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President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers Mike Palecek (Photo Credit: Canadian Press/Justin Tang)With a strike looming at Canada Post, Fightback sat down with Canadian Union of Postal Workers president Mike Palecek to have him explain the history of the current struggle and the perspective for working class struggle in the age of capitalist crisis.

Fightback: Hello Mike, first off, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you give us a bit of background to the struggle at Canada Post?

Mike Palecek:  The postal workers over the past decade have faced successive restructuring schemes, political interference, as well as infringement on our constitutional rights to free collective bargaining. The long and short of it is that postal workers’ working conditions have deteriorated drastically. We are now working very long hours, the routes are getting longer for letter carriers, and we’ve had no ability to actually solve these problems, precisely because our constitutional rights have been violated repeatedly. We have a government that says all of the right things but in reality hasn’t made any changes.

We are at the point where I think it’s fair to say that we have done absolutely everything in our power to address these issues without a strike. And now we are onto our weapon of last resort. It shouldn’t have had to get to this point.

FB: Thanks for setting the general context. Can you detail the concrete issues particular to this strike?

MP: Yes, so pay equity remains a major issue for the rural and suburban mail carriers (RSMCs). This is a situation of injustice which has gone on for decades, where Canada Post treats rural and suburban mail carriers like second-class workers and they have historically been paid about 30 per cent less than the letter carriers in the urban bargaining unit which do the exact same work. Of course the difference is, in the urban units the letter carriers are predominantly male and in the RSMCs they are predominantly female—so it is an issue of pay equity.

For folks on the urban side, the overburdening and all of the problems created with the massive increase in parcel volumes that we have been seeing over the last number of years have to be resolved. So the key issues are wages and working conditions.

FB: So pay equity is a major issue, but it is also the general deterioration of conditions since the last strike when you were legislated back to work in 2011.

MP: That's right. We were legislated back to work with unconstitutional legislation. The end result of that is that we were forced to take massive concessions. Now we are trying to right some of that injustice. We have managers who seem to want to say “OK, that was wrong, we’ll move on,” but they don’t actually want to fix the mess that they created. And for us, that’s just not on.

FB: That leads nicely into the next couple of questions. First off, congrats on the massive strike vote. That is certainly a big sign of strength. Can you give us any impression of the mood among the rank and file?

MP: I’ve been on work floors all over the country in the past few weeks. What I am hearing from the members is that they are at a breaking point. Something has to be fixed and it has to be fixed now. Frankly, we are just a few months away from Christmas now, our system is already over capacity, we are already overburdened, people are already working long hours, and they are frankly terrified of what’s going to happen come Christmas if this isn’t resolved. So I think the strong strike mandate on both sides is both a recognition that something has to change and that the members are willing to do something to change it.

FB: It is great that there is a militant mood among the workers and they want to fight back. You already mentioned the back-to-work legislation that was brought against you in 2011. If you look around the country and around the world, governments are increasingly resorting to back-to-work legislation to end strikes. Do you plan to respond to this eventuality this time around?

MP: I couldn’t speak to specifics of what we may do in that situation. But I would say that since that legislation was brought in in 2011, it has been struck down by the courts, it’s been declared unconstitutional, and then in another case, the right to strike and the right to free collective bargaining was actually enshrined in the Charter, enshrined in the Constitution through a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada. So the highest bodies of the land, the highest legal bodies of the land, have said that this type of legislation is illegal.

I think if we get to the point where a government is going to push back-to-work legislation that removes these fundamental rights even after all of these court rulings, I think we need to question whether the right to strike means anything in this country. In fact, I’d say, just looking at the laws, Canada already has some of the most restrictive laws on the right to strike in the world. In most of the world, people have the right to walk off the job any time they please on issues not covered by collective agreements. Even the United States has concerted action protection for non-union workers. They are legally protected if they want to strike. This is why we have been able to see the huge fast food strikes in the States partially because they have that enshrined in law there. So Canada’s laws and restrictions on the right to strike are worse even than the United States.

In this context, if there is no legal avenue for people to exercise fundamental rights, they need to find other avenues to do it.

FB: We actually saw that this summer with the crane operators in Quebec who just stayed out anyway. They were eventually forced back under threat of fines and prison sentences. But I think you raise a good point that you can go to court, you can get a law overturned, but at the end of the day there needs to be some sort of civil disobedience.  

MP: Exactly. We were both involved in the anti-Campbell movement in British Columbia where we had first the teaching assistants, then ferry workers, then hospital employees and then the BCTF, one union after another, defied back-to-work legislation. Now, granted, it took the labour movement a number of years to get to that point where they were willing to do that, but that is absolutely the kind of method we need to look at for taking on this kind of legislation.

FB:  And in that same vein of thought, in the past period, the leadership of the labour movement has shied away from struggle and confrontation, leading to one defeat after another. Do you see the postal workers strike as an opportunity to revive the militant traditions of class struggle unionism?

MP: I think that every potential strike has the potential to do that. For me, this goes back to some of the ABCs of trade unionism. I always say that there are two rules in the labour movement. Rule #1: You don’t get anything unless you fight for it. Rule #2: You don’t get to keep anything, unless you keep fighting. So abandoning the struggle is surrender.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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