THE NATIONAL SCENE

Can Go-Go Eric Kierans Rescue The Mails?

WALTER STEWART August 1 1970
THE NATIONAL SCENE

Can Go-Go Eric Kierans Rescue The Mails?

WALTER STEWART August 1 1970

Can Go-Go Eric Kierans Rescue The Mails?

WALTER STEWART

CANADA’S POSTAL SERVICE is in trouble. Slow mail, lost letters, labor unrest, sinking morale and rising deficits have become almost routine. Canadians are paying more for postage, and getting less; they are complaining more, to less effect, and the immediate future looks even bleaker than the past or present. Not long ago, the management firm of Kates, Peat, Marwick and Company undertook a 15-month study of the Post Office— the last in a long string of such studies since 1960 — and predicted that, unless drastic changes are made soon, Canadians will be paying 12 cents to mail a first-class letter by the end of this decade, or covering a postal deficit of $500 million a year, for worse service than we get today. The study took 171 pages plus charts and graphs to say what any mail-user could have blurted out at once: that the old image of the faithful Postie pushing through snowdrifts to complete his round on time is as dated as the Edsel. Today’s letter carrier is a militant unionist who is damned if he’ll do one more jot of work than the contract calls for, and doesn’t mind filling his off-hours swapping horror stories about letters lost or strayed.

Like the one about the Toronto man who decided to take his new bride to a hotel over the Christmas holidays, and learned by chance that his first, divorced wife and their daughter were planning to be there, too. He wrote at once to head them off but the letter never arrived, and the quartet spent Christmas dodging each other around the hotel’s potted palms.

Or the one about the Ottawa bibliophile who had ordered several hundred dollars’ worth of antique books from England, which never arrived. He asked the Post Office to trace them, and his postman was contacted. Certainly he remembered the books, and he remembered delivering them, too. He had put them all in that convenient little box right beside the man’s apartment door. The “box,” of

And in the box I dropped it; A little postman picked it up . .. And the damn thing hasn’t been seen since

course, was the incinerator chute.

Or the one about the reenactment last April of the early mail run from Churchill, Manitoba, to Chesterfield Inlet, Northwest Territories, which employed relays of dog teams, as in the slow old days. The dogs were hauling special commemorative envelopes, which were to be distributed according to instructions sent to the Chesterfield Inlet postmaster by modern mail; but, when the huskies panted into town after a 14-day run, the instructions, posted in the regular way shortly before the dogs left Churchill, still hadn’t arrived.

Well, what in blazes is going on at the Post Office? Has Postmaster General Eric Kierans, by bungling and bumptiousness, destroyed a modern and efficient service? Or was the service already so bad that even Kierans, a

man of awesome efficiency, can’t set it straight?

That last question is the key one, and the answer appears to be: Yes. Kierans’ sometimes heavy-handed approach to the postal unions has not eased his difficulties, and his zeal to reduce the department’s chronic deficits — he slashed nearly $40 million off Post Office losses last year, bringing them to $49.9 million, compared with $88.2 million in 1968-69 — have upset both mail users and postal employees. But the problems were there long before Kierans came on the scene. Seven other postmasters general who have struggled through the same office since 1962 were no more able to cope. “The trouble with Kierans,” one department officer said, “is that he is trying to do something, instead of just sinking in the morass like his predecessors. No wonder he’s catching hell.”

The difficulty lies not in the man, but in the system, or as the management firm so ponderously noted : “The conclusion cannot be avoided that governments in the past have evaded their responsibility toward the Post Office; actions taken a decade ago or less . . . could have avoided most of the problems the Post Office faces today.”

The job of the postmaster general is to shift about five billion pieces of mail around the country every year — the figure increases by about 50% every decade — and to move it quickly, cheaply and efficiently. To do this, he has a disgruntled, underpaid work force (one small example: Donald Rigby, the rural route contractor referred to in the accompanying story, gets $2,500 a year, out of which he must run a car 26 miles a day, six days a week, before drawing a cent for himself), ancient equipment, outdated buildings, and a long history of bad management practices, hostile labor and patronage. (Patronage has been lessened, but not licked in the Post Office; postmasters are no longer fired in salvoes when the government changes hands, but MPs still have a powerful say in who gets the trucking contracts, and they still use that say to help their friends.)

THE MAILS continued

There is surprisingly little the Postmaster General can do, in present circumstances, to set right this creaky machine. He cannot meet the demands of the unions, since their wages and working conditions are set by the Treasury Board (and since that body is determined to hold the line on wages, the unions have to mount picket lines before negotiations even begin); he cannot hire his own people, since that is done through the Public Service Commission; he cannot move quickly to automate handling techniques (the average letter is handled 64 times under present systems) because the unions will object, and he cannot raise postage rates to cover costs without going to Parliament where — as he has recently learned — everybody objects. He doesn't even control the buildings his staff works in, because they come under the jurisdiction of Public Works. Kierans complained: “We don't build when we have to, we build when we have the money." In short, he is required to provide a service with little or no

control over the volume of production, the price, the wages and working conditions of his employees, or even the physical facilities they are required to use. The wonder is not that the postal service works badly, but that it works at all.

Almost 70% of the cost of running the Post Office is made up in wages, whose rise is as inevitable as the sun's, and the Postmaster must meet that just demand, and the challenge of an ever-increasing work load, with a staff that is, in large measure, old, undereducated and unresponsive to change. Of all the management employees in the department, 55% are over 50—compared to 13% under 40 — and only 16% have a university education. Nearly all are survivors of decades of life in a stultifying bureaucracy where, for instance, the postmaster of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, must ask Ottawa for permission to spend more than $10 on a first-aid kit, or $50 on furniture repairs. Below this management layer is a work force that is hostile because of what happened in years gone by.

“They have a lot to answer for,” one middle-level postal worker told me. “I can remember days when I

came home at night after standing 14 hours at a sorting table, with blood in my shoes. I can remember year after year of never seeing my kids on Christmas Day because we had to work, and we worked so hard that we just went home and flopped into bed. I can remember working nights and weekends, and not for overtime, either, just one hour off for every extra hour worked — at the boss’s convenience. You don’t forget things like that.”

Some time ago, the Post Office compiled a work-load measurement for every mail walk in Canada; it took into account the number of steps to every doorway, the number of stairs and hills in every walk, even the kind of letter slot on every house in the land. Each of these factors was given a time value (.24 minutes to walk 26 paces on level ground, .09 minutes to open a door, .13 minutes to put a letter in an apartment mailbox. and so on), and from these values a new system of equal-duration walks was fashioned. The postal union was suspicious of the new system, so union officials were taken on a tour of 52 sample routes — chosen by the union — to show them that it did. in fact,

THIS iswhat you hire for the price of a 6-cent sta m p

Mailing a letter is easy; delivering it is not quite so simple, as you can see by following the track of a note I sent recently from New Brunswick to a friend in Ottawa. For my six-cent stamp, I enlisted the services of one car, two planes, five trucks, four post offices and more than a score of civil servants and private contractors, who sped my message nearly 800 miles in just over two days, despite one delay of nearly 24 hours.

MONDAY

9:40 A.M. (ADT) Letter addressed to Mrs. J. Miller, 195 Martin Avenue, Ottawa 7, is posted in the rural-route mailbox of Ted Nesbitt, outside the town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. 10:20 A.M. Rural-route contractor Donald Rigby collects letter.

10:58 A.M. Rigby arrives at St. Andrews post office.

11:23 A.M. Stamp is canceled, letter sorted into Saint John air bag, bundled with other first-class mail for Ottawa. 5:13 P.M. Highway contractor who serves the area arrives, picks up mail for Saint John.

7:52 P.M. Truck arrives Saint John post office, mail is unloaded and sorting begins.

7:59 P.M. Ottawa air bundle is thrown into bag marked Flight 305 — Ottawa. 8:20 P.M. Ottawa air bag is sealed, prepared for shipment.

8:40 P.M. City contractor picks up mail for airport.

9:05 P.M. Contractor delivers Ottawa bag to Air Canada baggage.

10:35 P.M. Flight 305 leaves Saint John for Montreal.

11:25 P.M. (EDT) Flight 305 arrives Montreal, Ottawa air bag is transferred to Flight 515 for Ottawa.

work. At the end of the tour, a union spokesman told Bernard Lockman, who helped design the system, “I see it, but I don’t believe it. There’s got to be a catch in it somewhere.” Lockman asked: "How the hell can we work together when we feel like that?”

Certainly zeal is not the most obvious trait of postal employees. The department has productivity standards, modest enough to have been accepted by the postal unions, and the average performance in the 14 districts across Canada ranges between 54% and 89% of these standards.

Kicrans says he has an answer to all these problems, the same answer turned up by the recent study and repeated in the recent Post Office White Paper: turn the mail service over to a crown corporation. This corporation would be freed of binding bureaucracy, able to control its own financing, run its own labor policy and, with the help of a postal-rates commission, set its own prices. If Toronto needed a $75-million bulk-handling facility — as it has for years — the Post Office would not have to wait until the government had decided to call off austerity or run out of other priorities in order to get it built. The project

would be financed when it was needed, by a government-backed loan that would be repaid out of income; it would never appear in the federal budget. The crown corporation would pay its own way.

But why should the Post Office pay its own way? “Because 80% of our business is commercial,” said Kierans, “and with every deficit in the Post Office you’re subsidizing business. Why should the guy who mails one letter a week — and that’s the average per family in Canada — pick up the tab for what is basically a commercial proposition? If we have money to spare, let’s spend it on health, or education, or welfare, and not on buying stamps for firms that can afford their own.”

Efficiency is to be the watchword for the new crown corporation, Kierans contends, but there may be an element of wishfulness in his bold reform plan. Does he mean efficient like those other crown corporations, the CBC or the Company of Young Canadians? “God, no,” said Kierans. He admitted that just making a government department into a corporation won’t make it efficient: “The whole thing has to be restructured."

Nor is it easy to see how the transformation would improve labor relations; the unions would be able to bargain more directly with management, but they would be removed from the shelter of civil service security, and they are already edgy about the increased mechanization Kierans says is coming whether he gets his crown corporation or not. Finally, the crown company would not bring the price of postage down; a major reason for the change would be to allow the Post Office to adjust its rates more quickly to meet increased costs.

But corporation status would do two things that badly need doing; it would give the Post Office the flexibility it must have to meet its ever-increasing work load, and it would break the pattern of patronage, sloth and hostility that threatens to strangle the service today. The new company would probably not deliver a letter from Toronto to Vancouver any faster than it moves now; indeed, it might not move as fast. What it would do, if Kierans is right, is to guarantee that the letter would arrive in Vancouver when the Post Office said it would.

And that, as many mail-users will testify, would be something. %

TUESDAY

1:05 A.M. Flight 515 leaves Montreal. 1:30 A.M. Flight 515 arrives Ottawa, is met by city mail contractor.

1:50 A.M. Contractor leaves airport for Ottawa post office.

2:20 A.M. Contractor arrives post office; bags are opened, dumped.

2:38 A.M. First-class package from Saint John arrives on sorting floor.

6:00 A.M. By now my letter should have been sorted and on its way to Vanier sub-post office, but due to a backlog on the sorting table it isn’t. 10:12 A.M. My letter is sorted into Ottawa 7 slot.

11:51 A.M. Letter re-sorted from Ottawa 7 slot into slot for Walk 728 — postal carrier J. P. Burnup’s route. Because of the earlier delay, it stays there all day.

WEDNESDAY

5:30 A.M. Mail for Walk 728 is put in marked pouch, moved to loading platform for Vanier sub-post office truck.

6:00 A.M. Contractor collects Vanier mail.

6:20 A.M. Contractor arrives Vanier post office, mall is distributed to carriers’ sorting racks.

6:30 A.M. Postman Burnup arrives,

begins sorting mail by street and number in order for his walk.

8:20 A.M. Burnup finishes sorting, takes mail for part of his route with him: rest — including my letter — is put out for delivery by truck to corner boxes along his route. Burnup leaves for his walk by bus.

8:42 A.M. Contractor leaves Vanier post office with mail for corner boxes.

10:16 A.M. Burnup arrives corner Blasdell and Claremont Streets, picks up bundled mail including my letter. 10:48 A.M. Katie Miller gets my letter.

It says: "Boo!”

Time elapsed: 49 hours, 8 minutes.