Voices from New Brunswick
By Norm Knight and Abram Lutes
On December 6, trade unionists and community allies picketed the postal sorting station in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Beginning at 5:45 am, the group of about 40 people blocked access to the station at a time when, on most days, the morning shift would be arriving for work and a large portion of the day’s mail and freight would come in.
The picket was one of a series of actions notable for the support given to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers by other unions, and for the solidarity which sections of the public at large have shown toward the embattled CUPW.
After the Fredericton picket, People’s Voice asked three New Brunswick labour leaders to comment on the action and on the postal workers’ struggle. Patrick Colford is President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. Simon Ouellette is Communications Representative for CUPE New Brunswick. George Nickerson is President of CUPW Local 54 (Fredericton-Oromocto).
Colford’s office put out the call for the December 6 picket. We asked him what the objectives were.
“The initial thing was a show of support for those brothers and sisters, comrades at CUPW, that they’re not alone in their struggle and their fight for better living and working conditions. As it’s been said before, there’s 50,000 postal workers who aren’t allowed to picket and to protest, but there’s also 3 million [other unionised workers] across Canada that still are legally allowed to do it; so it’s up to Canadians… and this is much larger than a labour movement issue at this point – to take up the fight and those arms, to send a clear message that Canadians aren’t going take their rights being trampled on.”
All three leaders noted that the right to strike is Constitutionally protected. In 2015 the Supreme Court, in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, held striking to be protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 2(d), freedom of association.
Ouellette said that “CUPE was there because we believe that government is wrong when they say that they can just simply use a legislative pen to get rid of a constitutionally protected right, the right to strike. When you use back-to-work legislation, it’s always used as an employers’ tool, management’s tool. They rarely pass legislation that forces employers to negotiate or raise wages; it’s always used in one direction.”
He criticised the use of back-to-work legislation on a non-emergency service: “They’re using what looks like essential-services back-to-work legislation on ordinary workers. And this is just to do the bidding, unfortunately, of the private sector interests.”
Nickerson also feels that large private-sector interests are involved: “Canada Post has made it clear over the last few CEOs that they’ve had, that me and you aren’t the customers…. The only customers they’re worried about are the publisher’s clearing house and, you know, those types of large-volume mailers. Moya Green when she was CEO made it very clear that Canada Post had eleven major customers; that’s what she talked about all the time.”
We asked Ouellette about the tactic of solidarity or sympathy picketing.
“If you look at the history books, employers have long had a really bad view of what they call solidarity pickets and they’ve tried to create exclusions in the laws saying that you can’t do solidarity pickets, that you can’t engage in that type of activity, you can only picket for your own workplace; but when that right is taken away [i.e., from CUPW] what other options do you have? So I think the strategy is really interesting.”
Prior to the Trade Union Act of 1872, Canadian law regarded trade unions as illegal associations, and for many years most forms of union picketing were punishable by jail. Many union rights had to be won by pushing the boundaries of the law.
Ouellette notes that in “the United States, Latin America, Canada, that’s how they got their rights. It wasn’t always by playing by the rules because the employers twist the rules, they instrumentalise the rules to break the movements.”
He says that for most of the 19th century, union activity “was considered a conspiracy against trade,” and adds that now: “Well, it looks like they want to come back to the golden age of capitalism, ‘capitalisme sauvage’ (savage capitalism), which is just unrestrained, unconstrained, no regulations, no barriers, and the government seems to be brining back this really antiquated perspective that organised workers are a conspiracy against trade, and that free trade should be the ultimate goal of our society – and that’s ridiculous; people should come before profits.”
Police warned the Fredericton picketers they were “arrestable” if they obstructed vehicles from entering or leaving the yard. However, the vehicles which approached turned away voluntarily when they discovered the large number of people on the line, and choruses of “nothing in, nothing out, that’s what a picket line’s about!” and union songs. There were no arrests.
Colford considered the picket a success, but called it off at 9:00 am because “the police officers were looking to basically negotiate with us. And one of the terms that we set out when I spoke to people is the fact that the capital of a bilingual province didn’t have a Francophone officer that that could speak to the Francophone people on the line. And it was agreed that once they provided that, as a sign of good faith we would disperse.”
He was critical of the fact that the six people arrested at a similar picket in Halifax “didn’t even know what they were being charged with. They didn’t know until the next day.”
We talked to Nickerson about working conditions and the contract negotiations.
PV: “What are the issues that are being bargained for?”
GN: “The big issues are health and safety, and pay equity for the rural workers…. Canada Post has already written off on their books $242 million because of the pay equity decision but they haven’t paid one nickel to the rural and suburban mail carriers yet, so that’s something we’re pushing for. Also, letter carriers are forced to do overtime on a fairly regular basis…. We just got a letter from Jessica McDonald, the interim CEO, saying that there will be no forced overtime in December. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be in January.”
PV: “Is all this overtime happening because they’re basically not willing to keep enough people on staff anymore?”
GN: “Between that and the fact that we’re all getting injured.”
PV: “Are injuries up versus five years ago or so?”
GN: “Oh, absolutely. They are up a lot. Right here in Fredericton I’ve seen a difference. I’ve only been here since January of 2016, and I’ve seen a difference here in how many injuries are happening.”
PV: “So why are people getting injured now?”
GN: “The routes are just too long; we’re expected to do too much. The boom in parcel business and the admail business – it’s heavy, heavy stuff that we are carrying now. For example, just now they dropped 35 thousand phone books at the post office that our letter carriers have to carry around and deliver.”
PV: “So these have to be carried by the folks that are walking?”
Nickerson tells us that the weight limit for walking mail delivery is three pounds per parcel; ten parcels in a carrier’s satchel is common; allowable weight in a satchel is 35 pounds.
He also tells us that the number of sidewalk pick-up boxes for letter carriers has recently been reduced: “Letter carriers sort out their mail [and] then they tie it out in the line of travel and then it goes into these boxes; so when you run out of mail there’s one of these grey boxes there. Canada Post cut the number of these grey boxes probably close to half.”
PV: “Yeah, I noticed at the end of my street, it’s gone…. If there’s half as many boxes it means your folks have to basically carry twice as much stuff most of the time.”
GN: “Exactly…. Before if we had a box for every 50 points of call, now it’s like every 80 points of call that you have to carry for.”
PV: “When did this increase in overtime and route lengths happen?”
GN: “Well, I’ve been around since 1989 and they’ve continually gotten bigger, but I would say over the last eight to ten years the restructures are really hammering people. I know, for example, in Yarmouth they’re down to only six walks – that’s where I’m from originally — and there was twelve when I was there….”
PV: “So, are they giving the reason there as being that lettermail is less common because people are using email…?
GN: “That’s always their go-to line. They say ‘mail’ is dropping off. Well, I can tell you my satchels have gotten heavier since I started. Now, maybe I don’t have as many phone bills in my pocket, but I certainly have way more parcels than I had before, way more admail. So it’s just a different type of mail, but there’s still all kinds of mail.”
PV: “I wonder if you’d like to say anything about the back-to-work legislation.”
GN: “Well… this has been happening… I think it’s the third time I’ve been legislated back since I’ve been with Canada Post. Might be the fourth. It’s just, you know, it’s one of our Charter rights…. For me right now, as president of the Local, I’d get fined $50,000 a day if I participated in strike activities. [For] the average member [it] is $1,000 a day and the union’s $100,000 a day… I’m sure you’ve heard the Jean-Claude Parrot story, right? Went to jail for quite a while back in ’78, I think it was.”
PV: “Yeah, I’ve heard he went to jail….”
GN: “Because they know we’re willing to do that [go to jail], now they’ve made their goal to bankrupt unions. Whenever there’s legislation now it’s, you know, fines in the millions of dollars.”
Mainstream media were informed of the Fredericton picket after it started, but did not show up. CBC arrived after the picket was over and aired a mainly negative story focusing on complaints about some shipping pallets and empty Tim Hortons boxes that the picketers had left behind. Colford wryly noted that “if this is revolution, it definitely isn’t being televised.” He was also critical of the mainstream framing of the pickets as a CUPE protest, when in fact “community allies, other unions, and students were there.”