July 1, 1987 -
be very expensive for the employer. I think we can stop the mail from moving.
—Jean-Claude Parrot, President, Canadian Union of Postal Workers—Globe and Mail, June 16, 1987)
We must never lose sight of the fact that management in any business is only interested in profits, lining their own pockets and making sure the worker is kept down.
—The Ontario Regional Postal Worker, Summer 1986, quoted in Financial Times, June 15, 1987)
Canada is suffering through the eighth strike of post office employees in twenty years. While even in good times the post office comes in for a lot of criticism, the (partial) shut-down of the mail really brings out strong feelings. That's not surprising because the postal service has become an essential part of daily life. In fact, it is the lifeline of many businesses, and a prolonged strike represents a very serious threat to their survival.
The immediate issues in the current postal dispute are fairly straightforward. The 22,000 Letter Carriers Union wants to maintain the status quo, with a cost of living increase. Canada Post, under government orders to drastically cut costs, is asking for concessions. These include a two-tier wage schedule which would pay new employees less, cuts in travel and wash-up time so that individual carriers would deliver more mail (and make some carrier jobs redundant), and the right to hire casual employees to avoid costly overtime payments. Neither side will budge, and after two months of trying to effect a compromise, conciliation commissioner Kenneth Swan gave up.
Swan stated that the corporation is trying to take "too large a bite, affecting too many employees, to be swallowed." On the other hand, he believes the union ought to make some concessions to improve efficiency and lower costs. In his words, "The corporation is offering the union a job security package that, by the standard of most other unions in this country, would be generous. The problem is that the job security provisions now enjoyed by members of this bargaining unit are better still. The present collective agreement simply does not permit any employee to be laid off, providing he or she is willing to accept retraining and relocation."
While handling, sorting and delivering mail may be essentially uncomplicated operations, the postal operation does require careful planning and coordination. It's very vulnerable to interruptions, slowdowns and confusion, as everyone well knows who is the least bit acquainted with the post office—and as Jean Claude Parrot reminds us in the statement quoted above. In the current postal strike, (this is written June 29) union strategists have been using a clever technique. Instead of calling all workers out on strike with a loss of pay for everyone, the Letter Carriers Union has adopted a rotating strike procedure. This provides minimum hardship for the employees, but it still serves to create havoc in the postal operations.
Furthermore, the inside postal workers (who will soon be in a strike position) are sympathetic to the letter carriers and have their own methods of slowing things down.
In the face of this reality, Canada Post management completely misjudged its ability to keep the mail moving with replacement workers. If it were really determined to keep the post office functioning during the strike, management should have made much more elaborate preparations and made certain that replacement workers would have the full support of the law enforcement agencies. As it was, in many instances these workers were left unprotected in the face of angry mobs. Unfortunately, mob tactics work.
The Real Question: Are We A Civilized Society?
In a certain sense the immediate issues in dispute are not the most important concerns in this strike. Management is right in trying to get its operating costs under control. It's also understandable that unions are possessive of privileges previously won and now enjoyed.
What this strike does demonstrate is that it is impossible to clear up an accumulation of problems at one time. lt proves that when relations between labour and management are soured, good sense flies out of the window. Indeed, compromise and common sense were completely lacking in the negotiations leading to the strike. During the talks Swan noted, "For whatever reason, the personal relationships of the representatives of the parties have deteriorated to the point where negotiations are intensely personal and bitter." But above all, it shows that there is an element in the Letter Carriers Union which has not understood that a resort to violent tactics is a direct attack on the elementary standards that make a civilized society possible. Even Shirley Carr, head of the Canadian Labour Congress, discovered how difficult it is to rein in a threatening mob when she was nearly knocked off her feet in an Ottawa confrontation between letter carriers and their replacements. The real issue in this strike then is, what is the nature of a free and democratic society? The claim that they are fighting for their jobs does not justify the strikers' violent action. In any case, it is impossible for any business to give an ironclad guarantee of no layoffs ever, particularly when such guarantees are tied to a range of costly and wasteful work rules.
It is easy to state the obvious; the post office is in a mess. What should be done? The two parties will not work out their differences. (Remember that the letter carriers are only the first of a number of postal unions whose contracts are up for renegotiation.) The Canadian people are entitled to uninterrupted mail service. Though there is no perfect solution, under the present circumstances the best way to resolve the dispute and to provide an essential service for all Canadians is to submit it to compulsory arbitration. (That would require legislators with courage.) What comes after that is a painful and laborious process of building bridges and working for the good of employees, the corporation and the Canadian public. Without that, Canada Post faces a bleak future, or none at all. Some would dismiss the call for compulsory arbitration in the name of free collective bargaining. However, they overlook the fact that freedom is circumscribed by responsibility. There exists no absolute right to do anything, certainly not to back up a strike with behaviour that is clearly in violation of the law.