Fast Facts: Lessons of the Canada Post lockout

by David Camfield

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Recent events tell us a lot about some of the challenges facing working people in Canada today.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) began rotating strike action on June 2nd, after over seven months of negotiations with Canada Post Corporation (CPC) for a new contract covering some 48 000 postal workers. CUPW members had voted almost 95% in favour of authorizing a strike if necessary, with a turnout that set a record for the union.

The reasons why postal workers were so determined to strike if need be are not hard to understand. Starting in Winnipeg, CPC management is introducing new machinery and reorganizing work. Under the new system letter carriers must now carry two or more bundles of mail, leading to more work-related injuries. Inside workers face cuts in full-time positions, more evening and night shifts and a faster pace of work.

CPC has been a profitable Crown Corporation for the last 15 years yet management was insisting that workers make major concessions. As postal worker Cindy McCallum Miller put it, the employer was aiming to “gut our collective agreement for the next wave of workers as they plan for a future where workers have weaker rights, benefits and protection” (“What’s at stake at Canada Post?”).

Postal workers’ past struggles won a living wage (approximately $50 000/year on average), benefits and rights for what was once low-wage work. CPC went into negotiations demanding that new hires receive lower pay and a worse pension than current workers. Management also wanted workers to give up their sick leave rights and accept an inferior Short Term Disability plan. These concessions would be steps towards the goal — shared by Conservative and Liberal federal governments — of a privatized postal service whose workforce is smaller, cheaper and has many fewer rights.

Many media commentators initially claimed that the strike wouldn’t have much impact. But the rotating local strikes did affect some businesses and therefore CPC’s revenue, without causing much disruption to most people’s postal services. CPC tried to provoke CUPW into calling an all-out strike but failed. So on June 14 CPC locked out the workers.

The next day the Conservative federal government announced it would bring in legislation to force an end to the dispute. It appears that CPC’s goal all along was government intervention to impose the kind of settlement on postal workers that it was unable to achieve through collective bargaining. The lockout gave the government the excuse it was waiting for.

It’s no secret that the Conservatives hate CUPW — the union has consistently opposed the corporate agenda, defended public services and supported social justice struggles. So it was no surprise that when the final vote on the back-to-work bill was held in the House of Commons “the Conservative benches erupted in cheers and back-slapping” (“Mail could resume within days as back to work bill for Canada Post passes”).

What wasn’t as predictable was just how aggressively anti-worker the legislation would be. Many media reports have mentioned that it imposes wage increases lower than CPC’s previously-tabled offer (also well below the inflation rate for consumer prices). But that’s not its worst aspect by any means.

The law dictates that the new collective agreement for urban postal workers will be determined by an arbitrator appointed unilaterally by the Minister of Labour, using a method called final offer selection (FOS). FOS is uncommon in Canada, and is very rare in back to work legislation.

In this case, the union and the employer are each required to submit a final offer covering the many disputed issues. The arbitrator will then select one offer or the other in its entirety. In addition to allowing the Conservatives to handpick whoever they want as the arbitrator, the law includes guidelines that the arbitrator must follow in choosing a settlement. These are clearly designed to weight the outcome in favour of weakening postal workers’ rights and benefits, including their pension plan. This puts intense pressure on CUPW officials to submit a final offer that includes concessions they would never have agreed to in bargaining, in the hope that the arbitrator will pick their offer rather than an even-worse one from the employer.

With this law the Conservatives are sending a signal to unionized workers: if you resist the concessions that employers demand you risk ending up with an even worse outcome. The Harper government’s move against CUPW encourages provincial governments to intervene in similar ways against striking or locked-out workers in their jurisdictions.

The legislation threatened earlier this month against workers at Air Canada – a private company, unlike CPC – who had just gone on strike sent the same message. Public sector workers are not the only ones who should be concerned about governments intervening yet again on the side of employers to suspend the basic democratic right of workers to collectively negotiate their wages and working conditions.

Just how hostile the Tories are to unions isn’t the only lesson here. Another is that unions confronted by governments need much more solidarity action by other people than CUPW received in order to avoid defeats. The sympathy strikes that took place in British Columbia to support hospital workers in 2004 and teachers in 2005 point to what’s needed to improve the odds for unions attacked by governments. For this reason the call by the Fredericton labour council for a National Day of Action to support CUPW and Air Canada workers was a small step in the right direction.

David Camfield teaches Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba and is the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.

What is a CETA, and why should we be worried about it?

by Larry Brown

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The Canadian Government is well down the road, with the European Union, towards negotiating a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). They tell us that CETA will have everything that NAFTA has, plus more. They say that like it’s a good thing. But the more one looks at this Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, this CETA, the more there is to dislike.

NAFTA cost us hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, plus made our regulations and our social programs vulnerable to challenges from US and Mexican companies. The proposed CETA is all of that and more, with a much larger economic bloc.

Here are just some of the reasons to be very concerned about CETA.

1) Like most such agreements, the proposed CETA is not so much about trade as it is about putting limits on the ability of governments to control the actions of large corporations. It’s not really about tariffs and borders, it’s about adding to the list of things that governments can’t do if they interfere at all with the corporate sector’s unfettered right to make a profit.

2) This proposed deal would for the first time apply directly to Provinces, and cities, and crown corporations, and school boards, and hospitals. In particular the European Commission wants access to ‘procurement’ by all these levels of government. Procurement is the purchase of goods, like buses, and services. That means that Provinces, and cities, would lose their right to use taxpayers’ money for the benefit of local taxpayers. The proposed CETA would prohibit governments at all levels from spending tax dollars to encourage local development. Bids would have to be open to European companies and the only consideration allowed would be the cost of the bid.

Pretty much everyone who looks at CETA comes to the same conclusion. Hydro Quebec has a Research Institute. They studied CETA and concluded that CETA would limit the ability of government agencies to use public spending to achieve social goals like economic development and regional employment.

3) Crown corporations, like provincial power companies or liquor boards, would be up for grabs. The EU has made it clear it wants access to crown corporations and for example has complained about the way provincial liquor boards display and sell their products; they claim Canadian producers are favoured, and they don’t like it. But step two will be an attack on liquor sales monopolies, otherwise known as privatization – and serious commentators don’t even pretend that’s not on the agenda.

4) Drug costs in Canada, already one of the biggest factors in rising health care costs because of the sweetheart deal our brand name companies get on patent protection, would rise even higher if CETA is signed.

Pharma companies are trying to expand their patent rights under the cover of CETA. They want to use the Canada-EU trade deal to gain rights that they have been unable to get from Canada’s Parliament. These companies are actively encouraging the EU to demand provisions in the proposed trade agreement that will expand their patent rights and ultimately boost drug prices. If they succeed, brand name drugs, at their higher prices, will be protected even longer against cheaper generic drugs, and that will cost our public health care system and Canadians billions of dollars more. $2.8 billion more per year, by one study.

5) The proposed agreement would include the right of individual companies in the EU to challenge decisions of our democratically elected provincial governments, city councils, and so on. We’ve already seen the effect of this provision under NAFTA; Canada has paid millions of dollars to companies for deciding to ban toxic waste, and for banning a gasoline additive that was a known carcinogen, and for taking back the water and timber rights of a company that walked away from its obligations in Newfoundland – all because those decisions supposedly interfered with a company’s right to make a profit. Because CETA would apply to the provinces and municipalities, all their decisions would now be subject to the same kind of challenges, and they would likely bear the cost of damages.

6) The biggest private water companies in the world are in the EU. CETA would give those companies a huge club to use against cities to make them open up their water systems to privatization. The decision would be taken away from city council and city residents, and would be made by an obscure and trade-oriented disputes panel.

7) Contrary to the completely unsubstantiated claims by the Canadian government, a CCPA study by Jim Stanford shows that a free trade deal with the EU would cost Canada between 28,000 and 150,000 jobs. Those are cautious conclusions; the actual result would likely be much worse.

8) The proposed deal would include a provision that says anything not listed as exempt from the free trade agreement would be automatically covered. That means that if a city or province makes a small error and forgets to list any of the thousands of programs they deliver, that program is covered by the deal, and EU companies will be able to bid on the delivery of the service. If a province or city wants to develop a new program, like pharmacare or home care, it will automatically be covered by the rules of free trade, and that includes compensation for any company whose right to make a profit is affected by a new social program.

CETA is a dangerous and potentially destructive new international agreement, based solely on the desires of European and Canadian companies.

But it is not a done deal. It can be stopped, and if Provincial governments, and city governments, and hospital boards, and the citizens for whom all these agencies exist, figure out just how bad a deal this is, the federal government will never be able to consummate it.

We can stop this sell-out of our right to democratically govern ourselves, we can refuse to be governed by corporations that want to profit from our every need.

We need to speak up, and we need to stand up.

Larry Brown is the Secretary Treasurer of National Union of Public and General Employees and the National President of the CCPA

McFadyen’s Bloated Numbers Make For Murky Bi Pole III Debate

by John Ryan

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As recorded in Hansard, since the beginning of the Legislative session on April 12, there have been ongoing relentless attacks, on Hydro, the West route for Bipole 3, and the government. The attacks, mainly by Conservative leader Hugh McFadyen, have centred on the costs of the West route, claiming that it will cost $11,748 per family. His erroneous claim distorts the fact that it’s only the extra costs of the West route that should be considered. The Premier and the Minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro have refuted these charges, but the media continues to disregard their arguments and the attacks continue. Mr. McFayden recently debated Premier Selinger on CJOB radio and kept repeating the $11,748 figure, without explaining how he arrives at such an inflated number. Now there are billboards and a website that spread the same specious message.

It is legitimate to debate the issue of the West route vs the East route on rational factual grounds, but it is not legitimate to base such a debate on unsubstantiated claims and purposeful distortion. Letters in the WFP from Mr. Laliberte and the East-side Coalition, of which Mr. Laliberte is a member, further muddy the waters.

The Conservative Party’s preference for the East route and its attacks on the plans by Manitoba Hydro and the government for the West route have become a cause célèbre and obviously this issue will be a major plank in their campaign in the forthcoming provincial election. Rather than just being a debate, this matter has degenerated into a propaganda war — and as in all wars, truth has become a frontline casualty.

It is not that the basic facts on this matter are difficult to obtain. All the data that follow were obtained from Manitoba Hydro, either from their website or from specific inquiries to the corporation, and additional calculations were made based on these Manitoba Hydro data.

As of 2007, the total extra cost of the West route was approximately $650,000,000. This difference was based on the higher cost of the construction of the West side arising from the 500 extra kilometres ($410 million) and the amount of the line losses coming off the extra length of the West side ($232 million). No one ever debated these amounts.

Recently all the estimates have changed because of increases in construction costs. The $410 million difference in cost for the extra 500 kilometres has increased to $455 million. The $232 million difference for line losses has remained the same. The total difference between the two routes is now approximately $690 million when extra apparatus costs are factored in.

As mentioned, for some years, the $650 million figure was correctly used by critics, but some now claim, without explanation, that this figure has jumped to over $1 billion. The $1 billion figure continues to erroneously be used my many commentators, including the media.

Then in September 2010, McFayden raised this already bloated figure to $1.75 billion, with the additional claim that this amounted to $7,000 per Manitoba family. The claim that the difference between the two routes would equal $1.75 billion is incomprehensible given that at the time, the cost of the total line was only $1.1 billion.

On March 31, 2011 the revised costs for the West Route were announced and the extra cost for the West Route, calculated from Hydro data, was confirmed at $690 million.

Despite this official confirmation, on April 1, 2011, the Conservatives announced that the extra costs for the West Route would be $2.94 billion or $11,748 per Manitoba family. This new bloated figure is more than 4 times the actual extra cost of $690 million. No explanation was offered on how the Conservative Party arrived at the figure. The East Side Coalition has now distanced itself from the Conservative position and is sticking with the $1 billion estimate which, wrong as it may be, is not as outrageous as the Conservatives’ figure.

Since all these data are readily available, it is certain that the Conservative Party must have the correct information, otherwise the party apparatus would be hopelessly incompetent. Hence, if they have the correct information, what is behind their concerted barrage of deliberate misinformation to the media, public and in the Legislature? To add to this mix of distortion they at first included unsubstantiated leaks (later to be proven baseless) on the cost of the West route that were apparently sent to them by a disgruntled employee at Hydro.

Unbelievable as it may seem, instead of conducting a debate based on the legitimate advantages and disadvantages of the West route and the East route, the Conservative Party appears to be conducting a propaganda war on both Hydro and the government based on outright fabrication and deliberate distortion, with the objective of bringing about confusion and misinformation in the public on a major public policy. This is irresponsible in the extreme – all for the sake of partisan politics. This is in the worst tradition of the Tea Party element in the Republican Party in the USA.

Such a tragedy to see this tradition in full bloom in Manitoba.

John Ryan, Ph.D. Senior Scholar, University of Winnipeg and CCPA Mb. research associate

Fast Facts: Canada Post locks out postal workers; Harper locks out collective bargaining

by Jan Chaboyer

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Members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) initiated job action on June 2 in response to Canada Post’s refusal to continue the collective bargaining process for the purpose of achieving a new collective agreement. The main unresolved issues were: health and safety, staffing, sick leave and short-term disability, wages, pensions and benefits, job creation and service expansion.

Initially, CUPW members conducted rotating strikes beginning in Winnipeg, as a means of informing the public of the reasons for the impasse in collective bargaining while at the same time minimizing disruption of service.

When Federal Labour Minister, Lisa Raitt, raised concerns about the economic impact of the rotating strikes, CUPW offered to suspend strike action on June 10th and resume collective bargaining provided Canada Post would agree to reinstate the terms of the collective agreement until a new agreement was reached. Canada Post rejected this offer and announced on June 13 that CUPW members would be locked out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On June 15 Canada Post announced a total lockout informing the public that “all mail processing plants and letter carrier depots are closed and all facilities have been secured. No new mail will be accepted.” Although it was the employer, not the union, that disrupted service to the public, the Conservative government is threatening back-to-work legislation and settlement of the dispute by arbitration – actions that will effectively punish the workers for actions taken by their employer.

Canada Post’s refusal to negotiate at the bargaining table and the Harper government’s derailing of the collective bargaining process will hurt all Canadians.

Canada Post is undermining the working conditions of postal workers and degrading postal services for Canadian citizens. Most Canadians know the difficulties and hazards faced by both outside and inside postal workers. Letter carriers deliver our mail, rain or shine. They contend with 40 below weather, heavy snow and slippery sidewalks. It is not uncommon for letter carriers to encounter vicious dogs and other dangers. In recent years, postal workers have been saddled with bigger bundles and more weight and higher production quotas. This has added to the hazards of work and increased injuries.

Many Canadians are dependent on the door-to-door delivery service that Canada Post workers provide. This is especially the case in rural areas and for seniors and individuals with mobility issues living in urban areas.

Canada Post’s anti-union agenda, and the Harper government’s tacit support for it, concern all Canadians who believe that workers should be treated fairly and postal services improved, not degraded. Since CUPW members’ last national job action in 1997, Canada Post has made $1.7 billion in profits. Clearly, there is room to negotiate a collective agreement that works for both Canada Post and its workers.

CUPW proposed measures to improve postal services, including the expansion of door-to-door delivery, provision of banking and financial services (which would be particularly beneficial in remote locations) and an increase in job opportunities for young people coming into the labour market. Canada Post rejected these innovative proposals and instead proposed to reduce worker salaries and benefits as well as service to the public. They also want to scale back wages by paying new workers 30 per cent less than existing workers; reduce employee and retiree benefits, pensions and sick leave provisions; and weaken job security.

Canada Post’s strategy and the Harper government’s support for it suggest an alarming parallel to the recent attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin and other states. The U.S. agenda of drastic cuts to the public service, cutting public sector wages and contracting out public sector jobs while undermining public sector unions will not benefit ordinary people, in the U.S. or in Canada. Most of us rely on the quality services provided by these workers, which we get at far lower cost than comparable services bought from private firms.

Public sector unions also contribute in important ways to the quality of life we value. Fair wages, job security and other advantages bargained by public sector workers help maintain the community standards that benefit all workers by slowing the “race to the bottom” that leads to low wages in precarious jobs with few benefits. Public sector unions also offer a bulwark against declining union density. Overall, less than 32 percent of Canadian workers are unionized, but 71 percent of public sector workers are union members. Higher unionization is good for all Canadians, even those not lucky enough to be union members. Recent studies show conclusively that countries with higher unionization enjoy more social equality, better health, fewer social problems, more trust, and a higher quality of life. Public sector unions protect the good life that we in Canada enjoy.

Canadians want and deserve good jobs with decent wages and working conditions. Regressive changes to collective agreements undermine those objectives. A two-tier wage structure that would pay new employees 30 per cent less to do the same job as their co-workers, with no chance at comparable wage for seven years, is unfair. Reducing the number of good paying jobs and scaling back benefits makes workers more vulnerable and will lower community standards and weaken the economy.

Like the thousands of Manitobans who gathered in solidarity with postal workers in Winnipeg on June 16th the members of the Brandon and District Labour Council fully support CUPW members in their efforts to get a better agreement and better postal services for all Canadians. We believe that these are goals that all Canadians can support.

Eliminating good jobs and reducing the quality of services provided by crown corporations is not in Canada’s best interest. And undermining the collective bargaining process by legislating workers to return to work shows disregard for worker rights.

The Conservative government must take back-to-work legislation off the table and order Canada Post management to negotiate a collective agreement that addresses the concerns of postal workers and improves the quality of services to citizens.

Jan Chaboyer is President of the Brandon & District Labour Council.

Red Tent Day- April 2011

Manitoba Office-

red tentOn April 19, 2011, Winnipeg’s Right to Housing coalition held a March for Housing to coincide with the Red Tent Day of Action across Canada. The march drew attention to the urgent need for affordable housing in Winnipeg and across the country, and raised questions about the silence around housing issues in the current election campaign. CCPA-MB director Shauna MacKinnon spoke at the rally.  And CCPA-MB also published a Fast Facts “Electing to house Canadians – or not?” which examines the need for affordable housing in Canada, and considers the election platforms of the federal parties, arguing that housing is an essential issue for Canadians and so should be discussed in the election.  You can read this Fast Facts by clicking here.

Fast Facts: Silently Speaking Truth to Power

by Shauna MacKinnon

Most Canadians will now have seen the striking image of Brigette DePape. The determined solitary young woman, surrounded by the highest ranking public officials in the land, stood in silence holding her crumpled ‘Stop Harper’ sign, as the Governor General read the Conservative government’s throne speech.

Reaction has been swift and strong. Brigette DePape has been criticized for her disrespect of a time-honoured tradition. Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs questioned why the intelligent young DePape would jeopardize a promising future. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Brigette should have taken her protest out “on the lawn”. Jason Kenney, Conservative MP and Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism showed his colours when he described the intelligent and highly credentialed young DePape as “a lefty kook”.

But beyond Parliament Hill, many Canadians have been deeply moved by Brigette’s courage and conviction. People of all ages are praising Brigette for taking a stand. Like-minded youth in particular have been quick to call Brigette their hero. Not surprising. Brigette’s quiet, peaceful protest comes at a time when many young Canadians are disengaged from the political process and/or deeply disillusioned with a system that allows our country to be governed by a political party elected by less than half of its voters and committed to the destruction of much that Canadians have struggled to build over many long decades.

Like Brigette, many youth across the world are wondering how they can make a difference. They are taking action, exercising their democratic rights and expressing their views in creative ways because they do not have faith in their governments to implement policies that will create the kind of just and equitable world they believe to be possible. Let’s face it, they don’t need to look too far to see the impact of political decisions. Growing social and economic inequality is pervasive, its consequences will be exceptionally damaging, and environmental destruction is threatening the world that they will inherit.

Brigette DePape is a young woman who passionately believes we can create a world that is more just and equitable. She is smart, hard-working, energetic and community minded. She is respectful yet not afraid to think critically and express her views.

She’s done all the right things in her young life and the zest in which she lives it would make any parent proud. Her award of a Loran Scholarship, an honour awarded to students who have shown excellence in academia and community service, is evidence of her competence. In a world where success is measured in terms of personal wealth and individual pursuits, Brigette and other youth like her should be commended for looking beyond their individual careers as they fight for a better world.

Brigette was fortunate to have found herself in an unusual position – privileged yet powerless. On the one hand, she was honoured to have been selected as a Senate page, a position difficult to attain and one coveted by students dreaming of political careers. But for someone with Brigette’s integrity and passion for justice, the excitement of being a page soon wore thin. At some point she realized that it presented a creative way for her to turn a completely powerless position into an opportunity to express her political views with the hope of raising awareness and mobilizing toward change.

In an age when newspapers have the power to influence voters by endorsing politicians who put business interests before public interest; in a society where a political party is given a majority government in spite of demonstrating its disregard and disrespect for the parliamentary process; and in a society where the acquisition of a hockey team gets more media attention in one day than many issues of significant public relevance get in a decade, Brigette selflessly and brilliantly played the card that she had available to her, in spite of the unknown consequences to her as an individual.

In this single act of peaceful defiance, Brigette has become a symbol of hope for many who are concerned with the direction the Harper government may try to take us in. She has sent a signal to her generation, and to all of us, that we have an important role to play in changing that course. And she has re-energized the progressive but often cynical members of her parents’ generation to continue to press for change. Brigette stepped up when we needed a shot of hope and optimism.

Perhaps it is because I know Brigette and have a high regard and respect for her sincere desire for social, economic and environmental justice that I have been so deeply moved by her courageous act. Perhaps this is why the image of her standing in the Senate is the most powerful image of political protest in Canada in my recent memory.

Notwithstanding, I believe that those who think that Brigette’s action will be a blip in history, written off as some silly act of youthful defiance, are wrong. We have seen throughout history the power that single acts of non-violent civil disobedience can produce.

Brigette DePape has gone viral. Her image is being plastered on walls, websites and facebook pages across the country. Her moment in the mainstream media may be over, but the image of Brigette and her “Stop Harper” sign will continue to inspire her generation and others who share her desire for a more just and democratic society.

Shauna MacKinnon is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba

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Brigette DePape was a CCPA-Manitoba intern in the summer of 2010. During her internship, Brigette wrote two provocative commentaries on inequality and activism. Click the links below to read:

Un-equal access to opportunity between suburban and inner-city youth

Protesting the G20: A Waste of Time?