Dispute over rural wages a brewing issue in Canada Post contract talks

OTTAWA – Rene Legacy’s mail route in rural New Brunswick, just northwest of Bathurst, is about 32 kilometres long and takes him the morning to complete.

He’s paid by the number of spots he stops and the number of parcels and flyers he delivers.

When he works out the number of hours he puts in, the hourly wage comes out to about $13 an hour — less than half of what an urban letter carrier receives.

Legacy and the rest of the 5,000-strong rural and suburban mail carriers have become a key sticking point in negotiations between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which wants the pay structure changed so rural carriers are paid an hourly wage like those who deliver in urban settings.

If there is no movement on the pay issue, Legacy said he and others are willing take the fight to the Canadian Human Rights Commission or the courts to force Canada Post to increase their wages, and possibly get back pay for former carriers.

“I realize it’s not important to a lot of people and there are plenty of plenty who just sort of laugh at the idea” of an hourly rate for rural carriers, Legacy said, referring to the general public and some members of CUPW.

“It would strengthen the union itself if we were all on a level playing field and able to basically negotiate together on future contracts. Maintaining different bargaining units for an employer, it’s only just divisive,” Legacy said.

Canada Post says the system means that some rural carriers can be considered part-time employees, while others can make as much or more than their urban counterparts. That’s in part because they also service the growing number of community mailboxes that Canada Post has started to use in cities in lieu of door-to-door delivery.

CUPW says the rural, mostly female mail carriers are paid 28 per cent less than their urban counterparts, who are mostly male.

The two-tiered pay structure has been in place since 2003 when Canada Post and the CUPW first agreed to a collective agreement for the rural and suburban carriers.

The agreement set up a new pay rate to replace a system where carriers bid on rural routes where costs were based on decades-old guidelines, said Geoff Bickerton, the union’s research director, who was involved in those negotiations.

Some rural workers were earning $50 an hour, he said, others less than minimum wage.

Legacy and other rural carriers turned to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2012 to settle the wage disparity issue without going through their union, but had to withdraw the complaint in December 2015 over a lack of resources.

By that time, the collective agreement for rural carriers was expiring and CUPW leadership wanted to make it an issue in bargaining, said former rural carrier Deborah Richmond.

The two sides in the labour dispute appeared no closer to a resolution Thursday, with the union rejecting a federal proposal for binding arbitration and Canada Post extending its lockout notice from Friday morning to Monday at 12:01 a.m. ET.

CUPW said in a statement it “politely declined” a suggestion from Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk for binding arbitration, calling it a “matter of principle.” Canada Post said it would be willing to submit to arbitration to reach “an acceptable resolution” for both sides.

Canada Post said the two sides “remain far apart on key issues” after seven months of negotiations.

CUPW said it filed a formal complaint Wednesday with the Canada Industrial Relations Board alleging that Canada Post has refused to negotiate on the offer the union tabled a week before it was in a legal strike position and the corporation in a legal position to lock out workers.

The complaint also alleges that managers have been “making threats and spreading disinformation” to union members.

Union and corporation negotiators met with mediators behind closed doors on Thursday to resolve an impasse over pension changes that Canada Post says are needed to reduce costs, and the wage issue.