A bitter confrontation

MARCUS GEE June 29 1987

A bitter confrontation

MARCUS GEE June 29 1987

A bitter confrontation


By his own admission, Frank Knight is not a militant trade unionist. During 17 years as a post office truck driver in Montreal, he had never carried a picket sign. But when the 20,000-member Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada (LCUC) ordered a series of rotating strikes across the country last week, Knight did not hesitate to join the picket line outside the mammoth postal sorting station in the Montreal suburb of St. Laurent. He contends that post office management provoked the strike by demanding major concessions from the union. And like many of his fellow workers, Knight said that he felt anger, frustration and even sadness at having to go on strike. “We didn’t want trouble,” he said. “But they want to tear everything away from us.

What the hell are we supposed to do? I’m 49. I don’t want to start looking for another job.”

Similar comments were made by thousands of letter carriers last week as their union staged strikes in at least a dozen cities from Victoria to Halifax. Tempers ran high on the picket line because of the post office’s attempt to keep the mail moving with nonunion workers. In Calgary striking letter carriers yelled “scabs,” “lice” and “bastards” as workers hired by Canada Post to replace them crossed their picket line in buses and then dashed into a downtown postal depot. In Halifax riot police armed with shields and clubs scuffled with pickets who tried to stop busloads of substitute workers from entering the main post office. All together, 29 strikers were arrested across Eastern Canada in picket-line incidents.

In Montreal on Wednesday, at least 1,000 letter carriers joined hands to form a human chain around the city’s main post office. Others blocked traffic with their cars, causing a huge traffic jam in downtown streets. Later three replacement workers were injured when strikers forced their way into a postal station in the city’s east end and scattered furniture and mail on the floor, causing $10,000 damage. On

Thursday night the union played its trump card, ordering a walkout in Toronto, where half of Canada’s mail is sorted. Letter carriers also struck in other cities and towns in southern Ontario, including Hamilton and St. Catharines. Meanwhile, striking work-

ers went back to the job in Montreal and Calgary. Said LCUC vice-president William Findlay: “We apologize to the public for the disruption, but it could be a long, hot summer.” Officials at Canada Post seemed equally resolute. Said Harold Dunstan, general manager of labor relations: “For a union that has put itself forward as being interested in service to the public, it’s certainly not showing it.”

Neither side appeared willing to make concessions that would bring a quick settlement. Refusing to surrender gains won during 20 years of contract bargaining, the letter carriers said that they would settle for renewal of their current contract along with a modest wage increase. For its part, Canada Post was determined to wrest concessions from the union on job security and working conditions. Officials argued that the changes would improve efficiency and help erase a

$132-million deficit by next March, as ordered by the federal government. On Friday, after the union had rejected the corporation’s latest offer, Canada Post asked the government to appoint a mediator for seven days to help end the strike—and said it would suspend

the use of replacement workers while a mediator attempts to settle the dispute. LCUC president Robert McGarry said that he would welcome a mediator. But he would not agree to take down the picket lines while the mediator was at work, as requested by Canada Post.

The stakes in the dispute are enormous. The labor movement views the dispute as a key test of its strength at a time when union membership is in decline and employers have increasingly gained the upper hand at the bargaining table. “There’s not one of our affiliates that’s not affected by this one,” said Ronald Lang, research director for the Canadian Labour Congress, which represents 80 unions and 12 federations. “We’re not going to let the LCUC down.” Within the government, some Conservatives viewed the dispute as a chance to gain political points by reining in the postal unions

and bringing order to one of the nation’s most unpopular institutions. “In previous strike situations, the government has come to heel,” said Ontario Tory MP Donald Blenkarn. “I don’t think they will this time.” Still, the government was reluctant to legislate the union back to work. “It’s a legal strike,” said Harvie Andre, the minister responsible for the post office.

As the week wore on, the letter carriers claimed to be winning the war on the picket lines. Canada Post had vowed to keep the mail moving, setting a target of daily delivery to businesses and twice-weekly service to homes and group boxes in areas affected by strikes. To achieve that goal, it hired

thousands of replacement workers across the country and paid them $13.25 an hour. But the union said that it had slowed the movement of mail to a trickle. In response, Canada Post conceded that “an aggressive union stance” had kept it from reaching its targets in Quebec City, Saint John, N.B., and Moncton. But the corporation insisted in a statement that it “continued to provide delivery service across Canada.”

Frustrated at the delays, many businesses turned to courier services to move their mail. And some said that the strike, the first at the post office since a 42-day walkout

by inside workers in 1981, had further eroded their faith in the postal system—and postal unions. “Every single worker and business in this country has made adjustments, except the post office,” said John Bulloch, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “That’s outrageous. Why should they be mollycoddled when everybody else has had to take cuts?”

According to the letter carriers, the real cause of the dispute is Canada Post’s five-year plan to erase its deficit. Under it, the corporation would eliminate 8,700 jobs out of a total workforce of 62,000, close hundreds of rural post offices and in-

crease the use of group mailboxes in place of home delivery. In addition, Canada Post president Donald Lander has said that he wants more flexibility from the seven unions—including the 23,500-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), which will be in a legal position to strike within three months. For the letter carriers, that means rule and contract changes that would eliminate the union’s no-layoff guarantee, contract out g some services and make § greater use of tempoS rary workers. The post ï office also wants to re| move such privileges as I time to wash up after s work and a paid time

allowance to return to mail pickup points for lunch. And newly hired workers would have to use their own vehicles to travel to and from their mail routes, rather than ride public transit for free.

The unions trace responsibility for the post office’s hard-line demands— and the resulting strike—directly to the Tory government. Canada Post’s five-year plan, they noted, was drawn up by government officials, not post office managers. “Lander got his marching orders from the government,” said the CLC’s Lang. “It’s a political decision that created this situation, and it’s going to take a political decision to end it.” But Andre dismissed suggestions that the government was orchestrating Canada Post’s tactics at the bargaining table. “The assumption,” he said, “is that the corporate plan has something to do with the strike— and that’s not an assumption I accept.”

The outcome of the strike may depend on which side gains the sympathy of the public. Postal unions became unpopular after a series of strikes in the late 1960s and 1970s. But the CLC has spent $800,000 on an advertising campaign seeking public support for postal workers. “It’s not as easy to pick on postal unions as it once was,” said Lang. “People are fed up with all the government cuts in postal service.” The unions also hoped that the letter carriers would receive special sympathy because of their daily contact with the public and their relatively stable labor relations record. Certainly, McGarry’s quiet and easy-going demeanor contrasts sharply with the militant image of CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot. And unlike the hard-line CUPW, the postmen have not staged a major strike since 1969.

In light of that record, many letter carriers said that they felt they were treated unfairly by Canada Post. Frank Knight, for one, voiced fears that he could lose his job and his pension if the post office changes its rules on layoffs and job security. “I figure I could lose everything I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “After almost 20 years, this is the thanks I get.” Like many of his colleagues, Knight said that he was hoping for the best—a short strike—but preparing for the worst.

-MARCUS GEE with MARC CLARK in Ottawa and correspondents’ reports