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May 31, 2011

Postal Workers: The Struggle Continues

SS Editorial

Postal Workers

Canada’s 48,000 inside public sector postal workers may go on strike in June. If so, this will be the first labour test of the Harper majority Conservative government – and the first test of the ‘Orange surge’ propelling the NDP to official opposition status.

What are the issues and why is the postal workers’ struggle so important?

A two tiered workforce or an expanded postal service?

Canada’s postal workers played a vanguard labour role in the 1960s and 1970s. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) struck illegally in 1965 and pioneered public sector collective bargaining rights. They struck repeatedly in the 1970s and dramatically improved wages, working conditions – including regulation of new technology, and were the first to achieve maternity leave and pay in the federal public sector.

However, in 1981 Canada Post was reorganized to become a profit oriented Crown Corporation. Since then, CUPW has struggled to maintain job security in the face of contracting out of postal outlets, intensified mechanization, and route measurement for outside workers (letter carriers). In 2003 the members took a concessions agreement that eliminated severance pay, though CUPW managed to bring 6000 rural and suburban mail deliverers in as a separate bargaining unit (whose contract expires this December).

In the current round of bargaining, as CUPW President Denis Lemelin puts it, the very future of Canada Post may be determined. Will it continue as a public service or is it being prepared for privatization?

Canada Post management has launched an aggressive business plan to cut the number of workers, intensify the work of the remaining workers, and radically cheapen the job rate (total compensation) by concession bargaining.

To these ends, Canada Post has announced a $2 billion investment strategy in new forms of automation that will cut the inside workforce by 7,000 and the intensification of delivery work for outside workers by motorization and double bundling of carried materials. And in bargaining, management proposes to create a two tier workforce with new hires getting 22% less pay, elimination of the sick bank, and less job security. So, not only will there be 7,000 fewer workers, but the job rate will be cut by 30%.

The response of CUPW workers has been strong. 94.8% voted to give the bargaining team a strike mandate based on the highest voting turnout in a decade.

A Renewed Public Goods Vision

CUPW has approached this bargaining round with three principles: Respect; Equality; and Share the Benefits. Under Respect, the union’s position is bargaining should be for an improved job rate. Canada Post has been profitable for the last 16 years. Wages and benefits should be maintained and improved (with 50% of any wage increases to the lowest job categories), health and safety invested in, and more positions should be filled and made permanent. Nor is there an economic case to divide the work force by old and new workers to do exactly the same jobs.

Sharing the Benefits outlines a vision of Canada Post that is radically at odds with the politics of neo-liberalism – but is entirely affordable and the way forward to building Canada Post as a public corporation that can be a communications pioneer and financial innovator,

From CUPW’s perspective, Canada Post needs to move into electronic communications and to become a national public bank. In fact, the Post Office successfully ran the Canadian Postal Savings Bank from 1867 to 1969, while countries like France, Italy and New Zealand currently operate large public banks.

By reinvesting in new services, Canada Post could expand the workforce, pay for a better job rate, and better serve the Canadian public – with more home delivery, better courier services, and offer new, cheaper financial services. With 6500 postal outlets, the largest retail network in the country, Canada Post is well situated for these tasks.

Yes, paper mail volume has fallen by 17% since 2006 but other forms of communication have increased – and Canada Post unionized workers could be doing this new work.

Canada’s postal workers once led the way in union and social rights for all Canadian workers. They have a public vision that could renew that mandate if we all build solidarity for those leading the struggle.

La Lutte Continue!