Right after the day started today, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers began a rotating strike against Canada Post. Workers went on strike in four Canadian cities – Halifax, Edmonton, Windsor, and Calgary – in support of their union in its negotiations for a new collective agreement. In addition to reviewing the terms of the existing collecting agreement, the union and the employer are bargaining over a number of contentious issues, such as the pay gap between rural and urban mail carriers. And these negotiations are happening in the context of a changing market, with lots of alternatives to sending letters through the mail – like emails and private delivery services. That shifting landscape is undoubtedly going to affect what the employer feels it can offer and what the union wants for its members.
A rotating strike (also sometimes called a partial strike) is not always used in bargaining disputes, so here’s an explanation of how it works.
Any kind of strike during negotiations for collective agreements needs a strike mandate to be legal. The union obtains a strike mandate through a membership vote, which usually asks the union’s members a simple yes/no question as to whether they support the union going on strike. A majority of the votes (with “majority” defined as 50% + 1 of the votes) need to be in favour of a strike for the strike to be authorized.
However, it’s important to know that a strike mandate doesn’t mean that the union is actually going on strike. A strike mandate can be a very powerful bargaining tool for the union during negotiations, because the employer knows that the union can legally direct its members to walk off the job if the union isn’t satisfied with the employer’s offers in bargaining.
If the union does decide to go on strike, in most Canadian jurisdictions it has to give notice to the employer (usually around 72 hours’ notice). The purpose of the notice is to give the employer enough time to make arrangements to continue or shut down its operations, and to give the workers enough time to make whatever arrangements they might need during a strike. (If the employer is designated as offering an “essential service”, such as health care, the preparation for the strike will also involve the union and the employer jointly planning for how that service, and how much of it, will continue to be provided.)
A rotating strike is when some, but not all, of the union’s members go on strike. The “rotating” part of it is that the locations where the union members walk off the job will change; the locations might change every day, every couple of days, or randomly. Usually, as in the current situation, the union will announce the locations of the walkouts a day or so in advance, so customers who might be inconvenienced can make alternative arrangements.
A rotating strike lets the union demonstrate to the employer how much disruption a shutdown will cause, without going straight into a complete shutdown. It’s a strategic tactic. By having only some of its members walk off the job, the union may be indicating that it’s willing to continue negotiating with the employer, but also that it’s ready and willing to move to a full strike if there isn’t sufficient progress in the negotiations. The other strategic aspect of a rotating strike rather than a full strike – particularly when the employer provides an important service like mail delivery – is that it portrays the union as sympathetic to the major impact of a full strike, and as trying to minimize disruption while still getting its point across to the employer.
If a rotating strike doesn’t achieve the bargaining outcomes the union is seeking, then the union still has the option of going to a full strike, after it gives the required notice to the employer.
Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have a long, difficult relationship, and when the postal workers last went on strike in 2011, they were legislated back to work by the federal government after being locked out by their employer. The Conservative government that was in power in 2011 demonstrated a strong dislike for labour unions; the Liberal government elected since then has portrayed itself as more progressive and more worker-friendly. The outcomes of this Canada Post bargaining dispute might be an interesting indicator of the new government’s true feelings about unions and labour disputes.