it to him. But it is very difficult. (staff, 9)
There is a certain amount of intimidation around Doug because he is such a formidable character. So there are people who are afraid to talk to him even though they shouldn’t be, because he’s not scary. (member, 3)
For his part, O’Halloran engages in the paradox himself. At one point, he downplayed the degree of control he wields: “The thing about Doug being top-down I think is a misconception, because they see me out on the front line and stuff. But if they came and talked to our staff and talked to our members, they would realize it is just part of the group.” However, he also admits to playing a heavy hand when needed. When asked about his leadership style, O’Halloran replied:
You know, wacko. I don’t think I am a good administrator. I don’t think I run the organization well as a business, but . . . the deal I have with the staff is, Let’s reach conclusions through compromise and if we can’t reach a conclusion, then I will make the decision. Nine times out of ten we arrive at things by consensus, and the one time we don’t, I am like a fucking bulldozer. . . . I always make it worse than it should be, so that next time, “Oh fuck, why do we want that lunatic telling us what to do? Let’s come to a consensus.”
O’Halloran emphasizes his willingness to listen, to debate, and to come to decisions collectively, but the onus is on others to move Doug—not an easy thing—rather than the other way around. “He will listen, if you push hard enough,” said one local member. “So he is very single minded. Put it that way. He has his vision and this is how it is going to happen until he has enough opposition and then maybe he’ll veer, maybe he won’t. But he is willing to listen” (member, 4).
It should be noted that O’Halloran’s somewhat stark approach to leadership is not uncommon in the labour movement. Unions in Canada often produce “heroic” leaders, which is a very male approach to leadership (Briskin 2011, 514–17). Unions’ rigid structures and cultures of confrontation lead to “strong man” approaches to leadership (Kaminski and Yakura 2008, 461–63), reinforced by men’s historical dominance over union life (Frager 1983). This form of leadership, emphasizing outcome over process, tends to restrict member participation and internal democracy (Foley 2009, 3–7). So-called heroic leaders are often able to create an atmosphere of devotion among the membership through their charismatic style.
O’Halloran’s traits only partially explain the nature of Local 401’s leadership, which adheres to a particular notion of what leaders are expected to do for their locals. This was articulated most clearly by Hesse:
I would say, firstly, I think you need leadership. You need someone to make strong, compelling leadership decisions. To practice labour relations now, you can’t bring nine thousand members into a meeting every day to make decisions. Corporations turn on a dime. Their leadership is monolithic, highly centralized. In order to be effective, you have to make quick decisions sometimes. . . . I don’t think it means you are top down. I think that it means you are doing what you need to do to represent your members and that is what leadership is about. So when you have more aggressive capital, they are coming at you every single second, they are able to make decisions that turn on a dime. It is rapidly evolving circumstances, thousands of workers involved. . . . You have to make a decision, you have to decide what is right, how to be true to the members. I think contemporary labour relations creates a higher responsibility on leaders to think hard all the time about whether they are doing the right thing or not, because I don’t think you have the luxury of all these daily checks and balances.
These comments are illuminating for a number of reasons. First, Hesse articulates a very specific concept of leadership, one that incorporates a strong figure who works in the best interests of, but not necessarily under the direction of, the membership. Second, this type of leadership is necessitated by external forces—capital and the nature of modern labour relations. Third, democracy is framed as an idealized process that is not tenable today. Things are simply moving too fast. Fourth, to not act decisively is a failure of leadership and a failure to the members.
This notion of leadership is bolstered by the leaders’ view of their membership. The Local 401 leaders argue that most of their members do not have the time or desire to become actively engaged with the local. Once again, Hesse stated it the most directly:
When you have part-time workers, you may end up with a structure that—in order to give them meaningful representation, you are going to have to make some decisions that they neither have the time nor the interest in making themselves. A part-time worker often will think about looking at another job rather than attend ten union meetings. If I walked up to the average part-time worker and said, “You have to commit to ten union meetings over the next ten Tuesday nights, okay? And we are going to talk and have dialogue and you are going to tell me your issues and we are going to bargain what you need, I need that kind of interaction with you. Or you can just trust me to try and bargain as best as I can the following benefits, including part time,” they will just hand it over to you. . . . Many of our members would happily surrender that bottom-up approach if we deliver the right product. . . . People still view it themselves as stop-gap employment, some of them. They don’t aspire to retire at Superstore or at Safeway. So if they don’t have a long-term interest in their employment, how do they get a long-term interest in the union, right?
The perceived lack of interest in union involvement also arises from the demographic composition of the membership. “These are all groups of people who have, historically in the workforce, been underrepresented and been marginalized and not been given their due,” noted one staffer. “I mean young workers make crap wages. New Canadians tend to end up in very menial, low-paid jobs. They’re scared to speak up” (staff, 2).
Structure and leadership style interact to create informal practices within unions. For example, while bylaws might stipulate how often general membership meetings occur and which core items are on the agenda, how those meetings function is largely a consequence of structure interacting with other internal dynamics. The variance between formal structures and informal process is particularly noteworthy in Local 401. The internal life of the local tends toward both relaxed informality and rigid adherence to hierarchy, as is seen through a variety of aspects of the local, from meetings and other member events, to the role of staff, to the representation structure of stewards.
The core of any union’s internal democracy is the general membership meeting. At such meetings, members have direct access to the local’s leadership and can weigh in on relevant issues and vote on key decisions. In addition, the leadership provides reports to the membership on various aspects of the union’s business. Yet, in the case of most unions in Canada, these meetings are sparsely attended and fail to act as a significant forum for accountability (Camfield 2011, 45–47), and this is true for UFCW Local 401. But even if they are not well-attended, they still serve as moments of direct engagement between members and leadership and provide a glimpse into the internal workings of the union.
The bylaws stipulate that general membership meetings occur quarterly and are to be chaired by the president. In practice, however, Local 401’s meetings diverge significantly from these requirements. The local holds multiple general meetings in twelve different cities around the province, as well as in each of the six remote work camps north of Fort McMurray, where UFCW represents kitchen, front desk, and housekeeping staff (all of whom live onsite). Most locations hold meetings every second month, but some do so more sporadically. A calendar published in the local’s magazine listed thirty-four separate general membership meetings over a four-month period (UFCW Local 401 2014, 38–39).
With so many meetings, the local has developed a practice of delegating the task of chairing them. It is more common to see the secretary-treasurer or some other staff representative, rather than the president, chairing the meetings. Attendance is predictably quite sparse and the business portion of the meeting surprisingly short—always under an hour in length. However, members tend to linger around afterward, often for longer than the meeting itself, to chat in small groups or ask questions of the staff and leadership. The meetings are run in a formulaic, routinized, manner that discourages active debate. Reports are rarely followed by questions from the floor. In contrast, the informal visiting after the meeting is relaxed, casual, and familiar. Members actively engage with leadership, posing questions and raising issues.
The contrast between formal and informal aspects of the general membership meetings is striking. A meeting I attended in Edmonton on 28 January 2014 (one of seven I observed) is illustrative of how GMs are handled within the local. The proceedings adhered strictly to the agenda, and reports were often quite detailed—and yet the overall tone of the meeting was quite casual, even lackadaisical, as if the business at hand was of relatively little interest or importance. There was very little discussion or debate and both the chair and the members were anxious wrap it up as quickly as possible. As a result, the meeting felt like a formality, something to be gotten out of the way rather than an occasion for the exercise of democracy and proof of accountability. The significance of this odd sense of bifurcation lies not in the lack of active engagement at the meeting itself but in how these meetings have evolved to serve a function different from the one for which they were designed. The informal dynamics are more important to the ongoing functioning of the local than is the formal business, which is quickly dispensed with. In short, the general meetings are not the location of either decision making or processes of accountability.
Other member events have a similar feel. In member conferences, meetings at union offices, and committee meetings, it seems that the “real” business is being done elsewhere, with the event serving as a formality. Yet informal interactions at breaks, in the hallway, and following adjournment are relaxed and open, with members speaking freely both to one another and to staff and union leaders. While Local 401, with its halfhearted member engagement in formal proceedings, is hardly an ideal example of democracy in action, its informal interactions are marked by a certain vitality.
Staff fill a central role in the day-to-day operation of the union. Although the local has an extensive network of shop stewards, most of whom are appointed by the president, the steward role has traditionally been a limited one. For most bargaining units, staff, rather than stewards, file and process grievances; the steward’s function is reduced to calling the staff rep when a problem arises. Staffers lead bargaining, with selected rank-and-file appointees on the bargaining committee. Effective union representation of members relies heavily on the skills of the specific staff member assigned to a bargaining unit.
Not surprisingly, centralized authority extends to the staff’s relationship with the leadership. Staff members report having a direct, personal, intense relationship with O’Halloran. “He can be a tough boss, he can,” said one staffer. “As bosses go, he can be the nicest guy in the world, and he can be your worst enemy” (staff, 27). Another commented on the high expectations that O’Halloran places on the staff: “Like anyone who is full-time staff in the union, we are basically on call twenty-four hours a day. . . . Our reps are overworked, they are beyond capacity, and the more we grow, the worse it’s going to get” (staff, 9).
Recruitment of staff members has also followed a centralized, informal process, creating an internal dynamic that affects both the hiring of staff and the ambitions of activists. “Remember who we hire as reps,” noted a staffer. “We don’t hire outside, we hire from within” (staff, 2). Following the 1997 Safeway strike, the local developed a formalized system of “relief reps”—rank-and-file members who were selected (upon recommendation of staff) to fill in for permanent staff on leave. This decision was one of the first reforms made following the failed strike. The relief rep performs most or all of the duties of the staff member, depending on the length of the leave. The system is perceived as “a training ground” for future staff (member, 4). As relief reps demonstrate their ability, they are given longer and more complicated assignments, from several months to more than two years. The process is intentional and its evaluation function explicit. “Some relief reps will be great relief reps, but you know they won’t make the full-time thing. You try them out just to see,” said McLaren. She went on to describe a particular rep who didn’t pass the test: “He is a very smart guy but he has some serious attitude issues, right? I mean if you are arguing . . . with me, and not getting along with the members, you are not lasting very long. We are not going to use them. But you didn’t know that until you tried him.” Significantly, what is assessed is not only the rep’s ability to perform the duties but also how well he or she fits into the local’s culture.
The informal processes found in Local 401 serve to strengthen the centralized control of the leadership by minimizing formal avenues for dissent and replacing them with informal outlets. However, one should not underestimate the ability of informal openness to produce its own form of accountability. The internal life of Local 401 is one of paradox and contradiction.
A Local Not Built to Fight
At the time of the 1997 Safeway strike, the top-down leadership, the lack of rank-and-file activism, and the anemic formal processes for communication and accountability all contributed to ineffectiveness in waging a province-wide strike. Local 401 did not have the capacity for battle at that time, and the results showed. The local had not built sufficient trust within its membership to weather the difficulties and sustain the fight, and the leadership had insufficient zeal to stay the course as things got challenging. In short, the structures and internal dynamics within the local were not built to fight.
Notably, most of the dynamics described above persist in the local today. The local has undergone very little structural reform, and the same leadership team presides over it. Yet within that structure, the local has shifted ground and found a way to represent its members more effectively and to reach out to new members—often to those who are hard to organize.
The shift happened intentionally and over a long period of time. Following the 1997 failure, the local began to alter its approach while retaining the autocratic structures under which it had long operated. After implementing the relief rep system, more reforms followed, one at a time, slowly shifting how Local 401 conducted business and shaping the union’s future. The shift can be seen in the changes to how the union approached labour disputes in the years following Safeway.
THE 2002 SHAW CONFERENCE CENTRE STRIKE
Five years after the Safeway strike, UFCW Local 401 took three hundred staff at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton on strike. Three aspects of the strike make it worth noting. First, it was a first-contract strike—something Local 401 had never before undertaken. Second, the Shaw workers looked very different from those at Safeway. Most were immigrant women and young workers employed in food catering, a rarely unionized industry. Organizing a conference centre was not unusual for a UFCW local, but Local 401 had little history in low-unionized sectors. Third, as the strike continued, subtle changes became evident both in how the local ran the strike and in its resolve to earn a victory.
The Shaw Conference Centre, owned by the City of Edmonton and operated by its economic development arm, had been resistant to unionization. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) had tried twice, and failed, to organize the workers. When interested workers approached CUPE for a third time, the union said no and turned to Local 401. As O’Halloran recalled, “CUPE came to us and said look, these people really need to be unionized, but we can’t take the fight on; it is not a fight we can win. So I say, okay. I send our organizers in, sign up the people, and get into the battle that subsequently led to a seven-month strike.” Months of negotiations failed to come close to an agreement, with the employer refusing to accept even basic union provisions such as Rand formula automatic dues deduction and seniority recognition (O’Donnell 2002a).
The workers walked out on 2 May 2002. Reported numbers vary, but a majority of the three hundred workers at the centre chose to cross the picket line and continue working. Local 401 officials report that they had about forty active picketers and an equal number who opted to neither work nor picket. On many days, more Local 401 staff were walking the picket line than strikers. Under such conditions, many expected the strike to fail and Local 401 to walk away, especially with so few members at stake.
Instead, as the strike lengthened, the union became more determined to win and ramped up its efforts. Many of its actions marked a departure from the approach used in the Safeway strike a few years before. Most notable was the union’s decision to increase strike pay. During the Safeway strike, the union had paid picketers $100 plus $15 per dependent per week (Kent 1997a), which is average for strike pay in Canada (Alarie and Sudak 2006, 440). The local’s experience of the weakening of resolve during the two-and-a-half-month Safeway strike caused O’Halloran to change the approach to picket pay. For Shaw and every strike since, strikers have been provided with pay close to a living wage. “Back in the old days you got $100 or maybe $200,” said O’Halloran. “You cannot ask anyone to go on strike now for that kind of money. You have to give them near what they’re making in order to go out. Our strike pay now is $8 an hour for the first two weeks, and then it increases to $10 an hour after that” (ALHI interview, 2005). The union tops up the hourly rate with $25 per week for each dependent, and strikers can claim up to twelve hours a day, six days a week (Poole 2005a). An active picketer can earn as much as $600 to $700 a week, which can be more than a part-timer’s regular wage. At Shaw, while the number of picketers was small, the increased picket pay reduced financial pressures, allowing more of them to remain on the picket line and preventing the strike from breaking down.
The Shaw strike also saw the nascent attempts by the local to build trust with immigrant workers, who are often skeptical of unionization. Shaw Centre had a somewhat divided workforce, with students and other young workers dominating the banquet staff while older immigrant women staffed the housekeeping units. Union organizers concentrated on housekeeping staff, recognizing that they were a more stable workforce with much lower turnover than banquet units. This emphasis forced organizers to listen to the predominantly Southeast Asian women and understand how they organized and advocated for themselves.
The union also expanded its strike repertoire. During the strike, the organizers actively turned their attention to pressuring Edmonton City Council, which oversaw the economic development unit, a tactic the local had not previously employed. They organized rallies outside City Hall and letter-writing campaigns, and they openly applauded councillors who spoke out in support of the strikers (Ward 2002) and chided those who remained silent. This tactic included a public shouting match with the mayor (O’Donnell 2002b).
In both Safeway and Shaw, the union took out ads, but during the Shaw strike, the ads had a more assertive tone. In the earlier strike, the ads had asked consumers to boycott the stores, but during Shaw, the ads drew attention to working conditions and humanized the strikers by highlighting their work and their aspirations. The Shaw ads used striking workers, rather than actors, as models, making the workers the face of the campaign.
Because the site of the strike was a conference centre, picket lines were regularly obstructing members of the public attending events such as conventions, graduations, and charity dinners. The union, in a somewhat uneven strategy, selected targets for picketing. They removed picket lines for graduations but kept them up for other events, creating some confusion and providing the employer with the opportunity to claim that the centre was operating as usual (Chambers and Thorne 2002).
During the seven-month strike, the union withstood two decertification applications and a hostile attempt by Civic Service Union 52, the union representing other City of Edmonton inside workers, to raid the members in a bid to end the strike. The turning point of the strike was Grey Cup week. Edmonton was the host for that year’s Canadian Football League championship game, and many high-profile events were being held at the Shaw Centre. The union vowed to picket all events except the game itself, which would occur at the city-owned Commonwealth Stadium a few kilometres away. Local 401 and the Alberta Federation of Labour jointly planned a large rally to block the entrance to the centre during the Grey Cup Gala, an important dinner event two days before the game. The pressure led to a week of tense negotiations and a settlement an hour before the slated rally began. Although it did agree to a two-year wage freeze, the union achieved most of its bargaining goals, including Rand formula automatic dues deduction, union rights to visit workers on site, seniority provisions, and benefits for part-time workers (O’Donnell 2002c). The strike officially ended on 25 November, one day after the Grey Cup game.
In many respects, the Shaw Conference Centre dispute was an ordinary, if somewhat protracted, strike. Many of the tactics employed by Local 401, including targeting third parties, are standard for labour in Canada. All unions must navigate a variety of tribulations when running a strike. However, the strike differed from the Safeway strike in more than its outcome. Local 401 was organizing workers in an industry it had never attempted to work with before. It adopted slightly different strategies than it had used before. It had learned a few lessons from the Safeway strike.
At the time, observers might have interpreted Shaw as just another strike with a fortunate outcome. Seen in the context of what was to come, however, the Shaw Conference Centre action might be best seen as a transitional moment for Local 401. On 26 November 2002, the local’s organizers could savour their victory after a hard fight, but they would have little time to rest: the next, much larger battle was coming very soon. And it would occur in the most unlikely of circumstances.