No Scab Mail Here: The 1987 postal strikes

A Montreal letter carrier on strike. June 1987. Photo: Tony Bock, Toronto Star
A Montreal letter carrier on strike. June 1987.
Photo: Tony Bock, Toronto Star

By Doug Nesbitt

In 1987, Canada Post management began to unroll a major privatization drive of post offices and elimination of door-to-door delivery. The plan aimed to privatize 3,500 rural post offices and close another 1,700 over a decade. This would allow the company to slash 4,200 union jobs. Canada Post also announced that no new residential areas would have door-to-door delivery. New “community mailboxes” would be installed, reducing the quality of service and cutting jobs.

While the press, politicians and business community backed Canada Post’s plans, postal workers found substantial support among sections of the public opposed to the destruction of their local post offices, cuts to services, and job losses.

To achieve its goals, Canada Post needed to discipline and defeat its workforce which stood in the way of its plan. It was a tall order. Postal workers were among the most militant in the country having waged a series of major strikes since the famous 1965 wildcat which threw out the company union in favour of a militant democratic unionism.

In 1987, letter carriers and inside workers were in different unions with separate contracts. Although the Letter Carriers Union of Canada would later merge with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in 1989, separate bargaining meant two disputes were brewing.

The LCUC strike

In June 1987, the LCUC launched rotating strikes against attempted rollbacks of job security and working conditions, and the imposition of community mailboxes and privatization of post offices. For the first time, letter carriers faced an effort by management to bring in strikebreaking scabs. Private security was also hired by management spy on, harass and intimidate workers.

"You're a goddam phoney!" shouts a striking letter carrier at Mulroney who used his family to cross a picket line in Toronto after saying he would not. Photo: Bernard Weil, Toronto Star
“You’re a goddam phoney!” shouts a striking letter carrier at Mulroney who used his family to cross a picket line in Toronto after saying he would not.
Photo: Bernard Weil, Toronto Star

A month before the strike, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said he would not cross a picket line. But during the strike, he did just that, using his family as pawns by claiming he was crossing the picket line at 20 Bay Street in Toronto because of a previously scheduled visit to a childcare centre. Like so many other LCUC picket lines, pushing and shoving between police and pickets erupted and one worker shouted “You’re a goddam phoney!”

The level of violence caused by the scabbing operation led to a public backlash against Canada Post management, forcing the government to weigh in and push for a negotiated settlement. The strike ended after 19 days, with letter carriers largely fending off the employer’s attack. As letter carriers held their ground, Canada Post management also began introducing the “community mailbox” in new subdivisions.

The CUPW strike
CUPW member Leonard Metcalfe is among the 40 pickets attacked by Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police to help escort scabs through the picket lines. This was repeated by police across the country. Photo: Cal Millar, Toronto Star
CUPW member Leonard Metcalfe is among the 40 pickets attacked by Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police to help escort scabs through the picket lines. This was repeated by police across the country.
Photo: Cal Millar, Toronto Star

In early October, CUPW began rotating strikes which shut down the sorting plants and depots. The central issue was job security and defeating management’s plan to eliminate 4,200 union jobs in favour of low-wage contracted out work to private retail chains. Postal workers argued that Canada Post was abandoning its public service mandate enshrined in the Canada Post Corporation Act of 1981. The anger was such that in some areas like Montreal, workers struck “early” in defiance of the union leadership.

The rotating strikes were intended to minimize the violence experienced in the LCUC strike but once again Canada Post launched a major scabbing operation, leading to another wave of picket line violence which the letter carriers had experienced in June. Police forces across the country used immense violence against pickets by acting as management’s personal army in supporting scabbing operations.

But with the scabbing largely failing, the Mulroney Tories stepped in with back-to-work legislation, Bill C-86. It was the government’s third piece of strikebreaking back-to-work legislation in less than a year.

Whereas the 1978 back-to-work legislation against postal workers by Trudeau’s Liberals led to CUPW president JC Parrott being jailed for refusing to order postal workers back to work, the Mulroney legislation established precedent-setting fines for individual workers and the union; fines so enormous they would destroy lives and financially ruin the union. Bill C-86 also went so far as to ban anyone convicted of violating the legislation from employment at Canada Post for five years, and also bar any convicted union members from running for union office. Bill C-86 was an incredibly authoritarian anti-democratic law.

Despite the legislation, the strike succeeded in saving numerous rural post offices, but not all. Canada Post ultimately got its way with contracting out non-union low-wage post offices to private industry. The origins of non-union Canada Post outlets in Shoppers Drug Mart, Rexall and other business began with this strike.

The Management Agenda

13582124_1236960493015193_5382527532007265482_oBefore Canada Post became a financially independent crown corporation in 1981, Canada Post management had already gained a brutal reputation as bullies on the shopfloor while carrying out numerous strategies to keep wages down, speed up the job, and bring in new technology to cut jobs and undermine union strength. The old saying “management gets the union it deserves” holds true at Canada Post. It’s why postal workers waged numerous legal and illegal militant strikes through the 1960s through to the 1990s.

With the federal government becoming tired of covering its deficits amidst constant labour strife, Canada Post was converted into a crown corporation. CUPW and LCUC had also campaigned for Canada Post to become a crown corporation to bring postal workers under more favourable labour legislation and to bargain directly with management instead of through the federal government. The Canada Post Corporation Act delivered a robust public service mandate, but this also included self-sustaining financial independence. This meant the postal service was effectively competing with private couriers.

Canada Post, as a crown corporation, was born with these two competing mandates as management tried to turn a profit while competing with private industry, and the public and the workforce aligning with its public service mandate. Political appointments and business pressure on Canada Post from the outside also reinforced management’s embrace of the profit motive with all its dire consequences for its public service mandate and the workforce.

Public service or privatization

The 1987 strike was not just a continuation of management’s long-standing desire to hold down wages and working conditions and undermine union strength, but also a profit-driven abandonment of public services. Closing thousands of rural post offices, privatizing postal outlets through contracting out services to private retailers, and putting an end to home mail delivery were all part of this project.

Thirty years later management’s final solution has evolved into wholesale privatization. Canada Post management are deeply committed to this. Britain’s Royal Mail was totally privatized in 2013 under the direction of a former Canada Post CEO Moya Greene. The current Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra, sits on the board of a right-wing think tank, the Conference Board of Canada, which openly advocates for Canada Post privatization.

Meanwhile, the public is subjected to a relentless propaganda campaign waged by management, politicians and the media against “overpaid postal workers”, the “greedy union”, and a host of lies about “wasting taxpayer money”, and an imminent death due to the internet when in fact internet shopping is driving a record-setting explosion in parcel deliveries.

The struggle for democratic control of the public postal service continues today. The 1987 strikes show the lengths to which management and their political allies are willing to go, just as the postal workers showed the lengths we need to go in order to resist and win.

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2 thoughts on “No Scab Mail Here: The 1987 postal strikes

  1. I maintain a slogan on my residential mailbox which reads : “We Support Postal Workers” and if said postal workers should ever go on strike, I’ll be glad to add “No Scab Mail Here”.
    Thanks for reminding Canadians of what a rotten, corporatist employer Canada Post really is and what a duplicitous, arrogant and soon-to-be-forgotten Prime Minister we had in Lyin’ Brian!

  2. Ken’s comment represents exactly the sort of support postal workers will need as the CUPW 2017/18 round of bargaining revives this long-time struggle. It’s been pretty unremitting since at least the 1970s, and no doubt will require the legendary solidarity that postal workers themselves have been able to organize–and the remarkable support among unions and community organizations that we’ve been able to generate since then.

    But we shouldn’t forget that unions–even those like CUPW with militant histories–aren’t able on their own to confront the austerity and privatization agendas we’re facing in 2017. The success of these negotiations, more than ever before, will depend on the level of support that can be generated around the CUPW insistence that our postal service has to be part of a project across the country that delivers new community resources throughout the country–a vision that completely is at odds with Deepak Chopra and, for that matter, the Liberal Party of Canada.

    Lots of major work ahead of us in the next year.

    Evert

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