Jean-Claude Parrot, My Union, My Life: Jean-Claude Parrot and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
EVEN CANADIANS who know little of this country's history of organized labour may recognize the name of Jean-Claude Parrot. Long-time leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers [CUPW], Parrot's actions in the 1978 national strike led to his conviction and subsequent imprisonment for criminal conspiracy. Parrot was always something of an enigma. People often remarked that his public persona as union firebrand contrasted with his shy, rather awkward, private demeanour. This muted and understated tone is carried throughout the book. If braggadocio is called for, there are other union biographies available from Bob White to Jack Munro.
To some, Parrot embodied all that was wrong with the posties; they were militant, even dogmatic, and not about to back down from a fight. The frequency of national postal strikes made this point clear to all Canadians. For others, CUPW under Parrot's direction took a principled stand on issues ranging from collective bargaining, technological change, and health/ safety protections, to gender equality. If traditional industrial unions questioned their public sector counterparts' lack of resilience, these prejudices were dispelled by CUPW's willingness to take the fight to the employer. In the long run all Canadian workers were better off for it.
It's clear that Jean-Claude Parrot lived in interesting times. Starting in 1954 as a sorting clerk, he later became a union steward and was a minor player in the 1965 wildcat that changed the face of public sector unionism. By 1968, Parrot was a full-time union official, becoming CUPW's chief negotiator in 1975, and national president by 1977--a position he retained until his retirement in 1992. Remembering the 1970s and 1980s were mean decades of wage cutbacks, high inflation, and the "permanent exceptionalism" of anti-labour legislation, it's important to acknowledge the central role of Canadian postal workers in the campaigns to withstand these government incursions. Our labour history has duly celebrated the "good fight" of the 1930s-1940s but paid little critical attention to the 1960s-1970s. Parrot' s book goes some way to redress this imbalance.
One might expect an autobiography of one of Canada's most celebrated labour leaders to offer juicy reading, with an insider's account of the tumultuous years of CUPW's formation and frequent tilts against the federal government, and it's here in good measure, but first one must wade through the requisite union chronology. The tedious lists of names, conventions, inter-office memos, resolutions, and press conferences that typically bulk out these sorts of memoirs read like end credits to some feature-length film--it's all there if you really must know. Thankfully this gives way to a two-chapter coda where Parrot reflects on the broader issues CUPW faced. Parrot is circumspect with his vitriol but when unleashed it's a telling indictment of Canadian organized labour in the 1970s and 1980s. In no uncertain terms the Canadian Labour Congress [CLC] comes in for much of this criticism. The CLC under the direction of Joe Morris and Dennis McDermott is depicted as a spineless entity more concerned with currying favour with politicians than supporting the aspirations of rank-and-file militants. Accused of creating a "bad image" for the labour movement, CUPW could expect little substantive support from the CLC. No surprise that the New Democratic Party shied away from malcontent posties lest some of this radical stuffprove contagious.
The book's demolition of McDermott's reputation is particularly efficient as CLC documents are cited at length to illustrate just how duplicitous was the Congress's position on wage and price controls, automation, and back-to-work legislation. This was especially true of the 1978 confrontation with the Liberal government that so defined the future of both Parrot and his union. CUPW demanded class action while the CLC settled for class collaboration. Parrot doesn't state explicitly whether this repugnant experience of the bad old Congress eventually pushed him to assume a CLC vice-presidency in 1992 but he informs us things did improve gradually. Nevertheless, visitors to CLC headquarters in Ottawa can still see framed portraits of Messieurs Morris and McDermott on the walls; history is so untidy that way.
Curiously for a Quebecois labour activist who came of age during the 1960s, Parrot's account downplays the struggles within the province. We learn little of the bitter rivalry between the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux and the Quebec Federation of Labour, although QFL leader Louis Laberge garners praise for his support of postal workers. Parrot describes his efforts to become fluently bilingual and ensure that francophone members were fairly represented in CUPW activities. Given that the 1965 wildcat had its impetus at Montreal's downtown sorting facility, in no small part due to the insensitivity of the largely English-speaking post office management towards the francophone employees, it would be valuable to have a fuller description of this time. "Les gars de Lapalme," who staged a notable 1970 strike against the postal system and gained further notoriety when cited as examples of injustice in the FLQ Manifesto, are entirely absent from Parrot's story. Similarly, the events of the 1972 Common Front strikes that paralyzed Quebec pass by with only perfunctory mention. The book is thus tightly constrained to serve as the history of Jean-Claude Parrot and his years with the CUPW.
The life of a union executive has its benefits and liabilities. Parrot notes that his career, while satisfying, frequently demanded 60-hour weeks and that this took a predictable toll on his family life. While unstinting in his praise for wife Louisette and his two daughters, Parrot does recount how his 1971 election to national chief steward necessitated a summary move from Montreal to Ottawa, something his family only learned from a telephone call after the fact. Any resulting domestic friction was resolved and Parrot's 1979-1980 incarceration for defying back-to-work legislation was made bearable by his family's support.
The main focus of Parrot's memoir is of course CUPW's clashes with the federal government and in particular what became Canada Post. The initial concern was the ruthless top-down managerial style that pervaded mail sortation and distribution facilities. The post office was run like a quasi-military operation and, in Parrot's words, subject to all forms of "paternalism, favouritism, nepotism, and discrimination." But the worst was yet to come as the implementation of automated mail sorting came on stream by the early 1970s. CUPW's 1974 "boycott the postal code" campaign was one response to wholesale technological change introduced without fair union consultation. The on-again, off-again rivalry with the Letter Carriers Union of Canada [LCUC] representing the outside postal delivery workers complicated matters until the two unions were amalgamated in 1989 under CUPW.
The high-handed governmental approach continued straight through the 1970s and 1980s as CUPW entered repeated rounds of contract negations and the seemingly inevitable strike actions. Prior to the 1981 decision to make postal operations a crown corporation, employees did not fall under the terms of the Canada Labour Code. Parrot explains the ridiculously extended process by which his union was required to negotiate labour contracts. It wasn't by any measure fair collective bargaining and all postal workers frequently suffered as a result. The ruthless actions of both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments to curtail union rights are amply detailed. Of particular note was the decision to privatize postal outlets in 1986. The Corporation eventually prevailed but at a high cost in both monetary and human terms. Talk about profligacy, the administration of Canada Post should long ago have been subjected to its own Gomery-style inquiry. In the end, Jean-Claude Parrot presided over the transformation of the postal workers from a weak group of workers into a powerful force for organized labour. CUPW certainly didn't win all of its battles but it did ensure that a crucial government service took the needs of the workers, and the public, into account. It's a story worth the telling.
Peter S. McInnis
St. Francis Xavier University
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|Author:||McInnis, Peter S.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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