A Militant Canadian Union & its Leader

by Judy Koch / July 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

A very important book recently launched at public meetings across Canada is the autobiography of Jean Claude Parrot, called “My Union. My Life.” (Fernwood Publishing, Halifax, 2005, 311 pages). It is easy to understand, clearly explains complicated topics, and is an accurate chronicle of the development of what was likely the most militant and democratic union in
the Canadian state in the last 40 years of the 20th century.

This book is essential reading for labour and socialist activists who want to understand how this came to be, and the man most linked with that legacy.
Jean Claude started working as a clerk in the Montreal post office on July 24, 1954, when he turned 18. The post office was implementing the 40-hour week; 1875 new workers were needed, so he was hired.

In 1961 he went to his first union meeting, held under the auspices of the Canadian Postal Employees’ Association (CPEA). For the next five years he never missed a single meeting. He became a shop steward, a member of various committees, and later an assistant secretary-treasurer.

At that time wages in the post office were failing to keep pace with those of other workers. There was a pay freeze in 1959. In 1960 postal workers got a pay increase, with a review to take place every two years. In 1962 the Pay Research Bureau of the federal civil service recommended a pay increase. The government rejected this and a pay freeze was imposed. In 1963 an
increase of $360 a year was approved.

According to Parrot, the post office in those days was a place characterized by “paternalism, favouritism, nepotism, discrimination and a top-down military
approach.” In addition, there was rampant sexism. Ninety-seven percent of the full-time workers were men, and 97 percent of the part-time workers were
women.

The ninth national convention of the CPEA was held in Toronto, Sept. 22-24, 1965. For the first time, the convention supported free collective bargaining and the right to strike. It changed the name of the organization to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

Jean Claude Parrot was the president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers from 1977 to 1992 after working his way up through the ranks. This union represented inside postal workers at the start, and eventually outside workers as well.

The government of Canada ordered the four unions operating in Canada Post to merge into one. Voluntary merger talks between the two major unions, the Letter Carriers Union of Canada and CUPW, failed, so a
certification vote of all postal employees took place in 1987—with the winning union to take all. The majority of voting members decided that CUPW should be the new union.

Earlier, on July 14, 1968, J.C. Parrot had become the first vice president of the Montreal CUPW local. There was a strike in 1968, which resulted in rights and benefits that could no longer be taken away at the whim of management or the federal government. There were better wages and working conditions, and the employer now had to consult the union on many issues that had previously been decided by management alone. A grievance procedure was put in place.

There’s an old saying: you don’t have a right unless you use it, even when those in power try to take it away. Postal workers went on strike in the fall of
1978, and briefly defied federal strike-breaking legislation, the infamous Postal Services Continuation Act, Bill C-8. J.C. Parrot went to jail for two
months in early 1979 for defying the law.

But the courageous actions of the union and its militant leadership, with no support from Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) President Dennis McDermott, helped effectively to establish the right to strike for postal workers and many other public-sector workers all across the country.

In 1980, CUPW fought for paid maternity leave and won 17 weeks. This issue was being debated in Parliament, so the union considered it timely to include it in the contract. It is also important to note that Jean Claude Parrot supported Quebec’s right to national self-determination and French language rights.

He left CUPW in 1992 because he didn’t like the fact that CUPW was being identified more and more specifically with him. He wanted to see new activists and leaders develop. He ran for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Executive to challenge the business unionist policies and practices of the labour central’s leadership.

Parrot writes that he respected Bob White, former president of the Canadian Auto Workers and who was CLC president then, and wanted to be part of White’s team. But Parrot ran as the candidate of the reform group called the Action Caucus. To win he had to break the establishment slate at the CLC convention, which he did with a stirring, upset election victory. He became
CLC executive vice president.

Though not a revolutionary socialist, J.C. Parrot is an honest, militant, and democratic unionist. He represents a refreshing alternative to the labour
bureaucrats who run most unions, and who typically operate mostly behind closed doors, give concessions to management, and routinely curtail union democracy. Jean Claude Parrot’s “My Union. My Life.” should be in every union library and on every militant’s bookshelf.

The book shows the connection between rank-and-file militant organization, class-struggle policies and practices, and good union leaders who emerge from the ranks when members are willing and able to fight for their rights.