Challenging the Mail Gaze

It’s been a tough couple of years for Canada’s postal workers.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) – which represents 50,000 mail carriers across its urban, rural, and suburban units – launched into contract negotiations at the end of last year, intent on achieving bargaining outcomes that secured its future vision of the national postal system.
From proposals for postal banking and same-day delivery service to more basic demands guaranteeing that existing corporate outlets and retail postal outlets are not shut down by their employer, the CUPW’s approach to its 2015–2016 contract negotiations has linked its fight for better working conditions, wages, and security for members to that of improving postal services for all Canadians.

The union’s Delivering Community Power plan, released in February with support from environmental and Indigenous community groups like Idle No More and the Leap Manifesto team, outlines a sustainable and expanded Canada Post system that provides services like banking, finance, elder care, and delivery of local produce and medication. Converting corporate operations to renewable energy sources and outfitting post offices with charging stations for electric cars also feature in the plan.

The strategy was an ambitious base for the union’s bargaining demands, and as Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour at McMaster University, says, the union made it “very clear it’s not just about the future of their own members at the postal service. CUPW really have, I think in a unique and maybe even unprecedented way, positioned this round of bargaining in the context of a broader vision of the postal service.”

Tentative details

After 10 months of negotiation, two separate tentative agreements that span two years for each of the urban, and rural and suburban units were reached on August 30, 2016. The CUPW’s national executive board recommended both agreements for ratification.

Early details show the union staved off further closures to Canada Post outlets, and kept the defined benefit pension plan for all current members – a contract fixture aggressively attacked as unsustainable by the employer throughout negotiations.

Major disappointments include the CUPW’s failure to secure an hourly wage system for rural and suburban mail carriers – a necessary step to fixing the gender pay inequity among its members. Instead, both parties agreed to an independent review into pay equity for rural and suburban mail carriers.

According to CUPW research, Canada Post’s mail carrier pay system – which allocates compensation for rural and suburban workers according to the number of packages delivered – disproportionately affects its female members. About 70 per cent of the rural and suburban postie group are women (conversely, about 70 per cent of urban postal carriers are men). On average, they earn nearly 30 per cent less than men in the urban unit for doing the same work. Canada Post disputes that its pay system is discriminatory, saying its piecework rates for rural and urban mail carriers account for changes in house density levels that exist on rural routes.

Union president Mike Palecek also stressed the importance of continuing to strive for changes that had not been achieved this year. “Many of our issues remain unresolved,” he said in a statement. “These are short-term collective agreements and we will be back at the bargaining table next year … to finish the job.”

Round two on the horizon

For the CUPW, this round of negotiations has formed a crucial base in its ongoing fight for the future of the post office.

“What they’re doing in this round of bargaining, as well as the preparatory work they’ve been doing over several years with the Save Canada Post campaign, Save Door-to-Door campaign – which is kind of an outgrowth of Save Canada Post – and their plan Delivering Community Power … goes much beyond delivery of mail and packages,” Ross says of the CUPW’s campaign.

“[The CUPW are] trying to protect certain kinds of conditions that would allow the plan that they’re proposing to be considered and implemented by Canada Post. There are parts of their collective agreement that allow for these kinds of proposals and get the employer to consider them, and the employer wants to remove that,” she says.

David Camfield, associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba, agrees with Ross, and says the CUPW’s approach has helped to build a broader support base for its campaign – both among its own members and the wider public.

“You can see the success in connecting with members in the really high strike vote,” he says.

And while the level of public support for the CUPW was less clear-cut, Camfield believes Canada Post’s decision to back down from imposing a lockout on two separate occasions was a response to the negative publicity the corporation fielded for its actions.

About 94 per cent of the CUPW’s urban unit members, and 91 per cent of its rural and suburban unit members, voted in approval of strike action on June 26. The union eventually issued a strike notice when its strike vote result expired on August 25, but it postponed job action twice to enable mediator-assisted negotiations to continue, culminating in the two tentative agreements on August 30. Meanwhile, Canada Post issued and withdrew two lockout notices before mid-July.

“By successfully stressing that they [the CUPW] want to keep on doing the work, they want to keep on sorting and delivering the mail parcels, showing that it was the employer driving for the lockout – that kind of appeals to people who are in principle not really strong pro-union people,” Camfield says.

What’s at stake?

Despite this, and the union’s relentless campaign efforts around its bargaining demands – including its emphasis on gender pay equity – negotiations yielded only limited changes.

According to Ross, a lack of awareness among the Canadian public about what was really at stake at the bargaining table could have been to blame.

“At the national level, whether you talk about television, or press media coverage, I’ve seen no reference to the Delivering Community Power plan.” Postal banking has gained some media traction, but it is remarkable that more attention hasn’t been dedicated to the CUPW’s overall vision for the post office – particularly with the strong public backlash in 2013 and 2014 against the cancellation of door-to-door mail delivery service, Ross says.

In October 2015, Canada Post suspended its rollout of community mailboxes that eventually would have led to the elimination of home delivery – and up to 8,000 postie jobs. Launched three years ago under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the rollout sparked fierce public criticism across Canada, and initiated the CUPW’s successful Save Door-to-Door campaign. It also featured in last year’s federal election campaign, with the Liberal party promising to cancel the community mailbox program.

Ross asserts that the ongoing polit-ical and public interest in door-to-door delivery provides an ideal opportunity for coverage of the CUPW’s broader vision for postal services by the mainstream media.

“[But], I cannot see any evidence of that having happened,” she says.

Stubborn union stereotypes

Ross offered several explanations for the apparent lack of interest around the CUPW’s plans for the post office.

First, the CUPW’s standing as a national union that encompasses more than 200 locals makes it difficult to assess the level of public support for its message around the country.

In Hamilton, Ontario, where Ross lives, city councillors are backing plans for a postal bank, having passed a motion in favour of it in March 2016. “That partly reflects the progressive councillors on the council, and that this is a working-class city, with a long tradition of labour movement activism,” she says. “[However,] what it looks like in Hamilton versus what it looks like in Calgary could be very different.”

Second, long-standing anti-union biases also have an impact.

“There is a set of stereotypes that are prevalent in the media about what unions do [as well as] a very narrow understanding of what unions do,” Ross says. “They [the stereotypes] focus only on points of conflict like strikes and lockouts [and] they don’t really take much time to examine the fact that many unions are actually quite forward-thinking in discussions about what their work could contribute to society and intervening in public debates about important social issues.”

The former Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union – a predecessor to Unifor – faced this problem in 2012 with the launch of its “Rethinking Canada’s Auto Industry” policy paper. Released in the lead up to the CAW’s negotiations with GM, Ford, and Chrysler, the paper set out an alternative economic approach to the auto industry, underpinned by the elimination of free trade agreements that provide unfair advantages for cars produced in Europe and Asia. The paper also advocated for minority ownership of major auto-manufacturing companies by the federal and Ontario governments.

After the negotiations – which proved particularly difficult for the union – then-CAW economist Jim Stanford emphasized “the importance of positioning collective bargaining demands in the broader context of working to enhance the well-being of our communities, and all workers.”

“The CAW’s initiative generated significant national media attention,” Stanford writes on “While conservative political and media commentators labelled the union’s ideas dangerous and radical, the campaign certainly succeeded in broadening debate about the future of Canada’s auto industry beyond just labour costs.”

“The CAW’s campaign for a national auto strategy helped define the issue as one of preserving a fair share of good jobs for Canadians (rather than solely an issue of defending autoworkers’ compensation),” Stanford states. “Unions need to position themselves as working for the broader good, wherever and whenever we credibly can.”

Fractured pensions

Alan Freeman, a former political and business reporter for the Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, and Wall Street Journal, offered a different type of analysis when discussing the CUPW’s pension plan – the most highly publicized aspect of the negotiations.

“A lot of people are not that sympathetic to postal workers probably. Certainly, most Canadians don’t have … a defined contribution [pension] plan, let alone a defined benefit plan,” Freeman says.

Under the expired contracts, all CUPW members are part of Canada Post’s defined benefit pension plan that guarantees a predetermined set of benefits in retirement. The corporation wanted to introduce a two-tier retirement plan that would have enrolled new employees in a defined contribution pension scheme, and reserved the defined benefit plan for only those members already covered in renegotiations (under a defined contribution plan, workers make set payments toward retirement, but there is no guarantee on the benefits they receive through their pension). The CUPW successfully rejected Canada Post’s manoeuvre to fracture the pensions.

Writing prior to the tentative agreements being reached, Freeman warned that the CUPW’s defence of its defined benefit plan was significantly weakened by the decreasing prevalence of pension plans, particularly those with defined benefits, among workers.

According to Statistics Canada, about 38 per cent of workers were members of a registered pension plan in 2014. Of these workers, about 70 per cent were in defined benefit pension plans, down from 81 per cent in 2006. Overall, long-term figures also show a decline in pension plan members, with 46 per cent of workers enrolled in a pension plan in 1977.

In 2011, Air Canada workers – represented by the CAW – shifted to a hybrid, two-tier pension scheme in negotiations settled through arbitration. Under the scheme, new workers have a pension plan that is part defined benefit and part defined contribution. The CAW’s 20,000 auto workers accepted a similar pension plan the following year in negotiations with the Big Three.

More recently – and most concerning for the CUPW – was arbitrator Michel Picher’s decision on August 16 to accept Canada Post’s contract proposal in the final offer selection process with the Canadian Postmasters and Assistants Association (CPAA), the union that represents workers in rural post offices. The contract’s pension scheme placed all new hires on a defined contribution pension plan, while current members remain under a defined benefit plan – the exact two-tier system the CUPW managed to block.

The strategic orientation of the labour movement

With members across the country due to vote on the tentative agreements between late October and early December 2016, and the CUPW warning of another tough round of negotiations next year, the full outcome and implications of the union’s decision to link its demands to its wider vision for the post office remains to be seen.

“A lot [was] riding on this round of negotiations, not just for CUPW, but also for a particular kind of strategic orientation in the labour movement,” Ross says of the campaign.

“Many unions recognize the need to connect their own particular issues to the broader public and social interests.” However, the resources and energy required to mobilize around a campaign like this have to be weighed against what unions know they can achieve using the “tried and true methods of collective bargaining [that] focus very much on the workplace, workplace relations, wages, and benefits,” she says.

The level of the CUPW’s success in “making headway on implementing parts of the Delivering Community Power plan” will likely impact whether unions, and the wider labour movement in Canada, take a more integrated approach to collective bargaining – like the CUPW has tried to in its most recent negotiations.

Teuila Fuatai is a freelance journalist based in Toronto and writes about social justice issues, workers’ rights, and developments in the labour movement. She is originally from New Zealand, and was the labour beat reporter for this year.

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