COVER

Anger on the postal picket line

MARC CLARK October 19 1987
COVER

Anger on the postal picket line

MARC CLARK October 19 1987

Anger on the postal picket line

The warning signals had little effect. Almost from the outset of the rotating strikes by postal workers on Sept. 29, Labor Minister Pierre Cadieux had warned that the government would not tolerate a protracted disruption of the postal service. But after Cadieux introduced legislation ordering an end to the walkouts—and proposed stringent legal sanctions against any strike leaders who disobeyed—the 23,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) launched a full-scale national strike. Officials at Canada Post, while denying that they sought back-to-work legislation, had said repeatedly that contract talks with the CUPW had stalled and that even the appointment of a mediator could achieve little. Although Canada Post negotiator Harold Dunstan said that the mail continued to move and that there was little violence on the picket lines, he added: “It’s certainly ready to blow at any time.”

The back-to-work legislation came nine days after the union began a series of rotating strikes. The bill gave the two sides 90 days to reach a settlement—or have one imposed on them by a federally appointed arbitrator. Any CUPW members who ignored the order would be subject to stiff fines and a ban on holding union office for five years. But the opposition prevented swift passage of the bill, and

the New Democrats said that they might use further delaying tactics. For their part, CUPW leaders said that the government and Canada Post had planned from the beginning to legislate an end to the strike and had only gone through the motions of negotiating, a charge that both denied. Said CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot: “The government is using the brute force of the law to achieve what it could not do by negotiation.”

The union responded by calling thousands of postal workers out of the plants and onto the picket lines. Canada Post reported that the union struck at the country’s 30 largest mail processing plants.

The strikers joined an estimated 5,000 union members who were off the job in more than 90 communities across Canada. Most of them had walked out for oneday strikes, but Canada Post locked out many of them for two or three days more. And the 3,400 members of the Montreal local, who had defied the national executive on the first day of the strike by walking off the job, stayed out. In turn, Canada Post used

helicopters to move mail out of some major sorting plants over the heads of pickets. The corporation bused in replacement workers it had hired and launched court actions to limit the number of pickets in some areas.

The picket lines were generally quiet, but there were scattered clashes as unionists attempted to stop the temporary workers, whom they denounced as scab labor. In Nanaimo, B.C., a man wearing a Halloween gorilla mask drove a busload of strikebreakers through a picket line and broke a man’s leg. In St. Catharines, Ont., five postal workers were charged with mischief after a bus carrying replacement workers had its headlights smashed. In Halifax, police in riot gear scuffled with pickets. And in Saint John, workers planned to toss bits of bread at replacement workers as they passed through the line. Alan Arsenault, chief steward of CUPW’s Fundy local, said that the message was simple: “You want to steal our g daily bread? Here, we’ll give it to you.” z Pay rates were not a 2 major issue in negotiations. Instead, the dis-

pute centres on Canada Post’s plan to close down some branches and farm out work to private franchise post offices. Canada Post, whose corporate plan calls for elimination of its deficit—$129 million last year—by 1988, says that none of its current employees would lose their jobs. But the union says that turning postal stations over to private business could mean that up to 4,200 employees who now hold coveted positions as wicket clerks would be shifted into less attractive jobs in mail-sorting plants.

Stephen Bauer, 35, a Saint John postal worker, worked night and evening shifts in the main postal plant in Saint John, N.B., for six years—and hated it. Then, in 1979, he got a day job as a wicket clerk at a downtown post office. “There was no comparison,” he said. “Five hours sorting postal coupons can feel like a death sentence.” If Bauer and other veteran clerks were moved back to mail plants, it would ripple through the ranks, forcing less senior postal workers down into poorer jobs and night shifts.

In the meantime, Parrot said he was convinced that the government and Canada Post wanted to legislate an end to the strike because it would almost certainly lead to an imposed settlement that would favor Canada Post on the franchising issue. Said Parrot: “Arbitration is always imposed by government to screw workers.” Parrot served three months in jail in 1980 after defying back-to-work legislation enacted three days into a 1978 CUPW strike. Cadieux’s bill provides for daily fines of up to $100,000 for the union, $50,000 for union leaders and $1,000 for regular members if they flout the law. Union vice-president Darrell Tingley called the bill the “most repressive legislation in Canadian history.”

Outside the House of Commons, Cadieux defended the legislation by saying that the two sides were so far apart that “there was no chance of reaching a negotiated settlement, short of a protracted strike.” But New Democratic postal critic Cyril Keeper charged that Cadieux had thwarted the talks. Said Keeper: “Even by threatening back-to-work legislation, he’s saying to management, ‘All you’ve got to do is sit on your duff and wait, and we’ll bail you out.’ ”

Union officials warned that Cadieux’s legislation could, in fact, worsen tensions. Said CUPW’s Tingley: “Legislation will not resolve the problems in the post office. It will only create problems.” Last week it became clear that even the threat of legislation had already done that.

—MARC CLARK in Ottawa