In December 2013, Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra stunned postal workers as well as the Canadian public with drastic cutbacks to services, including the elimination of door-to-door delivery, dramatic increases in postage prices and cuts to labour costs through the axing of 8,000 jobs and the franchising of retail outlets.
Chopra’s plan was hatched on the advice of a Conference Board report which claimed that Canada Post Corporation (CPC) would have an operating budget deficit of $1 billion by the year 2020. Not coincidentally, Deepak Chopra sat on the Conference Board and Canada Post paid for the report.
The plan had the blessing of the Harper government and was executed without any significant consultation with Canadians.
Canada Post’s corporate spin doctors churned out doom-and-gloom predictions about the future of the enterprise that have proven to be patently false. Canada Post has been a profitable company over the last two decades, returning billions of dollars to federal coffers. The smoke-and-mirrors report was discredited within the first three years.
(In 2011, CPC had run in the red due in part to a lock-out of postal workers as well as a lost payequity court case with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, a 30-year battle which resulted in an estimated $250 million settlement.)
The most controversial of Chopra’s cuts was the elimination of door-to-door delivery, which became a federal election issue that likely contributed to the defeat of Stephen Harper. All opposing parties campaigned on restoring door-to- door and improving postal services. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals promised a review of Canada Post. But apart from putting a temporary halt on conversions to group mailboxes, the Trudeau Liberals in office have left Chopra at the helm with his cutback plan intact.
His five-year term was set to expire on February 1, 2016. However, he was reappointed by Stephen Harper before the Conservative government fell as part of a patronage binge in which the contracts of 33 appointees were extended. Following the election, the new Liberal House Leader, Dominic Leblanc, sent a letter to all those appointees requesting their voluntary resignation. Chopra, who receives an annual salary of roughly $500,000 plus bonuses, declined to resign, a message delivered in a letter written by Sian Matthews, chair of the Board of Directors of CPC, who is also a Harper appointee.
Some background to the labour conflict
Back in 2011, six months into Chopra’s appointment, negotiations with the union were already well underway. On June 2, 2011, CUPW began a series of rotating strikes. Twelve days later, CPC announced an unprecedented nationwide lock-out of its employees. While Canada Post is supposed to be operating at arm’s length from the federal government, they could not have locked out their employees without the blessing of Harper’s anti-worker Conservative government.
The Conservatives then introduced Bill C-6 to legislate the locked-out postal workers back to work: a convenient manoeuvre for Chopra and the Conservatives. A 58-hour filibuster in Parliament led by NDP leader Jack Layton followed.
The Conservatives had the power to order Chopra to end the lock-out, but they chose instead to hold the mail hostage so they could push through their legislation, which compromised workers’ rights and set a precedent for undue interference in collective bargaining.
CUPW challenged Bill C-6 in the courts and on April 28, 2016, an Ontario Superior Court decision was rendered. Judge Firestone stated that Bill C-6 “violated postal workers’ freedom of association and expression in an unjustified manner.” The judge therefore ruled that Bill C-6 “is declared to have been unconstitutional and of no force and effect.”
Chopra’s bargaining experience has been limited to doing the bidding of the Conservative government, whose ultimate agenda was to undermine the union and ripen the Crown corporation for privatization.
Flash forward to negotiations 2016, CUPW was cautiously facing off with a new government, despite Justin Trudeau’s declaration in an interview prior to the election that “Canadians need a government, which instead of attacking unions, works with them to ensure that every Canadian has a real and fair chance at success.” The Liberals claim to support improved pensions, wage equity, fair collective bargaining, and a public review of Canada Post, but their mantra is unproven.
What are the issues?
Management came to the table with a long list of concessions, including cuts to benefits, reduced health and safety training, two-tier wages and pensions, the right to close 493 unionized retail outlets in favour of franchised private outlets, and more precarious temporary work.
The major objectives of the union include expanding postal services, protecting benefits and pensions for the next generation of postal workers, and achieving pay equity for the Rural and Suburban Mail Carrier (RSMC) unit, predominantly women who earn 28-per-cent less than their urban counterparts. CUPW is also endeavouring to improve health and safety by bargaining for work methods that do not cause injuries to workers.
The CPC applied for conciliation early in the process, all the while displaying an unwillingness to negotiate seriously. They began to warn their customers of an impending labour dispute, which they described as a strike. They were little inclined to bargain, perhaps hoping the government would rescue them in the final hour. Postal workers worried that management would change the working conditions of the contract and that CUPW would be forced to strike. In July, CPC gave a 72-hour notice of lockout but, recognizing that CUPW had no desire to serve strike notice, they were asked to consider a 30-day extension of the cooling off period. They agreed but with the caveat that CUPW submit to binding arbitration at the end of 30 days. CUPW rejected this proposal and negotiations resumed. The parties made little progress at the tables while a 60 day shelf life of the strike mandate ticked away. CUPW had no choice but to serve their strike notice, with minimal job action to avoid disrupting service to the public.
The Liberals appointed a special mediator and after a week of delayed strike action and aroundthe- clock bargaining a tentative agreement was hammered out. The agreement buys CUPW time to allow the review to be completed and implemented and pay equity studied and reported. The two-year agreement resulted in zero concessions, but few gains for postal workers in either bargaining units.
Banking on the future
CUPW has been campaigning for innovative ways to expand revenue-generating services. One idea is to reintroduce postal banking in Canada. The legislation for a Postal Bank still exists and several former Canada Post CEOs, including Moya Green, André Oullette and Michael Warren have supported the concept. The big six banks made a profit of $35 billion in 2015, while closing branches and making banking less accessible, especially in rural and Indigenous communities. However, there are 6,300 post offices across the country serving those rural communities. Postal services in 139 countries around the world offer some form of financial services. Canada Post already provides money orders and moneygrams. Over 600 municipalities across Canada have passed resolutions in support of postal banking.
This will no doubt be a priority for the Canada Post review, but Canada Post is not willing to discuss this innovative vision at the bargaining table. Not only is current management refusing to discuss this, but they have gone to great lengths to conceal the benefits of postal banking for Canada. A four-year secret study was conducted that indicated it would be a “win-win strategy” and “proven money-maker” for the corporation. Through an Access to Information request, Blacklock’s Reporter obtained a copy of the internal report; however, 701 of the 811 pages were heavily redacted. To date, Canada Post has refused to disclose the redacted content of its study.
Delivering community power
On Leap Day, February 29, 2016, CUPW revealed a new vision summed up in the phrase Delivering Community Power. It is the collective brainchild of Friends of Public Services, Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association, the Leap Manifesto, SmartChange.ca, CUPW and ACORN Canada.
The government has committed to respond to climate change and invest in greener infrastructure. Delivering Community Power proposes the conversion of 6,300 post offices across the country to green community hubs. Imagine electric-vehicle charging stations at post offices, with solar panels on the roof. Imagine the country’s largest vehicle fleet converted to Made-in-Canada electric vehicles. Imagine letter carriers checking in on seniors and those with mobility issues. Imagine rural and Indigenous populations having access to inclusive financial services. Imagine reinvigorating the abandoned Food Mail Program, which made food in northern communities affordable.
Canada Post could become the hub of a greener economy in all our communities. The infrastructure exists and, combined with postal banking, Canada Post can once again become a powerhouse for community connections. The vision of Delivering Community Power is limited only by a lack of political will and the stubborn opposition of the Harper holdouts currently running the show at Canada Post. That is why CUPW is standing firm at the bargaining table and mobilizing in communities everywhere. All Canadians need to get behind postal workers and their union to make this vision a reality.
This article appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Leap, the Left & the NDP).