OTTAWA (Reuters) - The government said on Wednesday it plans to legislate an end to the postal system labor dispute, hours after Canada Post locked out employees who had been staging rotating strikes.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told Parliament the government would file notice on Wednesday that it intends to restore mail service, allowing it to introduce back-to-work legislation 48 hours later.
“In this case, Canada Post and the union have been unable to reach a negotiated settlement, which is a great disappointment for us because of the effect it has on Canadians and the economy,” Raitt said.
Canada Post and the workers are engaged in a contract dispute complicated by questions over how the postal system can survive in a era when letter writers use email and bills are delivered and paid via the Internet.
Key discussion points are pensions and wages as well as health and safety issues.
Before announcing the planned intervention, Raitt defended her decision not to introduce back-to-work legislation earlier, saying that the rotating 24-hour strikes had not shut down the postal system nation-wide, but the lockout had done so.
“We’ve had ... rolling strikes, and we really haven’t heard a lot of public outcry. It’s different from 1997, when we saw a lot of people concerned about a general mail strike. Now we have email, we have package services,” she said.
Contrasting the current situation with the initial rolling strike, she said: “This is different. This is now a lockout... We’re going to go back and take a look at the parameters.”
Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) President Denis Lemelin told an Ottawa news conference that back-to-work legislation would be unfair.
“Free bargaining is important. It’s the only way that the parties can achieve something.”
CUPW launched a series of 24-hour strikes 12 days ago, rotating among different communities across the country. Canada Post says the job action has already cost it C$100 million.
“The accelerating decline in volumes and revenue combined with the inability to deliver mail on a timely and safe basis has left the company with no choice but to make this decision,” the federal corporation said in a statement.
The leader of about 15 postal workers picketing outside a Toronto post office said the union had been trying to be fair by not launching a nation-wide strike, but said Canada Post was trying to prompt the threat of legislation.
“They want us to be legislated back so that we don’t get a fair deal on our contract. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing -- they’re blackballing themselves,” said Pamela Lepine, union captain at the post office.
Propped against the building were signs reading: “Tyrant bosses locked us out”, and “Locked out by mindless greedy tyrants”. Streetcar drivers honked as they passed by.
Canada Post, which is owned by the federal government but operates independently as a for-profit company, had already cut mail delivery in urban areas to three days a week in response the labor action.
Canada Post has offered raises to existing employees, but has said its survival depends on it being able to impose a lower wage scale on new hires so it can compete better with other delivery companies, which have lower cost structures.
The union says the company is profitable, but refuses to listen to CUPW’s proposals to deal with increasing competition by providing nontraditional services such as banking at post offices.
Canada Post has also said it needs changes in its pension plan because it is currently running a C$3.2 billion deficit, but the union says that figure is exaggerated.
Queen’s University labor relations expert George Smith said the lockout was expected.
“The only surprise with this move by management is that it took this long,” he said. “The union declared a strike at the beginning of June and slowly escalated it over the days. Canada Post management tolerated it for a while in hopes a settlement could be reached without a full-scale strike.”
Additional reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto and Allan Dowd and Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; editing by Rob Wilson and Peter Galloway