Following the dispute at Canada Post, Fightback sat down with CUPW President Mike Palecek to get his perspective on the outcome of negotiations. This struggle pitted the Harper-era management, which was hell-bent on extracting concessions, against a new union executive that had a mandate to resist concessions and achieve pay equity for female-dominated rural mail carriers.
The union was able to beat back the attempt of management to implement a two-tiered pension, resisted the pressure to bend to binding arbitration, and while the workers did not win pay equity in this round, they won a process to resolve the issue in 19-months (as compared to 20-30 years for other pay-equity settlements). In a letter to his members, Palecek advised them to “prepare for battle” and “start putting money aside and preparing for the struggle ahead”, the implication being that the partial successes in this round of negotiations are merely the first stage of a more decisive struggle to be waged a year and a half from now.
Fightback: First of all, let us say congratulations on beating back the concessions. Could you give us a bit of background to the Canada Post dispute?
Mike Palecek: It’s not simply beating back the concessions, although that’s a huge achievement in and of itself. But we’ve managed to negotiate a pay equity process to settle the long-standing pay equity dispute with Canada Post and the rural and suburban mail carriers. That’s a big advance as well. But to be clear, we’ve signed a short-term agreement that’ll expire at the end of next year, and all of our issues are still on the table. We’re going to be going back to defend our pensions and to be sure that pay equity is actually implemented. But we’re going to be doing that having the review of Canada Post finished, knowing the direction that the crown corporation is going to be headed and the services it’s going to be providing, and we’ll be in a far better position to make sure those issues are resolved.
F: Can you explain to us the significance of the pensions issue for postal workers and the labour movement in general?
MP: Certainly, defined benefit pension plans are under attack everywhere. That’s why we took a very hard line, where we’re not accepting cuts to pensions, we’re not going to sell out future generations and accept two-tiered contracts. And not just on the pensions, by the way. They wanted to two-tier some significant benefits, things like vacation leave and other things. That was a non-starter for us. And we said very clearly that we would not sell out future generations. This is significant not only for pensions in general, which are under attack, but I think youth in general, who are coming up into the workforce, coming into the labour movement, and increasingly finding themselves stuck on a bottom tier, and they’ll never be able to reach where the previous generation is at.
F: It’s a shame that pay equity wasn’t won directly in that tentative agreement. Could you explain the issue and what the plan is to resolve this injustice going forward?
MP: Well, potentially we’ve won pay equity for more than simply RSMCs, but there’s a potential that in the next year we’ll establish real enforcement mechanisms for every worker in this country. And that is a much larger task, but it’s something that’s achievable, that we can do. We agreed from the beginning that pay equity is not something that should be on the bargaining table. No worker should have to negotiate for the implementation of the law. But the layers of red tape that have been set up, specifically to allow organizations to delay pay equity complaints endlessly, is what forced us to put it on the bargaining table. And we managed to get a process with very strict parameters, that’ll look at the equal wage guidelines, and determine whether or not there is indeed a pay equity issue here. And it’s black-and-white with the Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers. That’s clear. They probably have the strongest pay equity case for a group their size anywhere, I would think. It’s black-and-white, they do identical work, one workforce is made up of seventy per cent women, and they get paid on average thirty per cent less. So it’s cut and dried here, and I think the message is that if RSMCs can’t get pay equity, then nobody can. And that justifies bringing the entire labour movement into the struggle.
F: One key point in the dispute was when the employer proposed binding arbitration. In the recent period you’d expect many trade union leaders to bend to this demand, why didn’t you?
MP: It was actually the government that proposed binding arbitration through the Minister, and of course the corporation immediately agreed. But Canada Post, again, has a history of delaying things through judicial manoeuvres. We were confident that we would win any pay equity tribunal that’s set up with good parameters, that was never the issue. The issue on pay equity was getting it resolved in a timely manner and not allowing them to appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court and drag this out for another thirty years. Because that’s what they would have done in that scenario. That’s just speaking about pay equity. In terms of binding arbitration, on a whole, we have a fundamental belief that workers have the right to negotiate their own working conditions, and they get to vote at the end of that process and decide their own destiny, in their own hands. That’s something that this union has spent its entire fifty-year history fighting for. Resisting binding arbitration, whether imposed through legislation or other means - we only just won our court case, our constitutional challenge to Harper’s back-to-work legislation, and it took five years to get that dealt with. There’s absolutely no way we’re going to voluntarily give away constitutional rights. That is something that we, as trade unionists, do not do.
F: What are the lessons from the postal worker’s struggle for the broader labour movement, in your eyes?
MP: I think the message that should be brought out right now is that you can stop the austerity drive if you’re willing to stand and fight. I think we have a government that campaigned on these “sunny ways” and specifically promised to be stopping the austerity drive. It’s up to trade unions, it’s up to workers’ organizations, to hold this government responsible to those commitments, and to stop the cuts from going forward. And we said it repeatedly at the table in relation to Canada Post: you can’t cut your way to growth. Austerity isn’t actually going to solve the problem. Workers should not be forced to pay for this crisis.
F: And for the negotiations for pay equity, I believe it’s eleven months?
MP: It’s nineteen months in total.
F: So what is the perspective for those negotiations in nineteen months’ time, for pay equity, and to win back what was lost in the 2011 contract when postal workers were legislated back to work?
MP: What’s going to happen with the pay equity process over the next coming weeks, each side will be putting together their portions of the committee. There’ll be pay equity experts appointed from each side and there’ll be three committee members from each side. And over the next twelve months they’re going to strictly evaluate the work that Rural and Suburban mail carriers do, and they’re going to compare it to groups that do similar work at Canada Post. And they’re going to base their results on the equal wage guidelines, they’re going to identify the discrepancy that exists, and then they’re going to report back with an order to settle it. And from that point we’ll have the opportunity to negotiate how the order is implemented in the collective agreement. They’ll come back with a dollar amount, saying Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers are paid this much less for doing work of equal value. That dollar amount will consider total compensation, not just wages, but also benefits and everything else. So then it’s a matter of how we implement this into the collective agreement. Right now there’s two, there’s the Rural and Suburban Mail Carrier unit, and then there’s the Urban unit. Our perspective is and has been that the easiest way to do that is to combine the bargaining units, put them all under one contract with the same working conditions, and that would be the best way to move forward. But that’s going to have to be negotiated at the table.
F: We’re currently in an unprecedented crisis of capitalism, but there’s confusion among the leaders of the labour movement about how to defeat austerity. Do you think it’s time for the labour movement to adopt a clearly socialist platform in order to build a society that doesn’t need austerity?
MP: Of course we need to find a way to actually break the control of the free market economy of the entire direction of our society. I think we see that playing out in a number of ways. Of course the more classic economic crises of capitalism, which we’re now in the thick of, but also the environmental crisis, which is looming and may be one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced. I don’t say that lightly, but I think it’s accurate. And the truth of the matter is, capitalism isn’t going to solve climate change. The free market system is not going to solve climate change. The free market system is not going to lead to increasing standards of living, dealing with the absolute social crisis, not just here, but around the world. I think that much is inevitable. We have to meet these challenges in a way that greed and competition are out of the equation. You can call that socialism, I would. We’re looking at ways of using Canada Post to address the climate crisis. We put forward the Delivering Community Power campaign, which talks explicitly about using the infrastructure that’s already owned by the federal government to meet those challenges, and expanding it. Expanding those services, things such as postal banking, but using Canada Post as a launching point to transform into a green, sustained economy. So far we haven’t seen too much interest in that in terms of the powers that be. They’ve certainly got good talking points on addressing climate change and have made some really big commitments on the international stage. We’ve yet to see a plan for how that’s going to be implemented. And if you ask me, the idea of that actually happening within the confines of a free market system are almost zero. So for a whole number of reasons we need to be looking at a different socio-economic system, a more democratically controlled economy that meets social needs.
F: Do you have any final remarks?
MP: The struggle continues.
F: Thank you very much.
Fightback congratulates the postal workers for beating back management’s concessions. Most notably, many have highlighted the courageous stand of CUPW against two-tiered pensions, in contradistinction to the capitulation of UNIFOR at General Motors on this issue. During their struggle, the CUPW leadership adopted militant language that put the boss on the back foot and mobilized and enthused the rank-and-file. The partial success of this contract is directly due to this militancy. This fact must put many other union leaders, who have capitulated to cuts and arbitration, in a very difficult position. These bureaucrats have said that there is no alternative to accepting rollbacks, but the CUPW dispute shows that this is patently not true. As Mike Palecek said, “It’s up to trade unions, it’s up to workers’ organizations, to hold this government responsible to those commitments, and to stop the cuts from going forward. And we said it repeatedly at the table in relation to Canada Post: you can’t cut your way to growth. Austerity isn’t actually going to solve the problem. Workers should not be forced to pay for this crisis.”
It should be mentioned that before he became CUPW president, Mike Palecek was a regular contributor to Fightback and www.marxist.ca, so we have been friends and comrades for a long time. We asked him about the confusion amongst labour leaders as to how to fight austerity and the need for the labour movement to adopt a clearly socialist platform in order to build a society that doesn’t need austerity. In his position, he has a fantastic opportunity to publicly champion the same socialist perspective he forthrightly defended for over a decade in the pages of Fightback. We encourage Mike to do so. We have seen how radical language used by figures such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have sparked off mass movements, and now more than ever the Canadian labour movement needs to sweep out the old, tired, pro-capitalist ideas that have led to defeat and submission.
The reality is that austerity is the logical consequence of capitalism. The only way to put an end to austerity is to put an end to capitalism. There is no form of capitalism without austerity. It is the union leadership’s acceptance of the capitalist system that at the end of the day leads to their capitulation to the cuts and attacks of the bosses. Without the perspective of fighting for socialism, workers will be perpetually forced to fight a rearguard action of mitigating the never-ending attacks of the capitalists. To always be under attack is a miserable state of affairs and workers deserve to live in a society without austerity! That society is socialism. We congratulate comrade Mike Palecek for the role he played in beating back the most recent corporate attack, and we also appeal to him to boldly advance the socialist cause within the labour movement, which can enthuse workers beyond the ranks of CUPW. We need militant leaders in all the unions, but even more than militancy, we need a labour movement and labour leaders vocally committed to a socialist perspective and the eradication of capitalism. That will really make the bosses tremble.