Editor's note: In a special sitting of the House of Commons, members of Parliament early Saturday morning passed Bill C-89, a back-to-work bill that would end the strike by Canada Post workers.
After studying the bill, the Senate adopted a motion Saturday evening to adjourn its discussions until Monday afternoon.
On Thursday November 22, federal Labour Minister Patty Hadju introduced a procedural motion in the House of Commons to fast track not-yet-introduced legislation that would force more than 50,000 striking postal workers back to work.
Speaking to reporters, Hadju said that, for now, the Liberal government is “in a place where we still are encouraging the parties to get that negotiated agreement together.”
The government has not shown its hand yet on the back-to-work bill. And postal strikes are, of course, rotating. The mail, including the hundreds of thousands of parcels Canadians order online, is still moving.
Supporters of the striking workers, such as NDP MP Irene Mathyssen, argue that the government has just made a negotiated settlement a whole lot harder. Canada Post management can now stonewall and offer nothing at the bargaining table, while the clock ticks down to back-to-work legislation time – which could come in a matter of days.
The government is acutely aware that the holiday season, so vital to retailers, is upon us. Thousands of businesses that take orders online depend on Canada Post to deliver their product. As the Post Office’s publicity says, its business these days is to “deliver the online world.”
This shift has created new pressures. But is it the only shift involved in this dispute?
In the summer of 2017, Hadju wrote an article for rabble in which she emphasized that she considers herself to be a stalwart friend and supporter of organized labour.
“The labour movement,” she wrote, “is about people who work in Canada, and who deserve to work in fair, safe spaces and earn a decent living.”
Hadju added: “Healthy labour relations directly contribute to economic growth.”
When the Trudeau government talks about growing the middle class, she emphasized, it believes that “unions are critical to helping achieve that goal.”
A constitutional right to strike
Before it takes the final, fateful step of ordering striking workers back on the job, union leaders are doing their best to remind the government that there is now a constitutionally guaranteed right to strike. That is a fact Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers cannot simply ignore.
In January of 2015, in a case pitting public sector unions against the Saskatchewan government, the Supreme Court ruled that the “right to strike is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining process in our system of labour relations.”
The justices cited the right to freedom of association – one of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ four fundamental freedoms – as the basis for ruling that no government legislation may “substantially interfere” with meaningful collective bargaining.
Hadju claims the government has taken that 2015 ruling into account in drafting its back-to-work bill. But she is still keeping the actual content of the bill under wraps, so it is impossible to know how she plans to pull off that neat trick.
What is galling for postal workers is that they believe they have been taking a constructive and positive approach, but face a management team that has long had difficulty treating its unionized works as full partners.
The workers want a raise that will barely keep up with inflation, 2.9 per cent, and equal pay for equal work. As it stands now, rural postal workers -- mostly women -- are paid less than their urban counterparts.
Another of the workers’ demands is the right to turn down overtime, which, if it were accepted, could mean the Post Office might have to hire more workers. Canada Post has moved a bit on that issue, but only to the extent that is has agreed to pay workers a premium for hours worked overtime – a basic benefit other workers gained decades ago.
A profitable corporation
There was a time when the advent of the internet, with e-mail and bill paying online, made the Post Office seem to be something of a dinosaur. But the internet also created an explosion of online commerce, which has generated a huge expansion in Canada Post’s parcel and package business. As a result, the Post Office is not the financial basket case business experts once predicted it would become. It now realizes healthy profits.
The workers believe they deserve their share of those profits, and do not appreciate the government putting its thumb on the scale in the midst of their efforts to get what they see as a fair deal from the employer.
To make matters worse, the threat of back-to-work legislation comes at a point where management was budging at least a bit in the union’s direction. Just days ago, management upped its monetary offer to two per cent, and even indicated an interest in using Post Office facilities to offer financial services – something that has been on the union’s wish list for a number of years.
In fact, if you read what the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) puts out as its long-term ambitions for the Post Office, they are all about making their workplace more environmentally conscious, more relevant to Canadians’ lives and, in general, more up-to-date.
The union points out that the 6,300 post offices constitute the biggest retail network in the country and proposes that those retail outlets become community hubs, offering postal banking, space for pop-up commerce, charging stations for electric vehicles and services to an aging population.
It’s not up to the union alone to think big for any organization, of course. Indeed, that is normally management’s job. But the fact that CUPW has put out a vision that goes beyond the narrow self-interest of its members should count for something.
Having said that, the immediate challenge is to negotiate a new collective agreement. The sword of Damocles now hangs over those negotiations.
Hadju insists she remains a friend of labour. When postal workers went on strike in June 2011, the newly re-elected Conservative government under Stephen Harper wasted no time in forcing them back to work. The NDP opposition resisted, and so the Conservatives made the House sit and talk all night in order to push through their back-to-work bill, with nary the slightest delay.
The Liberals are different from the Conservatives, Hadju insists.
“Our legislation is very different from the Harper legislation,” she said. “I understand the concerns of workers, and I will tell you right now, the legislation looks very different. It does not mandate a particular outcome.”
The key question is: What, if anything, is the government telling Canada Post management behind closed doors?
Is the Trudeau team making it clear that, notwithstanding its threat of back-to-work legislation, the government believes the union might have valid and legitimate concerns? Is it encouraging management to work hard to find a reasonable accommodation with the union, now, while there is still time?
The workers have a right to doubt the responsible ministers, including the pro-union Labour minister, are communicating anything of the sort to Canada Post’s bosses. But perhaps, in the end, Hadju will surprise them and pull through for the 50,000-plus workers and their families.
We’ll all find out soon enough.
Photo: Patty Hadju/Facebook
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.
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