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Korfmann: The CUPW & Public Sector Unions; A Spoon-fed Problem

June 24, 2011

CUPW StrikersDo you know what one of the major problems plaguing North American workplaces has been for the past 40 years? I would love to say laziness, but this would only be a small factor; the real issue is stubbornness. I could point to the practice of shelling out taxpayer dollars to failing companies, over-all productivity declining since the early 70s, and the overall cost of living-but all are not quite the sources of the problem- they are all connected, but they are not the roots.

I am referring to both public and private sector labour unions. Canada post will be our foci for today.

Post workers stepped off the job in Winnipeg recently to protest new mail-sorting machines and a desire for higher wages and benefits for the new, inexperienced CP workers. These sound like fairly legitimate concerns for workers, but it does get more ridiculous when you go below the tip of the iceberg.
Before I go into the nitty gritty of this feud, I think it would be advantageous to outline the economic and labour environment that brewed this storm. As we are all probably aware, almost everyone has access to the internet and as such, it has changed much of our lives; in particular, e-mail and online billing has reduced the need to pay for a physical copy of this information to be sent over the course of a few days via mail to customers and employees nationwide. This would be, in the most basic description, a decrease in the demand of Canada Post’s services. In most economies, when demand shrinks, so does supply. This means, that if less people are using Canada Post, they are receiving less money, and do not need as many and can no longer afford to keep paying and/or hiring workers. This is the main reason why we no longer have to deal with national typewriters manufacturing workers’ union anymore; Canada Post needs to accept its fate.
Now I’m not saying that they will go under anytime soon, after all, we do use the internet to shop more and I’d be hard-pressed to find a service that will allow me to receive my e-bay purchases via email. But competition such as UPS and FedEx is taking advantage of new technology and has made it easier to print off postage, pay online and arrange shipping almost instantly-but the only thing that differs them from Canada Post is that they do not strike, rendering them more reliable and thus more useful to businesses-the one niche in the postal market that is using non-electronic shipping more.

Labour unions were useful at a time when (late 19th-early 20th century) working conditions, pay, and wages for unskilled jobs (such as the post office) were not regulated by the government. I’m not advocating turning to the government to dish out all these benefits, because that would be just as bad -if not worse-, but what I am saying is that they already do have a hand in the dealings of unskilled workers across this country. There once was, a time when the Post Office could threaten to walk off the job and severely disrupt business and personal communication as well as services, and this is where the Canadian Union of Postal Workers came from. They have, however, not kept up with reality and are still living in the days of the telegram and the typewriter. Their wages are currently hovering around $24 an hour –more than two and a half times the average hourly minimum wage salary last year-, and they receive up to 7 weeks’ vacation; not to mention their cushy unionized-public-sector pensions. If a private company began dishing out cash like this, it would shortly disappear. This level of logic does not seem to apply though, to public sector unionized institutions; the unions keep demanding, and the crown corporations keep making concessions until, eventually, the government steps in and starts to fund them. We all have to realize that this will cost all of us if things do not change.

If you don’t think this will cost us taxpayer money, then think again. Let’s go back two years, the Canadian government dished out a whopping $10.6 billion for a GM bailout, that only helped “save” approximately 4,417 jobs at an eye-popping cost of $2.4 million per job; that’s almost 26 times the average salary of a Canadian auto-worker at the time-after benefits-[$73207 + 27% benefits= $9,2973]. The Federal government would have been able to directly pay their salaries-with benefits- for the next 25 years! On top of all this, since then, yup, you guessed it; unions have asked for more and salaries have gone up!

The CUPW began their strike in Winnipeg, where Canada Post installed a new mail-sorting machine, something the postal workers saw as a threat. The strike has since moved to several major cities and eventually ended up where we are today; a nation-wide mail service shut-down. I think it’s a great thing that they feel threatened by this machine, maybe now they will start realizing that all these demands for a 3% hike in an already high wage just don’t make sense. The irony in it is, that with all these demands that Canada Post says would threaten their financial independence, combined with the new electronic competition, it will most likely only speed-up the lay-offs and increase the amount of workers being replaced by machines.

Perhaps there is a silver lining when it comes to expensive and ridiculous strikes; in the summer of 2009, approximately 24,000 employees working in public sector unions in Toronto went on strike for over a month. Not surprisingly, the most memorable aspect of the strike was that all garbage workers took part, resulting in a massive build-up of garbage and filth in the streets of downtown Toronto, and in parks (where temporary dumps were set up.

How is this a silver lining at all?

Well, the city looked horrible, smelled horrible, and produced an influx in rodents; all-in-all, taxpayers took note. In the last municipal election (fall 2010), privatization of major public services was a key issue, and so was dubbing all other services that couldn’t be privatized as “essential services”-legally disallowing them to cease working. As recent as two weeks ago, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced that the vote on the privatization of garbage collection had been passed. This would lead to fewer-if not any- service disruptions, and cheaper costs; a true victory for Toronto residents.

Canada post already reports a $3 billion pension shortfall, and with the aging population, will surely not be able to support themselves -unless they make pay cuts and labour changes. Canada Post has approached the union with these statistics and proposed that they take all employees whom worked 4 years or less-the inexperienced ones- and reduce their pay to only $18/hr, instead of their already grossly inflated $24 an hour. On top of this, they said they would increase pay for those employees who have been with CP for longer than 4 years to $26/hr from the $24 all employees are currently receiving across the board. But this was not good enough; and voila! Now we have a postal strike.

I would also like to point out that, despite the recent back-to-work legislation being a solid way of giving the union a shock of reality, it does defer the public’s annoyance that would have come out of a prolonged labour dispute. If they striked for the same period of time as Torontonians witnessed in 2009, we would have had similar results- arguably the ideal one. All we can do now is wait, wait until parliament passes the back-to-work legislation, and then wait for the next hiccup in the postal system; this could likely be years (we haven’t seen a postal strike this significant since 1997). When this happens, perhaps more of us will be relying on Canada post less, and this notion of privatization would become a bigger issue. Until then I say, if Torontonians have learned anything from the 2009 strike, it would be that in the end, taxpayers and citizens will have their say on the matter, not just union workers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Moldovan permalink
    June 24, 2011 11:58 pm

    There are many bones that I have to pick with you friend on this article but as it is almost past my bed time I’ll mention just two.

    The first being the fallacy you bring up in regards to why workers shouldn’t look for benefits as Canada Post, will inevitably cease to exist from a combination of e-billing and competition from UPS and other companies. So supposing that one day every industry in our society will cease to exist ur essentially saying that there’s no point in workers fighting for better lives since at one point where they work will not be a factor in productivity any more. You are looking too far into the future my friend. Currently Canada Post employees, those ones you call inexperienced, have combined to put forth a 10% increase in productivity since they last went on strike in 1997. Currently the company is posting profits and currently UPS and other companies cannot compete with Canada Post in regards to domestic and international product shipping rates. So you say they shouldn’t be asking for a fair cut of profits, the maintenance of their health plan and the avoidance of a 2 tier wage system that explicitly targets younger workers because in the unestamatable future Canada Post will cease to exist. Also to note, the strikes were rotating to protect the worker and consumer UNITIL Canada Post locked the workers out based on groundless unfounded estimates of how much money the company was losing.

    The second point, although there are many more, is your proclaimed victory for Torontonians in regards to garbage. What privatization will do is create a race to the bottom for garbage workers. You realize that every other service that the City contracts out we have a plethora of issues with. Like construction and road repair. The city dishes out a contract and takes the lowest bid, companies with a low bid won’t do a good job. Why? because when they do a crappy job or water down the materials they make the roads with they know that there will be a problem with the road in the near future but so long as they have the lowest bid to the city, and the job gets “done” the company, which often has workers making peanuts will get contracted again to fix more work.The same road to the bottom will hit garbage workers.

    You have to realize my friend that our minimum wage in Ontario is actually lower then the poverty line. Along the chain of events to increase the efficiency of garbage collection, which mind you is not that bad in Toronto we will see these workers enter a race to the bottom which will see them lose their livable wages and garner wages that are in poverty.

    This leads to many more problems one of which is our declining birth rate, I mean why would any sane person want to start a family when they aren’t making enough to support themselves?

    Privatization my friend is never a good societal answer to anything.

  2. Semi-troll permalink
    July 16, 2011 6:50 am

    ^this guy knows whats up

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