For 31 years Robert McGarry, president of the Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada, has built his life around the postal service. In the 1950s McGarry carried mail through the streets of Toronto. In the following decades he traded his mailbag for a pen and picket sign, as he helped the union win lucrative contracts. Now, McGarry is warning his 20,000 members to “put aside a little money and a few cans of soup” and prepare for a full-scale battle to defend those contracts. Canada Post, the Crown corporation that runs the postal service, is determined to gain concessions from the letter carriers and the five other postal unions. Indeed, the two sides are on a collision course that could plunge the country into a national mail strike as early as next week.
For both the labor movement and the Conservative government, the confrontation is shaping up as the labor battle of the year—and perhaps of the decade. Both sides have a great deal at stake. Leaders of the two-millionmember Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), who have watched their member unions make concessions to employers in contract settlements since the recession of 1982, say that they are determined to draw the line at the post office. For its part, the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is already under criticism for Canada Post’s cost-cutting efforts, particularly proposals to limit postal service in rural areas and new suburbs. Still, it is sticking to its commitment to erase Canada Post’s $132-million operating deficit by March, 1988. Said Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Harvie Andre, who is responsible for Canada
Post: “We can’t abandon that target.”
Moreover, both sides agree that the future of the postal service is at stake—though for widely different reasons. Canada Post president Donald Lander insists that job-protection clauses in current contracts hamstring management so badly that the corporation cannot be efficient unless they are eliminated. But McGarry and his fellow unionists contend that Lander is ruining postal service through a single-minded attack
on the deficit—and that he is trying to break the unions.
Canada Post has refused to divulge details of its position in the contract negotiations, which began last summer. But according to the unions, the corporation wants to introduce a twotier wage system, under which new employees would earn $2 to $3 an hour less than current rates. Canada Post, they say, is also seeking the right to lay off employees and contract out their jobs to lower-paid private workers. Indeed, union leaders claim that Canada Post wants to contract out many of their members’ jobs—and have protested its decision to allow a private company, Shoppers Drug Mart, to open a postal substation on a franchise basis in a store in a suburban Toronto shopping centre. The Shoppers employees earn an estimated $5.50 an hour—compared with more than $13 for unionized postal clerks—and union officials have bitterly protested Canada Post plans to extend the system across the country.
All the postal service contracts have expired, and unionists say that they expect that one strike—waged by the letter carriers—will set the pattern for all agreements. The letter carriers, McGarry notes, have not walked out since 1969. As a result, he claims, they would garner more public support than the militant 23,500-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW)—and Canada Post knows it. CUPW is made up of mail sorters and other inside workers who staged unpopular 42-day strikes in 1975 and again in 1981. Said McGarry: “They did everything in their power to convince me to sit on the back step and let them take on the inside workers.”
According to most union leaders, the deterioration in management-labor relations can be traced to Lander, a 61year-old former chairman of Chrysler
Canada Ltd. who worked briefly for flamboyant automaker John DeLorean. Since he was named to head Canada Post in February, 1986, Lander has continued the cost-cutting efforts of his predecessor, Michael Warren, but has not won the same respect from unions. “Warren was intelligent, capable of responding to the unions and willing to do so,” said CUPW’s national chief steward, John Fehr. “Lander is dogmatically antiunion.” Since Lander
took charge, both labor representatives have been dropped from Canada Post’s board of directors. Relations are so bad that several union leaders predict violence on the picket line.
Still, unionists say that Lander is only doing the bidding of the Conservative government. “Let’s face it,” said Ronald Lang, the CLC’s director of research. “Governments get good mileage out of hammering postal unions. It’s worth 10 points to them in the polls.” To counter that, the postal unions and the CLC have spent at least $750,000 this year on a radio, newspaper and poster campaign that attacks Canada Post’s budget-cutting moves. In return, Lander has launched his own campaign for public support. In a rare speech last month, he appealed to members of the National Association of Major Mail Users to support efforts to eliminate the post office’s deficit. Saying that Canadians have been “held to ransom through postal strikes in the past,” Lander pledged that there will be mail delivery this summer “strike or no strike.”
Opposition party members say they recognize that public discontent over postal service is politically dangerous, especially Canada Post’s decision not to provide home mail delivery in new urban developments. Liberal Leader John Turner predicted to reporters in April that it would be “a major election issue” in the next federal campaign. And MPS from all parties have been overwhelmed by complaints about Superboxes—the large metal lockers for mail and parcels that Canada Post now installs in new suburbs and some rural areas as a substitute for home delivery.
Even Conservative MPs balked last year when Canada Post announced plans to close up to 1,700 rural post offices and have thousands more run by private contractors. A Tory-dominated parliamentary committee declared that it was “appalled by the heavy-handed approach taken by Canada Post” and suggested that it “look elsewhere for savings in its operating budget.” But the government has since silenced its backbenchers. “There has been a cracking of the whip in the Tory caucus,” said Lloyd Johnson, national president of the Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association, which represents the 9,500 people who run Canada’s 5,200 rural postal stations. “People who supported us are backing off.”
But Canada Post, and the government, remain adamant that changes must be made—and they are clearly willing to accept a strike in order to accomplish their goal. In an interview last week, Andre said that the unions’ generous contracts are the result of years of concessions by previous governments. “In the past, government would avoid strikes because of the political exigencies of the moment,” he said. “That just doesn’t make economic sense.” With that kind of tough talk, both Canada Post managers and union members clearly face a long and difficult summer.
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