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Flying Squads and the Crisis of Workers' Self-Organization

By Alex Levant - New Socialist, Spring 2003

On September 7, 2000, over 100 people from the Somali community and union supporters visited an immigration office in Toronto in defence of four families facing deportation and waiting for decisions on their appeals to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Although they were confident that their appeals would be successful, they feared that they would be deported before a decision was made (a common practice for Immigration Canada). At the families¹request, an action was called to secure a commitment from the authorities that this would not happen.

The action was organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and supported by activists from a number of unions, including the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Locals 40, 112, 199, 397, 504, 673, 707 and 1285, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 79 and 3903, as well as Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 75.

We all met at a nearby church, where members of each family explained their situation. After the briefing, we walked to the immigration office and unfurled our union flags in the lobby. Representatives from OCAP asked to meet with management to discuss the cases in question. Immigration Canada responded by calling security and the police. We continued to press our demands while two small groups negotiated with immigration officials and police. The presence of so many people in the office made it more appealing for the officials to meet our demands than to endure the disruption caused by our presence. As a result of our action a commitment was secured, and the deportations were prevented.

What is a Flying Squad?

Most of the union activists at this action were organized in flying squads. A flying squad is an association of union activists who confront our bosses and their lackeys by disrupting the normal operations of their organizations, much like during a strike. When workers go on strike we do not only withdraw our labour, but we also disrupt the functioning of our workplaces. Flying squads take this tactic beyond their own workplaces, challenging the effects of capitalism and the forms of oppression that capitalism mobilizes. Supporting striking workers, as well as unorganized, unemployed, and unpaid workers, stopping deportations, challenging abusive landlords, and mobilizing for mass protests against capitalist globalization are some of the activities that flying squads in Canada have engaged in.

Recent History

There is no definitive answer to when flying squads first emerged. According to Joanne Beck of CAW 598 Flying Squad in Sudbury, flying squads first formed in the early 1900s in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In his book, Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs contends that their prototype, cruising picket squads, first appeared during the 1934 Teamsters strikes in Minneapolis. However, they re-emerged as a promising force in Ontario in the CAW in the mid-1990s.

According to Steve Watson, a National Representative in the Education Department of the CAW, the first CAW flying squad was jointly started by locals 195, 200 and 444. "In 1995-96, with the election of the Harris government, in Windsor local activists first set up a flying squad to ensure that there would be a rapid mobilization capacity around social actions." This idea spread through the CAW Education Center and its Paid Education Program, as part of the mobilization for the Ontario Days of Action against the Tory government. Today there are flying squads in CAW locals across Ontario, with the largest ones in Ingersoll, Kitchener, Oakville, Hamilton, and Sudbury.

Inspired by the CAW flying squads, activists in CUPE began to form their own flying squads. CUPE local 3903 (contract faculty and graduate student workers at York University), formed its flying squad in July 2000. This quickly grew into the largest and one of the most active flying squads in the union movement, with 80 members on call. Flying squads also formed in CUPE locals 79 (City of Toronto inside workers), 1281 (a composite local of staff workers across Ontario), and 5500 (Ottawa transit workers).

Our success at making immediate visible gains sparked an interest in other unions. In the fall of 2002, following the opening of the "Pope Squat" organized by OCAP, members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers¹ Federation (OSSTF), the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT), and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) formed the Toronto Teachers Flying Squad. "The motivation behind this was to give teachers a more visible presence in protests as teachers," explains Rob, a founding member of the Toronto Teachers Flying Squad.

The Toronto Teachers Flying Squad is unique because it draws its members from several unions. "We are open to all educators," Rob continues. "The idea behind this coalition was to have a space, which crosses some of the unions, so that elementary teachers, secondary teachers, and Catholic teachers could all work together, which we don¹t often see from our unions." Although they just started a few months ago, they already have more than 20 members on call.


The power of flying squads to make a significant difference in people¹s lives has struck a chord among unionized workers with flying squads sprouting across the union movement in Ontario. Their potential is vast. "My dream is that anywhere an injustice is taking place, and people call for help, to have union members there in force to help them in their battles," says Watson. "A lot of repressive laws would become inoperable." The significance of flying squads goes far beyond their capacity to mitigate the effects of capitalism on specific individuals. What is particularly exciting about their emergence is not only their success at "beating back the corporate attack", but their potential to help end this attack altogether.

By focusing on employed and unionized workers, flying squads tap into the most potent source of resistance to the capitalist bulldozer. Employed workers occupy a unique structural position in society. Since the employing class depends on us selling our labour, we have a special power (and responsibility) in the struggle for social justice.

However, our power as employed workers remains largely untapped. Unions mobilize our collective strength to improve our wages and working conditions, but this tends to be the limit and only scratches the surface of our potential. In reality, we have much more power than our employers would have us believe. There is no reason why we could not operate our workplaces democratically, reaping the full product of our labour. Instead of following the dictates of our employers and producing whatever makes a profit for them, we could democratically decide what, when and how to produce, taking into consideration our collective needs and that of our shared environment.

But there is a gap between what we are objectively able to achieve and what appears possible in the minds of most workers. While the global justice movement has made considerable headway in recent years on this front, most workers in the overdeveloped world still believe that another world is not possible. This gap reflects the crisis of working class self-organization. This crisis often paralyses the working class, and flying squads are key to overcoming this paralysis.

The crisis of working class self-organization is produced not only by deliberate disinformation and propaganda of the corporate media, but also by our actual life-experiences under capitalism. For example, the experience of having to compete with each other for work atomizes us and stunts our capacity for collective action. Similarly, experiencing our workplaces as dictatorships of our employers pacifies us. This contributes to our transformation into spectators rather than actors. A whole range of our abilities atrophy as a result of life under capitalism.

In response, flying squads help foster our capacities for collective action. They give us an opportunity to experience our collective power to effect change.

Such experiences are transformative: they develop our abilities and feed our imaginations, extending the horizon of possibilities. By developing abilities that normally atrophy under capitalism, flying squads help overcome the crisis of working-class self-organization.

Flying Squads and Unions

Flying squads build on the achievements of unions and help to overcome the crisis of working class self-organization by facilitating collective action beyond the limits of unions. The "no strike, no lockout" clause that is part of every collective agreement in Canada pacifies us by cutting us off from our power to disrupt the functioning of our workplaces during the lives of our collective agreements. This "class truce" demonstrates both the power and the limit of unions today.

By mobilizing workers for direct action between rounds of bargaining, when disruption of workplaces is prohibited by collective agreements, flying squads maintain mobilization and continue to develop our capacities for collective action.

But in order for flying squads to be effective, they must work as autonomous organizations, rather than committees of union locals. This approach is vital if flying squads are to exceed the limits of unions.

The CUPE 3903 Flying Squad maintains its autonomy by structuring itself as a separate organization from the union with a common membership. It is completely separate from all the decision-making and financial structures of the local.

Similarly, the Toronto Teachers Flying Squad aims to maintain autonomy with respect to the unions from which it draws its members.

According to Euan Gibb of CAW 707 Flying Squad: "There is no formalized relationship" between flying squads and the local and national executives in the CAW. Watson characterizes the relationship as one of "give and take." "As a staff member of the union, I try to respect the autonomy of the flying squads. At the same time they appreciate any support they can get from the national union."

Beck is more critical of how this relationship actually takes place on the ground. "Some local executives are still not completely for this method of getting the message out, but they are in the minority."

Flying squads have generally been received by union executives with caution and ambivalence. "They're not against it, but they're not wonderfully supportive either," explains Rob specifically with respect to the OSSTF executive. "They won't allow you to identify yourself as a union member" at flying squad actions.

Flying squads have become a pole of attraction for activists in locals dominated by conservative leaders who practice "business unionism" - treating unions as businesses that provide services to members in exchange for dues payments. Such locals themselves contribute to the crisis of working-class self-organization by discouraging members' self-activity. Flying squads pose a threat to such union leaders' positions by fostering membership activism, which bolsters left opposition currents in these unions.

But even unions that practice "social unionism" ­ making unions part of struggles for social justice ­ have not fully embraced flying squads. Progressive union leaders would be wise to recognize the different roles flying squads and unions are able to play. Both unions and flying squads work best by respecting each other¹s roles in our common struggle.

Perhaps the greatest mockery of the flying squad phenomenon has been the Ontario Federation of Labour¹s (OFL) Solidarity Network. While the objectives of this network were ostensibly similar to those of flying squads, its top-down structure prevented it from being effective. All actions had to be cleared by the OFL bureaucracy, including its President, Wayne Samuelson. Rather than fostering workers" participation, the Solidarity Network simply reproduced the same decision-making structures that turn people into spectators under capitalism. As a result, the Solidarity Network was a flop. The link to subscribe to it on the OFL website aptly leads to a dead end.

In contrast, flying squads help overcome the crisis of working-class self-organization and reduce the gap between what is objectively possible for us to achieve and what appears possible in the minds of most workers. They are a key next step in the development of workers' abilities to govern themselves and hint at the self-management of our workplaces that is vital if we are to build a truly democratic society.

Alex Levant is member of CUPE 3903.

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