The 1981 CUPW Strike and the Fight for Parental Rights

By: Laurel Broens

Laurel Broens

Contributing Historian

Laurel is a graduate of the Master of Library and Information Studies program from the University of Alberta and holds a BA in Economics and a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary. She has worked in the information management field for over a decade in a career spanning public and academic libraries and government and legal records management. Laurel is a proud member of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and is the current chair of AUPE Local 002, Chapter 002 which represents more than 4700 Government of Alberta administrative and program services workers in the Edmonton area. In her spare time, Laurel runs the popular labour history Twitter account @labour_girl.

Note on Terminology

The terms “maternity leave” and “women” are used in this article and reflect the historical context of language used at the time of the 1981 CUPW strike by media, the CUPW, and in legislation. Today, using less explicitly gendered terms such as “parental leave” and “parents” is more appropriate and inclusive of all people who can get pregnant and/or have children. 

On Tuesday, June 30, 1981, some 23,000 postal workers belonging to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) walked out on strike after it became clear that the federal Treasury Board was not willing to negotiate on the union’s key demand for 17 weeks of paid maternity leave. During the subsequent 42-day strike, the workers faced harsh opposition from their employer, the media, and members of the public. However, they refused to back down. By disseminating a powerful education campaign and building alliances within the women’s movement, not only would CUPW go on to gain paid maternity leave for their members; their success set a precedent that would force the federal government’s hand to grant paid maternity leave benefits for all Canadian families.

“Behind the plunge: ‘The value of our dollar is like a barometer that measures the faith the rest of the world has in our economy; or more accurately; the management of our economy.'” Photo credit: Jim Russel, July 3, 1981, Toronto Star. Image courtesy of Digital Archive Ontario, Toronto Public Library.

CUPW, which represented postal clerks, and the Letter Carriers Union of Canada (LCUC) were formed out of the Canadian Postal Employees Association (CPEA) following a series of wildcat strikes in 1965. At the time, this was Canada’s largest illegal strike involving government employees (McMaster, 2018). The 1965 strike strongly influenced the Canadian government’s 1967 decision to institutionalize collective bargaining for public servants. Since its formation, CUPW had gained a reputation as a progressive, yet militant, union concerned with social issues beyond wages and benefits (White, 1990, p.162.). Throughout the 1970s, CUPW’s relationship with the government deteriorated to the point that then-president Jean-Claude Parrot was jailed for defying a back-to-work order on the second day of a 1978 strike (Bjorge and Luciuk, 2018 & List, 1981). Parrot remained CUPW president until 1992 and was a key player in the 1981 strike (Parrot, 2005, p.224).

The first form of leave for new mothers in Canada was introduced in British Columbia in 1921, in the Maternity Protection Act. While it did not offer paid leave, the act gave women a guaranteed leave of absence and made it unlawful for employers to dismiss them during this time. When a woman returned to work, she was granted two 30-minute breaks each shift to nurse her child. In 1966, BC updated provincial legislation to include a period of paid leave. Five years later, in 1971, the federal government followed BC’s lead with changes to Canada’s Unemployment Insurance Act, which granted mothers up to 15 weeks’ worth of benefits if they had 20 weeks of insurable earnings before going on leave (“Canadian Postal Workers”, 2018). Prior to that, women were expected to quit their jobs or return to work quickly after giving birth. While an important first step, these changes were highly criticized, due to strict eligibility criteria and low premiums. For example, teachers were not eligible to receive benefits during the summer (White, p.150).

In 1973, the federal government became a signatory of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and promised to introduce paid maternity leave. However, the legislation governing maternity leave in Canada remained relatively unchanged leading up to 1981 (Nichols, 2012, p.60). Quebec’s Common Front, a union representing government, education, and health workers, won a decisive victory in 1979, becoming the first public sector union in Canada to successfully negotiate for 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, 10 weeks of adoption leave, and five days of paternity leave. This agreement covered 20% of female workers in Quebec (White, p.158). In 1980, government translators became the first federal workers to bring maternity leave to the bargaining table. However, they ended up dropping the demand during negotiations (Parrot, p.144).

“A July 11, 1981 demonstration in Edmonton, Alberta. CUPW/AUPW”. Image courtesy of Revisiting the 1981 CUPW Strike for Maternity Leave, Active History.

Prior to 1981, the only maternity leave available to postal workers was 15 weeks of unemployment insurance (UI) at 60% of their salary and six months of unpaid leave from their employer. Even then, UI was available only to workers with 20 weeks of insurable employment who had worked at least 10 weeks between the 30th and 50th weeks prior to their due date. During the unpaid leave, women did not accumulate sick or vacation time. Men were granted only one paid day off for the birth or adoption of a child (White, p.152). From CUPW’s 1980 program of demands:

“Female postal workers are financially penalized during pregnancy while male postal workers are not permitted sufficient leave to fulfill the family responsibilities which surround child birth. The provision for adoption leave does not even cover the time that is required to be taken at pre-adoption interviews.”

Canadian Union of Postal Workers

In their 1980 collective agreement, postal workers had pushed for and won a shorter workweek without a loss in pay to allow members to share in efficiencies created by the introduction of new technology. However, some in government were not happy with this, in particular the president of the Treasury Board, Don Johnston (Parrot, p.143). When negotiations between the Treasury Board and CUPW first opened in spring 1981, the union was determined to continue striving for improvements to working conditions and benefits, while the Treasury Board was reluctant to give in to further concessions. CUPW proposed 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave for workers, with the employer required to pay full wages for the two-week waiting period before an employee received UI, a top-up to the worker’s pay for 15 weeks, and full wages for an additional three weeks. They also proposed five days of paid leave for paternity and adoptions.

Maternity leave was not the only item on the table. CUPW was also focused on seeking improvements to workplace health and safety, including the right to refuse unsafe work, reduced weight-lifting limits, and environmental studies on the impact of workplace noise. They sought an 88-cent-per-hour wage increase, increased vacation and holiday leave, improvements to job security and disciplinary procedures, and limits on using closed-circuit cameras in the workplace (White, p.150). Many of the same demands made by CUPW had been previously made and settled without a strike by LCUC in March 1980 (Whittingham, 1981).

By January 1981, it was clear that little progress was being made. CUPW requested a conciliation board to mediate the dispute, and their request was granted. The board, led by chairman Pierre Jasmin, released their final report in June, recommending 17 weeks of fully paid maternity leave followed by nine weeks of unpaid leave and two days of paid leave for paternity and adoption. “[T]he board considers that maternity leave must no longer be a privilege but a legitimate right, an integral part of the process of achieving full equality for all employees” (White, p.153). They also made a number of health-and-safety recommendations, including the creation of joint worksite health-and-safety committees and the right to refuse dangerous work. However, it quickly became clear that Don Johnston and the Treasury Board were not going to accept the conciliation board’s recommendations. On Friday, June 26, the union walked out of negotiations, refusing to return if the recommendations would not be accepted. Three days later, the Treasury Board responded with a contract offer that did not contain any meaningful changes on their position, other than an offer to form a task force on maternity leave. The union responded with a “thank you for nothing” note and proceeded to hold a strike vote, which showed that 84% of the 23,000 members were in favour of striking (List).

The strike officially began at midnight on June 30, 1981, and CUPW lost no time disseminating a well-planned education campaign. Prior to the strike, the union had prepared seven 12-page background papers outlining their key demands for parental rights, health and safety, accidents and injuries, noise, reduced work time, night work, and justice, equality, and dignity. The papers contained statistics and information about other collective agreements that already provided similar benefits. These papers had previously been presented to the conciliation board and continued to be distributed to union activists and shop stewards throughout the strike (Parrot, p.143). One particularly influential statistic on maternity leave was its relatively low cost. Only approximately 1% of employees were expected to take maternity leave each year, which amounted to 239 women in 1980 (Galt, 1981). The total cost amounted to 1.9 cents per hour for each hour worked, or 0.25% of the total payroll, prompting the press to begin calling this the “two-cent strike.” In contrast, a full-time worker taking 20 weeks of maternity leave could lose more than $4,500 in salary (White, p.152). The union argued:

“The conditions under which most women are permitted maternity leave is another example of the penalties that women workers experience as the result of their sex … Surely, if women are to have equal rights in the work force, they must not be financially penalized because they are the ones in our society who bear children. The time has come for fully paid maternity leave.”

Canadian Union of Postal Workers

Regardless of CUPW’s arguments, the Treasury Board continued to reject their demand for maternity leave. While the two-cent-per-hour cost was minimal in the face of other demands they had already agreed to, the federal government wanted to avoid setting a precedent, fearing that the demand for maternity leave would spread to the 300,000 other civil servants and to private industry (Whittingham, 1981). When asked for his thoughts on this, Parrot responded, “What’s wrong with that?” (Nichols, p.67). The government was also reluctant to institute back-to-work legislation, with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau telling the media the government had a “clear position that we have no intention to settle this strike by legislation.” They feared that a back-to-work law similar to the one that saw Parrot jailed in a 1978 CUPW strike would lead to increased instability and disruption (Darrah, 2021). Postmaster General André Ouellet told the media, “There are more illegal strikes in Canada than legal strikes … to take away the right to strike from employees does not necessarily avoid strikes” (Darrah).

“All smiles: With the end of their strike possibly just a week away; postal workers picketing the Eastern Ave. sorting plant are in a lighthearted mood as they pass the time playing euchre today. Union leaders were expected later today to announce the date for the ratification vote.” Photo credit: Boris Spremo, August 7, 1981, Toronto Star. Image courtesy of Digital Archive Ontario, Toronto Public Library.

In addition to opposition from the federal government, CUPW faced opposition from business groups and in the media. A spokesman for the Canadian Direct Mail Association estimated the strike was costing up to $9 million a day in lost business and had contributed to more than 10,000 layoffs across Canada (Galt, 1981). Others, including John Bulloch, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, criticized the government’s position against back-to-work legislation and called for a ban on strikes by postal workers. Bulloch went on to say, “Paid maternity leave is a totally ridiculous kind of demand to expect employers to pay. Those who want to have babies should pay for them” (Nesbitt, 2022). CUPW also faced internal opposition. Some men and older women felt they would not benefit from maternity leave provisions, while others felt they were important but not worth striking for (White, 1990, p.160). In Ontario, around 50 CUPW members in the communities of Pembroke and Petawawa voted independently to defy the strike and continued working throughout it (List, 1981).

CUPW, expecting the opposition, had proactively reached out to hundreds of women’s organizations across Canada in the weeks leading up to the strike. Understanding the mutual benefits that could be achieved by allying with the union, many organizations responded by joining picket lines, holding rallies and press conferences, writing letters and editorials, and phoning in to radio talk shows to discuss the importance of paid maternity leave. For example, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) produced a leaflet encouraging Canadians to support the strike and held press conferences in Halifax and Toronto. On the other side of the country, the Vancouver-based group Bread and Roses held a solidarity march (“With Help from Women’s Movement,” 2016). Both CUPW and the women’s organizations “understood the importance of paid maternity leave for all of Canadian society. Both groups were implicated in a large process of social change for Canadian women and families and both knew they were stronger together than apart in their fight to bring it about” (Nichols, 2012, p.66).

After 42 days on strike, when it was clear that public opinion had turned significantly in CUPW’s favour, the Treasury Board conceded to their demands and agreed to include 17 weeks of paid maternity leave at 93% of full wages in the collective agreement (Canadian Union of Postal Workers, 1980). The postal workers returned to work on August 12, 1981, as the first national union to win this benefit from the federal government (“With Help from Women’s Movement,” 2016). In addition to paid maternity leave, the final 1981 agreement also included a 7.5% wage increase, additional sick leave and vacation time, improvements to health-and-safety protections, a ban on additional closed-circuit cameras in the workplace, and protections regarding disciplinary actions (Parrot, 2005, p.146).However, the one day workers received for paternity or adoption leave was not increased (White, 1990, p.156).

As the federal government had feared, CUPW’s agreement set a precedent, and other unions followed their lead, demanding paid maternity leave in their collective agreements. In 1982, federal clerks and Bell telephone workers both successfully negotiated for paid maternity leave (Canadian Labour Congress, 2018). In 1985, the federal government led by Brian Mulroney updated the Canada Labour Code to include 24 weeks of parental leave. In 1990, further updates to the Unemployment Insurance Act added an additional 10 weeks of benefits, and in 2001, the benefit period was doubled to 50 weeks (“With Help from Women’s Movement”, 2016).

Through a combination of resilience, a powerful education campaign, and alliances with the women’s movement, CUPW won a decisive victory after their 42-day strike. Not only did they win paid maternity leave for their fellow members; their success set a standard for other public-sector union negotiations, and within four years, paid parental leave benefits had been extended to all Canadian families. “When postal workers won paid maternity leave, they won much more. Not only did they raise the floor from coast to coast, but new activists were born and the feminist movement scored a major victory” (Darrah, 2021).


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