As I write this it is twenty past seven in the morning Friday and the night shift has just ended at the House of Commons. I speak not of the doubtless dedicated cleaning crew, but rather of the night shift of NDP MPs who will, in the words of a poet, “rage against the dying of the light”.
Some hours earlier the NDP caucus began an almost unprecedented filibuster to delay and hopefully defeat the Conservatives scandalous back to work legislation for postal workers. While filibusters, in which outnumbered opponents of a bill take turns speaking for as long as they are allowed in hopes of breaking a government’s resolve, are a relatively commonplace occurrence south of the border they are virtually unheard of up here.
This is both because MPs are limited to twenty-minute speeches, and because our system of government makes them largely ineffective.
But today, on what would have been the last day of the session, Jack Layton led his caucus of 102 MPs into parliament and served notice that they would not be leaving anytime soon. The Conservatives even refused a one-day break to allow Quebec MPs to return to their ridings for St Jean Baptiste, apparently hoping that they would leave anyway and give up on the posties’ cause.
But there they were, all 103 of them, shortly after eight this evening as Jack launched into a marathon speech. I was lucky enough to be in the gallery of the house this evening, joined by dozens of striking posties, NDP staffers and ordinary citizens who recognized the momentous nature of the occasion, and the urgency of this battle.
Veteran Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer would later describe the speech as one of the greatest he has seen in his fourteen years in parliament. Standing for almost an hour without the aid of a cane, Jack transcended himself and was every bit the statesman that Canadians came ever so close to electing Prime Minister.
He spoke of the “fellow” who delivers his mail, and who has developed a friendship with his elderly mother-in-law, of the workers at the sorting station in his riding, so many of whom have braces and injuries. He spoke of his desire to compromise and his willingness to work with the government to craft a bill all parties can live with. He spoke forcefully on the folly of dividing us against ourselves, for are the posties not Canadians like the rest of us?
He decried a crown corporation which has locked out its workers and caused the very situation they now appeal to parliament to legislate away. He spoke of the real crisis of the middle class in this country, of the growing gap between the rich and poor and the incomprehensibility of ever more profitable corporations refusing to provide even such former givens as fair pensions.
At every pause, at every intake of breath, his astonishingly large caucus rose around him as one and applauded with a vigour and sincerity I have never seen. At one point they even broke into the chant of “so-so-so-solidarité” and kept it up for a good minute.
Following in his outsized footsteps, the caucus divided themselves into shifts and vowed to keep debating the resolution for as long as it took to defeat it, or at least buy the posties enough time to negotiate a fair deal. Every six hours those in the chamber would be spelled by a fresh batch of colleagues, ready to rise and raise their voices for our basic rights.
Now I have never hidden my strong ties to the NDP, or my rather unfailing support for the party. But if you ever wondered where my allegiance comes from, it is from moments like tonight.
Supporters of any political party or group can find themselves at times frustrated or angry with a particular decision or policy. I certainly have been with the NDP at some points in my life. What keeps us coming back, what inoculates us against the cynicism and indifference many feel to the political process, is a belief that when push comes to shove we share a core set of values, which our leaders can be counted upon to defend.
Tonight, as the Liberal benches sat virtually empty, the representatives I worked and voted for put it all on the line for people they had never met. As the Conservative propaganda machine was successfully selling the rather preposterous line that this mess is the fault of greedy posties, my MPs were standing for principle and fighting to the bitter end for the rights of ordinary workers like you and I.
That, in a nutshell, is why I vote NDP.
Several excellent summaries of the proposed legislation and the realities of the lockout have been written, which I urge you to read, but allow me to summarize.
The postal workers are not greedy. They started rotating strikes, which did not interrupt mail delivery, to resist management demands that they accept huge concessions while Canada Post continues to be a highly profitable corporation. The most notable of these was a demand that new hires have a defined contribution pension plan, rather than a defined benefit one. This type of pension plan means that dedicated employees who work thirty or more years for the company can be left eating cat food in retirement. A good pension plan is a basic right which we should be fighting to extend to all workers.
The current situation is 100% the fault of the Canada Post Corporation. Canada Post locked out their employees, causing a complete shutdown of mail delivery which had been only marginally delayed by the rotating strikes. The union has offered to return to work without rotating strikes, and Canada Post has refused to end the lockout. The whole thing was a set up for the Conservatives to pass draconian back to work legislation.
Conservative/Canada Post strategy? Send a message. The point of the exercise has been to send a message to unions that if they exercise their charter protected right to bargain collectively and withhold their labour, not only will they be legislated back to work, but terms will be set by the government that are worse than what the employer was offering, as is the case with Canada Post. No employer will have an incentive to make a fair offer and unions will be terrified that if they go on strike they will end up with even less than what was being offered. End result? A downward spiral of working conditions that hurts us all.