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Canadian Postal Workers Are Showing Us What Class-Struggle Unionism Looks Like

From fighting contract concessions to making common-good demands like postal banking and public broadband, Canadian postal workers’ fighting unionism should be an inspiration to USPS workers.

Rank-and-file postal workers are carrying on a proud history of class struggle within the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. (Andrew Lahodynskyj / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In 2020, the United States Postal Service (USPS) came under heavy fire from would-be privatizers, starting a fight that isn’t over yet. But contentious battles over the future of the postal service are not restricted to the United States. In Canada, rank-and-file postal workers are carrying on a proud history, both distant and recent, of class struggle within the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

Ferment within the CUPW rank and file has coalesced around a campaign to reject a two-year contract extension with Canada Post. The offer would include a 2 percent per year wage increase. Online voting on the agreement began on August 3 and will end on September 3.

While the CUPW National Executive Board (NEB) is encouraging members to vote yes, locals in St. John’s, Halifax, Moncton, Toronto, Edmonton, and Winnipeg see the agreement as a step backward and have recommended no votes. These locals point out that none of the union’s core concerns about pay disparity, two-tier wage systems, and work rules are addressed in this agreement.

A statement from the Halifax local highlighted how a 2 percent wage increase merely continues the decline in postal workers’ real wages:

While that may sound acceptable, it needs to be kept in context. Our past wage increases have not kept up with the rate of inflation which has resulted in a loss of purchasing power. All you have to do is look at the rising costs of fuel, food and lumber to see how the purchasing power of all postal workers continues to decline.

CUPW Local 730 in Edmonton said, “We should not accept any wage proposal that does not also seek to eliminate the two-tier system.” The local argues that the proposal does nothing to advance the union’s more ambitious community-wide aims, such as postal banking:

Our members voted for a public postal bank staffed by CUPW members, not to subsidize big banks to use our infrastructure for their benefit after they abandoned rural communities. This development will make it harder to establish a postal bank, not easier.

Besides the bread-and-butter shortcomings, many within the union also resent what they view as a violation of the union’s democratic processes. The push for the contract extension, they said, has been done in an accelerated fashion and without the normal collective bargaining procedures.

An Atlantic Region CUPW representative expressed his frustration when he wrote, “The NEB agreed to these tentative agreements before the regional conferences for the membership’s demands were completed and before a national program of those demands could be compiled and presented to the membership and then the employer.”

Whatever the outcome of the vote, it’s clear that a significant portion of the membership has not bought into this agreement. The infrastructure of this “Vote No” campaign could be leveraged for more ambitious fights to save the Canadian postal service in the coming years. If so, it would only be building on a rich history of struggle within the union.

A History of Struggle

The CUPW has a proud, militant tradition and a reputation for connecting their fights to broader social issues. In 1974, it won equal pay for the mostly women postal-code machine operators with a boycott and national strike. It became the first federal union to win paid maternity leave in 1981 with a strike lasting forty-two days.

In more recent years, the union has focused its energy on fighting privatization schemes and expanding the social role of the postal service. It has demonstrated a refreshing ability to be proactive and visionary in defense of a vital public service.

In 2010, as Canada Post’s financial problems worsened and whispers of privatization gathered steam, the CUPW released its vision document called “The Future of Canada Post.” In it, the union criticizes the turn to automation and workforce reduction as a way to increase financial viability. Instead, CUPW puts forward its own ideas for how the postal service can increase revenue while providing necessary public services, like postal banking and public internet.

Back in 2010, Canadian postal workers launched one-day strikes in opposition to dangerous speed-up measures that led to an increase in on-the-job injuries. CUPW’s “Save Canada Post” campaign in 2015 gained widespread public support for improved service measures like restoring home mail delivery.

In 2018, the union again used a tactic of rotating one-day strikes to gain leverage during contract negotiations. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Parliament forced postal workers back to work with the Postal Services Resumption and Continuation Act, which imposed fines on the union and individual workers who refused to go back.

Delivering Community Power

The CUPW has managed to seize the initiative by tying its internal contract concerns to a broader, more expansive vision of what the postal service could be. The union’s transformative proposals were introduced to the public in 2016 under the banner of “Delivering Community Power” (DCP). The plan is ambitious, seeking to address a wide array of issues like financial inclusion, eldercare, and climate change.

The CUPW has long championed postal banking, which existed in Canada until 1968. The DCP plan clearly lays out the stakes of the proposition:

Today, there are over 1,200 rural communities with post offices but no banks or credit unions. And only 54 of 615 Indigenous communities are served by local bank branches. 2 million Canadians rely on predatory payday lenders for basic financial services.

With over six thousand postal outlets, “Canada Post could overnight become the most accessible bank in the country.” Besides bringing more financial justice, “revenues raised by postal banking could help pay for new expanded services.” The DCP plan also envisions a role for postal banking in the battle to halt climate change, proposing that postal banks “deliver government loans, grants and subsidies to boost renewable energy projects and energy-saving retrofits.”

The DCP plan proposes that the post office serve as a vehicle for a wide array of services beyond banking. For example, it recommends adapting post offices to provide broadband internet, “extending high-speed internet service farther than the big for-profit telecoms are willing to go.” Post offices could also serve as community hubs, providing meeting spaces for youth, seniors, and other local organizations.

CUPW also believes that postal workers, as public servants who interact daily with ordinary people, have a role to play in eldercare. The DCP plan suggests that workers:

could be allotted extra time on their routes to check in on seniors or people with mobility issues who sign up for the service. Check-ins could be as simple as seeing if there’s a regular “ok” sign in the window or a brief social visit. Postal workers could also become a point of contact between seniors and healthcare or social services when the need arises.

Sustainability is front and center in DCP. As the effects of climate change seem to worsen by the day, all approaches will be needed in the shift to renewable energy. The CUPW outlines a plan for post offices to become “hubs for the new green economy.”

In addition to using public banking to advance renewables, the DCP plan proposes that post offices provide public electric charging stations, which would also increase public confidence in electric vehicles (EVs). As the document points out, “While electric vehicle prices have fallen dramatically over the past few years, one important barrier to widespread adoption of EVs is lack of consumer confidence in the availability of public charging stations.”

The Canada Post fleet of vehicles could be all electric, and post office buildings retrofitted for energy efficiency. The union also wants the postal service to “bring farm-to-table food delivery to doorsteps across the country, helping to sustain local farms while expanding access to fresh foods.”

In articulating an ambitious vision for the role of the postal service in DCP and campaigning among the public for it, Canadian postal workers are laying the groundwork for the broad coalition that will be needed to stave off privatization.

The Future of USPS

In the United States, postal workers and their allies should take inspiration from the path being laid in Canada, on display in both the ambitious DCP plan and the current rank-and-file-led opposition to the contract offer.

In summer 2020, in the lead-up to the presidential election, there was an outpouring of public support for USPS as it came under attack by Donald Trump–appointed postmaster general Louis DeJoy. Mobilizations helped to stave off the worst of his plans to destroy and eventually privatize mail service.

However, the fate of USPS is still very much uncertain. DeJoy still runs the postal service with the backing of the postal board of governors, a nine-person bipartisan body. Six members of the board are Trump appointees, with only three appointed by Joe Biden.

In March 2021, DeJoy released a ten-year plan for USPS that would cut post office hours, lengthen delivery times, and increase postage rates. If implemented, the plan would drastically decrease the quality of service and the public’s confidence in the postal service, thus fertilizing the ground for privatization.

The only way to defeat this push is to offer our own expansive countervision of the role USPS can play in the twenty-first century. Our brothers and sisters in the CUPW are proving that this is both possible and necessary.