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Senators resume debate on postal legislation after taking a day to reflect

Last Updated Nov 26, 2018 at 6:50 pm EST

Striking Canada Post workers walk the picket line in front of the Saint-Laurent sorting facility in Montreal on Thursday November 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Senators resumed a special sitting on Monday to examine a bill that would force an end to rotating strikes at Canada Post as the walkouts enter their sixth week.

But the upper house might not go along with the government’s rush to get mail moving again during the postal service’s busiest holiday season.

Some independent senators argue that because it curtails postal workers’ right to strike, the bill is an unconstitutional violation of their right to freedom of association and expression.

And independent Sen. Murray Sinclair, a former judge, is poised to propose an amendment that would keep the legislation from kicking in for at least seven days after it receives royal assent.

The Liberal government proposes to have the bill go into effect at noon the day following royal assent — as early as Tuesday if the Senate passes it Monday without amendments.

A Senate amendment to the bill would cause at least another day’s delay, requiring the bill to go back to the House of Commons, where MPs would have to decide whether to accept or reject the change and then ship the bill back to the Senate.

Bill C-89 was debated in the upper chamber on Saturday after the Liberal government fast-tracked the legislation through the House of Commons.

But despite an initial plan to continue debate — and possibly hold a vote — on Sunday, senators chose instead to give themselves an extra day to digest hours of witness testimony on the labour dispute.

In the meantime, Labour Minister Patti Hajdu said Monday that a special mediator the government appointed to try to bridge the gap between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers has concluded his work and the two sides are no longer negotiating.

Negotiations have been underway for nearly a year but the dispute escalated when CUPW members launched rotating strikes Oct. 22.

Those walkouts have led to backlogs of mail and parcel deliveries at the Crown corporation’s main sorting plants in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Picket lines were up Monday in parts of British Columbia, including Vancouver, Richmond and Surrey, and in parts of Ontario, including Hamilton, Ajax, North York, Pickering and London. Workers also walked off the job in Halifax and Dartmouth, N.S.

Sen. Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the upper house, urged senators not to delay the bill any further.

“It is the government’s strong view that if it does not act now to protect the public interest, it will have acted too late,” he told the Senate, arguing that postal disruptions are “not merely inconvenient.”

“The strikes come at a critical period for retailers,” Harder said. “Unlike other kinds of e-commerce transactions … lost holiday sales are unlikely to be deferred to a later date. They represent real and actual lost business for these companies.”

Canada Post said Monday that the backlog of mail and parcels is “severe” and expected to “worsen significantly” once online orders from Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are processed.

In a statement, the post office said it is experiencing delivery delays across the country and that’s expected to continue throughout the holiday season and into January 2019.

The union wants better pay and job security, guaranteed hours for its 8,000 rural and suburban carriers, and equality for those workers with the corporation’s 42,000 urban employees.

CUPW also wants Canada Post to adopt rules that it says would cut down on workplace injuries — an issue the union has said is now at a crisis level.

The union is to decide this week how to fight back if the bill becomes law, with its national president, Mike Palecek, saying all options are on the table.

The previous Conservative government forced an end to a lockout of postal workers during a 2011 dispute by enacting back-to-work legislation, which was later declared by a court to be unconstitutional.

But the Liberal government argues its bill is different, in that it does not impose immediate new contracts.

Whereas the 2011 bill imposed a settlement that favoured Canada Post, the current legislation would give a mediator-arbitrator appointed by the government 90 days to try to reach contract settlements. Failing that, a settlement could be imposed either through a decision from the arbitrator or by choosing from one of the final proposals put forward by Canada Post and CUPW.

In drafting the bill, Harder said, the government has taken into account court rulings and is confident that its limitations on the right to strike would be upheld as a reasonably justifiable infringement of charter rights in a free and democratic society.

Independent Sen. Marc Gold, a former constitutional law professor, said he’s inclined to agree with the government.

But another independent, Sen. Andre Pratte, said the bill makes “a fair, negotiated agreement impossible by depriving workers of the lone source of their bargaining power, their right to strike.”

“Because the right to strike is a fundamental right … I am convinced that more time should be allowed for negotiations to come to a fruitful conclusions,” he said.