On Nov. 8, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that he was prepared to “take action” to end the strike at Canada Post which began last month. Speaking to the House of Commons, Trudeau mentioned that “if we don’t see significant resolution shortly, all options will be on the table for resolving this.” The message here is clear: the federal government is ready to use back-to-work legislation against 50,000 postal workers should they not accede to the demands of management and end their strike.
If this seems all too familiar, that’s because it is. In 2011, postal workers conducted 12 days of rolling strikes over poor work conditions and changes to sick leave, after which they were locked out by management. Labour Minister Lisa Raitt announced that “all options” were on the table at the time. Six days later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought forward back-to-work legislation to end the strike, also opting to unilaterally impose wage increases below what even Canada Post was offering. Much to the delight of management, the federal government had their back. Now it appears as though history is repeating itself.
Trudeau has gone to great lengths to distance himself, in words at least, from his predecessor. In 2016, he stated that “We do not feel, unlike previous governments, that it is the immediate responsibility to be heavy-handed.” We see now this was a lie. In 2017, Trudeau hinted that he was prepared to use back-to-work legislation to end a strike of CP rail operators—much like Harper before him. That dispute was resolved before Trudeau had an opportunity to do so. Now, faced with the formidable Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Trudeau is prepared to go all the way to rescue the management. This has always been the case with the Liberal Party, which as a party of big business was also the first to introduce back-to-work legislation back in 1950.
Let us be clear: the defeat of CUPW by back-to-work legislation would be a defeat for the entire labour movement. Its use represents the ultimate violation of workers’ rights, for no other reason than to satisfy the greed of profiteers. The price workers paid for the right to strike in Canada was immense: decades of struggle in illegal conditions, prison time, and for some of them, even their lives. To forfeit it now would be to reverse what took us decades to gain, and to set back the clock to a time when workers had no rights. If the bosses had their way, the only civil liberties to exist would be their own. Every successful use of anti-strike legislation is another step in this direction. A line in the sand must be drawn.
The labour movement is the only thing standing between us and a future where profit-making decides everything. Recently, however, one union leader after another has cowered from the prospect of defying back-to-work legislation. “The law is the law!” they say. They forget that it was only by defying unjust laws that trade unions came to exist in Canada in the first place.
Even a single union taking a stand can set this entire process into reverse, by acting as an example for the rest of the labour movement to follow. As the saying goes, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The problem, however, is that no union has been prepared to take that first step. CUPW can be that union.
From 1974 to 1976, CUPW led a number of illegal strikes, one of which resulted in fair wages being won for women stuck in low-pay positions. In 1978, after months of failed negotiations under Trudeau Sr., another legal strike was held that resulted in back-to-work legislation being issued that very same day. Rather than submit, workers chose to defy the law, an act for which CUPW leader Jean-Claude Parrot was sentenced to three months in prison. In 1981, CUPW went on strike yet again, this time for paid maternity leave. Fearing the resistance these workers might pose—individuals who were clearly not afraid of breaking the law—management caved in to their demands, leading to CUPW becoming the first union in Canada to win paid maternity leave for its members. If any union can be said to carry defiance in its DNA, it is CUPW. This also explains why Trudeau is so eager to crush their current strike. His hope is that by defeating one of Canada’s most historically militant unions, other workers will be dissuaded from following in their footsteps.
However, even if CUPW were to defy back-to-work legislation, they should not be expected to go it alone. The absence of support from the broader labour movement would be absolutely criminal in this situation, and would increase the likelihood of these brave workers going down into defeat. This would be a defeat not only for CUPW, but for the entire labour movement. Bosses everywhere would feel emboldened to deepen their crusade against workers’ rights.
Therefore, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), union locals, and the broader labour movement must immediately develop a plan of action to support CUPW in the event that back-to-work legislation is defied. This may include mass mobilizations, financial support to cover the cost of injunctions, and if necessary, solidarity strikes by affiliate unions. This would give postal workers the necessary confidence to step into defiance, which would in turn inspire other unions to take a stand against unjust laws.
Canadian workers have a rich tradition of militant struggle. The growing radicalization and a desire to fight back against the constant attacks on workers’ rights is observed by the record strike votes in most industries. All that is required is for someone, somewhere, to say “no more,” and show that it is possible to resist the bosses’ offensive, whatever obstacles they may throw in our way. No law, and no government, is so strong that it can hold back the power of the working class. CUPW has proven this through its history of winning advances through militant class struggle. Now the union has a chance to prove this once again. The time has come to go on the offensive.