On Saturday, the House of Commons led by Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party passed back-to-work legislation in order to force urban postal workers to return to work. I’m not opposed to back-to-work laws in general; virtually all unionized public workers are susceptible to these types of laws when there is a prolonged failure to reach a bargaining agreement. However, I am a little bitter at the speed and manner with which it was imposed this time around.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers started rotating strikes a couple weeks ago culminating in a one day strike in Montreal and Toronto last week. Canadians in effect had to wait an extra day for their mail. The Canada Post Corporation then decided to lockout all 54,000 urban postal workers (effectively locking out the 21,000 rural workers who were not on strike and still getting paid) in hopes the government would force them back to work. Sure enough within 48 hours the Conservative government tabled legislation to do just that. Given the prospect of a back-to-work bill, Canada Post had no incentive to cut a deal with its workers. For this reason, back-to-work laws are passed only as a last resort.

“It’s an indication of what’s to come for other public service workers who are unionized,” said Deputy NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. “But it’s also a signal from the Conservatives to all employers in a union setting or otherwise that it’s an open bar. They can start going after the acquired rights of their workers.”

A poll of Canadians showed that 70% favoured the back-to-work law; many of these same people were not at all clear on the facts, thanks in large part to the mainstream media. Safety and pensions of new employees were the main sticking points, not wages. Letter carrier wages are in fact on par with those of private companies (UPS, FedEx, etc.). Canada Post can afford it; they have posted profits for the last 15 years even through the most recent recession. Most importantly, the main work stoppage was due to Canada post locking out its employees, not the letter carriers refusing to deliver the mail.

The recent attacks on unions in Canada, Wisconsin and elsewhere by conservative governments come as no surprise; for conservatives, unions are represented by their opposition and are a direct threat to their power. The “Winter of Discontent” in the United Kingdom set up the modern dissatisfaction with unions and led to the election of the most anti-union conservative on record, Margaret Thatcher.

The Baroness Thatcher

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the U.K. in 1979 there were approximately twelve million unionized workers in the public and private sector. In only a few years of Thatcher’s reign that number was cut in half to six million, reducing the base of the opposition Labour Party and letting the Tories run away with the 1983 election. Economic Nobel laureate Milton Friedman once said that unions keep down the number of jobs, but as Thatcher worked to revamp the union laws unemployment doubled in the country from 1.5 million to 3 million, a figure that dogged Mrs. Thatcher the rest of her time in office.

Unions, public or private, seem to have all the normal traits of human beings. They can be weak, strong, passive or aggressive even sneaky and stupid, but that’s for the union organizations to decide not the government. It only takes one man (or woman) in power to erase decades of progress, the citizens of Wisconsin realized that quickly and revolted almost to the point where the government plan backfired.

We as a people have to open our eyes and pay close attention to our government’s intentions. What may seem to be a quick easy fix from the outside can sometimes hinder our democratic freedoms, and nothing is more important in a democracy than the right to organize.

Which side are you on – Dropkick Murphy’s

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As I write this it is twenty past seven in the morning Friday and the night shift has just ended at the House of Commons. I speak not of the doubtless dedicated cleaning crew, but rather of the night shift of NDP MPs who will, in the words of a poet, “rage against the dying of the light”.

Some hours earlier the NDP caucus began an almost unprecedented filibuster to delay and hopefully defeat the Conservatives scandalous back to work legislation for postal workers. While filibusters, in which outnumbered opponents of a bill take turns speaking for as long as they are allowed in hopes of breaking a government’s resolve, are a relatively commonplace occurrence south of the border they are virtually unheard of up here.
This is both because MPs are limited to twenty-minute speeches, and because our system of government makes them largely ineffective.

But today, on what would have been the last day of the session, Jack Layton led his caucus of 102 MPs into parliament and served notice that they would not be leaving anytime soon. The Conservatives even refused a one-day break to allow Quebec MPs to return to their ridings for St Jean Baptiste, apparently hoping that they would leave anyway and give up on the posties’ cause.

But there they were, all 103 of them, shortly after eight this evening as Jack launched into a marathon speech. I was lucky enough to be in the gallery of the house this evening, joined by dozens of striking posties, NDP staffers and ordinary citizens who recognized the momentous nature of the occasion, and the urgency of this battle.

Veteran Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer would later describe the speech as one of the greatest he has seen in his fourteen years in parliament. Standing for almost an hour without the aid of a cane, Jack transcended himself and was every bit the statesman that Canadians came ever so close to electing Prime Minister.

He spoke of the “fellow” who delivers his mail, and who has developed a friendship with his elderly mother-in-law, of the workers at the sorting station in his riding, so many of whom have braces and injuries. He spoke of his desire to compromise and his willingness to work with the government to craft a bill all parties can live with. He spoke forcefully on the folly of dividing us against ourselves, for are the posties not Canadians like the rest of us?

He decried a crown corporation which has locked out its workers and caused the very situation they now appeal to parliament to legislate away. He spoke of the real crisis of the middle class in this country, of the growing gap between the rich and poor and the incomprehensibility of ever more profitable corporations refusing to provide even such former givens as fair pensions.

At every pause, at every intake of breath, his astonishingly large caucus rose around him as one and applauded with a vigour and sincerity I have never seen. At one point they even broke into the chant of “so-so-so-solidarité” and kept it up for a good minute.

Following in his outsized footsteps, the caucus divided themselves into shifts and vowed to keep debating the resolution for as long as it took to defeat it, or at least buy the posties enough time to negotiate a fair deal. Every six hours those in the chamber would be spelled by a fresh batch of colleagues, ready to rise and raise their voices for our basic rights.

Now I have never hidden my strong ties to the NDP, or my rather unfailing support for the party. But if you ever wondered where my allegiance comes from, it is from moments like tonight.

Supporters of any political party or group can find themselves at times frustrated or angry with a particular decision or policy. I certainly have been with the NDP at some points in my life. What keeps us coming back, what inoculates us against the cynicism and indifference many feel to the political process, is a belief that when push comes to shove we share a core set of values, which our leaders can be counted upon to defend.

Tonight, as the Liberal benches sat virtually empty, the representatives I worked and voted for put it all on the line for people they had never met. As the Conservative propaganda machine was successfully selling the rather preposterous line that this mess is the fault of greedy posties, my MPs were standing for principle and fighting to the bitter end for the rights of ordinary workers like you and I.

That, in a nutshell, is why I vote NDP.

Several excellent summaries of the proposed legislation and the realities of the lockout have been written, which I urge you to read, but allow me to summarize.

The postal workers are not greedy. They started rotating strikes, which did not interrupt mail delivery, to resist management demands that they accept huge concessions while Canada Post continues to be a highly profitable corporation. The most notable of these was a demand that new hires have a defined contribution pension plan, rather than a defined benefit one. This type of pension plan means that dedicated employees who work thirty or more years for the company can be left eating cat food in retirement. A good pension plan is a basic right which we should be fighting to extend to all workers.

The current situation is 100% the fault of the Canada Post Corporation. Canada Post locked out their employees, causing a complete shutdown of mail delivery which had been only marginally delayed by the rotating strikes. The union has offered to return to work without rotating strikes, and Canada Post has refused to end the lockout. The whole thing was a set up for the Conservatives to pass draconian back to work legislation.

Conservative/Canada Post strategy? Send a message. The point of the exercise has been to send a message to unions that if they exercise their charter protected right to bargain collectively and withhold their labour, not only will they be legislated back to work, but terms will be set by the government that are worse than what the employer was offering, as is the case with Canada Post. No employer will have an incentive to make a fair offer and unions will be terrified that if they go on strike they will end up with even less than what was being offered. End result? A downward spiral of working conditions that hurts us all.

It’s on! The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has officially embarked on a series of rotating strikes throughout Canada. The strike, the first in almost 15 years, began Thursday night in Winnipeg. It then continued on to Hamilton, Ontario on Friday and then to Montreal Sunday night. The strike will hit another Canadian city every few days indefinitely until an agreement with the Canada Post Corporation (CPC) is made.

The reasons for the strike concern major issues associated with the corporation’s $2 Billion Modern Post program. The program induces over-working of staff, inadequate staffing, reduced pay, substandard befits and unsafe working conditions.

Negotiations have been in the works for the past 7 months and some progress has been made. However, the most important and outstanding issues have yet to be resolved. “CPC has made no secret that it wants to increase profits by having fewer workers work longer and harder,” writes national president Denis Lemelin. CPC has already cut many more jobs than required to realistically adapt to decreased demand. This has resulted in increased mandatory overtime and fewer full time positions. Among many other concessions, Canada Post plans on cutting the starting wage for new hires by 18 percent, which will line the company’s pockets with an extra 250 million dollars per year. The corporation also has plans to replace the 50 year old sick leave program with a significantly inferior Short Term Disability Plan, which would also reduce pay during absence by 30 percent.

This “restructuring” comes at a very interesting time. According to their own website, “Canada Post is one of the largest corporations in Canada in terms of revenue.” Not to mention CPC also recorded the most profitable year in its history just two years ago. Could these cuts be the doing of a higher power?

CUPW’s last strike in 1997 ended with abrupt back-to-work legislation. This legislation, known as Bill C-76, effectively strips workers of their right to collective bargaining by declaring a given strike illegal. It also grants the government the right to impose heavy fines on unions and individuals, as well as sentence jail time for defiance. In 1978, Jean-Claude Parrot, then president of the CUPW, spent two months in prison for defying the back-to-work order.

It is my fear that Canada Post is counting on this kind of legislation from the Harper government to eventually get CUPW members back to work in unfair conditions, if an agreement is not reached.

The Harper government has certainly not wasted any time implementing its new found power to undermine the public sector. CUPW has been at the forefront of the Canadian Labour movement since its formation. In 1965, the union actually won public sector workers the right to collective bargaining!

This is bigger than the post, we need to support our posties in order to send a very real message to Ottawa. We need to fightback and show Harper that the working class and the public sector will not stand for such austerity and contempt!


NB: If you haven’t already, you will probably hear or see the figure 1.4 billion in the media. This is the alleged price tag of the workers demands. CPC refuses to reveal how they reached this number and it is without a doubt a wild exaggeration!

Have you heard about Wisconsin? This Saturday crowds estimated at up to 100,000 descended on the state capitol of Madison to protest the most earth-shattering attack on unions and the middle class since Reagan fired the Air-Traffic controllers in 1981. Support demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands were held in cities across the country. But you would be forgiven if you missed the news.

As protesters streamed into Madison and a Deputy Attorney General in Indiana helpfully suggested the police “use live ammunition” to get rid of them Mainstream media outlets such as the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette were silent.

Perhaps they thought the news was of little import to us here in the frozen white north, certainly not as important as the story on who Liz Taylor is rooting for at the Oscars. (Spoiler alert: it’s the King’s Speech)

I’m more inclined to believe that their corporate masters are loath to show unions or their support in anything approaching a positive light, but it could also be explained by the paralyzing incompetence caused by the decimation of newsrooms over the last few decades.

Either way, in case you’ve missed it, here’s a primer on what’s happening in Wisconsin, and why it matters (Full disclosure: I currently work for a labour union):

The ruckus got rolling when newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party darling and recipient of oodles of Koch Brothers cash, proposed a bill that would strip public sector unions of their right to collective bargaining. The bill would also prohibit the employer from collecting union dues and force a vote each year on continued membership in the union.

Koch Brothers and Scott Walker

He argued that this unprecedented assault on the very existence of unions was necessary to control a budget “crisis” in the form of a 137 Million dollar deficit (small potatoes, as these things go).

Of course the unions in question had already agreed to massive cuts in pay and benefits (which he rejected) and his bill exempted the Police and Firefighters unions who have the most generous pay and benefits plans, and who not so coincidentally were major supporters of his campaign.

Paul Krugman, in the New York Times this week, explains it best, citing Canadian Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine:

From Chile in the 1970s onward, [Klein] suggested, right-wing ideologues have exploited crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society. Which brings us to Wisconsin 2011, where the shock doctrine is on full display… Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions — an offer the governor has rejected.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab — an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy.

What’s going on in Wisconsin is a Republican Governor, heavily funded by major corporations, attempting to “take out” the pesky unions who work to elect Democrats and fight for fair wages and working conditions (thus cutting into corporate bottom lines). And he’s using a largely manufactured crisis to do it.

If he succeeds, and as I write this the only thing standing in his way is the decision by all Democratic State Senators to flee the state in order to block the Republican dominated Senate from reaching quorum, it will be the beginning of the end for organized labour in the U.S.

Union membership has declined from over 50% in the Fifties to less than 12% today, and the right wing propaganda machine has been so successful in convincing Americans that their woes are not the fault of the banks on Wall Street or the corporate funded crooks in Washington – but are instead caused by greedy unions – that the non-unionized, who once looked to union workplaces as an example to emulate, now wish to tear down union workers to their level. “If we can’t have good working conditions then they shouldn’t have them either.”

Across the country right-wing governors are looking to Wisconsin as a role model, and if Walker’s attack on unions goes ahead you can bet the farm on seeing a flurry of such assaults from New Jersey to Delaware and beyond.

But if so few Americans are members of unions, why is this such a disaster for the middle class? Because virtually every gain made by ordinary workers, starting with the weekend has been won by unions, and then spread to non-unionized workers. In fact, the right to bargain collectively is such a fundamental one that it is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Without unions, as Krugman says, we have lost the only remaining counterweight to corporate power. You know, the corporations who move their manufacturing overseas to benefit from 14 hour days, 7 day work weeks and no minimum wage…

If the republicans succeed in eviscerating the power of unions (which they have already succeeded at in a number of states with so-called “right to work” laws) it won’t take long before Harper and his acolytes try a similar stunt up here. One could even argue that the lack of media coverage of the happenings in Wisconsin is a result of the corporate media’s desire to keep us from worrying our pretty little heads about what an assault on unions would mean for us.

What happens in Wisconsin matters for us all, unionized or not, and if you care about your working conditions, your salary or your basic rights then do something about it. Wisconsin may be a tad far away to road-trip down to with a groovy protest sign and a lemon juice soaked bandana, but you can start by making sure your friends and family know what’s going on, and why it matters. You can read more and educate yourself on the topic. Hell, if you want to organize a solidarity protest I’ll even help you out!

Wisconsin is ground zero in a battle we cannot afford to lose, let’s make our voices heard!

Check out this recording of a Buffalo Beast blogger impersonating David Koch and spending almost twenty minutes chatting with Walker about how they plan to “crush” unions:

Craigslist has now removed adult services ads from all parts of its site serving American cities, bowing to pressure from states attorney generals and the mainstream media, most notably CNN. This move obviously didn’t come out of nowhere, but strangely enough, it did come out of the desire to protect sex workers.

When media in the US began publishing stories in 2009 about the “Craigslist killer,” who robbed and murdered escorts and erotic massage therapists advertising on Craigslist, there was a public outcry for a systemic change to ensure things like this didn’t happen again. Unfortunately these voices weren’t being raised against repressive laws that criminalized prostitution and created unsafe work environments, they were being raised against…wait for it…Craigslist.

You see, the best way for sex workers to protect themselves against violent clients is apparently to pay for a classified ad in a newspaper and undergo a credit check or maybe a background check. Forget checking on the client, that would be silly. At least that’s what the narrative that dominates our mainstream media dictated and continues to dictate.

The narrative recently shifted to one of sex trafficking, but instead of looking at the root causes of this problem, the media, politicians and a good portion of the public ignored, once again, the fact that the same thing could easily happen through traditional media ads. The fact that Craigslist was now screening and charging its adult services advertisers also seems to have fallen below the radar

It’s easy to understand how media conglomerates, many with failing print divisions hoping to increase revenues at the expense of the internet and the politicians in their pockets, can conveniently take the colossal leap of logic needed to justify investigating the victims. It’s also easy to see how a company like Craigslist, which is about much more than escort ads, can cave into pressure and remove their adult services section instead of dealing with the headaches now involved with keeping it.

What’s not clear is how the public can buy it. Considering this actually got to the point where action was taken, it can’t just be the uncritical, media spoon-fed masses, who thought the Iraq war was about freedom. It also can’t just be religious right types or people opposed to prostitution to the point where any way to curb it is a good thing.

No, in this case there had to be some semblance of general support, so then the question becomes why. The answer sadly, is human nature.

When something horrible happens like murder, there needs to be someone or something to blame. Blame the killer? Well, yes, but that’s not enough. Blame our own failings as a society that force someone who frequently works a risky job to do so without any sort of protection? Wait, can’t do that, then we might have to admit our faults and change something. I know, let’s just blame the internet.