Canada stamps its feet over lengthy postal strike

"The country's going to the dogs, and the prime minister's gone off to London ," snapped one Canadian journalist recently. The royal wedding which Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is attending is, however, giving Canada a brief diversion from a summer of frustrations and problems.

A postal strike which began June 29 is costing Canada's economy millions of dollars a day in lost business and laying off employees by the thousand. A labor dispute in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is depriving the public of some of its most popular radio and television programs. And in British Columbia, the forest industry, one of the country's most important industrial sectors, is on strike.

On the economic front, the Canadian dollar had plummeted on international exchange markets to 82.25 cents US by July 29, only a notch above the all-time low set in 1933.

On the political front, the Liberal government's attempt to forge a new Canadian constitution is bogged down in the Supreme Court, and the standoff between Ottawa and Alberta Province over energy issues remains as insoluble as ever.

But of all this summer's problems, the one felt most acutely is the walkout that has once again halted mail service.

Since the late 1960s, when Canadian public service unions were granted the right to strike, there have been a dozen national or regional postal interruptions.

Many of the stoppages were caused by the 23,000 clerks of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), which has been in almost constant confrontation with the management of the Canadian post office for two decades.

While the union, with its militant leadership, is notoriously fractious, the Post Office Department has for its part often been criticized for insensitive, army-style management techniques.

Almost three weeks after the current strike began in late June, mediation efforts finally got underway on July 17. But there is still no sign that the discussions will produce a breakthrough.

Wages are not at issue -- the government has already offered salary increases that will bring average annual pay for CUPW members to $21,000 (Canadian). Rather, the impasse concerns worker benefits, principally a demand for 17 weeks of fully paid maternity leave.

Although resigned to letting negotiations follow their course, many Canadians are irate about being deprived of mail.

"I resent people with grade 11 education who want to make more money than I do," an aide to a member of the federal Parliament said. It was a comment typical of widespread anti-CUPW sentiment.

Most exasperated are mail businessmen. By one estimate, some 1,000 small companies are being forced into bankruptcy every week of the strike. At least 10,000 employees are believed to have been laid off, many of them by direct mail companies who are completely idled without postal service.

Canada's magazine publishing business has been hard-hit as well, with one of the country's most venerable monthlies, Saturday Night, being forced to cancel its August issue and many smaller magazines wondering if they will survive at all.

The strike has spawned enormous demand for private mail deliveries, tying the big courier companies in knots and drawing in amateur entrepreneurs across the country.

For instance, young Jeff Sheehan of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, earns a small commission by picking up US-bound mail from the chamber of commerce office, having his parents drive him across the border to Cala is, Me., and posting it there.

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