Postal strike/lock-out came after 15 strike-free years of steady profits. Now what?

Ottawa’s back-to-back back-to work laws, first against Air Canada flight attendants and then the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, mark a new, negative turn in labour relations. In both cases, the confrontations came after the workers concerned had made many years of direct contributions to the enterprise’s survival or success.

But that counts for little these days. Even in strategic industries, where wages have been good but hardly off the charts, employers are driving for rollbacks with Ottawa’s support. I explore the background to the postal dispute in this column published in the June 28 – July 4 issue of Business in Vancouver:

Striking members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers had barely completed the first turn on their picket lines this month when media denunciations of their obstinacy and pig-headedness started raining down.
Didn’t they get it? This is the age of the Internet! Snail mail is for dinosaurs! Posties are “unwilling to read the writing on the computer screen,” declared one analyst, and the quicker they give up on their defined benefit pensions, the longer their obsolete jobs will last.
But buried in the barrage were business voices urging Canadians to think twice before they consign Canada Post to the dustbin of history.
Canada’s economy needs a modern, competitive postal service to support businesses, large and small, from coast to coast to coast. Won’t a skilled, motivated work force be needed to fulfill that goal?
Apparently not in management’s eyes. The trigger for CUPW’s 95 percent strike mandate was an employer concession list that included pension rollbacks and two-tier wage systems.
In fact, the dispute was never about the need for Canada Post’s $2 billion modernization program – both sides agree on that – but about who will pay the price of new technology and who will win the benefits.
Just days before the strike began, the corporation announced it had selected a contractor to build a state-of-the-art Metro Vancouver plant at YVR, opening up the Main Post Office downtown for a new role.
But new hires at that plant would be working for drastically reduced wages and benefits if Canada Post had its way. That’s what sparked rotating job action by CUPW, which had not issued picket signs to its members since 1997.
“We make no apologies for refusing unreasonable concessions demanded of us by a profitable company,” said union president Denis Lemelin.
This is a corporation, after all, that has paid $1.2 billion in dividends during the past 15 years to its sole shareholder – the Government of Canada – while completing a major transformation of its business.
Canada Post provides service to every single address in Canada, including isolated settlements the private sector carriers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, while keep the price of a first class stamp among the lowest in the industrialized world.
Profits last year were $319 million on revenues of $6.1 billion, a notable achievement considering that Canada Post’s mandate requires it to add up to 200,000 new addresses a year, despite the declining volume of first class mail.
Postal workers have been part of that success story, urging many of the changes that made a difference.
Canada Post rose to the Internet challenge a long time ago.  Its E-post online billing service is already 11 years old and boasts seven million subscribers.
Post offices have moved off Main Street into the back corner of countless drug stores and small businesses, and online businesses rely on Canada Post for quick parcel delivery.
No wonder the Canadian Marketing Association warned Canada Post critics that the postal service “remains relevant to the Canadian economy.”
“The truth is that we do not cost the public money,” says Lemelin. “By keeping Canada Post profitable, our hard work actually saves the public money.”
A large share of the 11 billion pieces of mail delivered each year is made up of ad mail, invoices and bill payments, still the lifeblood of tens of thousands of businesses, particularly in rural Canada.
Nor is postal traffic all generated by small business. The National Association of Major Mail Users notes that the banking and insurance sectors find many of their customers still prefer to work by mail. More than half of Canada Post’s 2009 revenue was derived from such “transaction” mail.
Collective bargaining has never been smooth sailing at Canada Post, but union and employer put together nearly 15 years of improving business and steady profit.
Can the company move forward without that co-operation? So far, the answer is no.