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Dissatisfaction guaranteed

What's wrona with the post office? What isn't?

Mark Nichols July 11 1977
Closeup

Dissatisfaction guaranteed

What's wrona with the post office? What isn't?

Mark Nichols July 11 1977

Dissatisfaction guaranteed

Closeup

The Nation

What's wrona with the post office? What isn't?

Mark Nichols

On July 19, a newspaper will be mailed from, Deloraine, Manitoba, to Morris, 120 miles away. Simultaneously, a group of pony express riders will set off on the same journey carrying a copy of the same newspaper. They will change horses every 20 miles until they get to Morris. Postmaster General JeanJacques Blais is backing the speed of his postal operation against the stamina of the quarter horses. Around Deloraine, they feel he hasn’t got a chance.

High above the main floor of Toronto’s South Central letter-sorting plant, Earl Webster, a taciturn, 57-year-old with steelgrey hair, works alone in a cool, softly lit control room surrounded by a formidable array of electronic hardware. Seated inside a U-shaped console, he stares intently at an enormous display screen and flickering, multicolored lights that blink softly along the screen’s complicated grid. Suddenly, a walkie-talkie in front of him squawks into life. Webster stands, mutters a reply and punches one of the console’s control panels; on the screen, there is a brief flurry among one cluster of lights and, with that, another bag of mail continues its journey through the computerized mysteries of south central station.

Y et despite such things as Earl W ebster’s marvelous machine, the Post Office still finds ways of distressing people such as Irene Goulboum. Mrs. Goulbourn, a Montreal grandmother, sent a parcel nearly six weeks early to make sure it would arrive in time for her granddaughter’s birthday. Its destination was Weston, Ontario, 350 miles away. Not only did the package arrive late, it had been opened and the contents pilfered. Something, obviously, is wrong.

From his aerie, Webster controls much of what goes on within the recently opened South Central MAPP (for Major Postal Plant), billed by Post Office officials as the largest and most modem letter-sorting plant in the world. Stretching over some 14 acres, employing more than 3,000 workers and equipped with 12 Vi miles of conveyor belts, South Central has the capacity for handling five million pieces of mail a day with the aid of such devices as Japanesebuilt culler-facer-cancelers that can, with considerable human assistance, sort and cancel 25,000 pieces of mail an hour, and optional character readers that automatically process certain types of mail, with almost no human help, at the rate of 30,000 letters an hour. South Central is one of three mechanized plants built at a total

cost of $140 million and one of 24 mechanized plants now on line across the country. It is all part of Ottawa’s one-billiondollar master plan, launched in the early Seventies, to cut the Post Office’s spiraling labor costs, which contributed to a $671 million deficit last year, and to speed the mails on their way quickly, cleanly and efficiently. It is all admirable in design and technologically impressive. But as Mrs. Goulbourn and thousands of others can testify, it is not working out as planned.

Perhaps never before has the long-suffering Canadian public been so angrily aware of the deficiencies in what was once a quietly reliable and inexpensive postal service. It is not just that the mails seem slower and more erratic than ever. Added to that anxiety is the almost constant threat that labor strife will halt the service altogether. Since 1968, the country has endured more than two dozen national or regional strikes, culminating in 1975’s bitter 42-day stoppage. Now, the prospect looms that another strike—over the issue of automation-may be in store for later this summer or in the fall. Leaders of the bellicose, 22,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), representing inside workers, met government officials in May for just half an hour, then broke off talks. “The Post Office is floundering like a captainless ship without sail or rudder and something must be done,” thundered CUPW president Joe Davidson.

Menaced by renewed labor turmoil and aware that the costly mechanization program lies at the heart of many of the Post Office’s problems, fed-up Canadians are complaining at an almost frenzied pitch. Businessmen moan bitterly over income lost through postal delays, while hardly a day passes without newspaper reports recounting some new postal atrocity, ranging from late mail to mangled mail or mail that simply vanishes into the system never to be seen again. Some examples of recent muddles in the mails:

•Dulcie Conrad of Halifax posted a chess set to her niece in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, last Christmas and the parcel duly arrived, empty. Both Conrad and her niece filled out Post Office tracer forms in January. They have not heard a word since. •Calvin Thompson, a Fredericton, New Brunswick, builder, wrote to Saint John, 60 miles away, for specifications so that he could bid on a government contract. The plans reached him two weeks later, by which time the tenders had closed.

•The Lowrey Organ Co. of Scarborough, Ont., finally received a $75,000 payroll check in May, nearly eight months after it had been mailed from the firm’s U.S. parent company in Chicago. Postmarks on the “Air Mail-Special Delivery” letter indicated that it had been languishing in the Toronto postal system for 236 days. •Lloyd Hicks, owner of a Toronto firm that manufactures greeting cards, recalls

mailing a customer’s order by parcel post only to have it come back smashed, in a plastic bag. “You could even see the tire marks where a truck had run over it,” says Hicks. “The Post Office refused to reimburse me.”

•Cathy Carlyle-Gordge of Winnipeg mailed a letter to her brother in Ayr, Scotland, last January. He received it four weeks later. Clearly stamped on the envelope was the story of its travels: Manila, Philippines. Postal officials offered no explanation.

•Chris and Tom Telfer gave up in despair last Christmas and placed the following message in the Peace River, BC, Record Gazette: “. . . frustrated by the frustrated postal workers (the Telfers) have decided not to send any Christmas cards this season, but take this opportunity to wish all their many friends and relatives a very Merry Christmas . . . No letters or cards, please .. .just phone.”

Postal foul-ups still form a relatively small proportion of the huge volume of mail handled by the beleaguered Post Office: a total of six billion deliveries last year. Postal officials claim that Canada’s mails are still rated the eighth cheapest in the Western world and that the Canadian Post Office is ranked third in efficiency, behind Belgium and Japan, by the International Postal Union. In a test mailing by Maclean 's during May, the Post Office performed reasonably well. Excluding week-

ends and the Victoria Day holiday, 10 letters, registered letters, postcards and parcels, mailed from Toronto to points across Canada, safely reached their destinations in an average of 3.1 days. Replies mailed by the recipients back to Toronto were slower, making the trip in an average of3.7days. Ina testmailingaround Metropolitan Toronto, most outgoing letters reached their destination in one day or even on the same day. Replies, for some reason, were slower, averaging 2.4 days; one letter took five days to make its way across town, and two others took four days.

That is not nearly good enough for the business community, which increasingly is turning to private courier services for fast, if expensive, delivery. Led by a half dozen nationwide major companies, and with scores of local regional operations nipping along behind, the private couriers are now devouring up to $90 million a year in lost Post Office revenue. The figure is likely to keep on rising. In 1972 a firm called Pink Lady Courier Service set up shop in Winnipeg, with a handful of pink-clad ladies in pink cars to deliver mail around the city. Today, the fleet of pink ladies has increased to 40.

Why can’t the Post Office get its act together? There is no easy answer and no single villain. In part, the inevitable teething problems of mechanization have been to blame. When Toronto’s South Central MAPP went into business this spring, break-

downs in the sensitive machinery, along with the switchover of workers to new jobs, plus bad weather, combined to pile up a backlog that for a time reached more than 3.5 million pieces of mail. In other cities the various ailments associated with mechanization seem to be incurable. When Calgary’s mechanized MAPP plant opened in 1974 it was proudly promoted as the continent’s largest and most modern. Yet after six weeks of operation, a survey showed that only 14% of the mail handled by the plant was going through on time, or at all. Three years later, Alex Clarke, president of the Calgary CUPW local, complains that the plant was “improperly designed” in the first place and that the automatic machinery is working at “maybe 20% efficiency. It certainly holds back the mail instead of speeding it up.”

At a more basic level, the Post Office’s problems are rooted in the hostile relations that have existed for years between the inside workers and Post Office management. Typically, when Postmaster General JeanJacques Blais went to Vancouver this spring to talk to disgruntled CUPW members at the city’s main postal station, union organizers threw up a picket line of 75 offduty workers who jeered Blais and dared him to cross over. Blais left without talking to union officials. At the outset of this summer’s negotiations, the CUPW was demanding. among other things, a 30-hour week (instead of 40 hours) a “substantial in-

crease” in pay (up from the current basic pay for an inside worker after three years of $13,087 annually) and a 10-minute break in every working hour. But the overriding issue is technological change and CUPW’S angry contention that management has never honored the basic terms of the 1975 contract—which, in Article 29, required management to give the union 120 days notice of technological change to seek to eliminate “adverse effects” brought about by mechanization. In the CUPW’S view, Article 29 should have given the union the right to negotiate the details of technological change each time some aspect of it was introduced in a new plant, a view that Ottawa firmly rejects.

Beyond the specific quarrel over mechanization lies a bleak history of labor-management relations inside the country’s post offices that goes a long way toward explaining today’s failure to communicate. When thousands of ex-servicemen and officers flocked into the Post Office following the Second World War, they took with them—and the workers were obliged to accept—a military-style relationship between boss and employee. There was never any question of challenging orders. “It was like the Dark Ages,” recalls a veteran postal worker. “We were like chattels.” That did not necessarily make the system particularly efficient. Jean-Claude Parrott, CUPW’S national vice-president, remembers as a Montreal postal worker during

the 1950s being told to dispatch a bag of mail to Quebec City even though, as he discovered, it contained mail for all parts of Canada. When he pointed that out, he was told curtly to obey orders.

Time, and Ottawa’s 1967 decision to give federal civil servants the right to collective bargaining, has largely wiped out the old military flavor, though some of the old ex-officers are still on the job. In the meantime, new problems have arisen. “I wouldn’t call it nepotism,” says Ross Tascona, president of the Winnipeg CUPW local, “but there’s a lot of buddy-buddy stuff in these (Post Office) appointments and much better people are passed up.” At the same time, complains Peter Whitaker, CUPW’S Vancouver leader, “we’re having more trouble than ever before with the new breed of management. New people are being brought in from the outside who don’t know anything about moving the mail. Our plant managers deal in numbers. Meanwhile, we have people problems to deal with.”

Most of today’s CUPW leaders joined the Post Office during the old militaristic era and as a result often seem to be still fighting the old wars. The CUPW, for example, has flatly refused to accept an olive branch extended by management in the form of its intergroup scheme—in which labor and management are supposed to gather informally to let their hair down in sessions of mutual criticism and explanation—a de-

vice that the letter carriers’ union has embraced with positive results. “We’ve been letting our hair down for years—at the negotiating table,” says Davidson, CUPW’S 62-year-old Scottish-born president. Adds Davidson, whose craggy countenance and curious fringe of white hair combed in the style of a Roman senator have become a familiar and ominous sight on the nightly news: “Anyway, if the Post Office is breaking the existing contract with impunity, what’s the point?” Davidson, who plans to step down as leader during the CUPW’S July convention, denies, as Postmaster General Blais has charged, that the union’s constitution calls for a constant adversary

stance toward management. “Mind you,” says Davidson, “I believe in an adversary stance. It’s the union’s job to police the contract.”

At times, the hard-line positions taken by the CUPW leadership appear to have run far ahead of rank-and-file sentiment. Toward the end of the tumultuous 1975 strike, says Bryce Mackasey, who was Postmaster General at the time, “it became very evident to me that the majority of the workers were satisfied with Ottawa’s offer,” and equally “obvious that the leadership didn’t want to settle.” Had the strike continued for just a few more days, says Mackasey, the workers would have begun

returning to work and the union leadership would have been effectively broken. Rather than have that happen—“because I’m not malicious”—Mackasey made a few minor concessions that enabled the leadership to save face, and the strike was over. Says Eric Kierans, one of Mackasey’s predecessors as Postmaster General, of Davidson: “He’s come here with his old world ideas of class hostility that are really out of place here.”

The CUPW is also a union plagued by wide internal diyisions that at times threaten to tear it apart. There is a dark suspicion among some postal workers outside of Quebec that the fiery, diminutive Marcel Perreault, head of the 4,500-member Montreal local, exerts a disproportionate and somewhat sinister influence on the national leadership and that, by pressing the CUPW into extreme positions unacceptable to the rank and file beyond Quebec, hopes to break the national body and set up an independent Quebec postal union. Perreault denies that: “No, not as long as Quebec is in Canada . . .’Tn neighboring Ontario, Lou Murphy, leader of the Toronto local, finds himself in the awkward position of being a moderate in charge of a lo -cal that, by all accounts, contains a substantial number of dedicated Marxists. Nobody at the CUPW’S national headquarters will even talk about Murphy, who is clearly in disfavor. As for leftist elements in the CUPW, says Davidson, “we don’t invite malcontents, radicals, Communists. It’s the Post Office and the treatment the workers receive there that has a radicalizing effect.”

Unlike the CUPW, the 18,500-member Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada (LCUC), whose previous contract also ran out on June 30, foresaw no serious problems in agreeing on a new one. “There are particular hang-ups,” said Norm Nelson, the union’s general vice-president. Like the inside workers, the letter carriers want a 30hour week and a substantial pay raise (current basic annual pay after three years: $12,816). There is no love lost between the two postal unions. “Our relations are very remote,” says Nelson. “The CUPW gets everybody into such a bloody mess with all their publicity.” And it is the letter carriers, who have not struck nationally since 1965, who bear the brunt of public wrath over late mail and CUPW inspired disruptions in the postal services. “We have guys,” says Jimmy Brown, secretary of the LCUC’S Toronto local number one, “who have been letter carriers for 30 years and are proud of it. They are hurt by complaints.”

The failures on the part of Post Office management stem from the nature of the beast itself: a top-heavy, unwieldy bureaucracy in which the lines of command are constantly shifting and managerial uncertainty is endemic. Blais, for example, is the fifth Postmaster General since 1970 and the twelfth since 1962—an average of nearly one a year. “Suppose you are in the Post Office middle management,” says

Eric Kierans, “looking above you for the feel of top management, and every time you look there is a new guy there. They never know what policy is.” A joint Post Office-Treasury Board report entitled Canada Post 75 that was leaked to the press earlier this year contained a searing indictment of Post Office management policies. The report observed that “managers at all levels of the organization com-

plained that there had been a failure to provide the Post Office with clear objectives” and added that most Post Office managers themselves “perceived departmental internal communications—by union standards, at least— to be clearly inferior.”

The cure suggested by Canada Post 75 might be to cut the Post Office loose from Ottawa’s close embrace and turn it into a

Crown corporation that would be able to function, like any other business, on a profit-and-loss basis—and without constant bureaucratic intrusions. Eric Kierans, during his stint as Postmaster General between 1968-1970, championed the idea— he told Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that “if you don’t make the Post Office a Crown corporation nothing is ever going to change”—and came closest to bringing it about. He successfully pushed the principle through cabinet, and, by the fall of 1970, a bill was ready to be tabled in parliament. At the last minute, Trudeau backed off, on the grounds that once the bill was tabled, no other legislation would have passed through the Commons during the session. Since then, the idea has been resurrected periodically, but the incumbent Postmaster General seems generally cool on the subject. Says Blais: “There would be a certain greater flexibility, but there is no way the public will stop thinking of the Post Office as a government agency.”

The Post Office in the meantime is fighting to recover lost financial ground in a variety of ways. In some parts of the country, a service called Postpak—a fast, cheap overnight trucking service—is attempting to recover parcel post business lost to private couriers. The Post Office is also trying to win more business from distributors of junk mail (or admail, as the Post Office prefers to call it) in order to make more efficient use of its new automated equipment.

What worries Jean-Jacques Blais is that in an age of electronic communications, the Post Office “is really retarded in the sense that the message we carry is written,” and “people just cannot expect the mails to act like telecommunications systems.” Yet, says Blais, a dark and youthful (36) politician from Sturgeon Falls, Ont., “every time there is a strike threat, someone puts in a new telex or a new computer and we lose volumes. Going through (this summer’s) negotiating period is going to be murder in terms of volumes.” Adds Blais: “It all depends on labor. I’m not putting all the blame on the unions, but we are facing stiff competition. We are no longer the best in the age of speed-of-light communications.”

Is there hope for the Post Office? In the long term, perhaps. Bryce Mackasey, for one. is convinced that the Canadian postal system “will be the best in the world eventually.” But that day may be some time coming. When the kinks of automation are finally ironed out and the system is fully established across the country, Blais hopes to see manual mail handling dwindle to as little as 20% to 25% (from about 60% now). With that prospect in view, labor will undoubtedly continue to fight a rearguard action. In the meantime, those who use the mails will just have to learn to live with an imperfect, and often disrupted service.^