COVER

Post office showdown

MARC CLARK October 5 1987
COVER

Post office showdown

MARC CLARK October 5 1987

Post office showdown

In recent years Canada’s post office has often backed down in confrontations with its unions. The result was labor contracts studded with generous benefits that helped to drive the Canada Post Corp. deficit close to $1 billion. But this year, with the backing of a determined Conservative government, the Crown corporation has taken the offensive. In June it demanded wide-ranging concessions from its 20,000 letter carriers. The result: a 19-day strike. When Canada Post hired replacement workers—called scabs by the unions—the first ever, the picket lines turned into battlegrounds. Still, Canada Post set out last week to bring to heel the toughest of its eight unions, the 23,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW)—and made plans to hire more replacement workers if contract talks fail. “No longer will 23,000 guys hold 25 million Canadians to ransom,” said Canada Post official David Newman. ‘“We have a mandate to move the mail, come hell or high water. And we will.”

Negotiators for the two sides had until 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 30 to reach a deal and avoid a walkout by CUPW, which represents inside workers including postal clerks and mail sorters. If the strike goes ahead, union and postal officials said privately that it could be one of the most bitter in the post office’s history. Still, as bargaining continued in Ottawa’s Château Laurier hotel last week, both sides insisted that they could not afford to lose. “We have to win,” said Harold Dunstan, chief negotiator for Canada Post. “We have to have the right to run our business. Otherwise we will be back where we were—buying labor peace at an unreasonable price to the taxpayer.” Countered CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot: “We have to protect the jobs of our people. I’m not budging on that.”

If neither side gave ground, federal conciliator Claude Foisy, a Montreal labor lawyer, predicted a tough strike. “As long as the parties maintain their extreme positions,” Foisy said in a report to the government, “all we can do is let them engage in a clash of Titans in which the stronger will force the weaker to accept its position in its entirety.”

Last week both sides were girding for just such a confrontation. The post office placed radio and newspaper ads for replacement workers across the country. Applicants were promised $13.25 an hour plus a $200 bonus if they are called in to work during a strike. Canada Post also hired extra security personnel to guard plant entrances and videotape picket-line incidents. And it suspended

18 workers in Toronto for wearing buttons that said “Stamp Out Scabs.” Said Paul Heffernan, president of CUPW’S Toronto local: “They’re not preparing to negotiate. They’re preparing for war.” For its part, the union set up a picket

line at a Toronto hotel where Canada Post was interviewing potential replacement workers, hurled insults at those who went inside, and suggested to union members several ways of slowing post office business.

Both sides agreed that job security is the key issue. About 18,800 of CUPW’S members work in mail-processing plants. Their jobs are secure. But Canada Post’s plan to turn over many of its retail outlets to private companies poses a potential threat to the 4,200 union members behind the wickets in 417 city postal stations. The corporation already has more than 1,900 sub-post offices in small stores and shops run by private businesses. Now it plans to accelerate the privatization drive by turning over many of its larger

postal stations to private enterprise. In the next year it hopes to open 50 new postal franchises in suburban shopping centres and other locations, offering a full range of services.

The aim of the franchising drive, the post office says, is to cut labor costs, avoid the expense of building new postal stations in areas with expanding populations, and improve service. Under a

five-year plan approved last year by the federal cabinet, Canada Post must wipe out its $132-million operating deficit by 1989. But Parrot scoffed at suggestions that better service is the goal of franchising. The objective, he maintained, is to eliminate approximately 4,200 unionized jobs paying $13.43 an hour “and replace them with jobs in a drugstore at $5 an hour.”

The union contends that Canada Post could solve its deficit problem without franchising by letting postal stations offer new services. In particular, the union has proposed that post offices be allowed to sell wrapping paper, envelopes and greeting cards, fishing and hunting licences, and bus tickets, u In response, Dunstan z said that Canada Post 2 has experimented with

offering extra services and concluded that it was not profitable.

The corporation’s franchising plan suffered a setback on Sept. 1 when the Canada Labour Relations Board ruled that employees at a postal franchise in a suburban Toronto drugstore must receive the same wages and benefits as CUPW members. But Canada Post is awaiting a decision on its appeal of the ruling to the Federal Court of Canada. And Foisy’s conciliation report last week supported the corporation’s franchising plans. Foisy said that the post office should have the right to sell franchises as long as it guarantees jobs for CUPW clerks who are replaced. He also recommended that the union drop its proposals for new services in post offices and make concessions on existing job security guarantees. At present the contract provides ironclad security to any worker willing to relocate up to 40 km away. Foisy said that Canada Post should have the right to lay off any worker who refuses to relocate anywhere.

If there is a strike, union leaders say that they hope to lessen the impact of replacement workers by calling rotating walkouts, hitting different areas at different times. By doing that, said Ronald Lang, research director of the Canadian Labour Congress, strikers would lose less pay but still disrupt postal service. Rotating strikes proved highly effective during the letter carriers’ strike, which ended without the sweeping changes to union working rules that Canada Post had set out to achieve. Robert McGarry, president of the letter carriers’ union, said that Canada Post appeared to have learned nothing from the June walkout. “Because they took such a shellacking from us,” McGarry said, “they seem more determined than ever that they are going to take it out on CUPW.”

Canada Post officials, anticipating criticism of the use of replacement workers, have already said they will not be held responsible for picket-line violence. Still, such criticism is almost certain to follow. During the letter carriers’ strike, eight Conservative MPs from Quebec protested Canada Post’s hiring of replacement workers. “Scabs provoke violence, and I cannot accept that,” said Louis Plamondon, MP for the riding of Richelieu, northeast of Montreal, last week. “If a scab comes into my riding, I will be on the picket lines.” Canada Post was equally adamant that it had a responsibility to keep the mail moving. Spokesman David Newman warned that any attempt to block the mails through picket-line violence would bring swift legal action. With feelings running so high on both sides, though, such clashes seemed all but inevitable.

MARC CLARK