During the postal disputes of the late 1970s Jean-Claude Parrot, the iron-willed leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), wore a lapel button that held out the promise of labor peace in the embattled mail service. “A Crown corporation will deliver,” read the slogan. But as Canadians braced themselves for a national postal strike which could begin as early as next week, it was apparent that the 1981 transformation of Canada Post from a government department into a Crown corporation has not produced the successes that many had hoped for.
Armed with last week’s strike mandate from 80 per cent of the 23,000 inside postal workers represented by CUPW—the most militant of Canada Post’s four trade unions—there were concerns in some quarters that Parrot might follow the well-worn path to another postal strike. As chief negotiator in 1975 and then as union president, he has led CUPW through five sets of contract negotiations and two national strikes—a 10-day stoppage in 1978 and another 42-day mail tie-up in 1981. Five years ago Parrot spent two months in an
Ottawa jail after defying back-to-work legislation during the 1978 strike.
Still, there were indications that another strike might yet be prevented. The brinkmanship and open hostility that once marked negotiations between the post office and its inside workers were missing, and both sides insisted that a strike was far from inevitable. Parrot initially expressed “a certain optimism” that the basis for a settlement might be found in a report being prepared by federal conciliator Stanley Hartt. Last week Hartt, a Montreal labor lawyer, showed preliminary drafts of his findings to union and postal officials before asking for an extension until early this week of the deadline for turning his report over to federal Labor Minister William McKnight. But when Hartt does report his findings, the union—if it cannot reach an agreement with Canada Post—can strike seven days later.
Meanwhile, negotiations —deadlocked in mid-February over issues including job security, working hours and pay—resumed last week. “We don’t have much time to avoid a strike, and I think we should try to use all the time we have,” declared Parrot as he returned to the bargaining table. Added Canada Post spokesman John Caines: “Everybody knows that it is worth sticking around to try to tie things together.”
At issue are Parrot’s demands for job
security and Canada Post president Michael Warren’s determination to eradicate the corporation’s $300-million-ayear operating deficit. In the past two years about 2,000 jobs have been lost through resignations and retirements emdash;and union spokesmen claim the corporation has indicated that another 3,000 may be eliminated. Canada Post wants to step up automation, increase the use of part-time workers and shift employees in a given area to where they are most needed.
Parrot is demanding not only job security for his members but also more jobs through such measures as a reduced work week and the opening of new postal substations. On the pay issue, the union demanded hourly increases of 85 cents and 70 cents for inside workers, who currently earn a maximum of $12.68 an hour, while Canada Post offered 37 cents and 38 cents more per hour in the first and second years of a two-year contract.
But two factors are critical in the current efforts to avert a strike. For one thing, postal tensions have eased somewhat because of the streamlined techniques involved in negotiating with a Crown corporation. Before Canada Post was set up, the postal department played a secondary role in labor negotiations to the Treasury Boardemdash;a government department which controls the
federal pursestrings but tended to have little understanding of postal problems. For another thing, both Parrot and Warren have a large personal stake in making the corporation work.
Parrot, 48, who started as a Montreal postal clerk in 1954, argued for years that if the post office remained a government department it would continue to be inefficientemdash;and too close to its political masters. Warren, 47, the former chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, was picked in 1981 to be the first head of the postal corporation and challenged to make the mail run on time, soothe the troubled unions and erase by 1986-87 the annual deficit of almost $1 billion.
Still, a desire to make the new Crown corporation work is virtually the only thing that the soft-spoken Parrot and the self-assured Warren have in common. And with the CUPW rank and file solidly behind him, Parrot insisted last week that he had no intention of watering down his basic demands. But Ottawa had even more reason than usual for wanting to avoid the disruption and economic cost of a postal strike. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would be bound to consider such a strike a major embarrassment as he prepares for a carefully orchestrated economic summit with labor and business leaders, scheduled in Ottawa for March 22-23.lt;£?
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.