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Message in Harper's back to work law against CUPW is that labour will be put in its place

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The Harper government's legislation to end the lock out at Canada Post sends a strong message to Canadian labour. They intend to lower the wages and benefits of public sector workers and they could give a damn about collective bargaining rights.

The CUPW bill is brutally anti-union and it comes only days after strike breaking legislation against CAW Air Canada workers was introduced, but not passed when the union struck a last minute compromise deal. These back-to-back attacks on unions leave no doubt that there is no place for unions and collective bargaining in shaping Canada's economy under Harper, and that this government will act harshly and decisively to put unions in their place.

The law will be vigorously opposed in Parliament by the NDP opposition, but a modified version of this legislation will either pass within days or be mirrored in a forced settlement between the union and Canada Post.

This trampling of union and democratic rights from the Conservatives is not unexpected and the Canadian Labour Congress and its major affiliates must now determine how to fulfill the action plan it adopted to respond to this predicted assault.

The postal legislation has three main parts. First it writes the term of the agreement and sets the wage increases for each year until 2015. The wage increases are 1.75 per cent, 1.5 per cent, 2 per cent and 2 per cent. These are effective wage controls imposed on the federal public sector -- and it is even a little less than what Canada Post offered the union in bargaining.

The legislation then sends all the remaining issues in dispute to a form of arbitration called "Final Offer Selection." These include a number of very contentious concession demands by Canada Post, including demands for a ten-year, two-tier wage system before a new employee earns full wages, and a two-tier pension benefit for new employees with an older retirement age.

"Final Offer Selection" is particularly offensive to unions. Each side presents a so-called "final offer" to the arbitrator who then picks one that is binding. Breakthroughs for workers, however justified, are almost impossible in this form of arbitration and unions are forced to present an offer that is usually just a more "reasonable" version of what the employer is demanding. The union then becomes complicit in what can be very unfair results for workers.

But this law is much worse than that. The legislation also contains criteria for the arbitrator to choose what is reasonable. In the case of the CAW legislation, the law would have forced an arbitrator to make an award "competitive with non-union" airlines. In this case, the law requires the arbitrator to "be guided by the need for terms and conditions of employment that are consistent with those in comparable postal industries and provide the necessary degree of flexibility to ensure the short- and long-term economic viability and competitiveness of Canada Post..."

It is left to your imagination what a "comparable postal industry" to Canada Post, which has a legislated mandate to serve the public interest, but we can be certain that Canada Post management has a parcel courier service or flyer distribution or company already chosen as the benchmark.

Further criteria for the arbitrator then goes on to stipulate that the Pension Plan award must not result in any decline in the "solvency ratio" of the plan. On this issue, the employer will argue that a number of factors beyond its control require benefit cuts and anything less will affect solvency.

The final part of the law sets out the penalties aimed at the union if they decide to defy this law as unions sometimes have in the past. Union leaders are subject to fines of $50,000 per day for each day of an illegal work stoppage. The union faces fines of $100,000 per day. This is not about sending union leaders to jail for standing up for their rights -- this is about crippling and destroying the union unless it complies.

With this legislation tabled, the labour minister is then invited the parties to bargain all night and, like CAW, come up with a deal before the law is passed. The CUPW's experienced leadership under President Denis Lemelin will try to negotiate something better -- but what motivation is there for Canada Post to make any substantial moves in bargaining with this legislation already tabled and a Conservative majority ready to pass it?

Even if a negotiated settlement is announced, the Conservatives have rigged this game completely. The outcome is now determined; there is nothing left for free collective bargaining to accomplish.

CUPW has a long and proud tradition of taking on key fights for Canadian labour and it finds itself once again at the centre of labour relations. But in spite of its legendary courage and militancy, this is bigger than the 50,000 members of CUPW. It is now the Canadian labour movement's challenge to either be put in its place or to take its place and respond to Harper's abuse of power.

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