Spartacist Canada No. 169
Defeat Bosses War on Public Sector Unions!
All Labour Must Stand With CUPW!
MAY 28—Some 48,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) are poised to walk off the job following an overwhelming strike vote of nearly 95 percent. In what amounts to a declaration of war, Canada Post is seeking to impose a two-tier wage and benefit system that will divide the workforce and roll back decades of union gains. For new hires, the postal bosses have vowed to slash pay by 30 percent, scrap guaranteed pension benefits, erode job security, lengthen work hours and cut vacation time. For retirees, they seek to ratchet up premiums for the extended health care plan. Across the board, they aim to eliminate the system of banked sick days in favour of a miserly short-term disability plan that would impose waiting periods for sick pay and reduce it by roughly 30 percent.
Canada Post has already eliminated 1,800 full-time jobs, mostly through attrition, and many more have been lost through contracting out. Management threatens to scrap 7,000 jobs in total once it completes its $2-billion mechanization scheme, the “Modern Post,” now being tested at a new $100-million facility in Winnipeg. Within a decade, more than 80 percent of the existing unionized workforce is slated to retire, to be replaced by either machines or low-wage new hires.
At the same time, the postal bosses are driving the aging workforce to the wall. Under the guise of “reclassification,” workers are being forced to do virtually any job management decrees, while ever more night shifts pose increased health problems and double the rate of injury. Postal workers have responded to management’s abuses with work-to-rule campaigns and other protests. In south Winnipeg last November, 70 letter carriers wildcatted over unsafe work conditions ushered in by the new high-tech plant. Rural and suburban mail carriers, part of a separate bargaining unit of CUPW, staged a three-day walkout in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert against cutbacks that threaten to reduce their annual pay by up to $28,000. On March 9, hundreds of letter carriers in suburban Montreal joined a protest over working conditions.
The ongoing capitalist economic crisis has already cost hundreds of thousands of workers their jobs across the country. Emboldened by its new majority status, the Harper government is now turning its fire from the unions in private-sector manufacturing to those in the public sector. At the centre of these attacks is Conservative MP Tony Clement. In his former role as industry minister, the rodential Clement presided over the 2009 bailout of the auto bosses, which saw workers in that industry lose as much as $22 an hour in wages and benefits. Now, as head of the Treasury Board, Clement vows to slash wages and ax entire government programs as part of the Tories’ plan to cut spending by as much as $8 billion—ten percent—in the next year alone. Government spokesmen have mooted some 80,000 job cuts over the next several years.
What Harper and his gang vow and what they can do are by no means the same. The devastating blow to auto workers was not inevitable; it was made possible chiefly by the treachery of the bureaucracy of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW). Pushing nationalist protectionism instead of the necessary class struggle, CAW president Ken Lewenza obscenely trumpeted the sellout deal as a “victory.” More recently in Toronto, in the face of the right-wing mayor’s union-busting attack on city workers, the leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 simply rolled over, giving up the right to strike without a fight. Such concessions can only embolden the ruling class and demoralize the workers.
There will either be class struggle or defeat. If Canada Post gets away with its attacks on CUPW, the results will redound against the struggles of all workers, especially in the public sector. On the other hand, a hard-fought union battle in the post office would have the potential to reverse the bosses’ one-sided war against the working class. But this will not be easy. For years the labour tops have strangled the enormous potential social power of the proletariat, negotiating defeats, givebacks and concessions, and gravely weakening the trade unions. On a political level, this has been expressed through support to the social-democratic NDP, which sees class struggle as a threat to its goal of “responsibly” managing the capitalist state.
For its part, in the recent federal election, the CUPW leadership called on union members to “consider voting for a candidate who supports public postal service, good jobs and better child care.” This could include anything from the NDP to the bourgeois-nationalist Bloc Québécois or even the Liberals. A fighting perspective in the unions is inseparably linked to the struggle to replace the existing pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy with a leadership that understands that the interests of the working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common.
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Defeat
Canada Post Attacks!
For decades, CUPW has been the bête noir of the capitalist class and its ideologues. This stems in large part from the militant postal strikes of the 1960s and 70s and from the union’s longstanding support to struggles of the oppressed internationally. A National Post editorial (13 October 2010), “The Disgrace of CUPW,” attacked the union for its participation in a May Day rally in Cuba and smeared its members as “bigots” for their defense of the besieged Palestinians.
Despite their radical reputation, however, the CUPW leaders have for years failed to lead the kind of struggle needed to throw back management’s concerted drive against postal workers. There are more and more temporary, contract and casual workers with poor benefits and job security, while thousands of non-union, low-wage workers now staff postal franchises across the country. What was once an enviable job among public sector unionists is now synonymous with low wages and brutal rates of injury. Strained joints from grinding repetition on the shop floor, phone calls at home from harassing supervisors and insurance companies, poverty, hip replacements—that is the lot of workers at the “Modern Post.”
One consequence of trying to appease the bosses was starkly demonstrated in the fall 2008 strike of 2,100 members of the Union of Postal Communications Employees (UPCE), who are mainly office and technical workers. The leaderships of both postal unions signed a rotten scabbing pact that ordered CUPW members to work behind UPCE picket lines. Isolated, the strike went down in defeat and management succeeded in shafting the UPCE with the same kind of short-term disability plan that it threatens CUPW with today. In the past, there were many instances of solidarity—including workers refusing to scab on one another’s strikes—between CUPW members and those in the former Letter Carriers Union of Canada (LCUC), which merged with CUPW in 1989. However, mutual scabbing deals have more and more become the norm, contributing to an erosion of the workers’ consciousness.
Today, the CUPW leadership offers advice on how “another post office is possible,” including mooting “partnerships” with private banks (“The Future of Canada Post,” October 2010). But the bosses of this crown corporation care only about the bottom line, and no amount of “responsible” business advice from the union leadership can change that. Playing by the bosses’ rules will only bring defeat.
The Legacy of 1965
Beating back the assault on CUPW will require a mobilization of labour’s social power. The very right to form a union was once illegal. Labour’s victories were wrested from the capitalists by defying bourgeois “law and order” and using the methods of the class struggle: strikes, mass picket lines, factory occupations and hot-cargoing (refusing to handle) struck goods. Hard-fought strikes can galvanize the rest of the labour movement and, when victorious, tear up the bosses’ anti-strike laws and injunctions.
That is what happened in the “illegal” postal strike of 1965. Just as the auto strikes of the late 1930s and 40s and the Stelco steel strike of 1946 were crucial to forging strong industrial unions in Canada, the 1965 postal strike was key in winning public sector workers the right to strike and form unions. Previously, a government job meant low pay and arbitrary work rules. Paternalism and patronage were rampant and unions were proscribed. As Quebec premier Jean Lesage put it in 1964, “the Queen does not negotiate with her subjects.”
By 1965, postal workers in Montreal had had enough. They formed rank-and-file strike committees in defiance of their housebroken “professional association,” and picket lines soon spread to post offices across the country. In the face of threatened government injunctions and mass firings, the pickets held firm. After more than two weeks, the government was forced to concede wage increases and rewrite some of its labour laws. CUPW and LCUC were formed soon after. In 1967 the government enacted the Public Service Staff Relations Act, and in spite of its severe restrictions some 260,000 government workers won the right to unionize and strike.
It was not accidental that the 1965 postal strike began in Quebec, where opposition to national oppression was fueling an increase in class struggle. Instead of solidarity, the struggles of Québécois workers in this period often met with chauvinism from the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress misleaders. This in turn pushed Québécois workers into the arms of their own class enemies, represented by the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois. We advocate independence for Quebec in order to fight Anglo chauvinism and lay the basis for making clear to the workers of both English Canada and Quebec that their enemies are their own respective capitalists, not each other.
For a Class-Struggle Leadership!
Any serious struggle by the working class must confront the fact that the Canadian state is the bosses’ state. It is not neutral. Consisting at its core of the cops, courts, army and prisons, the capitalist state enforces the rule of private property and the deepening misery of the workers. State repression has been repeatedly wielded against the postal unions. Over the decades there has been one strikebreaking injunction after another. Cops have busted up picket lines and raided union offices. CUPW was targeted and disrupted by the CSIS secret police. In 1980 CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot spent two months in prison for defying the anti-labour government of Pierre Trudeau. Over a decade later the Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae jailed the president of CUPW’s Toronto local, Andre Kolompar, and other union members for defending their picket lines during a 1991 postal strike.
With the proliferation of electronic communication and private couriers, CUPW faces an objectively more difficult situation today than in the days when Canada Post had a virtual monopoly of mail distribution. However, a powerful countrywide postal strike that chokes off the flow of mail would still have a major impact from coast to coast. It could not only win the demands postal workers need, but could also inspire the rest of the labour movement to take on the capitalist offensive. A class-struggle strike leadership would appeal in the first instance for active solidarity from the UPCE workers and the Teamster-organized Purolator couriers. Organize the non-union postal franchises! Picket lines mean don’t cross! A joint struggle against the postal bosses would also lay the basis for the merger of all postal workers into one industrial union.
The fight against growing unemployment and impoverishment poses sharply the demand for full employment through a shorter workweek at no loss in pay. Under capitalism, technological advances such as those wielded by Canada Post are always used to beef up profits through speed-up and job cuts. In a rational society, such advances would be put in the service of the working people. But that requires a struggle to sweep away the supremely irrational capitalist system, replacing it with a society where those who labour rule.
As the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International, the Transitional Program (1938), “Under the menace of its own disintegration, the proletariat cannot permit the transformation of an increasing section of the workers into chronically unemployed paupers, living off the slops of a crumbling society. The right to employment is the only serious right left to the worker in a society based upon exploitation.” He continued:
“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
It is in the interests of the entire working class that CUPW beat back the bosses’ onslaught. If the union movement is to wage the battles necessary for defense of the workers and all the oppressed, a political struggle is necessary to get rid of the sellouts atop the labour movement who strangle the workers’ fighting spirit. It is in the crucible of the class struggle that a new leadership of the unions can be forged. This is not simply a question of militancy but of political program. What is needed is a leadership that will arm the workers with an understanding both of their social power and their historic interests to free humanity from the exploitation, all-sided misery and war inherent to a system based on production for profit. Forging such a leadership is in turn an integral part of the fight for a multiracial, binational revolutionary workers party whose aim is no less than doing away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution.