The federal government overreacted in denying Canada Post employees a fundamental right when it intervened last month in the contract dispute between Canada Post and its unionized workers and ordered an end to rotating strikes.
For some, this could be seen as the government protecting an essential service at a time of year when the flow of mail increases. But we see this as taking a popular and easy way out of a sticky situation, removing the most effective instrument available to unionized workers in pressuring the employer.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, well aware of public opinion when services are curtailed, acted responsibly by launching rotating walkouts in various locations instead of an all-out strike. The effect has been minimal and talks were continuing.
In previous decades, postal strikes had devastating impacts on the economy, but with the shift toward email, this is no longer the case. Yes, a backlog of packages was building up and the delivery of mail has slowed, but, as such experts as Malcolm Bird, Political Science professor at the University of Winnipeg has noted, the rotating strikes amounted to an inconvenience for small businesses and customers ordering online, but “not the end of the world like it once was.”
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The exploitation of workers that flows from the capitalist philosophy had to be tempered, and that is what led in the previous century to the creation of the trade-union movement. It fought many a battle, and lives were lost in order to get the right to organize and bargain collectively.
The withdrawal of work, known as the strike, is the ultimate weapon. With the growth of the public service in Canada, that right to organize and use the strike weapon was another hard-won battle, but considered as necessary as in the private sector, even with greater job security, so state employees can effectively negotiate wages and working conditions.
History has shown that employers who believe governments will impose back-to-work legislation, will use this as an undeclared bargaining tool because it gives the employer an unfair advantage. It distorts the power relationship, especially, as in the case of Canada Post, when technology is changing the nature of the business model.
The digital age is having a significant impact on a cherished public institution. Letter mail is declining between four and eight per cent a year, but the volume of parcels delivered has increased by almost 70 per cent since 2011. Responding to public pressure, the Liberals wisely scrapped previous plans to replace home mail service with community mailboxes. Costs are high because Canada Post is a public service accorded to all Canadians including those in remote areas.
These elements make it impossible for Canada Post, and its subsidiary, Purolator, to compete with private enterprise. Serving all Canadians is part of the socio-political fabric that must be considered when wages and working conditions are subject to negotiation. The back-to-work order interfered with this process.