Canadian News

23,000 rebels with a dubious cause

Ian Urquhart October 30 1978
Canadian News

23,000 rebels with a dubious cause

Ian Urquhart October 30 1978

23,000 rebels with a dubious cause

Canadian News

Ian Urquhart

It was a wet, cold Wednesday night in Ottawa, but a crowd was gathering outside the city’s main Post Office plant on the banks of the Rideau River. A few hours before, Parliament had passed a bill ordering the employees at the plant and others like it across the country back to work at midnight after a twoday strike. As midnight approached,'the employees were assembling. But, at the urging of their leaders in the 23,000member Canadian Union of Postal Workers, they were not going back inside. Intead, they were beefing up the picket line to ensure the plant stayed shut and the strike kept going.

At the stroke of midnight, a union steward called for a cheer, and 100-odd picketing employees responded: “We won’t go back.” Minutes later, two of their colleagues did go back—amid shouts of “scab” and “suck.” No one followed. Two men driving trucks tried to enter the plant as well, but the pickets blocked the way. The rear window of one truck was smashed. (“It fell out,” explained a striking postal worker.) It was an early, and easy, victory for the postal workers. But there was fear written beneath their defiant expressions that night as they began to tackle not only the Post Office but also Parliament and the law of the land.

On Parliament Hill the next morning, the cabinet met, and there was concern on the faces of the ministers too, as they took their places at the oval-shaped table. Their nightmares had become real. Parliament had legislated an end to a strike—by a vote of 162 to 10—but the employees were refusing to go back to work. It was not the first time. In 1975, Parliament legislated an end to a 25day strike by Quebec longshoremen, but they stayed away from the docks another 19 days. The longshoremen were a different matter, however, because they go largely unnoticed by the public despite their crucial role in the economy. How, the ministers asked themselves, should the government respond to open defiance of the law by such a highprofile group as the postal workers?

Despite Conservative cries for action, the cabinet decided to do nothing at once, in the hope that the postal workers, after cooling off, would obey the law. That happened in the smaller cities. But the big mail-handling cen-

tres like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa were still virtually shut down 48 hours after Parliament had ordered them reopened.

Still, the cabinet hesitated to use the full force of the law, which provides for stiff fines for union leaders and members caught violating its provisions. The government had no wish to create martyrs. Instead, it began to seek injunctions against picketing. It was felt that once the intimidating presence of the picket line was removed, the majority of the postal workers would go back.

The union responded by challenging the back-to-work bill in the courts, and hinted broadly that it would defy antipicketing injunctions. By week’s end, the situation was still unclear, but' hopes for an early end were fading.

The key to ending the strike is the 5,200-member Toronto local, the union’s biggest. If Toronto goes back to work, most other striking workers, with the exception of the militant Montreal local, are expected to follow. Then the Post Office could isolate Montreal and move mail around it. But it can’t operate effectively without Toronto.

Unlike the Montreal local, which is united in its hatred of Post Office management, Toronto is bitterly divided between militant and moderate union members. There is still resentment left over from the 1975 postal strike, when some 800 employees in Toronto broke ranks with their union and went back to work early. They were later fined by the local. Now the ranks of the moderates have been swelled considerably and, although official results were not released, it is said that less than 60 per cent of the local voted to strike this time, compared to a national average of 78.5 per cent.

I Average basic wages for inside postal workers Hour|y Annua| Paid $7.16 $14,9431 Offered 7.58 15,812 Demanded 8.25 17,218 Including overtime and shift premiums, inside workers now average about $17,140 in annual pay, compared to the national industrial average of about $13,825.

Another key factor in the continuation of the strike could be the support the postal workers receive from other unions. Last week, they were backed by an array of telegrams from labor leaders denouncing Parliament’s action, and their picket lines were swelled by members of other unions. The postal workers are, however, almost as unpopular inside the labor movement as outside because of their uncompromising, self-righteous stands on various issues, and it is doubtful support from other unions would lead to anything like a general strike, which they might need to defeat the government. Indeed, by week’s end, the letter carriers, who have their own union, were pouring through the postal workers’ picket lines to work.

But even if they do go back to work soon, the public has not seen the end of problems at the Post Office. Having been legislated back to work, postal workers might respond by deliberately slowing down mail processing. Labormanagement relations, already horrendously bad, could worsen.

Some Post Office officials hoped that, on the contrary, this strike could improve relations by discrediting the

union leadership and convincing the moderates to take over. One sign of such a move was a letter circulated by Orangeville, Ontario, postal workers: “The majority of postal workers who believe in doing eight hours work for eight hours pay are being overridden by irresponsible, Communist-inspired troublemakers who want to get paid for nothing.” Snorted union President JeanClaude Parrot: “Where’s Orangeville?” The current dispute between the union and the government is not really over wage rates, because the postal workers already make more than the national average (see table). Rather, the argument is over technological change, use of casual employees, electronic surveillance of postal workers on the job, and a host of other issues involving labor-management relations. After a decade of two-way shouting, relations between the union and management are so bad that 17 months of socalled bargaining over a new contract produced almost no agreement on even the most minor items in dispute. Lastditch intervention by acting Labor Minister André Ouellet and Assistant Deputy Minister Bill Kelly, the pair that settled the letter carriers’ dispute with the Post Office in September, failed even to bring agreement on a process for resuming talks.

The government’s response to the situation will be to bring in a bill, probably next week, to convert the Post Office to a Crown corporation. But it may be too late to save the institution. A decade of division has left scars that cannot easily be erased.

Why the crackdown came so fast

The postal workers feel discriminated against and it is not hard to understand why. For the very week Parliament legislated away their right to strike, engineers and deck officers on ships serving the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence seaway, a group that is perhaps more crucial to the economy than the postal workers, were striking with impunity. And the month before, the letter carriers, the postal workers’ sister union, downed their mailbags without provoking parliamentary intervention. Notwithstanding the fact the letter carriers ended their strike quickly and the seamen appeared headed toward early settlement as well, the question remained why the postal workers were singled out.

The government’s answer was that the postal workers and Post Office management were so far apart in their search for a new contract, with 264 clauses still in dispute by the union’s count, that it might take weeks or even months to settle. And, the government added, the country could not tolerate a long halt to postal services while the two sides bargained. But the country, and the government, did endure a 42-day strike by the postal workers in 1975. The real reason for the government’s swift response this time is that the public is so completely fed up with disruptions in postal service that it has put tremendous pressure on the government, and Parliament, to act.

The government was also fearful that failure to act would lead to increased public pressure for withdrawal of the right to strike in any "essential” service, not just the Post Office. While the bill giving public servants the right to strike in 1967 was supported by all the major parties and all still back the principle, back-bench MPS in each party are feeling the heat in their ridings from an irritated public. Says one cabinet minister: "We did not want the whole system to be judged by the case of the postal workers alone.”

Ian Urquhart