Mike Palecek is the recording secretary of the Vancouver local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).
The election of a Conservative majority government in Canada is a turning point for the Canadian labour movement. Until now, Canada has mostly avoided the kind of austerity program being forced upon the rest of the world. This is certain to change now that Stephen Harper has gained a majority. The first attack will be against members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). The militant traditions of CUPW make us a prime target for Harper’s first battle.
Postal workers will be in a legal strike position as of midnight on 24th May. In response to demands of unprecedented concessions at the bargaining table, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers handed Canada Post their strongest strike mandate in history. 94.5% voted in favour of strike action. It was the largest turnout in the history of the union. Postal workers are not bluffing.
The corporation is demanding major roll-backs. At a time when they are making record profits, they are demanding a two-tiered wage and benefit system for all new hires. Canada Post wants every new employee hired to be given substandard benefits, a defined contribution pension plan instead of a defined benefit plan, and a lower wage.
This is a clear attempt to divide the shop floor and threaten the long term stability of the post office. It is a blueprint for the destruction of our collective agreement. The two-tiered system is an old trick used by employers to divide and conquer the workforce. In grocery stores across Canada, two-tiered wage plans, brought in throughout the 1990s, led to the steady erosion of wages and benefits for all workers. Today, the grocery stores are full of people making poverty level wages. The bosses at Canada Post have the same plan in mind.
But the attacks on postal workers aren’t limited to new hires. Their global offer has something for everyone! Another major issue is the removal of sick-leave benefits that have been in place since the 1960s. The corporation plans to scrap the 15 paid sick days we currently receive per year, and replace them with a Short Term Disability plan. The STD plan will cut postal workers sick-time in half, and leave sick leave to the discretion of Manulife — a third party that has already been contracted to harass sick and injured workers at Canada Post. This is simply unacceptable.
Canada Post has one of the highest injury rates of any workforce in the country. Last year, there were over 9,000 CUPW members that were injured on the job — and those are just the cases that WCB approved. People are often surprised to learn that a letter carrier has one of the most dangerous jobs in Canada. Letter carriers climb stairs, cross streets, and walk several kilometres a day. Slips, trips, and falls make up a huge portion of our injuries. Repetitive strain injuries are common for people working in the plants. With over 20,000 letter carriers out in the community every day, and tens of thousands of other workers doing repetitive work inside, it is no surprise that these injury rates are so high. This is a union that needs its sick time.
But the concessions aren’t the only thing holding the two sides apart. CUPW members are facing serious problems at work that must be addressed. The modernization plans that Canada Post is implementing have presented posties with a plethora of new problems. We have major health and safety concerns surrounding the new work methods that are being proposed. The Modern Post Project has been described as a “catastrophic machine of slavery” by those who are experiencing it. It would be nice if we could say that was an exaggeration. The injury rates have gone through the roof in areas where it has been rolled out. Long hours and dangerous working conditions are the new standard. The first “modern” post plant that opened in Winnipeg last year didn’t even make it through its first day without an injury — and that was to the CEO of the company!
Creative tactics on the shop floor are being employed to fight against these changes. Some places on the prairies have rolled out a Porch Lights for Posties campaign, delivering light bulbs to the community and asking people to keep their porch lights on for postal workers who are now forced to keep working into the night. In Edmonton, several depots are risking discipline by refusing to work forced-overtime. These actions show the determination of postal workers to fight for the changes we need.
Postal workers are fully aware that the struggle ahead of us has very broad implications. Our struggle will set the tone for the many fights that will inevitably rise against the new Harper majority government. A defeat would prepare the way for a series of attacks against the broader public sector. A victory would send Stephen Harper’s government a powerful message that the labour movement will not be pushed around. It is for this reason that the Canadian Labour Congress unveiled an action plan at its convention in Vancouver to launch an escalating campaign of mass demonstrations and direct actions against Harper’s government. The plan specifically mention CUPW’s upcoming battle and vowed support for the posties. In the coming weeks we will see just how far they are willing to go. But the postal workers are certainly prepared to do whatever it takes to win.