Canadian News

Parliament 1, CUPW 0-the letter of the law prevails

Ian Urquhart November 6 1978
Canadian News

Parliament 1, CUPW 0-the letter of the law prevails

Ian Urquhart November 6 1978

Parliament 1, CUPW 0-the letter of the law prevails

Canadian News

For an agonizing week, as the whole country watched, the rule of law and the rights of labor were in direct conflict while the federal government and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers slugged it out. When the union went on strike, the government introduced a bill ordering its members back to work. But they stayed on strike. When the union maintained picket lines around postal stations across the country, the government sought injunctions against them. But they kept on picketing. Only when the government ¿ threatened to fire each and every strik§ ing worker did the union surrender. ; After striking for nine days—the last 8 seven illegally—the union ordered its ° members back to work just before the g government deadline. Conceded union § president Jean-Claude Parrot: “We £ have no other choice.” 8

For Parrot and his colleagues on the union executive, the last few hours before the surrender were crammed with activity as they tried desperately to salvage a deteriorating situation. Stunned by Postmaster-General Gilles Lamontagne’s threat to fire striking workers, their first response, on the morning of the last day, was to call meetings of the union locals for that afternoon. But some locals had already met and decided on their own to go back to work. By lunch hour, about one-third of the inside workers were back on the job. Playing for time, the union executive

tried to resume negotiations with the government, taking the unusual step of using former labor minister John Munro as an intermediary. Munro presented André Ouellet, the acting labor minister, with a list of union demands, including the reinstatement of Montreal postal workers who had been fired for disciplinary reasons, and the establishment of a new grievance procedure whereby suspended employees would remain on the job until their case had

been heard by an arbitrator. But the government was in no mood to negotiate.

Pressure increased that afternoon when the RCMP raided the union’s headquarters in Ottawa and its local offices across the country to gather evidence to prosecute the leaders of the strike. Parrot and four others were charged with violating the back-to-work bill passed by Parliament, and face up to two years in jail.

While the Mounties were still searching through the union’s files at the Ottawa office, Parrot and his executive drove across town to the headquarters of the Canadian Labor Congress, whose 30-member executive council was meeting to discuss, the postal situation. The CLC, representing most of the country’s big unions, was their last chance. In a brief appearance before the executive council, Parrot stated the case of the postal workers and asked for help. “They wanted support in more than just words,” says one insider. “The implication was they wanted a general strike.” They were politely rebuffed.

Isolated and discouraged, Parrot and his executive returned to their own offices to begin informing their members the strike was off. But for the five-man national executive, there was a final humiliation in store the following day in an appearance before the Ontario Supreme Court to face charges of violating the back-to-work bill. Mr. Justice D.F.

The precedents

Parliament has ended 13 strikes with emergency legislation, and prevented one in 1960. The list:

1950—railway workers

1958—B.C. ferry workers

1960—railway workers

1966—railway workers

1972 (July)—Quebec longshoremen

1972 (August)—B.C. longshoremen

1973— railway workers

1974— grain handlers

1975 (March)—B.C. longshoremen 1975 (April)—Quebec longshoremen

1976— Halifax longshoremen

1977— air traffic controllers 1978 (Oct. 18)—postal workers 1978 (Oct. 24)—Great Lakes marine


O’Leary said the five would be released pending trial only if Parrot publicly declared—in a statement dictated by the judge—the strike “invalid.” After huddling for about an hour, Parrot and his four colleagues chose to make the declaration rather than go to jail.

For the union leaders, the humbling finish to the strike contained a valuable lesson: they had clearly misjudged their opponent, believing they were fighting a Trudeau government that had lost all its credibility and had suffered a grievous defeat at the polls on the eve of the strike. They had beaten the government before in illegal strikes in 1965 and 1974 and were confident they would do it again. In fact, of course, it was not

the government that ordered the union back to work, but Parliament. And the vote in the House of Commons was an overwhelming 162 to 10, wTith only the NDP in opposition.

If the postal workers misjudged the public mood, the government just as badly miscalculated the strength of the union. The cabinet had been told by the post office that Parrot and his executive represented a radical fringe of postal workers and that the vast majority would obey a back-to-work order from Parliament. However in the major centres, where it counts, the strike held for a full week after Parliament acted, forcing the government to take increasingly extreme measures to bring it to an end.

What happens now at the post office? While the postal workers are back on the job, they are angry and the immediate future will probably bring numerous slowdowns and disruptions. Warned a bitter Parrot as he ordered his members back to work: “We will continue to have poor postal service.” Looking farther ahead, the postal workers will be in a legal position to strike again in 1980, and will probably exercise the right, unless there are drastic changes in the interim.

The post office may not survive another strike. In recent years, it has lost 40 per cent of its parcel-post business to more reliable private couriers. Even government-owned Air Canada has begun competing with the post office with its Couriair service launched this week. Over-all mail volume is down 10 per cent compared to 1977. Increasingly business is turning to facsimile machines and other electronic forms of communication to replace the postal service. The mailman, it seems, is going the way of the milkman.

Ian Urquhart