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Canada Post Lockout: Why the Need for Intervention?

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With all the rhetoric surrounding the Conservative government's introduction of back to work legislation, it's worth looking at previous government reaction to work stoppages at Canada Post.

There is a long history of troubled labour relations at the corporation, for example, there were some 19 strikes, lockouts and walkouts between 1965 and 1997, but major postal shutdowns are rare.

For instance, the last time this union went on a full scale strike was in the fall of 1997. At that time, the strike ended two weeks later after the Liberal government brought in back to work legislation.

Fourteen days is not a long time, but it was considerably shorter than a couple of previous strikes which lasted 43 days in 1975 and 42 days in 1981. In 1978, the union went on a legal strike and was legislated back by the Liberal government on the very first day.

The scenario today isn't much different, except the public is far less inconvenienced. Technology has replaced the crucial need for the delivery of paper bills, email is replacing "snail mail" and there has been little outcry from average Canadians about the impact of the strike on their lives.

The present mail disruptions began on June 2, 2011. This involved a series of rotating strikes which began in Winnipeg. On June 14, 2011 Canada Post announced a lockout. With the introduction of the present legislation, mail disruption, full or partial (whether union or management generated) will have lasted approximately 23 days unless the NDP manages to delay the legislation further.

One can certainly argue the difference between a legal strike and a lockout, but in both cases there was plenty of warning that either the union or the corporation was going to take action. One would assume that the majority of businesses that rely on Canada Post would have taken steps to prepare for a disruption in service. For example, banks, department stores, utilities and others blitzed their customers with advertisements on how to sign up for online billing. There are also plenty of other services able to pick up some of the slack including courier companies, rail, and truck and bus lines.

There is always a cost to a strike and during this strike Canada Post announced it was losing millions of dollars. There is nothing unusual in that as that is one of the pressures a strike places on management, just as loss of wages hurts the striking workers. Its one of the reasons both sides negotiate a settlement.

For its part government has a range of options at its disposal including mediation and arbitration. This time around the government is using a sledge hammer when a full and complete shutdown of postal services has only lasted 11 days. One can question the necessity of any intervention at this point.

Certainly there is an economic impact from this strike, there is from every strike. On the one hand the government keeps telling us that we have the strongest economy of western nations, now they are telling us one full postal shutdown lasting just 11 days will have dire consequences for the nation. I might have missed it, but I don't recall seeing any economic numbers to back up their claim. How many other strikes will they intervene in now? Every strike impacts on the economy of an area, region or town.

Is it the pending summer parliamentary recess that is driving the government agenda? To allow the lockout/strike to continue into the break would have meant a potential recall of Parliament during the summer. Our MPs have worked a grand total of 34 days this session and are about to embark on an 87 day break. Would it have hurt them to come back for a few days if there was an absolute breakdown in negotiations? If given more time could there have been a negotiated settlement such as happened in 2007?

The need for government intervention also brings up another issue. Should the government be looking at privatizing Canada Post as has been done in Germany? Whatever the case, the full repercussions from this lockout/strike haven't been felt yet.

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