In the short term at least, it appears Canada Post has backpedalled on its threats to lock out workers and shut down the postal system as labour negotiations continue. This is a remarkable reversal for a corporation that, during the last round of bargaining, enjoyed a very different result under a very different government.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has raised several key issues that have gained traction with the public and the media. But what’s changed since 2011 that has allowed this progressive narrative to successfully refute the corporate talking points and refocus the debate?
Arguably, a few things.
Well, okay, 2016. But while the principle of gender equity isn’t exactly new, it’s enjoying a parliamentary revival (thanks in large part to the tireless work of women’s rights organizations and the UpForDebate initiative during the 2015 election campaign).
Which means that when CUPW points out that rural and suburban letter carriers (the RSMCs), 70 per cent of whom are women, make on average 28 per cent less than their mostly male urban counterparts, the pay equity implications resonate.
As Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, pointed out in a recent interview, “You can’t call pay equity unreasonable or unaffordable: it’s 2016!” And it’s the law. (And it’s something the Public Service Alliance of Canada successfully fought for with a complaint that started back in 1983 under another Prime Minister Trudeau.)
Retiring in poverty? Or with dignity?
Canada Post’s insistence that defined benefit pension plans are so yesterday is questionable, particularly given the recent debate about improving the Canadian Pension Plan -- which is all about defined benefits -- and ensuring its viability for future generations. Apparently Canadians have a declining appetite for people retiring in abject poverty, and some governments are listening. The question is, will Canada Post?
Incidentally, defined benefit pension plans are not a dying breed. Though the majority of Canadian workers do not have a workplace pension plan, of those who do almost 75 per cent have a defined benefit pension plan.
And defined benefit aside, do you know the pension a retired letter carrier is entitled to upon turning 65? It’s about $25,000 a year after 35 years working for Canada Post. Is that too “gold plated” for a lifetime of work in a job that has among the highest injury rates in the federal public sector?
A precarious economy and uncertain job market have resulted in tremendous public concern for the next generation. By resoundingly rejecting Canada Post’s insistence that future hires should have a less secure retirement than current workers, CUPW has made intergenerational solidarity a priority at a time when young workers are being told they may have to lower their standards, work for less (or even for nothing), somehow pay off any student debts and -- if there’s any money left over -- save for an uncertain future where retirement is an increasingly elusive prospect.
Changing attitudes towards labour
Remember when the Harper government’s back-to-work legislation in 2011 forced an arbitrated settlement on the postal workers Canada Post had locked out just days earlier?
Turns out, according to an Ontario Superior Court decision this spring, that the legislation violated CUPW’s freedom of expression.
The ruling was an important and timely reminder of the legal rights of unions and workers that seems to have resonated even with some mainstream media. Certainly I don’t recall another time Canadian Business magazine bothered to explain the difference between a lockout and a strike in case readers were confused about which party had actually threatened to stop the mail.
About that decision to cancel home delivery…
The current labour dispute comes less than two years after the Crown corporation announced it would replace door-to-door delivery with superboxes (or, as Canada Post preferred to warmly and fuzzily call them, community mail boxes).
Not surprisingly, the public rebelled. Hundreds of municipalities called for a moratorium or reversal of the decision. Both the Liberals and the NDP made door-to-door delivery an election issue, and when the Liberals were elected they announced a public review of the postal system.
About those annual profits…
Media outlets are now more consistently reporting the fact that Canada Post is a profitable Crown corporation. In fact, over the past two decades the corporation has only failed to show a profit twice, in years when there were work stoppages.
Canada Post is not taxpayer-supported. It’s taxpayer-supporting. The volume of letter mail may be down, but there are more clients than ever before and e-commerce has resulted in record-setting profits for package delivery.
Rather than crying poor and cutting services, Canada Post could follow the suggestion of its own (heavily redacted) report and reinstate postal banking -- a “win-win strategy,” according to an internal corporation report, and a welcome alternative to cheque-cashing businesses and payday lenders that prey on low income communities.
The public mood has shifted. Not only do people remember Canada Post’s last ill-considered cost-cutting stunt of cutting home delivery, they’re recognizing the deep disconnect between the priorities of the Crown corporation’s Conservative-appointed CEO and the recent debates taking place in the broader arena.
Retirement security, community enhancement, pay equity, intergenerational support and the protection of our rights -- including the right for unions to bargain freely -- aren’t just important for CUPW and its members, they’re resonating with the broader public.
Given the current political climate and public sentiment, Canada Post’s management needs a serious reality check.
*Story corrected July 14 at 11:55 a.m. to remove a reference to CUPW as a participant in the 1983 complaint.
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