Although rotating strikes have stopped, tensions between postal workers, Canada Post and the federal government continue to be heated as communities and unionists set up picket lines at Canada Post facilities and plants across Canada this week.
Back-to-work legislation introduced by the Trudeau government in late November effectively ended the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ (CUPW) rotating strikes and forced all workers back to the job, but local activists and union members continue to gather in solidarity outside sorting facilities and processing centres in various communities across the country organizing picket lines and protests.
On Monday, CUPW released a statement announcing the union will work with Elizabeth MacPherson, the mediator-arbitrator appointed by federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu.
"However, because of the legislation, we will work with the mediator-arbitrator to attempt to negotiate good collective agreements and avoid arbitration. We believe in our right to free collective bargaining but we will reluctantly participate in this legislated process,” the union said.
In an interview, Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council president Suzanne MacNeil addressed the issue of the right to free bargaining and what’s at stake in the Canada Post negotiations.
Question: The Trudeau government passed back-to-work legislation on November 27, bringing an end to the rotating strikes. How did the labour community respond?
Suzanne MacNeil: When we saw the back-to-work legislation that was put forward by this government, we were really worried about the implications. Obviously, [the legislation] has a huge impact on the ability of postal workers to try to shift the tide of events in their favour, but it also shows us that the Trudeau government is very much willing to take their marching orders from the business community and employers.
The labour agenda that the Trudeau government has been promoting since they were elected, where the government was trying to demonstrate contrast between themselves and the previous Harper government – well, recent events really showed us that the government is only willing to play ball with us up until a certain point. And when push really comes to shove, and when it comes to who this government is going to side with, they chose the employers.
Trudeau has demonstrated that his government is willing to pass strike-breaking legislation rather than tell the employer: ‘Hey, maybe you should try bargaining in good faith with the workers.' And so with the terms of the legislation, which has imposed some ridiculous fines on many postal workers for continued strike activity, a bunch of us in the rest of the labour movement realized that the postal workers aren’t the only ones who have an interest in defending the right to strike and the right to free and fair collective bargaining.
With that, we decided that community-led picket lines at Canada Post locations across the country were in order.
Question: What’s the significance of these community pickets?
MacNeil: As folks in the community will have noticed, these pickets aren’t organized by anyone in particular. These are groups of community members, rank-and-file trade unionists and, basically, whoever is free to come out on the night of.
These community pickets in a lot of ways have aesthetically and politically taken on the character of any other picket line.
Last Sunday night, in Halifax at the Almon Street mail sorting plant that deals with all of the mail for Nova Scotia, we set up a fairly hard picket. There's video on Facebook that shows pretty clearly what we did. We had our signs, us union activists had our flags, and we set up a line across the exits and entrances and adopted the practice of "nothing in, nothing out" of the plant. This is pretty similar to what’s been going on at these picket lines in locations across Canada.
As far as response from the community, there have been a few people who don't like what we're doing, but overwhelmingly, the response has been really positive. [At the community picket line,] we’d encounter postal workers who are either leaving their shift or coming to work. They'd see us and a lot of them would be really touched that a lot of folks realized that this postal strike affects far more that postal workers. It goes to really a core issue at what it means to defend public services. So this particular labour dispute and the community pickets have really cemented for us that if we want the really good, really strong worker-centred public services, we have to be willing to stand up and fight for them.
Question: What's at stake for Canada when it comes to the negotiations with Canada Post?
MacNeil: There are a few different dimensions to this whole issue. First and foremost, there are the working conditions that Canada Post workers themselves are dealing with. As folks know, the logistics industry and mail in general is really a key strategic piece of public service in our communities and across the country. Especially with the surge of online shopping.
Far from being the unreliable service that people sometimes say that it is, Canada Post really is a key for linking our communities and making sure that, at the very least, we all have equitable access to this particular service, no matter where we live in Canada.
But I also like to look at things like Friends of Public Services and CUPW's Delivering Community Power campaign. When we think about the climate crisis, which is already underway, Canada Post and our public postal services are really key in terms of thinking about where we need to be building a green infrastructure.
With the postal service, when we can start thinking about the fleet of vehicles that Canada Post owns, we can start thinking about how we could potentially have the largest fleet of green or electric vehicles in Canada. Or, we could start thinking about what's possible if the postal service gets into addressing food security by delivering food to our communities.
The postal service is also a matter of financial security for precariously employed and low-income Canadians. A lot of countries with economies comparable to Canada have a postal banking service in place. In the context where many of our smaller, rural communities are struggling to keep Canada Post branches open, and when we think of growing income inequality and household debt and how many Canadians are falling into the trap of payday-lending schemes because they don't have other financial resources available, that would be a very logical space for a postal banking situation to intervene.
Which is all to say that despite a lot these very fantastic, visionary and innovative videos, Canada Post is not listening to their workers when it comes to all of the ways that Canada Post and the government could be innovating and reforming the postal service. And since Canada Post is unwilling to listen to the workers, the workers themselves are paying the price when it comes to the impact of adjusting for the rate of parcel delivery, for example.
Question: What’s important for Canadians to remember when thinking and talking about the strikes?
MacNeil: One thing that I do see in particular in the mainstream media and in social media is people getting very panicky about this being the holiday season and what’s going to happen to the things that they've ordered online that they're expecting to receive in the mail. And I thought it was really striking when a lot of the postal workers started saying that the number of delayed parcels mean there's an enormous backlog when to them that’s just any given Monday. There have been backlogs of a comparable size several times this year and they haven’t had any issue dealing with them. So the degree to which Canada Post and the Trudeau government have overblown this backlog is really telling of how manipulative they’re willing to be.
And for people worried about the impact of the dispute on service, Canada Post has always negotiated essential servicing. So disability cheques and pension cheques and the like always get delivered.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sophia Reuss is an assistant editor at rabble.ca.
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