Fredericton and Oromocto postal workers joined postal workers in nine other locations across Canada on a rotating strike one day before the Crown corporation instituted a lock-out on June 14. The federal government government has since enacted back-to-work legislation despite opposition from the NDP. Postal workers voted overwhelmingly to strike in response to attempts to implement a two-tier wage system, reduced benefits, an inferior pension and weaker job security.
On the morning of June 14th, letter carriers in Fredericton tried to deliver mail but were quickly stopped by their employer, Canada Post Corporation. Canada Post had started a nation-wide lock-out after 12 days of rotating strikes at postal facilities across the country. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) drew attention to the fact that Canada Post was breaking the law by refusing to deliver mail.
The Harper government swiftly introduced Bill C-6, which would remove the rights of the postal workers to strike and forced them to return to work with a wage increase lower than the final offer made by the employer. Canada Post’s final offer included a 7.7% wage increase over 4 years while the imposed settlement included a 7.25% wage increase over the same period of time. After a marathon debate in Parliament that started June 24th and ended June 26th, the Bill passed and postal workers returned to work on June 27th. Postal workers in St. John’s chanted, “So-So, So, Solidarity!” as they returned to work.
Postal workers have been in a legal strike position since May 24th when union members handed Canada Post their strongest strike mandate in history. The vote, which had the largest turn out in the union’s history, resulted in 94.5% voting in favour of strike action. Workers voted to strike against Canada Post’s proposals to pay new workers 30 per cent less and give them reduced benefits, an inferior pension and weaker job security.
Mike Palecek, recording secretary of the Vancouver local of CUPW points out in Fightback on May 25th that, “The two-tiered system is an old trick used by employers to divide and conquer the workforce. In grocery stores across Canada, two-tiered wage plans, brought in throughout the 1990s, led to the steady erosion of wages and benefits for all workers. Today, the grocery stores are full of people making poverty level wages. The bosses at Canada Post have the same plan in mind.”
Also rejected by CUPW, a union that brought us maternity leave, were cuts to postal workers’ extended health care plan, replacement of their sick leave plan with an inferior short-term disability plan contracted out to Manulife and the adoption of an unsafe delivery procedure involving longer routes and the transport of double bundles. Canada Post has one of the highest injury rates of any workforce in Canada with over 9,000 CUPW members reporting injuries last year. “With over 20,000 letter carriers out in the community every day, and tens of thousands of other workers doing repetitive work inside, it is no surprise that these injury rates are so high. This is a union that needs its sick time,” stresses Palecek.
Robin Vose, President of the Faculty Association for the University of St. Thomas (FAUST), in a letter to Denis Lemelin, President of CUPW, states, “We were shocked to learn that Canada Post is proposing to cut 7000 jobs in order to reduce their payroll. This means that the remaining workers will be expected to do more with less, which has implications for their health and safety, as well as the quality of service. We are also concerned that Canada Post is demanding lower rates for current temporary employees and fewer benefits for new hires. This is deplorable, for it targets the corporation’s most vulnerable workers. We support CUPW’s vision for the future of the public postal service: not a corporation preoccupied with profit and a skeleton workforce, but that of a ‘A Modern Post Powered by People’.”
Postal workers point out that Canada Post, a Crown corporation, has been profitable for the last 16 years, garnering a net profit of $281 million in 2009, its last reported year.
The newly formed Student Worker Action Coalition in Fredericton are supporting CUPW in their struggle against Canada Post and the larger austerity measures being forced upon workers and students. Coalition members joined the picket line on June 12th at 11:00pm when postal workers in Fredericton began their 24-hour strike. The coalition hopes to combat the anti-worker, anti-union misinformation being promulgated by mainstream media outlets and Canada Post.
In their call to support striking postal workers, the coalition states, “The willingness to stand up against austerity and demand the need for strong unions is critical for our entire society as income gaps widen and social services are cut and eliminated. The postal workers are standing up and fighting for themselves, for us, and for the future generations of workers, students, and all who suffer under neoliberal capitalism’s brutal system. We hope to stand with them, and that you’ll join us.”
On June 21st, almost 200 people gathered at MP’s offices in Fredericton, Miramichi, Moncton and Campbellton. In Fredericton, postal workers and their allies occupied the office of their MP, Keith Ashfield, for almost two hours to send a clear message against back- to-work legislation. Fredericton postal workers returned to their MP’s office on the morning of June 22nd to find it closed. “We wanted to make sure that our MP knew our views before he voted for a legislation–a legislation that will affect our livelihoods and how we go to work everyday. The legislation is denying our collective bargaining rights and the right to strike. We left peacefully yesterday with the intention of coming back today so we could have the opportunity to talk to our MP and this is what we are met with– a sign on the MP’s doors that says closed due to staff shortages. This is what democracy looks like today in Canada. When there is civil disobedience that challenges the government, we are met with closed, locked doors. This is the Harper Government today,” said Ruth Breen, spokesperson for Fredericton and Oromocto’s CUPW Strike Committee outside the closed MP’s office.
On June 23rd, over 100 locked-out postal workers and their supporters marched against back-to-work legislation through the streets of downtown Fredericton.
“Our struggle will set the tone for the many fights that will inevitably rise against the new Harper majority government. A defeat would prepare the way for a series of attacks against the broader public sector. A victory would send Stephen Harper’s government a powerful message that the labour movement will not be pushed around,” says Palecek, who was carried out of his Conservative MP’s office in Vancouver by police on June 20th.
In response to the passing of the back-to-work legislation in Parliament, Denis Lemelin, National President and Chief Negotiator for the union, said, “We are returning to work, but we are not defeated. CUPW has been legislated back to work in the past and that has not stopped us from continuing our struggle for justice and dignity. The government cannot legislate away our solidarity and determination. We will continue to work with all of the groups and organizations that have supported us, including labour unions, women’s groups, students, pensioners and our community and political allies to fight for decent jobs and pensions for all working people.”
The union will be going to arbitration with Canada Post starting August 18th after mediation between the union and Canada Post was adjourned on June 30th due to what the union says was “intransigent and unreasonable negotiation positions taken by the employer.”
Tracy Glynn is on the board of the NB Media Co-op.