O Canada! Founding of CUPW

O Canada! Getting to know you!

This the first of a series on the heartbeat of Canada

The struggle to establish the Canadian Union of Postal Workers

transformed working conditions for all federal government employees

By Carl Dow
Editor and Publisher
True North Perspective/True North Humanist Perspective
Photo: Willie Houle directs striking postal workers in Montreal, 1965.  
Image from Canadian Union of Postal Workers' Stewards Action Bulletin, July 2001 (PDF).  

In 1965, while working for Canadian Press (CP) in Montreal, I interviewed Willie Houle who was the Québec leader of what was to soon become the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). The union was engaging the federal government in a nation-wide illegal strike for union recognition.

Willie Houle told me, during a relaxed back yard interview on a hot summer late afternoon in the shade of his home, about how the formation of what was to become CUPW was developed like an underground organization, because union organization of federal government employees was forbidden by law. It was a fascinating story of secret meetings in unusual places that I wrote for CP and which was front-paged and otherwise prominently placed on the inside pages of newspapers throughout the country.

I'll never forget when Willie Houle said that aside from union recognition one of the union's demands was that mail sorters, mostly women, would be allowed to sit on stools while working rather than having to stand on cement floors during their eight-hour shifts.

In 1981, after another strike, CUPW became the first federal civil service union in Canada to win the right to maternity leave for its members.

The union today has approximately 54,000 members and has a long history of militancy originating in 1965 when the union was formed out of the old Canadian Postal Employees Association. CUPW's first major strike was the illegal wildcat strike in 1965 (before public sector workers had the right to strike or even form unions) and is the largest illegal strike in the history of Canada involving government employees. The action succeeded in winning the right to collective bargaining for all public sector employees. Other major industrial actions included a strike in 1968 and a campaign of walkouts in 1970 that resulted in above average wage increases.

Further strikes in 1974 and 1975 succeeded in gaining job security in the face of new technology at the post office.

A 1978 strike resulted in CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot being jailed when the union defied back-to-work legislation passed by the Canadian parliament. CUPW's defiance of the law caused a temporary rift between it and the more conservative Canadian Labour Congress.

In 1981, Canada Post was transformed from a government department to a crown corporation, fulfilling a long-standing demand by the union. It was hoped that by becoming a crown corporation governed by the Canada Labour Code, relations between Canada Post and its union would improve. While strike action has been less frequent, there were rotating strikes in 1987 and 1991 against plans to privatize postal outlets, both of which were ended by back-to-work legislation and also saw attempts by Canada Post to break the strike using scabs.

In 2003, CUPW successfully completed the organizing of approximately 6,000 Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers (RSMC) into the Union and won a first collective agreement for these workers.

Behind the glamour of union/employer struggles there is the basic humanity that has always been at the roots of union organization and representation.

Here following, from CUPW archives, is a capsulated history of what is now a 54,000-member legal union dedicated to its members and with an honourable sense of social responsibility, starting in 1965 and written in the present tense.

Our history is an important part of who we are. A few highlights follow:

1965: Postal workers haven’t seen much of a wage increase for years. They strike even though public sector workers do not have the legal right to strike. The strike produces a significant increase in salary. It also leads to a Royal Commission into working conditions and an interesting union convention in 1965.

Delegates to the 1965 National Convention replace leaders who failed to back the strike. They adopt rules providing membership control over strike votes. This is part of a move to increase democracy within the union. Delegates also change the name of their organization from the Canadian Postal Employees Association (CPEA) to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

1965: Part-timers are paid less than full-timers. They have little in the way of benefits and no control over their work. Full-time workers see part-time workers as a threat to their wages and job security because management uses them as a cheap, easily manipulated workforce. Part-timers are expelled from CUPW at the 1965 convention because many crossed picket lines during the 1965 strike.

1967: The federal government passes the Public Service Staff Relations Act. This act allows federal sector workers, including postal workers, to choose either compulsory arbitration or conciliation with the right to strike.

The CUPW is certified to represent part-timers. The union begins the process of fighting for equality for part-timers. This makes it harder for management to pit part-timers against full-timers.

Today, part-timers are equal with full-time workers (on a pro-rated basis) in most areas of the collective agreement.

1972: The post office introduces a new classification for people who are coding the mail (typing the postal code). A letter sorting machine (now called an optical character reader) reads the codes and electronically sorts the mail. The post office argues that this work does not require the memorization and skill involved in manual sortation.

1974: CUPW forces management to get rid of the lower paid coder classification by striking and negotiating a new job classification (postal coder-sorter-sweeper) which combines coding and postal clerk functions into one.

1981: Parliament unanimously adopts the Canada Post Corporation Act, legislation guaranteeing the provision of basic public postal services to all Canadians, no matter where they live. The Act is the product of over two years of consultations between three successive federal governments, business groups and postal unions under the umbrella of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Unfortunately, the unions do not succeed in convincing the federal government to do right by rural and suburban mail couriers. The government includes a provision in the CPC Act which prevents rural and suburban mail couriers from being considered employees with collective bargaining rights and other rights under the Canada Labour Code. Rural and suburban mail couriers are considered to be contractors. They have no rights, no benefits and inhumane working conditions.

1981: CUPW argues that maternity leave is needed to eliminate the injustice suffered by female workers who are forced to take a substantial loss in pay due to pregnancy. It takes the position that women shouldn’t have to pay a penalty because they are the ones in society who bear children. The union wins paid maternity leave after a 42-day strike, making CUPW the first national union to win this right for its members.

1983: Delegates to CUPW’s national convention decide that the best way to protect members’ wages and working conditions is to improve other workers’ wages and working conditions by organizing.

1986: Canada Post announces plans to close or privatize thousands of post offices. The Canadian Labour Congress and post office unions organize a major campaign to stop post office cutbacks and privatization. This campaign results in a moratorium on post office closures in 1994.

1989: CUPW wins a certification vote to represent both inside and outside postal workers. Outside workers were formerly represented by the Letter Carriers Union of Canada.

1992: CUPW negotiates an education fund. It uses this fund to educate members on a wide variety of work, union and social justice issues.

1995: CUPW negotiates with Canada Post to take control of a $2 million dollar child care fund. It uses the fund to help members who have the most trouble finding or affording good child care, such as night workers and parents of children with special needs.

1995: CUPW negotiates a provision that requires Canada Post to permit temporary workers to fill vacant regular positions based on seniority. Prior to this, Canada Post’s representatives often used arbitrary and discriminatory hiring procedures, especially with respect to the filling of internal positions.

1997: The Organization of Rural Route Mail Couriers (ORRMC) is formed. The ORRMC wants basic bargaining rights, not just better contracts that can be changed at the whim of the government or Canada Post. CUPW agrees to help the ORRMC.

2002-2003: CUPW signs up rural and suburban mail carriers as members and negotiates the contracting-in of carriers. As unionized workers, they have basic rights and a contract that provides clear rules and improved wages.

The struggle continues...

Canada Post plan to cut to door-to-door delivery

is simplistic and harmful solution to serious problem

Decision ignores CUPW campaign for postal banking

11 December 2013 OTTAWA Canada — Dennis Lemelin, National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) says Canada Post's decision to end door-to-door mail delivery for millions of Canadians and to dramatically increase stamp prices is short-sighted and foolish.

"We recognize that Canada Post needs to change, but this is not the way," says Mr. Lemelin. "CUPW has consistently advocated for innovation and service expansion to create a financially viable and service oriented postal service for the future.

"We are sure we are not alone in disagreeing with Canada Post's plan. CUPW will stand with those who resist the elimination of door-to-door delivery.

“We are extremely concerned that these changes will send Canada Post into a downward spiral,” says Mr. Lemelin. “Furthermore, the skyrocketing stamp prices will make the postal service inaccessible to many.”

CUPW has been vigorously campaigning to bring back and expand postal banking, with growing support from municipalities and groups across the country. Postal banks have been proven to be a solid source of income for post offices and a much needed financial resource for people in other parts of the world.

“Where many postal operators are responding to a changing postal business with innovation, Canada Post is relying on cuts and rate increases,” says Mr. Lemelin.