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Postal union plans to bargain through weekend but it won't suspend strike action

Canada Post office in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 8, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh.

A plea for labour peace at Canada Post from Labour Minister Lisa Raitt hasn’t put an end to rotating strikes, which will continue this weekend in Red Deer, Alta.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers said it offered to suspend the strikes if Canada Post would reinstate the union’s collective agreement but management rejected that compromise at 6 p.m. Eastern time on Friday.

“This behaviour on the part of Canada Post corporation is totally unacceptable,” said Denis Lemelin, CUPW National President and chief negotiator.

“We are showing that we are willing to suspend our strike in good faith and with goodwill, as the minister requested. Once again, Canada Post is rejecting any of our efforts to resolve the issues.”

Canada Post issued a statement late Friday accusing the union of making an unreasonable demand to end the strike action.

“Accepting their demand to revert back to the old collective agreement in order to make that happen is completely unacceptable,” the statement said. “By maintaining the uncertainty for customers and hurting our revenues, the union’s proposal is tantamount to asking for full pay to remain on strike.”

The union said negotiating meetings were scheduled for later Friday evening and would continue through the weekend.

In addition to asked the union to stop its strikes, Raitt also called on Canada Post to stop cost reduction measures that the Crown corporation has said will be brought in because of drop in business caused by the strikes.

The postal service has suspended certain benefits, cut temporary workers in the Prairies, and plans to reduce mail delivery in most urban areas to just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays starting next week.

Raitt’s plea was rejected by Canada Post, which said it has no choice but to go ahead with the service rollbacks as long as rotating strikes continue.

“With rapidly declining mail volumes and corresponding revenues due to the strike, we need to staff to volume levels to manage our costs and remain financially self-sufficient,” Canada Post spokesman Jon Hamilton said in an email late Friday. “We will adjust once we see volumes return.”

Canada Post has said the strikes have had a disastrous effect on customer confidence and the Crown corporation’s revenue, and said mail volumes have dropped by 50 per cent since the first walkout last week.

The company says it’s offering good wage increases over the next four years but accuses the union of resisting efforts to cut costs and meet the challenge of mail volumes which are declining through the years.

CUPW says it’s willing to be flexible and it’s willing to negotiate a reasonable agreement but it can’t accept many of Canada Post’s proposals, including its plan to pay new employees on a lower wage scale than current employees.

In her statement, Raitt didn’t specify whether the government would consider passing back to work legislation to force the 50,000 postal workers without a contract to return to the job.

The government ordered postal employees back to work in 1997, the last time they went on strike.

“The best solution in any dispute is one that the parties reach themselves,” Raitt said in her statement.

Larry Savage, a professor of labour studies and political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said imposing back to work legislation would make neither side happy, and could cause a bitter environment between workers and management in the workplace between collective agreements

He said that cancelling long-term disability coverage for unionized workers is a common move by employers in a labour dispute and that the minister has the power to reinstate the benefits, but from her statement, it appears that Raitt chose to not get involved.

“I think Minister Raitt is trying to position herself as a neutral umpire, but that’s a really tricky game when the employer is a Crown corporation,” he said, explaining that its hard for a minister to appear neutral when the government is the employer, and she is a minister of the government.

The meeting with Raitt came as 1,500 postal workers held strikes Friday in Quebec City and Kitchener, Ont. — the eighth day of rotating pickets since Winnipeg was the first to be targeted on June 3.

Canada Post said contract talks have stalled as the two sides remain far apart on a number of issues, among them sick leave, repetitive strain injuries, and pay for new hires. The union said the contracts haven’t stalled but they’ve slowed down.

Canadian businesses have been hit hard by a mail strike, with companies complaining that customers are holding onto their wallets with the prospect that their package or cheques could get stuck in the mail.

Toronto firm Smart DM has temporarily laid off about 40 per cent of its plant staff of 165 since the threat of a strike first began, although the summer is typically a slower time.

The company prints and mails bills, promotions and other documents for clients like credit card and hydro companies, and hands off about one million pieces of mail to Canada Post and the United States Postal Service every day.

“As soon as there was a discussion that there could be some work stoppage, that’s when our work flow started to change, that’s when clients started to say ‘Wait a second, do we want our stuff stuck in the system,'” said John Leonard, the company’s vice-president of sales and marketing.

He said companies are encouraging customers to switch to electronic bills during the strike, leading to declining mail volumes in the long run, which could make the layoffs at his firm permanent.

“My belief is that there’s been damage done already. The longer it goes on, the more possible damage that’s going to happen and its almost impossible to predict what that damage is,” he said, explaining it could take months to gauge the strike’s effects.

Meanwhile, striking postal workers got support from labour activists who rallied in Winnipeg.

Members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada marched down Portage Avenue towards a Canada Post building and rallied in support around lunch hour.