With 16 straight years of profitability, including record profits in 2009 and postage rates lower than almost all other industrialized countries, the Canada Post negotiations should have been relatively easy. But it's Tory times in Canada and what better way is there for a right-wing government to attack the labour movement than by going after the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, a national and historically militant union?
Canada Post management prepared for a long hot summer of union busting. They hoped to divide CUPW's membership, forcing it to eventually settle on management's terms. Over many months of bargaining, CUPW members were bombarded by the message that current workers would get improved wages and keep their benefits and pensions. All they needed to do in return was agree to a lower starting salary, reduced benefits, and a defined contribution pension for future employees of Canada Post. Sell out the next generation, management urged, and we have a deal. CUPW refused to accept these terms but, emboldened by the Tory majority, management stuck to its guns.
Public endorsement came from business associations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). On the eve of the dispute, CFIB President Catherine Swift published an open letter to Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra, supporting two-tiered wages, the imposition of a defined contribution pension plan and a short-term disability plan instead of sick leave. Swift urged Chopra to "not shy away from the tough decisions", ignoring any mention of the financial impact a postal shutdown would have on small businesses.
Assertions that a strike would neither affect business nor the public served the union-busting agenda. Such messages pervaded the media in the weeks leading to the strike/lockout. Suddenly everybody lived in a major urban centre with high-speed internet, nobody got anything in the mail and nobody would notice if the postal workers went out; in fact, they could stay out forever. Right-wing columnists such as Lorne Gunter of the National Post and many others loudly sniffed "Who Cares?" about a postal strike, with no reference to any factual evidence.
Gunter seemed surprised to get indignant replies from his readers, saying they did care about a disruption in postal service. But the "who cares" message was already framing discussion, along with the idea that Canada Post was doomed in the digital age. To discredit the internationally recognized success of the Canadian postal service, right-wing think tanks such as the Montreal Economic Institute were given free reign to publish their fictional analyses of postal prices and productivity in the business sections of newspapers while the union's fact-based statements were ignored.
The media continually avoided information that did not support the "Who cares: Canada Post is a sunset industry" claims. The record profits posted by Canada Post in 2009 were not reported in stories about the negotiations. Instead, the falsehood was reinforced that Canada Post was in serious trouble and needed to impose deep cuts on its workers in order to stay afloat.
Canada Post management knew it had a license to publicize such messages without scrutiny. For example, as the strike loomed, Canada Post announced that it had calculated the union's demands would cost $1.4 billion. When the union demanded an explanation of this eye-popping figure, management refused. But the figure appeared in many media stories.
Another widely used figure was a 17 per cent drop in mail volumes that supposedly occurred between 2006 and 2010. This number received massive media coverage and was cited to support the myth of financial crisis. Actual volumes of letters have been decreasing about 2-3 per cent annually since reaching a peak in 2006. Prior to the strike/lockout, the union was informed that admail and parcels were rebounding. Between 2006 and 2009, letter volumes decreased by 7 per cent, not 17 per cent. But the fake 17 per cent is still being bandied about by the media, despite union requests that this misleading figure be corrected. Nobody who reported the 17 per cent, including reputable academics and columnists, ever bothered to publicly correct their misleading statements, despite being contacted.
These are but two examples where Canada Post, taking its cue from the Tory playbook, simply fabricated a headline-grabbing myth and circulated it via a complaisant media. Throughout the strike/lockout period, the CUPW swam upstream against a flow of disinformation while attempting to explain the union's demands. These demands included complex issues such as health and safety, work rules, staffing, and the overall prospects for the industry; most of which were impossible to cover in the "one-liner" style of reportage favoured by journalists. These challenges were further compounded by the lack of knowledge of labour issues on the part of most "business" reporters. The "he said, she said" model of simply reporting the quoted perspectives of both sides with little to no analysis or investigation does not work when one party abandons all scruples. Unfortunately, what little fact-based, investigative journalism there was only occurred when the rigged game of back-to-work legislation was a fait accompli.
The single most important thing that management did not anticipate turned out to be the most important factor in the dispute. That was the solidarity of CUPW members, half of whom had never been on strike before. They could neither be bribed nor bullied into selling out the next generation of postal workers. They turned out in record numbers and voted 95 per cent to strike. When the union launched a series of rotating strikes in order to draw public attention to its bargaining issues, management responded by doing everything it could to provoke a lengthy, full-scale strike, including cutting drug coverage, cancelling sick leave and vacation leaves, laying off temporary workers, cutting part-time hours and harassing members on the workfloor. Still the union remained resolutely committed to fighting for both current and future workers.
Canada Post then imposed a national full-scale lock-out at a time when 23 people were on strike; clearly a bid for back-to-work legislation. The CFIB obediently waded in, lamenting the enormous cost of the dispute to small businesses. The media changed its tune from "Who cares?" to "Everybody cares!" Charitable organizations, beekeepers, brides and sex toy manufacturers were all paraded before the public, with no mention either of the hardships locked-out postal workers faced or the fact that the shutdown came from Canada Post management.
Of course, Harper came through for his friends immediately. Just to ensure there was absolutely no question where the Tories stood, the legislation imposed a wage increase that was less than the last offer made by management. In the ensuing debates, both Conservatives and the media harped on about the enormous costs of the "strike," despite the fact that Canada Post management had locked the doors to the postal system twelve days earlier.
The Harper government has thrown down the gauntlet to the labour movement, which must decide how to build an effective opposition. Our cautionary tale shows how the absence of a labour beat in our national media works to the advantage of union-busters everywhere.
Aalya Ahmad and Geoff Bickerton are staff with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.