As many know from the swirling news across traditional and social media, there has been a long-running labour dispute between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers over a series of core bargaining issues. While both sides entered legal strike/lockout positions at the beginning of the month, CUPW has made it clear that it has no appetite for a strike and the inconvenience it would bring to Canadians.
Rather, it is Canada Post management who has given a 72-hour lockout notice to its unionized staff, which could come into effect as early as July 11. Management is intent on wrestling concessions from the union, and their preference for the lockout route is evidenced by the fact that while the union’s demands are quite modest and mostly defensive in nature, they are proposing seismic shifts in how compensation functions at the crown corporation, which will have major effects on future generations of postal workers.
Simply put, Canada Post wants concessions on part time labour and pensions. Their argument — despite the fact that the crown corporation has demonstrated profitability in historical and contemporary terms — is that the postal service must prepare for the future by increasing labour flexibility to deal with the more erratic nature of parcel demand, and removing the pension millstone that will sink them with heavy long term liabilities
But if one moves beyond the coiffed rhetoric in their official releases, it becomes clear that the goal is nothing short of the end of Canada Post’s status as a decent employer for young Canadians. This call for flexibility through casual and part time labour is seeking a mandate for precarity, which is correlated with poverty, insecurity, and weakened bargaining positions.
But perhaps even bigger is the question of pensions, because the proposal from Canada Post — to offer all new hires a defined contributions pension model as opposed to the defined benefits scheme currently in place — sharply divides postal workers on largely generational lines. Blatantly, the company wants CUPW to sanction a workplace hierarchy founded on unequal compensation for equal work. It’s an insult to workplace solidarity, and to ambitious young people who wish to serve the public.
Evidently, CUPW is refusing to accept such demands, even though the major effects will be wrought on people not yet in its membership. While one of their key demands — ensuring greater compensation for its female-predominate rural membership — is an issue of the ‘here and now,’ the defence of secure pensions and employment is really more for those not yet holding a voice in, or paying dues to, the union.
This fight challenges multiple preconceptions of organized labour: especially that it serves only narrow socio-economic interests, and that it is hostile to young workers. It would be easy to accept a two-tier model, confident in the belief that existing members will be relatively unscathed. And yet they keep fighting for a fair deal for future postal workers.
But what does this mean for young workers, and for the wider labour movement? In a few words, it’s imperative that we show unwavering solidarity with CUPW members. Should the lockout go forward, there will be increased pressure to settle, likely on terms that would codify inequalities into the collective agreement. CUPW will need all of the financial, logistical, and intellectual support it can get. If its members can sustain themselves and their families, and if they can be confident knowing that this fight is also the fight of young Canadians and the wider working-class movement, they will be more likely to soldier on.
Inter-union solidarity is always important, but the battles being fought in these negotiations will have an effect in every community and household over the short and long term. This is about more than a percent here or a percent there on a paycheque — this is about the survival of decent employment, and the prospects of what this movement means to young workers.
Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is under review with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV, and CBC.