A collection of reports and interviews from the Organizing Work blog, with Canadian postal workers speaking out on a struggle that's seen legislation brought in ordering them back to work.
Canada Post: Strikes and occupations end as workers legislated back to work
The last 37 days have seen a wave of strikes and occupations at postal facilities across Canada, as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers looks to negotiate a new contract with Canada Post. The biggest days of action were [November 26 and 27], with strikes and/or occupations in Halifax, Deer Lake, Moncton, Edmonton, Mississauga, Thunder Bay, and Truro, among other cities, and blockades at transportation hubs in Toronto.
All of this ended at noon Eastern time yesterday, as legislation went into effect forcing postal workers back to work. There was some question as to whether union leadership would encourage workers to defy the legislation, but this has not happened.
The union leadership is instead now switching to a strategy of political protest and non-violent disobedience. In Montreal yesterday, CUPW (with help from the IWW) occupied Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office. A larger day of action is planned for December 1.
The focus on Trudeau comes not just because his Liberal government has legislated postal workers back to work. His government has also come under fire now that General Motors plants are closing in Oshawa, Ontario, and Bombardier is laying of 5,000 workers, when both companies received bailouts in recent years.
Canada Post workers were also legislated back to work in 2011, during their last contract negotiations.
I spoke to a postal worker in Edmonton yesterday.
What’s happening there? How are you doing?
I’m very tired. I’ve been up since 11 o’clock last night. I’m night shift, so I started at midnight. The majority of people walked off at 6:00 AM (we found some scabs in the plant so we had to go yell at them and they went and hid). That’s when the occupation and picket line started. And then it ended at 10:00 AM because the legislation went into effect at noon Eastern time.
So did the union leadership call off the strikes and occupations in time for that deadline?
I believe so. That’s certainly what happened here. The message seems to be to hold off on further action until whatever ten-day period of “negotiations” – I’m using scare quotes because it’s not really proper collective bargaining since we’re legislated back, so we’ve lost a lot of our bargaining power.
I actually had to resign as a shop steward today because there are fines attached to the legislation. It’s $5k per day for shop stewards, and $1k per day for individuals. So if we were to do future job actions, and the fines were to go through, I’d rather be fined as an individual.
I’m not sure I should comment on what the national leadership strategy is, but myself personally, I’m a bit disappointed we’re not defying the back-to-work legislation. But that’s going to vary by who you talk to.
Tell me about some of the issues you guys have been striking and occupying over, and what you’re looking for in the new contract.
People like to go off on “greedy unionists,” and wages are part of it, but not the major part of it. Workplace health and safety issues are also a major part of it. Overburdening and understaffing.
A letter carrier could tell you better than I could — I’m an indoor plant worker — but the company understaffs and then relies heavily on overtime and overburdening with their bundling system. Obviously there’s an uptick in the number of parcels because of online shopping.
One of the other major issues is gender pay equity. Justin Trudeau, our Prime Minister, likes to talk a big line about that but in practice… A court found that RSMCs — rural and suburban mail carriers — basically do the exact same work as urban letter carriers, but the vast majority of RSMCs are female, and the vast majority of letter carriers are male, and there is a big difference in pay between the two.
We’re also trying to reclaim a lot of the stuff we lost in the 2011 contract, when we were legislated back to work by a conservative government. At that point, we had a horrible contract, lots and lots of rollbacks. Drastically reducing everybody’s wage for doing the same work. The new hires come in at $18 or $19 an hour for a starting wage and they take years longer to reach the maximum wage. It’s basically a strategy of union-busting, to divide people on the floor by having a 2-tiered system.
What are your thoughts on the back-to-work legislation?
There is talk of defying the back to work legislation, but that has yet to be determined. It’s a question of what arbitrators or mediators they set up [and how favorable they are to union demands]. So there’s a sliver of hope there, but if the past is any indicator, I shouldn’t be putting a lot of stock in that.
As far as what we can do as a union, that’s why I’m a bit leery of criticizing the leadership in a public way, as much as I may disagree with certain things, because there’s still the whole solidarity thing to keep in mind.
There’s also the question of mainstream support, which you can’t always rely on. There is definitely a public relations battle going on, and corporations are definitely winning that [in general], because they have tons of money to throw at such things.
One good example is: there was a contract offer [from Canada Post], their “final offer” even though it wasn’t really a final offer. I was at a regional conference this weekend (and I was on the picket line last weekend, so I haven’t had a good bit of sleep in a while), and I found out that that final offer was released to the media before it was even brought to the bargaining table. That again shows what kind of “negotiating” they’re doing. It wasn’t a real contract [offer], it was a public relations move so they could say that they were making efforts to resolve the situation and it’s all our fault for “ruining Christmas.” Even though this mail backlog [the pretext for the back-to-work legislation] doesn’t exist – with the rotating strikes, things may be a day or two late, but the mail is still moving. The mail I work with at the plant is date-stamped and there is nothing I was working with today that was more than one or two days old.
The union and the company have been talking since last November. The whole time, during negotiations, the company has been stalling. What was their game plan? Obviously it was to stall and stall until they could manufacture a crisis, and then blame us, and use that as an excuse to legislate us back to work and circumvent the entire collective bargaining process.
I also spoke to a former Canada Post employee and union strategist.
What position is the union leadership taking?
It looks like there may be a more aggressive approach going forward, from union leadership, that may skate closer to the line in terms of defiance. But it doesn’t look like defiance of the legislation is in the cards for now.
It sounds like the national directors are saying to the local leadership, “what are we going to do?” But the thing is, rotating strikes require an incredible amount of centralization – in order to have one city pull it off, and then go back, and then have another city in another part of the country pull it off, and then go back — over and over for six weeks — requires a very vertically integrated chain of command.
So it’s a little disingenuous to run your entire strike on a chain of command and then, when the heat is on, you turn to the local guys and say “Well I dunno, what do you guys think we should do?” The entire struggle has been predicated on direction from above. Removing that direction is setting up a situation where they can wash their hands if the ranks walk. “It’s not on us, we didn’t do anything.” But for what it’s worth, the legendary time [CUPW President] Jean-Claude Parrot was jailed [in 1979], which is a key part of CUPW identity, all he did was refuse to order people back to work. He didn’t actually incite defiance itself. So it doesn’t actually protect them.
The national president has been quite loud that he’s in favor of direct action, but most of his executive board is very hostile to him. So he would have been in favor of defying, and now he’s going to be politically popular, because that’s going to play well with the ranks.
Where do you think things need to go from here?
One of the dangerous things in CUPW right now is the deference that rank-and-file union members pay to the union officials. Political actors inside of the union often don’t want to challenge that, they want to work with it. They think if they control the political machine, it will work differently.
But it’s not enough to replace officials and have more militant leadership. There needs to be a different attitude towards leadership among the ranks. And a different idea of what leadership means inside the union, as an organization and as a movement.
What about the role of those on the sidelines?
I think the challenge for all of us right now is engaging critically with what’s happening and not doing anything that would sap people’s morale.
Happening now: cross picket at Canada Post processing plant in Vancouver
Postal workers were legislated back to work [on November 27], bringing an end to 37 days of rotating strikes and occupations. It is now illegal for workers to strike. They face fines ranging from $1,000 a day for individuals, up to $50,000 a day for union officers, in addition to fines against the union. In response, a “cross picket” of supporters has sprung up outside the main mail processing plant in Vancouver, BC.
We spoke to someone on the scene.
I hear you’re on the line in Vancouver right now.
There are about 50 of us on the line – we’re running a hard line out. We’re encouraging workers to come into the plant, but we’re not letting any mail out. We’re inspecting trucks to make sure they’re not carrying any mail as they leave.
Who is coordinating this? Who is there on the picket line?
We’re a group of concerned citizens. Many of us belong to unions, but it’s not being coordinated by unions. We’re doing this in solidarity with the posties.
So you brought this together through word of mouth?
What’s your plan? For the day or for tomorrow?
The plan is just for today. We’re going to have people come down in waves or shifts, and hold the line.
How long have you been holding the line so far?
I arrived at 5:45 AM. We’ve been here since then.
What plant are you outside of?
5940 Ferguson. It’s the Pacific Plant.
Are there other ones that have pickets happening?
Just this one – it’s the main processing plant.
Can you explain how you see this as part of the struggle? How you are acting in solidarity with postal workers?
The back-to-work legislation is unjust, as we oppose it. We don’t want to see posties get fined, so we decided to take this action without coordinating with their union. We don’t want to hurt them, so we’re not blocking them from going to work. We’re just not letting any mail out.
Do you have thoughts about what should happen in terms of the government, the legislation, and Canada Post?
I think the legislation should be rescinded. Canada Post should get back to the bargaining table. The posties have very reasonable demands. We universally support those demands, and fundamentally, we want to send a message to the government that they can’t get away with just legislating a union back to work. And if they do that there’s going to be a response.
Do you know if there are pickets happening in any other cities?
We don’t know right now. We’re not coordinated with other cities. But we hope other cities will follow our example.
“Just go and shut it down”: A postal carrier on the struggle at Canada Post
An interview with a postal carrier in Canada. Their union, CUPW, is currently negotiating a new contract with Canada Post. After 37 days of rotating strikes and occupations, workers were legislated back to work this week. National union leadership is not defying the legislation, but switching to a campaign of political pressure against the government.
The worker talks about day-to-day life as a carrier, the grievances workers have, his reaction to the union executive’s decision not to continue economic actions, and his expectations for the political pressure campaign.
Tell me about the day you had yesterday [Tuesday].
That was a long one. Two nights ago [Monday], I was hassling people to go occupy the plant. Then the word came out that we were actually going to be on strike at 6 o’clock in the morning. That fizzled out the occupation plan. I went to sleep, for not long enough, then got up at 5:30 AM to go picket the depot.
We have a phone tree, so we’re letting everyone know about the picket — and catching some flak. Some people are saying, “This doesn’t make any sense; you’re just going to inconvenience people.”
The CUPW presence is not as strong on wave 1 [the early shift] despite everybody being members. There are some shop stewards that I’m not sure everyone really trusts. Some of them are friends with management and go out and smoke together. But we’ve done a pretty good job of getting people on board with the union, having meetings, talking back to the boss, changing the dynamics of the workfloor.
There was a mass resignation of shop stewards just in case we [CUPW] were going to defy legislation. If you defy the legislation, you could be fined $1,000 a day, but if you’re a shop steward or on the exec, the fine is $50,000. And the union could end up with a $100,000 fine.
So if you’re a shop steward and you participate in an “illegal” picket, you get fined $50,000 per day?
I think the wording was “up to.” So [it comes down to] how much do you trust the lawmakers, or the people enforcing that. Which is part of what really broke the spirit of people in 2011, with that back-to-work legislation.
Is that when those fines were first introduced?
I’m not sure. I think so, based on the way people talk about it. I’ve only been around for three and a half years at this point.
So how was that decision made, for all the shop stewards to resign like that? Did everyone decide individually to do it?
The word came down from the local president, and then it was sent over the phone tree. Just to protect us.
Encouraging folks to resign?
Just in case the people on the national executive made the call that we wouldn’t be going back. And then the fines would be much less.
So technically, there were no shop stewards today?
There shouldn’t have been. I know people on the executive started saying they take back their resignations, before the day was even over yesterday.
Do you feel as though there is some uncertainty, going forward, about economic action and defying the legislation? Or do you feel like that’s a done deal?
[Sighs] I really don’t know. I’ve heard there were six out of fifteen [on the national executive] who were willing to defy the legislation.
What’s the mood like among your coworkers?
There are certain people who never believed in it anyway, so they were happy to come up to people who were involved and say, “How did that work out for you?” Which, like, great thanks.
Some people were definitely feeling defeated when we were out picketing yesterday. They were like, “What is the point of this, even? Why are we here? What are we doing?”
Because they knew the legislation was coming…
Oh yeah. We knew for a few days at that point that it just needed to go through the Senate.
Tell me a bit about the overburdening issue and forced overtime issue, and the stuff the carriers were fighting for in the contract.
There’s a pretty good example that happened here in [redacted city] over the last year. There’s a depot called [redacted], on the northeast side of the city. It was one of the bigger letter carrier depots: there were 90-some routes there. And Canada Post “Route Optimization” came in to do a restructure. Routes are broken down by the second: how long you get to go to a door, how long you get to drive to your next stop, or clear a street letter box. If a house is vacant, for example, you are no longer given the few seconds to go up to that house. But things aren’t necessarily kept up to date.
So, at [redacted] depot they found 500 minutes that were unaccounted for, which is one new route and then some. A route is supposed to be 480 minutes, to make up an 8-hour day, and then when Route Optimization came in, they somehow cut nine or ten routes.
Instead of cutting one route?
It would have been make one. And they cut nine or ten. They had had a number of routes they had wanted to cut from there for years, and they just went in and did it.
So they just distribute that work among other workers?
Yeah, I mean, now the routes are all longer. This is something that has been coming up in negotiations: CUPW has been asking for a greater say in the route restructure process, because the parcel-moving business has exploded. The amount of parcels we get. And a route may be designed for 12 or 13 a day. But people end up with 60, 80…
Just with that information alone, it would have made sense for no routes to be lost, and more made, because of the time it takes to deliver those parcels.
So what kind of consequences does that overburdening and speedup have for the worker?
It makes your route longer. You end up having to walk farther. They’ve done “route optimization” to have fewer people working there.
And this leads to health and safety issues. I was at Canada Post for two years before I really found the time – or the courage, I should say – to take all of my breaks. But new people who are working there, they’re just going to work ten hours straight, and maybe stop for ten or fifteen minutes, probably still not get done, get back to the depot, be harassed by the supervisors…
It took me a year to be able to get more than two-thirds of a route done by the time I was supposed to be done. And then I heard from the older carriers that the routes are about a third to twice as long as they used to be.
So how do folks manage? Do they just stay out longer than they should? You’ve already said they eliminate their own breaks. How else do they manage?
I think it does lead to some possibly unethical behavior. Some people, if they only have one letter for a house, they just won’t go to it.
And they’ll just deliver it the next day?
Yeah. And it depends on what it is: if it looks like a check, or a card, or a letter from an actual person, and not just an ad, then they’ll deliver it. But if it’s just an ad… I’ve also heard people talking about just not sorting all of the mail – they’ll take some [out] and just call it a mis-sort. With parcels, if something says “Do not safedrop,” it means you need to put it someone’s hands for it to be considered delivered. They’ll just set that on the person’s doorstep.
So people find shortcuts because they are forced to by the way that the company creates the routes.
It should be on the boss’s conscience, yeah. It’s become unmanageable. People like their jobs, and they want to do a good job and be done, but you end up with these roadblocks where you literally can’t do it.
Going back to the strike and the legislation, where do you think things are going to go from here?
I’ve been trying to look for something positive in there. The only thing I’m really seeing that could benefit postal workers in any way is that the legislation has some guiding principles. I don’t remember what they all are at the moment, but I believe the first one is that health and safety must be taken into due consideration when the arbitrator is making their decisions.
Will that be done sincerely? I don’t know, but CUPW has won multiple cases against Canada Post on health and safety grounds. So if evidence of past victories is of any use to an arbitrator, and I certainly hope it is, I think some of those health and safety concerns could be addressed.
Other demands, I imagine, will definitely be lost. I don’t know if you know the numbers, but postal workers used to start at $25 an hour, and after 2013, they start at $19. We’ve been trying to get rid of that two-tier wage system, but I think Canada Post is going to do a pretty good job of claiming they don’t have the money to do it. I saw a headline today that they are claiming a $70 million loss. Last quarter they claimed a $242 million loss, because they have to pay the RSMCs [Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers — as part of a gender discrimination / pay equity matter]. They didn’t pay them then, so that was a projected future loss. Did they actually lose $70 million this quarter? I don’t know.
How is the arbitrator selected?
I actually don’t know.
What do you think of the new strategy of pivoting to political pressure?
[Long sigh, laugh, sigh] In my heart, I want it to be useful, but I really don’t think it is. We tried that already. And that’s not to say it can’t – maybe a miracle will happen. But there are photos of [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau holding an “I heart posties” sign. Like, oh yeah? Do you?
And we’ve all sent letters to our MPs and Senators, and I just… I don’t know. I feel it would have been more useful to just defy the legislation. Because last time, it was ruled unconstitutional. It took five years for that to come out. And then nothing could be done about it.
So it was ruled unconstitutional to have legislated you back to work last time, and it happened again this time?
It did, which creates a lot of frustration with those people on the national executive who weren’t willing to defy it. It is worded differently, but the principle is the same. Maybe they’ll find it constitutional this time for some reason, and then maybe those people who were not willing to defy it were right for not getting us fined millions and millions of dollars.
And like, people haven’t forgotten, because it just came out two years ago that it was unconstitutional, so like, why are we going back to work?
I think it was found to have infringed on our collective bargaining rights.
Yeah. And yet. Here we are with the exact same thing. But I did hear that people from outside of CUPW were picketing the Vancouver processing plant today, and shutting it down. So that makes me hopeful. More than publicly pressuring Members of Parliament again. Just go and shut it down.
So you’d like to see more of that happen?
I think it is the most reasonable response. I’m open to any number of approaches, but I think if that happens, it would be the most effective. The direct action.