Canadians embrace the urban myth that postal workers strike regularly, usually at Christmas and always over money. That's as far from the truth as believing Stephen Harper is a feminist. The last pan-Canadian strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) was in 1997 but that will soon change.
CUPW commenced negotiations for its urban bargaining unit in October 2010. Within hours of presenting their demands to the union's bargaining committee, management representatives met with members at work, promoting the corporation's proposals in a well-coordinated campaign to cause confusion and division among the membership. Canada Post Corporation (CPC) intends to roll back decades of progress and introduce a new category of more highly exploited workers into the urban workforce. They are overtly encouraging existing employees to sacrifice their future co-workers in the name of management's "Modern Post" scheme.
Everywhere we look we can see how corporations and governments are attempting to force concessions on workers and attack fundamental principles of workplace safety, job and economic security, reducing wages and benefits to an unacceptable level. What's happening at Canada Post is no exception. CPC wants to gut our collective agreement for the next wave of workers as they plan for a future where workers have weaker rights, benefits and protection.
With sixteen consecutive profitable years for CPC and the Modern Post as the backdrop to negotiations, CUPW's demands are simple. They fall under the themes of respect, equality and the right to share in the benefits of technology. In contrast, CPC wants to roll portions of our collective agreement back to the 1970s.
CPC intends to replace our long-held sick leave credit system with a drastically inferior short term disability (STD) plan controlled by the financial firm Manulife. Already imposed on other CPC bargaining units, the STD plan has generated numerous complaints and complications and invades medical privacy. CPC plans to penalize injured workers by reducing compensation to 75% of our income at the same time as new equipment and work methods are being introduced, which will lead to more work-related injuries for postal workers.
Another important goal of CPC is to change the collective agreement so that employees hired after the signing of the new contract would be paid at a much lower rate and be required to work seven years to reach the same maximum rate that current employees earn. New employees would also have to work longer before seeing an increase in vacation leave, and would have an inferior pension plan. CPC also plans to reduce the maximum amount of vacation time for postal workers from seven weeks to six weeks for workers with 28 years of service. These concessions violate CUPW's fundamental principle of equality.
The stakes are high for CUPW, the labour movement and the future of public services, including the post office. During recent minority Tory governments, Harper's ministers said they had no plans to privatize the post office, but allowed partial deregulation, preparing for the future. CUPW's diligence in working with communities has been an important strategy to counter attempts by capitalist think-tanks to diminish the importance of postal service. Now that the Tories have a majority, we will see what they really want to do to postal services.
The Modern Post's focus is serving large volume mailer corporations. CUPW's focus is ensuring the people of Canada and Quebec have access to quality service that meets their diverse needs. Canada Post's transformation of the post office into "the Modern Post" includes new equipment, delivery methods and reduced labour costs. Winnipeg's new processing plant was slated to be the corporation's flagship, the first centre to have all aspects of the transformation implemented. Despite union objections, CPC imposed a fatally flawed "multiple bundle" delivery model on letter carriers, forcing workers to work unsafely, balancing bulky, oversize mail on their arms while they carry letters and ad-mail in their hands. Groups of Winnipeg carriers rebelled against the forced conversion to the new method by walking off the job on Nov. 22, 2010, sparking a spirit of resistance among postal workers across Canada and Quebec.
On May 17, CPC presented a new proposal showing negligible movement. CPC appears ready to gamble on whether or not the members will act on the record-high 95% strike mandate to fight for our future. With the election of a majority Conservative government, perhaps management believes there is an opportunity to achieve their goals by having parliament impose them through legislation?
Unions are the only entities capable of blocking the dismantling of our rights and social infrastructure but in order to do that we have to mobilize our membership to take on the government's agenda. At what point does labour say enough is enough and really mean it? This is the first pan-Canadian labour confrontation in post-election Harper Canada. If CPC obtains the concessions they seek, who is next? CPC anticipates an immediate flood of retirements and many militants of the 1980s have already gone. The leaderships of other unions are supporting CUPW in this struggle but the test will be to see how that support will manifest itself.
CUPW faces many challenges. The majority of members have never experienced a lengthy strike, and in many cases have never taken strike action. The combination of inexperience at the rank and file level of the union, the virulent animosity demonstrated by CPC management and an anti-labour government create an unpredictable situation for the union. This round of bargaining will make an indelible mark on the future of the post office. The determination and strength of the membership will be the key to what that future looks like.
Cindy McCallum Miller is a long-time union activist and former National Director for the Prairie Region of CUPW who is currently a rank and file postal worker in Castlegar, BC.