The Canadian Union of Postal Workers is holdings its convention this May 4-7 in Toronto. It is also the union’s 50th anniversary. CUPW was founded in 1965 by an incredible wildcat strike against an oppressive employer, horrible working conditions and a failed employee association.
Fifty years later, the union is facing enormous challenges as Canada Post’s management seeks to eliminate door-to-door mail delivery across the country, deliver thousands of pink slips, and prepare the public service for wholesale or piece-by-piece privatization. On top of this, both the urban and rural collective agreements expire over December and January of 2015-2016, only weeks after a likely federal election.
With so much at stake, the hundreds of delegates converging in Toronto will be debating, discussing and voting on what will likely prove to be a very important convention for the union and the future of Canada Post as a public service.
To discuss all this, Rankandfile.ca caught up with CUPW presidential candidate Mike Palecek. Mike is a CUPW National Union Representative living in Ottawa but originally a letter carrier from Vancouver.
Rankandfile.ca: What is the significance of this convention for CUPW? And why are you running for president?
Mike Palecek: This convention is significant because it will determine the direction of the union for years to come. With postal workers facing unprecedented challenges, it is an opportunity to change course and bring the union back to its roots of worker-driven direct action. It is an opportunity to draw a line in the sand against a hostile employer and government. And it is an opportunity to turn our backs on over a decade of concession-bargaining.
I am running for National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers because I can see the change that needs to be made and I want to be part of the team that does it. I’m running because I believe the “glory-days” of this union are not in the past, but the future. I’m running because postal workers need a radical, progressive union now more than ever.
RF: It’s been nearly 17 months since Canada Post announced the elimination of home delivery. There have been great local initiatives at canvassing and town halls to save home delivery. Over 500 municipalities are now against the loss of home delivery. But there doesn’t appear to be a strong national strategy from CUPW, even though a lot CUPW locals and members are the driving force in community campaigns. You are on the national leadership of CUPW. Is there a national strategy? How would you do anything different if you were elected president?
Palecek: Our members have done an outstanding job, mobilizing in their own communities in different ways, to fight back against Conservative cuts. It is clear that the public is on our side. The groundswell of opposition from municipalities, the polls conducted on the issue, the support from allied organizations: all of this is a reflection of the support we have in communities across the country.
The strategy of the union so far, has been to resist the implementation of Canada Post’s five point plan by any means available to us. We are challenging the move in court, we are organizing in communities where people are affected, and we are putting pressure on all political parties to oppose these cuts.
It has been a long fight, but we are entering the home stretch. Our goal from now until October must be to ensure that every single person who loses delivery to their home, every person who sees their local post office downsized or closed, every person who has had to pay for increased postage rates, knows that the blame for this lies squarely with Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. This will require a much more targeted approach.
As the Tories hit the BBQ circuit this summer, we will follow them everywhere they go. We need to roll out the unwelcome mat for every Conservative campaign stop. In this phase of the campaign, the leadership needs to be out in front. We have to fight to challenge Tory-talking points in the press, and make sure our vision for the post office is communicated to the public.
RF: Do you think there is a window open for activists to actually change the outcome of the election if they put efforts behind local canvassing campaigns? And if the Tories are ousted, what do we have to be prepared to do if the Liberals or NDP get in?
Palecek: Between now and the election in October, Canada Post is going to try to eliminate home mail delivery for over one million addresses. What we have found, when talking to people on the door step, is that nobody wants to lose their home mail delivery. Many are angry. Some think there is nothing that can be done. But once armed with the correct information – that Canada Post is making huge profits and there is no need to cut services – people are prepared to do something about it.
For many, this will be the defining issue of the federal election.
This is where labour and community activists can play a decisive role. We do not have the kind of financial resources that the government and their friends on Bay St. have. But people-power can beat corporate-power. We can mobilize our members and allies to knock on every door in this country, and have millions of conversations about this issue. If we can do this, it will spell defeat for the Conservatives. But perhaps even more importantly, it will be a powerful lesson for the next government. Any government that attacks public services will face fierce resistance.
RF: There are two major collective agreements that expire soon. The Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers agreement expires December 31, 2015 and the Urban Operations agreement expires January 31, 2016. What’s at stake in this round of bargaining? And can postal workers use this round of bargaining to help save home delivery?
Palecek: The next round of bargaining will be a pivotal one. In many ways, it will be coloured by the results of the federal election in October. If things go well, we will be at the bargaining table against a new government. The Liberals are calling for a moratorium on these cuts, while NDP members have said they will reverse them altogether. But no matter who wins the election, we need to put the issue of services onto the bargaining table. And not just defending door to door delivery, but also expanding into new services, such as postal banking.
There is no doubt that this will be a challenging round of negotiations, but it also represents a historic opportunity for postal workers. Our RSMCs have always been treated as second-class workers. We have an opportunity to fight for equality between rural and urban postal workers. We have an opportunity to put an end to decades of injustice at Canada Post.
RF: In 2011, CUPW was locked out and then legislated back-to-work. CUPW also got a pretty bad contract out of it. Both Liberals and Tories have a record of legislating CUPW back-to-work, and the union has a history of defying it. Former CUPW president JC Parrot went to jail for defying back-to-work legislation. What does this mean for union strategy in the next round of bargaining?
Palecek: CUPW has a long history of resisting government attempts to attack their wages and working conditions. These attacks come in many forms, including unjust laws. I tend to agree with Anne Feeney’s song Have you been to Jail for Justice, “The more you study history, the less you can deny it, a rotten law stays on the books ‘til folks with guts defy it.”
Resisting back-to-work legislation is a high-stakes game, and there is no easy answer that is applicable to every situation. There are many variables that determine whether such a movement can win. The rest of the labour movement must be ready to stand up to the government, and rank and file workers have to be ready to go the distance. Ultimately, the organized working class is much more powerful than any government.
I am a veteran of the struggles against Gordon Campbell’s government in British Columbia. During those years, UBC Teaching Assistants, Ferry Workers, Hospital Employees Union members and Teachers all resisted back-to-work legislation in one way or another. I walked the picket lines in every single one of those strikes, and participated in the mass mobilizations that shook the province. I have a good idea of what it takes to force a government to back down, and have promised our members I am willing to lead them as far as they are willing to go.
It is not simply a matter of shouting “charge”, but at the end of the day, the power of the workers’ movement is derived from the simple reality that we do the work. Governments can legislate us back to work, they can levy fines against us, they can throw our leaders in jail and send in police to break up our picket lines. But the one thing they cannot do, is deliver the mail without the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. It is our job to make sure every postal worker knows this.
RF: Your view on unions is that workers action and workers power are the way to go, and that owners and even union leaders who stand in the way should be pushed aside. You’ve said publicly that postal workers could run Canada Post better without management. What sort of responsibilities does someone as an elected leader of a union who is no longer on the shopfloor have with regards to power of workers on the shopfloor and in the workplace?
Palecek: These days, it would seem that a group of randomly selected preschoolers could run Canada Post better than management!
Section A-5 of our National Policies book states that “The Union views as a primary direction the accomplishment of workers’ control of the workplace. This principle ensures that the Union and its members will seek at all junctures to limit the power of the employer to organize our jobs and the methods of production and planning of our work or to otherwise discipline our members. In its place, the Union will seek for its members full control of the work they perform and the environment in which they perform the work.”
This is the policy of the union, and it is my view as well.
In regards to the question about the responsibilities of an elected leader of the union, I would say the first one is to be on the work floor as much as possible. Being elected as a union leader shouldn’t mean that you are off the work floor. When labour leaders spend more time talking to bosses than workers, there is a problem. The most important job of a labour activist, whether they are Shop Steward or National President, is to inspire confidence in the membership and educate them to the power they already have – everything else is secondary. The power of a union does not come from the top; it comes from the base.