OTTAWA – Members of Parliament sat late into the night Friday as the Liberal government put a rush on legislation ordering postal workers back to work.
The push came as Ottawa, as well as smaller towns in Ontario and British Columbia, and Sherbrooke, Que., became the latest targets of rotating strikes by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
MPs spent much of the day and the early evening debating a motion that would allow the House of Commons to deal speedily with a bill, tabled Thursday, that would put a stop to mail disruptions across the country.
That fast-tracking motion passed by a vote of 173-13, whereupon debate immediately resumed on the back-to-work bill itself. That debate was expected to continue for several hours before concluding with a vote on the legislation sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
The Senate is then set to sit Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday, to deal with the bill, which would go into effect at noon eastern time on the day following royal assent.
Despite the rush to pass the legislation, Labour Minister Patty Hajdu encouraged Canada Post and CUPW to remain at the bargaining table.
“They can still pull a deal off,” she said.
That said, Hajdu added: “Obviously, we would prefer that the parties are able to negotiate an agreement together, but the time has come that we need to be prepared to take action if they cannot.”
Hajdu referred to mail delivery as an “essential service” and said small businesses that rely on the postal service to deliver their goods over the busy Christmas season could go bankrupt if the situation isn’t remedied quickly.
“And when I say small, I mean really small. I mean people that, you know, sell marmalade or handmade goods, that this is the most profitable time of their year and if they are unable to make their earnings this time of year, they very well might be facing the end of their business.”
Labour leaders and New Democrat MPs slammed the government for undermining the collective-bargaining process. The government has removed all incentive for Canada Post to reach a negotiated settlement now that the agency knows workers will be ordered back to work by early next week, they charged.
“The right to strike is an integral part of the collective bargaining process,” said Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff. “Without it, an employer has no incentive to bargain in good faith, and workers have no recourse to demand a fair process.”
Canada Post seems to have convinced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Christmas wouldn’t come without a back-to-work bill, added CUPW president Mike Palecek.
“The mail was moving, and people know it,” he said. “People have been getting their mail and online orders delivered. That was the point of our rotating-strike tactics, not to pick a fight with the public.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the Liberals of hypocrisy, professing to believe in the right to collective bargaining while bringing in what he called the “worst, most draconian” back-to-work legislation.
“They’ve shown their true face … that this government is not a friend of working people,” Singh said.
New Democrat MPs voted against the motion to speed up debate on the back-to-work legislation, with many making an elaborate show of walking out of the Commons after voting, raising their fists in salute to postal workers watching from the public gallery. The votes of those who walked out were not counted.
Six New Democrats remained in the chamber _ representative of the small number the party maintained would get a chance to speak during the subsequent expedited debate on the bill.
CUPW maintains the bill is unconstitutional and is threatening to challenge it in court.
The union won a court challenge against back-to-work legislation imposed on postal workers in 2011 by the previous Conservative government. The court ruled in 2016 that by removing workers’ right to strike, the bill violated their right to freedom of association and expression.
Hajdu argued that her bill is “dramatically different” from the “heavy-handed” approach taken by the Harper government and takes into account the concerns of both the union and Canada Post.
But two independent senators, Frances Lankin and Diane Griffin, wrote Hajdu to express their concern that the bill may not be constitutional. The pair said Hajdu had promised to issue a government analysis detailing how the bill does not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but it still had not materialized by Friday evening.
CUPW members have held rotating walkouts for a month, causing massive backlogs of unsorted mail and packages at postal depots, though Canada Post and the union dispute how big the pileup is.
Canada Post says it could take weeks – even stretching into 2019 – to clear the backlog that has built up, especially at major sorting centres in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
CUPW’s 50,000 members, in two groups, are demanding better pay for rural and suburban carriers, more job security and minimum guaranteed hours.