CANADA

Violence on the lines

MARC CLARK July 6 1987
CANADA

Violence on the lines

MARC CLARK July 6 1987

Violence on the lines

CANADA

As the long day of picketing neared its end, Daniel Ernewein voiced a sense of relief. He and his fellow letter carriers had put up their picket lines outside a mail-sorting plant and two postal stations in Prince George, B.C., at 5:45 a.m. Linking arms to form a human chain, the picketers had managed to prevent outside workers and mail trucks hired by Canada Post from entering the postal facilities. They had also avoided the violent confrontations that have occurred on other picket lines around the country since the Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada (LCUC) began a series of rotating strikes on June 16. Then, at 7:55 p.m., with the last picketers gathered in front of the sorting plant, Ernewein saw a tractor-trailor approaching. “We linked arms and formed a line three-deep,” he said. “The truck downshifted, made the turn into the parking lot and kept coming. We had about 25 people, standing side by side. We were thinking, ‘He’s got to stop, he has to stop.’ But he didn’t.” The truck scattered picketers like bowling pins and sent a 46-year-old

woman to hospital with multiple fractures—an indication that the dispute between Canada Post and the 20,000member union was becoming increasingly bitter and dangerous. As the LCUC began its second week of rotating strikes, hundreds of striking letter carriers clashed with police and replacement workers on picket lines across Canada. In Ottawa, Canada Post negotiator Harold Dunstan refused to ease his demands for “fundamental change” in the letter carriers’ contract.

The post office says that the changes will increase productivity and help it eliminate a $129million operating deficit by next March, an action ordered by the federal government.

For his part, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called on negotiators for both parties to “get their heads together” and settle the dispute. Still, Mulroney firmly supported Labor

Minister Pierre Cadieux, who refused to appoint a mediator in the dispute despite a request from Canada Post. Cadieux’s reason: the parties were so far apart that mediation would be a waste of time.

Cadieux’s decision was condemned by both opposition parties. Liberal Leader John Turner said that Mulroney was inviting picket-line violence by refusing to intervene and allowing Canada Post to use replacement workers. Said Turner: “I warn him

that he is playing with fire because the post office is using the unemployed in an attempt to break the strike.”

As negotiations floundered in Ottawa, tension increased on the picket lines. In Mount Pearl, Nfld., a suburb of St. John’s, six picketers were arrested after scuffling with police. In Ottawa 20 letter carriers were arrested after attempting to block trucks and buses carrying mail and replacement workers. Across the Ottawa River in Hull, Que., striking letter carriers smashed the windows and mirrors of a bus carrying newly hired workers. In Hamilton a 29-year-old man was charged with assault after a replacement worker was sprayed in the face with z dog repellent. And in g Burlington, Ont., 64| year-old picketer Gor| don Gorman was hit 1 and slightly injured by a &t; car leaving a post office

parking lot.

In most cases, the violence was touched off by the presence of Canada Post casual workers. Corporation president Donald Lander had vowed to keep the mail moving by replacing the strikers with casuals—an option that

usually infuriates union members. But as the strike wore on, the tactic appeared to be having mixed results. Canada Post officials acknowledged that in Ottawa only 20 per cent of the mail was delivered during a one-day strike in that city.

At one point, Canada Post’s Dunstan offered to end the use of replacement workers because, he said, he was concerned that violence on the picket line threatened the safety of strikers and casuals alike. But when Cadieux refused to appoint a mediator, Canada Post withdrew the offer. Dunstan said that it was the responsibility of the union—not the post office—to curb picket-line violence. “We’re not out there with pickets banging on trucks,” he said. “We’re not throwing eggs at people. We’re not chasing people down the street, smashing windows.”

In the House of Commons, Mulroney defended the use of replacement workers. The former labor lawyer said that although he personally would not cross a picket line—“never have and never will”—the post office had an obligation to the public to deliver the mail. That view was not shared by every member of his caucus. Conservative MP Louis Plamondon, for one, joined the letter carriers on the picket line in Sorel, Que., 100 km northeast of Montreal. “I’m on the picket line because I’m against scabs,” said the MP for Richelieu riding, which includes Sorel. “This policy is reactionary, antidemocratic and totally deplorable.” In Ottawa, Guy St-Julien, Tory MP for the Quebec riding of Abitibi, also criticized Canada Post in the Commons for using casuals. Quebec provincial law bans the use of replacement workers in a legal strike.

But other Conservative MPs pressed the government to take a tougher stand. A Tory-dominated parliamentary committee urged the government to declare the mails an essential service and to ban all strikes by postal workers. Neither Mulroney nor Harvie Andre, the minister responsible for Canada Post, ruled out the use of legislation to force the letter carriers back to work.

In Prince George, Daniel Ernewein said that he hoped for an early and reasonable settlement—and for no more violent incidents. But he added that he is still determined to resist Canada Post’s demands for wide-ranging concessions. Added John Horsley, the soft-spoken president of the LCUC’S Prince George local: “If anything, it has strengthened our resolve. We are like family now.”

MARC CLARK

RICHARD HEFT