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1965: rank-and-file resistance and the birth of public sector unions

Pam Johnson

March 27, 2012

After Air Canada workers were suspended on March 22, for slow-clapping Labour Minister, Lisa Raitt, for intervening in bargaining—and following 10 years of concessions—these workers said “enough is enough”. They wildcatted at Pearson airport in Toronto and got support from workers in Vancouver and Montreal airports who went out in solidarity—against the wishes of their union leadership. This militant action, with solidarity across Canada and Quebec, is rare but not new. It has a precedent: the 1965 postal workers strike that led the way for all public sector collective bargaining.

Given the austerity budget brought down the by the Liberal McGuinty government attacking services and workers—and threatening workers rights to collective bargaining, with a plan to legislate wage freezes if worker don’t “agree” to them—this is a good moment to remember the history of 1965.

Rank-and-file organizing across Canada and Quebec

Mail volume doubled between 1955 and 1965, but instead of hiring new full-time workers there were line speed-ups to a grueling 25 letters per minute. People were working up to twelve hours a day with no overtime. Women were hired part-time at a lower wage than full-timers and faced constant harassment from supervisors.

The Canadian Postal Employees Association (CPEA) that represented postal workers was refusing to raise demands for better working conditions. It was in effect a toothless organization because postal workers had no collective bargaining rights.

A small number of workers in Montreal and Vancouver seeing the situation as untenable started to organize on their own to push for strike action for better wages. With the CPEA saying that “you can’t strike the government”, this group continued to plan for action and raised the demand of a significant wage increase. After failed attempts to have their demands heard by the government and no support from the CPEA, these workers formed a rank-and-file group and began planning and building support for strike action. One organizer speaking about coordinating with Quebec and English workers on opposite sides of the country said “We speak different languages but, we have the same ideas and goals”.

On July 1965 at the exact same moment in Montreal and Vancouver postal workers walked off the job to cheers and celebration. Pickets went up in 30 cities across Canada as workers followed the lead of Montreal and Vancouver strikers. With no union, the strikers had no strike pay or emergency fund to draw from. As one worker said, “we have to stand up—even if we lose. I feel proud of myself for doing this.”

The public sympathy was on postal workers’ side after stories came out about workers conditions and poverty wages, although the CPEA continued to undermine the strike. Prime Minister Diefenbaker was eventually forced to bargain with workers who refused to leave the picket lines and the workers won a considerable wage increase.

The CPEA fell apart and two new unions were formed representing clerks and letter carriers. Soon after this victory all federal public sector workers were unionized and for the first time part time workers were also accepted as union members.

Rank-and-file organizing across Canada and Quebec, which could respond to the anger of workers and contempt of the government, was the key to the victory of the 1965 strike. With the labour leadership slow to respond to the scale of attacks that are eroding jobs and working condition today, it is time to build these networks again.

For a more detailed look at the 1965 postal strike watch the documentary, “Memory and Muscle”

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