Commons passes bill to end postal strikes

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian mail should start moving again on Tuesday, with postal workers expected to be forced back to work by hotly debated legislation that passed the House of Commons on Saturday night.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 15, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The leftist New Democratic Party had held up the bill with 58 grueling hours of day-and-night debate but it finally made it through the House and now heads to a special Sunday sitting of the Senate, where its passage is assured because of the ruling Conservatives’ domination of the upper chamber.

“After a completely unnecessary delay, I’m nevertheless pleased that very soon Canadians will again have access to their postal service,” Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose party crafted the bill, said outside the House.

Most members of Parliament -- including Harper at times -- had to sleep in their offices to avoid missing a crucial vote during the 2-1/2 days. Some played board games or strummed guitars in lounges when they were not speaking or sleeping.

The government expects the bill to become law on Sunday afternoon and postal employees would be back at work 24 hours later, said Harper press secretary Andrew MacDougall. The first full day of resumed mail service would then be on Tuesday.

Postal workers had begun rotating strikes on June 3 in a contract dispute with the government-owned Canada Post, the country’s primary postal operator. That led to a lockout on June 15 that shut the mail service down completely.

The bill provides for an arbitrator to pick either the union’s best final offer or Canada Post’s. The most controversial feature of the legislation sets pay increases that are smaller than Canada Post had offered, though they match raises reached with another public sector union.

If its offer were accepted by the arbitrator, Canada Post would be able to offer new hires less generous salaries, pensions and vacations, providing big savings. Experienced employees currently get seven weeks of holidays and substantial sick leave.

In an age of e-mail and electronic bill payments, Canada Post says it needs to cut its costs in order to be competitive, particularly with courier companies.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which represents the 48,000 urban postal workers, says that the company is still profitable and that management demanded unfair concessions in wages, staffing and safety.

“The government is clearly willing to side with employers to grind down wages and working conditions,” Denis Lemelin, the union’s president, said in a statement.

“The Conservatives have shown themselves to be very anti-worker after only two months of majority government.”

A poll this month showed that 70 percent of Canadians supported the legislation to force an end to the work stoppage.

Editing by Paul Simao