By Dru Oja Jay
With the launch of Delivering Community Power this February, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have created the possibility for an alliance between environmental groups and unions that goes beyond the usual rhetoric and could result in big wins and a new way of organizing.
Postal workers are facing some big challenges. The Harper-appointed executive of Canada Post is looking to lock out the crown corporation’s 54,000 workers as early as July, all while a review is underway that will determine the shape of the postal service for decades.
Could this be the summer that we see environmentalists on picket lines, and workers framing job action around the public good? Let’s take a quick look at where things are at.
When economic choices are made — whether to drill an oil well or a mount solar panel; whether to widen a highway or lay train tracks — it’s the hands and brains of workers that complete the task. This accounts for some of the traditional tension between people who fight for the environment and workers. When one party is primarily concerned with the safety and pay of those, for example cutting down trees, and the other just wants them to do something entirely different, finding common ground isn’t the most straightforward thing.
This real but ultimately superficial tension turned, unnecessarily, into a deep rift. Driven by funders, many environmental groups took the approach of lobbying elites rather than mobilizing communities and finding common ground with other movements.
That approach is changing. The evidence is in, and it clearly shows that community organizing is more effective than lobbying and inch-deep-mile-wide public relations campaigns. Funders have continued to eschew real results in favour of a political approach that they’re more comfortable with.
As major players in the logging and oil sectors begin to exploit the weaknesses of low-leverage elite lobbying strategies, many in the environmental movement are shifting their approach. Green NGOs that follow the elite approach get more funding and end up looking successful. Deep alliances with workers and Indigenous communities might not pay for fancy offices, but they do, increasingly, get results.
Alliances between unions and environmental groups have existed on paper, but were often lip service and little more. Labour leaders want environmental results when it doesn’t cost any jobs, and environmentalists are in any case more likely to make their real alliances with CEOs and major investors than with workers.
Delivering Community Power
This year, postal workers and allies have pointed the way toward the potential for deeper links that could bridge the gap between the immediate and superficial policy disputes. Co-authored with Friends of Public Services and the Leap Manifesto, Delivering Community Power opens the discussion of an ambitious vision for public services that can make huge contributions to addressing issues of climate change, food security, affordable internet access and an aging population.
At the root of all these proposals is the idea that expanding public services can be a uniquely effective way to address the most pressing crises of our time. Expansion of public services are, of course, one of the most straightforward mechanisms we have for redistributing wealth more equally. But it’s the fact that public services don’t need to deliver ever-growing profit margins that gives them the flexibility to prioritize addressing community needs and environmental impacts. What is unique about crown corporations like Canada Post is that they are owned by the people, and any profits they earn can be used for the common good.
Canada Post can create a bank that does exactly what banks should be doing: investing in climate-friendly businesses and infrastructure in disadvantaged communities, not pouring funds into pipelines and oil companies. There is a unique role that Canada Post could play in First Nations, from food security to financial services to providing services in Indigenous languages.
That is precisely what the leaders of the two main postal workers unions are proposing. Their plan centres around postal banking, the idea of resurrecting publicly owned financial services that can be accessed through Canada Post’s 6,200 post offices. By building on deep links the postal service already has with communities from coast to coast to coast, investments could be channeled into thousands of local projects. The end result would be likely to have a much bigger impact than investing in expensive, privately-owned projects where private banks and brokers take their generous percentages off the top.
The phrase “no jobs on a dead planet” has been around for a while, but the elected leadership of the two postal workers’ unions appear to have taken it to heart.
Environmentalists on the Picket Lines
What this means is that if and when postal workers hit the picket lines this summer, they’re not just fighting for wages and job security, they’re understanding that their own well-being is bound up with a social transformation that prioritizes climate action and redistribution of wealth. As they have for years, posties are bringing the deepest meaning of solidarity into the centre of their struggle. To paraphrase another popular phrase: an injury to the planet is an injury to all.
The magical ingredient that makes community organizing more effective than lobbying is motivation. When communities are directly impacted by an issue, the people in them can become highly motivated and deeply committed if they believe that positive changes are possible. Postal workers have a proven track record of leading the labour movement to big gains — they went on strike for maternity leave and won in the 1980s, and fought and overturned several anti-union measures over the years. That’s why an environmental-labour alliance this summer could be so powerful: the environmental crisis has broad public awareness, and CUPW has proven that it can fight to win.
Will the environmental movement at large shake off its funder-driven penchant for collaboration with elites and join postal workers on picket lines and in the streets? Will my fellow tree-huggers take this golden opportunity to put to rest the idea that being for the environment means being against jobs? Will we all take the chance to insist that the biggest single employer in rural Canada — which we all happen to be part owners of — start working for climate and communities?
As the radicals of both labour and environmental movements often repeat, and for good reason: direct action gets the goods.
Dru Jay is ED of Friends of Public Services. In June and July, he will be travelling across Canada and Quebec to build support for postal workers’ visionary proposals. Find out more about the tour at http://www.deliveringcommunitypower.ca/tour