CANADA

‘PALPABLE HATRED’

AFTER 13 DAYS OF WALKOUTS, OTTAWA APPOINTS A MEDIATOR TO INTERVENE IN THE POSTAL FEUD

BARRY CAME September 16 1991
CANADA

‘PALPABLE HATRED’

AFTER 13 DAYS OF WALKOUTS, OTTAWA APPOINTS A MEDIATOR TO INTERVENE IN THE POSTAL FEUD

BARRY CAME September 16 1991

‘PALPABLE HATRED’

CANADA

AFTER 13 DAYS OF WALKOUTS, OTTAWA APPOINTS A MEDIATOR TO INTERVENE IN THE POSTAL FEUD

The basic problem is this union. Faced with change, it does not know what to do. Instead of working with us to effect the changes in a manageable way, it simply floods the system with grievances in a desire to stop everything from changing.

—Gilles Courville, corporate manager, labor relations, Canada Post Corp.

Management is the fundamental problem. The style is military. They want to regulate everything, even the number of times we’re allowed to go to the toilet. They issue these ridiculous orders and they expect us to obey them unquestioningly. It really has created a horrible climate.

—Richard Forget, president, Montreal local, Canadian Union of Postal Workers

The gulf is wide at the Crown agency that handles, processes and delivers the vast bulk of Canada’s mail. Postal managers and postal workers are separated by much more than the contractual dispute that brought the mail almost to a standstill until the appointment of a federal mediator late last week resulted in a resumption—though possibly temporary—of normal service. Canada Post’s management views the 45,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers as, in the words of corporation vicepresident Harold Dunstan, “a dinosaur.” Many members of the union, in turn, clearly support national president Jean-Claude Parrot’s oftenstated contention that CUPW is engaged not only in a struggle over wages and jobs, but in an “ideological” confrontation with an “arrogant, overbearing and dictatorial” management team. As federal Labor Minister Marcel Danis noted last week as he appointed a mediator: “There is such palpable hatred that the two

sides can only talk now through intermediaries.”

The man selected by Danis as mediator, Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice Alan Gold, 74, made a return to work a precondition for taking on the job. Both sides expressed satisfaction with the appointment, and work resumed in less than 24 hours. Gold, the fluently bilingual son of a Montreal clothing manufacturer, carries impeccable credentials for the difficult task at hand. He was called in to help end the armed confrontation with Quebec Mohawks at Oka last year and he has settled numerous labor disputes in the past, including a bitter 42-day postal strike in 1981 by 23,000 CUPW members. “He is a very skilled mediator and he has a good record of success,” said Dunstan. Parrot echoed the view, saying that Gold’s participation eased the union’s fears that the mediation effort was not sincere. Declared Parrot: “We doubt that Mr. Gold would accept to be part of any process which is only a charade to set the stage for legislation which would remove our right to negotiate.”

In returning to work, the union ended 13 days of rotating strikes that had crippled the mail service. On the day before Gold’s appointment, postal workers were on strike at 469 centres across the country in the most widespread walkouts of the entire dispute. The resumption of service brought some relief to those who have suffered most as a result of the strikes—pensioners, the unemployed, welfare recipients and others with government cheques trapped in the mail. The cheer was short-lived, however, when it became apparent that some payments were once again jeopardized—by a public-service strike (page 18).

Still, the mediator was unlikely to be able to negotiate a speedy and permanent end to the post office confrontation. Management and labor remained far apart on several major contractual issues. For letter carriers and inside workers, the union wants the average hourly wage of $14.41—which has remained the same since the last contract expired in 1989—raised by a total of 20 per cent to $17.31 by July, 1993. But management,

which says that the current average wage totals about $17.95 when benefits are included, has offered an 11.5-per-cent increase in the base wage (to $16.06 in 1993). Even more difficult is the union’s desire to convert existing part-time and casual labor into 2,700 new fulltime jobs. Management wants to trim the labor force or, at the very least, ensure that job expansion is tied to increases in revenues. “Job security is the basic issue,” claimed the Montreal local’s Forget. “We want to get rid of this system where part-timers, without union benefits, are constantly being used to take the jobs of full-time workers with union benefits.”

But beyond the immediate contractual dispute, deeper problems are more likely to give Gold his greatest difficulties in attempting to resolve the dispute. Behind the poisonous relationship between Canada Post’s management and the militant membership of CUPW is a profound disagreement over the fundamental principles that the corporation will pursue in coming years.

For his part, labor-relations manager Courville, who has been the corporation’s chief negotiator during the protracted contract negotiations, claims that the union is standing in the way of necessary change. Said Courville: “Management has been trying to introduce a new philosophy and new technology that will allow us to better service our clients, compete with our competitors and, hopefully, make a profit at the same time.” He pointed to attempts to introduce computerized video mail sorting as well as the restructuring of retail service outlets as signs of the new trend. “But every time we try to discuss these things with CUPW’s national executive, the response has been to file a grievance,” Courville complained. “There is now a backlog of around 150,000 grievances to be arbitrated.”

The view from the union is almost the mirror opposite. “We have nothing against new solutions which will improve service to the public and improve conditions for all post office workers,” said Forget. “But what we cannot accept is management’s continued refusal to deal with us on a reasonable basis.” He accused management of pursuing an unenlightened supervisory policy, claiming that there is harassment of workers over sick leave and a host of similar irritants.

Some other union members, both past and present, support that position. “This strike is just externalizing what happens at the post office day in and day out,” said Danny Mott, who quit his job as a Toronto letter carrier in 1990 because of what he claimed were unbearable tensions between management and union. Noted William MacDonald, 53, who for 33 years has worked as a letter carrier in Edmonton: “They seem to want all employees to be on half-time. They harass sick workers, abuse the contract.” Whatever the accuracy of the complaints levelled by management and workers, they underscore the poisoned atmosphere at Canada Post—and the enormous challenge facing mediator Alan Gold.

BARRY CAME in Montreal