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Building the power to win: learning from last year's lockout at Canada Post

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A year ago on June 14 the Canada Post Corporation (CPC) locked out nearly 48,000 employees. The lockout signaled a ramping up of aggression against workers, both organized and unorganized, by Canada’s ruling class. The lockout was preceded by rotating strikes initiated by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) on June 2.  It ended when the new Conservative majority government passed draconian back-to-work legislation forcing postal workers to return to work on June 27.

The fight at Canada Post was a brave but bitter defeat for postal workers and for the larger Canadian labour movement. The dispute between CUPW and the CPC was multifaceted. CPC wanted to change short-term disability, implement defined contribution pension plan for new workers, and entrench two tiered wages.

They also wanted to drastically overhaul the way the postal system runs by instituting what the CPC calls the modern post. The modern post, now in at least 23 locations across the country, is designed to simply squeeze the most out of workers, while making it harder for the union to stay organized and connected.

For instance letter carriers have been forced to double bundle mail on one arm, which has caused an increase in injuries. There has also been a more pronounced staggering of start times, which is one of the reasons you maybe seeing you letter carrier delivering mail to your home well after dark. Not only does this increase injuries but it whittles away solidarity in the workspace. Workers at Canada Post are increasingly divided and sequestered which makes it harder to stay organized and makes individual workers more likely to be cornered and intimidated by managers.

The modern post’s other key feature is to streamline and cut back service. The billions of dollars spent on new sorting machines means that the CPC will not expand and diversify services -- the postal system could offer banking or even federal licensing services, which would be a boon for smaller communities. Instead, the CPC decided to spend billions of dollars on a strategy whose sole purpose is to decrease service and break the union. The CPC does not care about the public, it wants only to drive the postal system to a point where it could be privatized.

When the Conservatives legislated the postal workers back to work they mandated a lower wage increase than even the CPC had suggested. The Conservatives handpicked arbitrator would also be mandated to use a final offer selection method to settle the dispute. This means that both sides submit a final offer and the arbitrator picks one. There is no compromise. This is a mechanism to force CUPW to cede to some of the employers demands.

The defeat at Canada Post contained some valuable lessons for the larger labour movement. The Conservative government is determined to use state power to crush labour. It wasn’t just that they legislated postal workers back to work -- the Liberals had done that before – it was the harshness and speed of the legislation itself. The Conservatives have continued to use and threatened to use back to work legislation against Air Canada workers, and Canadian Pacific Rail workers as well. This creates a decidedly pro-employer environment in labour relations. If you are an employer why would you bargain in good faith if you know the state will crush any possible work stoppage? If you are in a federally regulated worksite and you go on strike, the message is you will be legislated back to work. In this situation what is to be done?

Organized workers need to prepare to defy. If a law is enacted that tramples collective labour and social rights then that law should be defied (Defiance can and does work, one need only look at the mass defiance against Law 78 in Quebec. The social defiance there has rendered that law moot). A mass defiance of the law, however, requires a high level of consciousness. This means that workers, especially rank and file activists need to prepare for the possibility of defiance, since they will be the ones to pay the price. Defiance can only work if there is a strong buy-in from workers. This discussion should take place as part of a broader strategic discussion.

CUPW and other unions need to employ more creative strategies to win.  A simple strike outside a plant may not be enough. Workers need to consider the tactic of occupation. This tactic puts the employer on the defensive, makes it harder for the state to remove picketers, it prevents scabbing, the plant can become a space to organize a broader community outreach strategy, and it is easier to keep going in inclement weather.  In this age of austerity workplace occupations can become symbolic spaces of resistance for the broader public and other workers to gravitate towards.

Workplace occupations also build confidence and solidarity amongst workers. This means that the initiative for organizing is more likely to stay with the rank and file. Occupations aren’t all the same, in the public sector, occupations may choose to engage in a work-in to win public support (In the case of public transportation this would look like a fare-strike).

The point here is that workers in the public and private sectors need to put workplace occupations on the agenda (for instance the workers at Rio Tinto in Alma Québec only chance of winning is to occupy). This move will not come from the top but from networks of rank and file activists in the workplace. The problem for CUPW is that it has been about 13 years since the last industrial action. Most of the networks and activist experience in large workplace struggles has been lost.

It is hard to say what will happen at Canada Post the next time around. But the lesson of the lockout for the broader Canadian labour movement is clear. Employers in both the public and private sector are using the crisis to squeeze workers and the state is helping them. There needs to be a change in both union strategy and tactics in regards to the law (which can only come from the rank and file). If the deck is stacked against all workers in this period of austerity, isn’t it about time we stop playing their game and start putting workplace occupations back on the table?

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