By Doug Nesbitt and David Bush
The decision by Canada Post to end home-delivery, increase postage and eliminate approximately 10,000 jobs is, in our opinion, an egregious assault on public services in Canada. If this plan goes through it will weaken the union movement, put a key federal public service on the path to privatization, and land another neoliberal blow against social solidarity.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, Canada has seen an unprecedented assault on workers and public services to pay for the crisis and re-establish the profitability of the banks and the corporations. In the process, the rich are getting richer, public services are no longer being starved of funds but structurally undermined, while private and public sector jobs that provide any chance at a decent living are being squeezed out of existence for the vast majority. Those who are fortunate enough to be in a union are under the gun from federal and provincial government legislation, assaults on pensions and benefits, and devastating plant closures which impoverish entire towns, counties and regions.
But all is not lost. We can turn this around. We believe that there is a real possibility to build a movement spanning Canada and Quebec to stop these attacks, and even build the power to make positive transformations to our postal system. There are four key reasons why we don’t think this is just wishful thinking.
The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is on the left of the trade union movement and they have a long history of militancy. CUPW’s membership extends into almost every single community in the country. Unlike the federal public service, which is regionally uneven in its representation (most members are concentrated in Ottawa), and the transport workers unions which are organizationally fragmented between many unions and companies, CUPW is well situated to engage in a national fight-back campaign.
A number of urban CUPW locals still exercise a degree of rank-and-file shopfloor militancy that includes the use of wildcats, slowdowns and work-to-rule.
In 2011, the rotating strike/lockout required the union to organize actively its members in a way that they hadn’t done for a decade. Before that strike/lockout many of the 50,000 CUPW members had never walked a line (when was the last strike/lockout?). The lessons learned in 2011 about state power, duplicitous management, collective solidarity and community outreach were important for the unions’ current ability to build the fighting force and increased militancy needed to counter these changes. Obviously, it is an open question whether CUPW can ratchet up its confidence, militancy and creativity amongst its own members. The conditions are there for them to do so. Those of us who aren’t postal workers should be ready to support the posties in our workplaces and communities.
The Experience of 2011
In 2011, activists from across the country independently and sometimes in loose coordination with each other organized a solidarity campaign in support of the postal workers. For example, in Halifax activists put on multiple rallies, went door-to-door to thousands of residences, developed an extensive poster campaign, crafted accessible literature and designed a website for other activists across the country to access and use those materials. Other similar groups were independently active, such as the People4Posties in Ottawa, which occupied Tory MP riding offices with CUPW members. Meanwhile, campus-based labour unions, student unions in Quebec and English Canada and Students Against Israeli Apartheid joined forces to create Students4Posties.
These experiences are not entirely lost, and the social and organizational links created still exist in many places. The infrastructure of solidarity can be revived and initiated where it doesn’t exist.
These experiences and networks preceded Occupy, the Quebec student strike and Idle No More. Occupy has placed questions of class power and wealth inequality, democratic control of society, and alternatives to capitalism in the public sphere. The Quebec student strike has challenged us to think about thankless but strategic organizing in a concrete way, while opening up questions about the purpose of public institutions. Idle No More has delegitimized the federal government in fundamental ways and educated many on how to be allies in action, instead of just words. Last but not least, all three movements have pushed municipal, provincial, and federal governments to expose glaringly their anti-democratic interests and reliance on legal and police repression in defence of the status quo and the interests of profit accumulation.
In short, we are better situated than in the spring of 2011 to build a national movement around the Canada Post cuts.
Public Opposition to the Federal Government
Beyond the engagement of radicals, young people and community movements, the wider Canadian public has begun to demonstrate a willingness to side against the Harper government (and other governments too) on cuts to the social safety net, legislative assaults on labour, and environmental deregulation.
The layoffs and attacks on workers such as at Electro-Motive Diesel and the closures of the Heinz and Kellogg’s plants in southern Ontario, Bill 22 against BC teachers, and Bill 115 against Ontario teachers, have all stirred public dissent. A fledgling boycott movement emerged around the EMD lockout and closure – a boycott movement that was more shunted than supported by the labour movement, and ultimately sunk by the Canadian Auto Workers’ closure agreement). Heinz workers in Leamington are actively discussing the question of workers’ cooperatives in a region ravaged by plant closures. The BC and Ontario teachers struggles of 2012 saw thousands of students in dozens of high schools walkout against the government bills and in solidarity with teachers. These walkouts helped disarm a good portion of the media-generated anti-union backlash.
In the first year of the Harper majority government in 2011, many Canadians were shocked by the avalanche of actual and threatened back-to-work legislation against postal workers, Air Canada service workers, flight attendants, ground crew and pilots, and CP rail engineers. By March 2012 when Air Canada ground crew wildcatted at Pearson (with actions spreading to Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City), and the following month when Air Canada pilots organized a “sick-out” independent of their union, a media-generated backlash was noticeably absent.
Organized labour is being forced to come to terms with the legislative assault at both the federal and provincial levels in Canada. The catalogue of attacks on working people is long and stark: the restrictive and repressive changes to EI (Employment Insurance); the expansion of the highly exploitative and potentially racially divisive Temporary Foreign Worker program; the ongoing resistance to CPP reform; and the punitive anti-union Bills C-377 and C-525, and C-4 with their respective arbitrary rules on finance to harass unions, obstacles to union organizing and dramatic rollback of federal health and safety regulation.
The moves in the direction of ‘right-to-work’ legislation taken in Saskatchewan are being followed closely by the hard right in the Conservative Party. In Ontario, right-to-work is a key campaign proposal from Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, and is indirectly influencing the Ontario Liberal minority government. A prospect of a Conservative election victory is generating activity in some provincial unions, labour councils and locals. Many realize the necessity of a province-wide movement against right-to-work. So far this has not coalesced.
Even if still tentative, public opposition to the economic, environmental and legislative agenda of the federal government is ripe terrain for the left to engage the public on an issue that literally affects the majority of Canadians. An August 2013 poll commissioned by CUPW found that 69 per cent of Canadians opposed Canada Post privatization. Moreover, 63 per cent support an expansion of Canada Post services, including financial services like postal banking as a public alternative to the banks.
The Scope of the Canada Post Struggle
The cuts to Canada Post will affect every community in Canada; meaning opposition has the potential to be built in every community. Over five million Canadians are going to lose home delivery. Everyone is going to be paying more for worse service. CUPW pensions are going to be attacked. This will put all pensions at further risk, and this should open up room for widening the campaign for the expansion of the CPP. CUPW is advancing postal banking as an alternative source of revenue, and it could play a particularly important role of facilitating the savings and banking services for rural working-class Canadians. It is also possible to imagine postal offices across the country as sites for providing Service Canada (as the post office is often the only federal government building in small towns).
These four factors provide favourable – indeed, necessary – conditions for a fightback. Door-to-door postal delivery is already seen in a favourable light, and people simply don’t like the idea of having to pay more for a crappier service.
The Left in Struggle
Beyond the battle at Canada Post there is a bigger political calculation at work. We must look at the broader balance of forces and see this struggle as an opportunity for the Left. The Left in Canada is weak, fractured and directionless (apart from the promise of Quebec Solidaire). This type of campaign, win or lose, can contribute to organizing the Left and empower the broader working-class. It even opens up the possibility of fracturing the allegiances of small employers (who will be hurt by Canada Post cuts) to anti-union, anti-worker, anti-democratic organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (one of the key sources of neoliberal ideology in Canada and support for the Conservative agenda).
The nature of the postal system means that the type of solidarity campaign that can and should be developed is one that involves door-to-door canvassing. Canvassing is educational in two senses. It means entering into discussions with neighbours and strangers. This in and of itself is an educational process in learning how to listen to people, how to frame arguments effectively, and how to conduct ourselves with the humility often lacking in the largely insulated and often sectarian Left. It also trains the Left as organizers, as individuals and as an organized force, who can then go and train to empower others.
Canvassing goes beyond engaging in a conversation, listening to people’s views and grievances, and explaining what’s going on at Canada Post. It allows us to ask people to put a sign in their window, mailbox, or door. It is by no means a radical act. But it is an act of social solidarity and can only be positive for postal workers themselves. Having a petition and sign-up sheet on hand can also quickly develop into a network of contacts that can then be invited to organizing meetings, educationals, canvassing, and actions. We must remember that building popular support for CUPW and saving home delivery in no way ensures that the right won’t push ahead with its cuts or privatization agenda. When the Royal Mail was privatized by the hard right Conservative government of David Cameron in Britain, over two-thirds of people still supported it remaining public. We need to be building a wider organizational capacity to back up any militant steps that CUPW might take with large numbers of people ready to take actions in support.
These efforts can be coordinated with CUPW members and labour activists in their local unions and labour councils. The posters in the community and social media can also be seen as signs of support to be revisited and flyered for upcoming actions and demonstrations. But we need to make sure we can move beyond just inviting people via Facebook or posters. The campaign should be seen as empowering – listening, informing and providing avenues for action need to be built into each aspect of this fightback. Every act should build further possibilities for mobilization and organization.
What is ‘political’ about this? Part of it lies in struggling to preserve a specific public service from further privatization and striking at neoliberalism. But the answer also lies in the attempt itself. This campaign allows already existing organizations to build up their own membership and engage the public in a way that promotes the idea that public services aren’t about profit. Think of it as throwing matches on the ground, who knows what will catch fire?
Where the left isn’t organized, a campaign like this can begin to lay the groundwork for developing positive relationships and open up possibilities for new coalitions and organizations with some staying power. The task won’t be easy and will require a serious engagement with existing left institutions that are often dismissed as inadequate to the task at hand. However, as we claim, the moment provides a real opportunity that ought not be dismissed out of an all-too-common left-wing fatalism. Labour councils, union locals, student activist groups and left-wing student unions are all self-evident coalition partners with experience and resources which can also attract more people if they’re engaged openly in a campaign.
In many parts of the country the only organized left is the NDP riding associations which attract left-wing and labour activists who are more often than not firmly to the left of the party’s elected representatives. Plenty of riding associations are dormant in between election cycles, but with canvassing experience, community mapping skills, and connections to local activist and social justice organizations, committed left-wing NDP members can bring substantial assets to any popular left-initiated coalition in defence of Canada Post.
We need to build structures and committed left organizations that are able to engage in strategic long-term campaigns. Strategically using a nationwide battle to save a public service is a wonderful entry point to start to win people and activists over to working and developing politics together.
But won’t this just be social democratic? The fight for strategic reforms is not reformism. Reformism entails the belief that capitalism can somehow be made just within the given social and power relations in our society. This we believe is an absolute falsehood. The only way to fight for justice, housing, food, etc., for all is to replace capitalism.
In this conjuncture, we must begin by organizing for strategic reforms. There is of course an ever-present danger that this could be co-opted by social democrats, but so what? The NDP would have been forced to adopt better positions and have to develop policies that restores, reorganizes and expands postal service. A victory for collective social services! We would have won a reform but also have grown organizational capacities, sharpened our politics and been part of a mass lesson in collective power. If we simply cede this fight to narrow reform campaigns, than we will miss an opportunity to connect radical politics to the most relevant issues of the day for the working classes in a big way.
In Halifax the lessons drawn from the postal support campaign were important in understanding the need for collective organization and the necessity for strategic campaigns that force the left to organize to its right.
We can win this. The frontal assault on our public services by Harper’s Conservatives and the hard right provides an opening. Through the coordinated efforts between, the Left, the broader labour movement, and CUPW, we can re-write the script and bog the right wing agenda down in defending the destruction of a still popular service. We can, if we are strategic and diligent, grow our movements and politics along the way.
This requires that we act fast. The inability of the Left to provide alternatives and movements to counter the capitalist agenda means that the public is often resigned – including the NDP, and especially the Liberals – to the fact before these policies even take effect. The Left itself suffers from this same fatalism. The neoliberal agenda relies on this psychological effect, that the objective conditions make it impossible to fight against the inevitable. This can be overcome, not just with good ideas, but with strategic organizing as well. The longer we wait before actively fighting these changes the greater the risk that the campaign will encounter entrenched pessimism on the issue.
This is an opportunity to deepen labour and community ties, grow explicitly leftwing movements, train and deepen the political and strategic skills of activists, connect left wing activists across the country, campaign on an issue that affect millions of Canadians, and deal the right a defeat.
We can do this!