Canada Post's relationship with its workers is blighted by 'underlying toxicity'

Whenever Canada Post management and union representatives reach an agreement, whether through negotiation or arbitration, the resolution may not be enough to repair their fraught relations.

Even a resolution of the current dispute over pensions and pay equity may not patch things up

Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are at loggerheads over a number of issues, but two are of particular significance — pay equity for female carriers in rural areas and the corporation's pension plan. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Whenever Canada Post management and union representatives reach an agreement, whether through negotiation or arbitration, the resolution may not be enough to repair their fraught relations.

"I do not see a resolution between management [and the union] in any meaningful sense," said Ian Lee, an assistant professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, who published a study on Canada Post.

"They patch it together but it won't solve the underlying toxicity and the underlying contradiction between the two visions."

Those visions include some intransigent and diverse positions on key labour issues and, ultimately, the future of the Crown corporation. 

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers issued a 72-hour strike notice Thursday, and on Friday lawyer and author William Kaplan was appointed to seek an end to the months-long labour dispute.

"There's a difference of vision of what Canada Post is and what it can be in a way that you don't always see in labour negotiations," said Christo Aivalis, a Queen's University professor of Canadian political and labour history. "And I think that's one of the reasons this is so tense."

The sides are at loggerheads over a number of issues but two are of particular significance  — pay equity for rural letter carriers, who are mainly female, with their urban counterparts and Canada Post's pension plan.

The pension plan is the biggest point of contention in this contract dispute. Management wants to change the plan for new hires from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Defined benefit means the company would take 100 per cent of the risk in dealing with pension contributions. For defined contribution, the employees would shoulder the risk.

'Is there a God' issues

Mount Allison University president Robert Campbell, who has studied post offices around the world, said when it comes to bargaining, it's important to avoid the "is there a God" issues like these, where there doesn't seem to be a middle ground.

"You look at these two issues, the way they're framed up, they look like 'is there a God' issues," he said. "When you get to 'is there a God' issues, they're tough things to negotiate at the table."

The pension plan is the biggest point of contention in this contract dispute. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Campbell expressed pessimism that the gap can be bridged. CUPW is led by a strong new president, Mike Palecek, who has staked his claim and reputation on these issues. Meanwhile, Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra, whose term has been renewed, has a strong sense of the future business model and has insisted this is the time to deal with these issues. 

Maurice Mazerolle, an associate professor in organizational behaviour and human resource management at Ryerson University, said these large issues don't lend themselves to collective bargaining.

He said one approach would be to take pensions out of the bargaining. He suggested the sides set up a separate pension board with representatives from management and the union, but also with pension experts to advise and another group to do the investing. Or, he said, the pension could be a hybrid of defined benefit and defined contribution.

However, it's not just worker benefits that are at issue. It's also the direction of the Crown corporation. For example, the union opposes the company's plan to scale back home delivery and has pushed for new ventures like postal banking.

"If Canada Post leadership was to come out and say, 'You know, we support postal banking' or, 'We're seriously thinking of implementing it,' that could be something that could spark co-operation between the two sides," Aivalis said.

But that idea has already been rejected by Chopra, which is why Aivalis believes there may need to be a change in management before any kind of relationship repairs can proceed.

"[There's a] real feeling that the current leadership of Canada Post is antagonistic, at a kind of fundamental level, to the workers," Aivalis said.

The union opposes the company's plan to scale back home delivery and has pushed for postal banking. (David Donnelly/CBC)

From the other side, however, is the view of a union membership that fails to acknowledge the realities of an ever-changing postal world where the volume of letter mail declines annually, said Lee.

Ultimately, Mazerolle said, both sides have to admit there's a fundamental problem with the relationship.

'Almost like an alcoholic'

"It's almost like an alcoholic, you have to admit you have a problem before you get help," he said.

He suggests that after a deal is reached, both sides get involved in a Relationship by Objectives program, where the key decision makers are sent off to a retreat with trained facilitators. The sides would be separated and told to come up with ideas on how to improve the relationship, and then brought together to figure out how workable those ideas are. 

By the end of the retreat a list of all the items for action would be drawn up. Individuals responsible for those actions would be identified, as would the resources and timelines needed, he said.

The groups are brought together again at different times to see what progress has been made. Mazerolle said this program has yielded an 84 per cent success rate.

"There's nothing to lose," he said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.