Canada

Dead letter days

Pressure mounted to end the first postal strike in six years

BARRY CAME December 1 1997
Canada

Dead letter days

Pressure mounted to end the first postal strike in six years

BARRY CAME December 1 1997

Dead letter days

Pressure mounted to end the first postal strike in six years

BARRY CAME

BRIAN BERGMAN

DALE EISLER

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

Canada

In Canada Post’s tortuous hierarchy, Patricia Sinclair occupies one of the lower rungs. The 45-year-old Toronto woman is what is known as a “fill-in”: a part-time worker, someone who steps in to replace absent postal employees who have managed to climb a little higher up the corporation’s ladder. As a single mother with three children, she is grateful for the job. It guarantees her at least four hours of work a day at $17.41 an hour, complete with health benefits, vacation pay, even a partial pension plan. On most weeks, she also manages to put in 40 hours, sorting, coding and handling the mail at the post office’s sprawling letter-processing facility in Toronto’s east end.

Trouble is, Sinclair has been working roughly the same number of hours every week at the same plant in the same “part-time” job for 17 years, a situation she finds “kind of silly.” She adds:

“They obviously need the people—why don’t they give us some peace of mind and make at least some of these positions permanent?”

There are no easy answers to that question. But it is central to the debate that finally provoked the country’s long-feared postal strike last week, shutting down mail service from coast to coast on Thursday, just before the Christmas season. And the issue was likely to persist no matter what the outcome of the bogged-down negotiations between Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers over a new contract. For Patricia Sinclair’s lot is shared by 17,000 of her co-workers, more than one-third of CUPW’s 45,000 members. In the corporation’s complex hierarchy, they fall into various job categories. But at bottom, they are all temporary workers no matter how many hours a week they put in, or how long they have been doing it. And they represent both a short-term problem as well as one of the many symptoms of Canada Post’s underlying structural woes.

That tensions were running high in the negotiations became clear when representatives of the two sides became involved in a postmidnight shoving incident in a Hull, Que., hotel room. CUPW chief negotiator Philippe Arbour was pushed to the floor. Later that day, the chief management negotiator, Jean Lafleur, made a public apology and stepped aside from the talks, to be replaced by a senior Canada Post manager, Raymond Poirier. Although Arbour subsequently accused Poirier of stalling and trying to force back-to-work legislation, the talks in Hull produced some signs of progress. Both union and management negotiators indicated they were close to an agreement on a formula to convert more than 500 temporary post office positions into permanent jobs.

Even so, the measure is not much more than a stopgap, postponing substantive discussions on the fundamental issue of structural reform. ‘We really have to become more competitive, more efficient, more results driven,” argues corporation spokesman John Caines. “Our essential goal is to modernize a delivery system that is now more than 30 years old.” The union does not dispute that contention. CUPW officials, in fact, reported substantial progress towards a settlement at one point before the talks seemed to stall at week’s end. They claimed they were not far from management’s position on wages and job security. CUPW’s original call for an 8.6-per-cent salary hike over 18 months had been scaled down to something closer to the corporation’s offer of 3 per cent over two years, as long as it included a supplemental increase tied to inflation. Both sides appeared to back down from stances on the number of positions likely to be affected by changes in staffing and restructuring.

The last major issue: the way the mail is actually delivered. Canada Post is believed to be seeking agreement to, among other mea-

sures, lengthen and otherwise alter letter-carrier routes. “It’s obvious that if there is going to be a deal, it’s going to be when we’ve reached our ability to change the delivery system,” said Poirier. Arbour countered that Canada Post’s proposal to speed up deliveries and to keep carriers working throughout their shift would create a host of safety and health hazards. “It’s not as simple as it looks,” said Arbour.

Meanwhile, the country scrambled to cope with the first national postal strike in six years. Particularly hard hit were charities that depend heavily on Christmastime donations, and small businesses, especially direct marketers. In Calgary, Rod Sinnott, vice-president and co-owner of Post Tech Direct, said a lengthy strike would shut down his 18-month-old business, putting nine full-time and 12 casual employees out of work. The company handles up to three million pieces of mail a year for corporate clients. “I don’t think the union is being realistic,” Sinnott maintained. ‘They’re paid $17 an hour for work that takes five or six hours, but they get paid for eight. That’s not the real world.”

Much the same kind of concerns were voiced in Halifax by Kent Groves, president of Maritime Trading Co., the largest mail-order business in Atlantic Canada. He complained that his company, which sells products such as smoked salmon and East Coast music, suffered even before the strike was officially called, as orders “drained down to a trickle.” On Wednesday, the day before the national strike, the company received only seven orders, well off the normal level of between 40 and 60. “This isn’t fair,” he said. “It isn’t right. It’s really reducing our ability to compete in a very competitive environment.” And Groves, who is also director of public relations for the Maritime Direct Marketing Association, pointed out that at least half of the organization’s 80 members are charitable organizations. “I feel for them,” he said. “Their mandate is to raise money for people who really need it.”

The Canadian Diabetes Association annually raises $3.3 million, the bulk of it in the period leading up to Christmas and just after the New Year. “It’s a really important time for us,” said Angie Mackie, who is in charge of the association’s direct mail operations. “Ninetyfive per cent of the responses come back through the mail.” Two of the organization’s major mailings, in fact, were stalled by the postal strike—one targeting 30,000 membership renewals, the other a Christmas package highlighting programs in need of funding that was supposed to be mailed to 70,000 past donors. “This is definitely serious for us,” said Mackie. “Each day that passes, we potentially lose thousands of dollars.”

While there are no accurate methods to measure the economic impact of a prolonged strike, Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, pointed to studies that indicated the last lengthy postal strike—a six-week shutdown in 1982—took $3 billion out of the Canadian economy. “There’s less reliance on the postal system now, what with faxes and e-mail and electronic banking and the like,” said Swift, “but it’s still heavily used.” Especially by the CFIB’s 88,000 members, 80 per cent of which are companies with fewer than 20 employees.

Not everyone is suffering, however. Malcolm St. Croix, co-owner of a Halifax outlet of Mail Boxes Etc., which serve as agents for several large couriers, reported that his shipping and packaging business is up by between 40 and 50 per cent as a result of the strike. People, he added, are discovering there are reasonable alternatives to the post office. Of the new customers he saw last week, he said, “a lot are just ticked off at the post office and have the opinion of ‘glad you’re here and that there is an alternative.’ ”

That was a view shared by many last week. “It’s all just so infuriating,” fumed Swift. “I can assure you there will be dancing in the streets when the day arrives that none of us ever have to depend on Canada Post again.” In Halifax, Groves pointed to the 17 postal strikes that have occurred in the past 30 years, arguing that the government should strip postal workers of the right to strike. “The record leads you to believe that the privilege is not a very effective philosophy for that organization,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to give the right to strike to any organization which has a monopoly.”

While most of the strikers manning picket lines across the country last week would likely disagree with that view, some postal workers were more than ready to lament the walkout. Among them was Patricia Sinclair, fresh from picket duty outside Toronto’s huge letter processing facility. “None of us really want to be on strike right now,” she said. “I’m sure this thing could be settled if we all sat down and tried a little harder to communicate.” On that point, at least, few would argue.