Features | Pushing the envelope

Postal workers’ struggles with Canada Post and their union over the last year

September 2010

On November 22, 2010, nine weeks after a new, arduous mail delivery system was introduced to Winnipeg, postal workers simply walked off the job. They had the consent of neither Canada Post nor their union leadership.

This is how Bob Tyre, president of the union’s Winnipeg branch, tells it: “One of our temporary workers said, ‘I can’t do the new method. I’m more than happy to do work in another depot – I’ll deliver the old way – but this new way is too much for me and I can’t do it.’ So they suspended him on the spot and that angered the building. We had four letter carrier depots in that building together. When the boss wouldn’t back off, well, then, they walked out for a day.”

The walkout would set the stage for six months of workers’ struggles, culminating in this summer’s mail strike. But the walkout would also inspire some workers to break with their union’s powerful National Executive and to question the future of unions. From November 2010 to June 2011, anarchism arrived at the post office.

Last fall, Canada Post Corporation (CPC) introduced the Modern Post – a new method of delivering mail that would begin the transformation Canada Post believes they need in order to modernize, become financially sustainable, and maintain relevance in the digital age where mail volume per address is decreasing.

The Modern Post plans to motorize letter carriers and implement a two-bundle carrying method. The two-bundle system will consist of one bundle of presequenced mail to hold on the forearm, and a second bundle of flyers to be handed out at each point of call. Instead of letter carriers sorting their mail in the plant, machines will sequence the majority of mail, which means that letter carriers will spend more time on delivery routes.

Parcel delivery drivers will be almost completely eliminated. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) estimates that in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, and Scarborough, 306 jobs will be cut as a result of the new system.

Outside a union meeting in Montreal, delivery agent Denis Auger Delegue said this is his first bad year at the post office in 32 years.

Modern Post was first implemented in Winnipeg’s Southwest and Northeast depots. The system came in two waves, beginning the transition on September 20, and completing it on October 18.

On November 4, following a court decision prohibiting workers from refusing to work under Modern Post, the CUPW – which represents all Canadian postal workers – released a web bulletin weighing in on the matter. Their message: the union’s collective agreement, which was set to expire at the end of January 2011, would not protect workers who walked off the job to protest the Modern Post.

With little concrete action taken by CUPW’s National Executive, workers facing the daily challenges of the Modern Post took matters into their own hands.

Wildcat: workers’ claws come out

A wildcat strike happens when workers walk off the job without warning. Sudden as this strike was, it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Tyre has been working as a postal worker since 1977, and began working for CUPW in 1993. He says the implementation of Modern Post was the latest in a long string of problems postal workers were having with Canada Post.

“The carriers were getting angrier and angrier, and the boss was getting more strict and being bigger bullies – so things were coming to a head,” Tyre explained. Forced overtime, short staffing, and overtime related injuries contributed to the increased tension on depots’ work floors.

On November 22, those tensions came to a boil with the wildcat strike.

“It was kind of a flash point to reignite the labour movement, and I don’t think people realize how important that one-day walkout was for the labour movement and for postal workers,” Tyre said.

Following the strike, Tyre said their union local received messages of support and solidarity from around the world.

“Everybody realized that they weren’t alone,” he said. “The workers just fed off of that, not only in Winnipeg but across the country, and not only in our own union but in other unions.”

Winter at the post office

In Edmonton, large networks of workers were organizing amongst themselves, galvanized in part by what they witnessed in Winnipeg. Though not facing the Modern Post yet, postal workers in Edmonton were contending with compulsory overtime, short staffing, and allocations of delivery routes that left certain areas of the city unserviced. Sometimes, postal workers were even delivering mail after dark.

Patrick,* a CUPW organizer, spearheaded a public outreach campaign through the union called Porchlights for Posties, in which Patrick and others went around neighbourhoods giving out lamps for people to stick on their porches, making night routes safer and better-lit. But campaigns such as Porchlights, based on traditional CUPW strategies, proved unable to create the real changes that workers were demanding. This presented an opportunity for Patrick’s identity as an anarchist and “Wobbly” to provide alternatives for postal workers.

“Wobbly” is the nickname for a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Formed in Chicago in 1905, their goal is to unite workers across different industries, to form “one big union,” and a create world without bosses. IWW’s union culture is based on grassroots direct action, and workers taking control of their workplaces through mass participation in these actions. For example, Wobblies pioneered a protest technique called March on the Boss, in which employees collectively present their boss with a list of demands. IWW members working at Starbucks invented and polished the tactic.

Many Wobblies identify as anarchists, but the IWW is not associated with one ideology. Its members bring many different identities into the organization. Patrick counted communists, practicing Mormons, and NDPers among IWW’s constituency. Helen Keller was a Wobbly.

“It is a union with radical politics that are not only in reaction to each worker’s situation but [it’s also a union]that is able to carry a transformative social vision for the long term,” said a founder of the Montreal IWW branch, who preferred to remain anonymous. Montreal Wobblies started to build their organization almost two years ago.

Led and trained by several self-identified Wobblies, Edmonton workers developed a large organized network of postal workers over the winter months. They used innovative tactics such as mass text message lists, coffee-break meetings, Marches on the Boss, and workplace surveys. Before long, many workers in depots across Edmonton became increasingly militant on the floor, voicing demands and taking collective action.

On February 27th, around 160 workers in Edmonton held a mass meeting to discuss grievances and working conditions. The next day, two Edmonton depots presented a list of their demands and grievances to management. Within the week, ten depots across the city refused forced overtime, citing health and safety concerns. As a result, Canada Post started staffing their depots properly and cut forced overtime.

One of the depots made a YouTube video documenting their fight with Canada Post. It ends with this message: “As workers, we cannot rely on our management or even our own union leadership to grant us the working conditions we desire. We must organize ourselves from the workfloor up.”

“Old-school union radicalism”

Jean-Claude Parrot is a labour legend. A retired Montreal postal worker, former chief negotiator for CUPW, and president of their National Executive board from 1977 until 1992, he spoke about the importance of the union being connected to its members.

“We succeeded to get the support of the membership because we earned our credibility with them,” Parrot said. “You have to be careful not to discourage people to take action…we got that reputation [of militancy] because we earned it.”

During Parrot’s tenure, CUPW won the first large-scale fight for paid maternity leave in 1981. Parrot himself served 64 days in jail after refusing to ask workers to go back to work in 1978.

Now, in 2011, the union’s radical bona fides are increasingly being questioned. Last winter in Edmonton, filled with workers’ own grassroots organizing and direct action strategies, stood in stark contrast to the National Executive’s top-down approach to negotiating the urban postal workers’ collective agreement throughout the spring.

Expiration date

With the expiration of the urban postal workers’ contract on January 31, 2011, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt appointed Jacques Lessard to act as the conciliator between CUPW and Canada Post, forcing both parties to engage in negotiations. Conciliation also marks the start of an 81 day period, at the end of which, if no agreement has been reached, either party has the right to strike or lock out.

Denis Lemelin, chief CUPW negotiator and National Executive president, frequently posted bulletins with updates on the union’s website throughout the conciliation and mediation process in February and March. But the “incredible” spirit of the winter was missing, says Roxanne,* a relief letter carrier also based in Edmonton. Like Patrick, she indentifies herself as a Wobbly, an anarchist, and a union shop steward.

“It felt like we were somehow in control, like we called the shots on the floor,” she said, in reference to the winter’s spate of direct actions. “Just the level of input: we were able to say when we wanted to do things and how we wanted to do them.”

April 2011

On April 18, the union announced that 94.5 per cent of its membership had voted to give the union a mandate to strike if necessary. The voting represented the largest turnout and strongest mandate the union has ever received, including the union’s 1965 wildcat strike, where 80 per cent of postal workers walked out.

Lemelin interpreted the voting results in a web bulletin on April 18:

“With this vote postal workers are sending Deepak Chopra [President and CEO of Canada Post] and the rest of Canada Post management a clear message: Start negotiating now!” he wrote.

But negotiating through the National Executive was not the top priority for all CUPW members, notably many rural and suburban workers.

While the National Executive was undertaking slow-moving negotiations in Ottawa, the rural postal workers of  St. Albert, outside of Edmonton, were taking action.

Rural centers are known in union circles to have tough working conditions. Since 2003, when rural postal workers first negotiated a collective agreement with Canada Post, rural mail carriers have brought 3,000 health and safety concerns to Canada Post. According to the union’s website, there are 6,000 rural workers.

“It’s easier to bully someone when they don’t have five people to stick up for them,” said Patrick, speaking to the geographic isolation of rural and suburban workers.

Just days before the strike vote, at a depot in St. Albert, workers began an illegal wildcat strike. They were protesting pay cuts that were announced suddenly on April 12. The cuts were to be implemented through a decrease in parcel delivery per worker, translating to an annual pay drop of between $8,000 and $28,000.

Patrick described the workers’ reaction to the news of the pay cuts as he had learned of it.

“I listened to one [voicemail] message saying: ‘Hey Pat, we’re really mad. They’re cutting our pay and we’re going to walk. We’re wondering if we should or not.’ And then the next message was ‘Hey, Pat. We just walked. We’re in the Tim Horton’s across the street.’ I looked at my phone and that was like half an hour ago.”

Over the next three days, the 15 workers from the St. Albert depot maintained a 24-hour picket line outside their depot. The workers prevented mail from being brought in or out of the center and turned away contracted workers hired by CPC to replace the strikers.

St. Albert’s wildcat strike prompted mail stations in rural Alberta to follow suit. In towns such as Athabasca, Canmore, Kitscoty, Cold Lake and Strathmore, handfuls of employees acted in solidarity and closed their stations for coffee break meetings.

Meanwhile, urban workers were chafing under CUPW’s protracted negotiating style.

The Union Strikes

With no progress being made at the bargaining table, the CUPW National Executive called on its members to begin a rotating strike starting at 11:59 p.m. on June 2 in Winnipeg.

The discipline that was required to stay optimistic and keep momentum going in a tense working atmosphere was a challenge, according to Roxanne. Workers waited for the National Executive to tell them when they would strike and, while they waited, continued working without their collective agreement.

On May 30, with the union having given 72 hour notice for the rotating strike, Canada Post declared that, as of that night, they would no longer respect the collective agreement. This announcement suspended vacation leave and health benefits.

Tyre said he knew of members who died during the spring’s standoff and whose families were temporarily unable to collect their life insurance as a result of the suspension of the collective agreement. “We’ve got members that are dying of cancer, paying thousands of dollars a month for medication now; people on disability insurance had their disability cut off,” he explained.

Canada Post’s treatment of workers during the rotating strike and bargaining period left much to be desired, but CUPW’s ability to find solutions for workers was hardly better. Some workers, like those in St. Albert, found that circumventing traditional union methods was often more successful than following the union’s strike strategy or acting through the grievance procedure.

The union’s grievance process can be deeply frustrating. Tyre says that in Winnipeg, there are about 3,000 grievances waiting to be heard since 2000. In Edmonton, Patrick says 2,200 workers file 1,000 grievances annually.

Meanwhile, workers grew increasingly impatient with the rotating strike’s inability to resolve negotiations. On June 14, the last day of the strike, over 300 letter carriers stormed and occupied Depot 9 in downtown Edmonton. Management locked themselves in their offices. Around 9 p.m. Western Standard Time, Canada Post locked out its workers across the country, suspending mail delivery. Workers exiting Depot 9 continued a blockade around the depot after noticing that management was staying to finish the mail. After a seven-hour standoff with police, the demonstration broke up and management was able to leave.

Locked out and legislated back-to-work

The cost of keeping the postal service operating during the 12-day rotating strike amounted to $167 million, according to CPC spokesperson Anick Losier. They had no choice, then, but to lock out workers, she says. Moreover, management had hoped that the union would reenter negotiations under the pressure of a lockout.

This spurred the federal government into action. 13 days after CPC locked out its employees, the newly-elected Conservative government passed back-to-work legislation. Workers were given a pay increase and CUPW’s old collective agreement was temporarily re-instated, retroactive to February 1, 2011.

Still, the union saw the legislation as a bitter defeat. For one, an arbitrator, Coulter Arthur Anthony Osborne, was appointed by the government to review the separate collective agreements proposed by Canada Post and CUPW. He will choose one collective agreement without any further negotiation between the two parties.

The union is challenging Osborne’s appointment, as he has no previous experience in labour disputes and is not bilingual. “We’re certain that they’ve carefully picked an arbitrator that’s going to pick Canada Post’s collective agreement,” said Tyre. “It’s working in such a way that if we ask for anything that costs ten dollars, that’s it, the arbitrator can’t pick it.”

What’s more, Canada Post’s Labour Relations department initially stopped the pay increase included in the back-to-work law. Chopra had to intervene so that workers would receive their payments on September 29.

The government has also failed to hold Canada Post accountable for violating the collective agreement, which now applies retroactively to the entire period of negotiations, the rotating strike, and the spring lockout.

Finally, Tyre pointed out that the legislation fails to address the health and safety concerns with the Modern Post. For him, this omission serves as an indication that the government is not listening to postal workers. “We know we don’t have a hope in hell there.”

From postal workers storming out of their depots in Winnipeg last November, the struggle has come full circle. Modern Post continues to sweep the country. Negotiations are over. Workers have little to show for eight months of mobilization and resistance.

Lessons learned

This summer, Patrick noticed that his fellow union members in Edmonton had grown fatigued from their prolonged struggle. The demoralizing effect of the back-to-work legislation, coupled with seasonally low mail volumes in July and August, resulted in a quiet summer for Edmonton.

Despite painful setbacks, Patrick saw a silver lining in the previous year’s agitation. “I think it was a really good learning experience for a lot of people,” he said. He described the fighting spirit of postal workers over the past year as being greater than any workers have exhibited since the 1980s.

However, Patrick said the National Executive’s control of how, where, and when postal workers would strike failed to tap into the energy generated from the shop floor.

“We were an early fight in the Harper regime and the broader wave of austerity that is rolling out right now,” he said. “We’ve stuck to previous methods a lot in how we did things with the postal workers. And I think that the result we got was indicative of the strategy chosen at the top.”

To Parrot, the purpose of the labour movement is to continually reorganize and build momentum among its members and make a tangible difference.

“The movement has to find better ways of reaching out to people and better ways to reach out to their own workers on different issues,” he said. “There’s a new generation of workers who know nothing about this struggle of the past.”

The struggle is not over: the Rural and Suburban Mail Carrier’s contract will expire on December 31 and workers are currently voting on what union demands will be in negotiations with Canada Post. For workers in Montreal, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and across Canada, the Modern Post continues its spread throughout mail depots. Meanwhile, the decision on urban workers’ new collective agreement is still pending.

“The thing to me is workers will never be able to stop struggling,” Parrot stated. “If we don’t fight for what we want we will lose all the time.”

 

*Names have been changed due to the wishes of the speakers to remain anonymous.


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