Into the fourth week, that all-too-familiar paralysis of the mail
Both a strike and a blow
Into the fourth week, that all-too-familiar paralysis of the mail
It could have been a scene from a strike-torn picket line anywhere in the world. The anger, the bitterness are always the same. For Winnipeg courier driver Heather Zirk, it meant beating her way to freedom with a crowbar last week, just so she could get on with doing her job. For the downtown Winnipeg postal workers through whose line she was attempting to go on her way to make a delivery, it was a matter of settling scores with a scab.
“They were yelling at me and calling me dirty names,” she said after escaping in her van. “They were exactly like animals, like crazy people. I hope the strike lasts six months and they all go bankrupt and starve to death.”
Few Canadians have had such a direct, angry confrontation with the strike by 23,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), but most are feeling resentful about the continuing inability of the post office management and workers to come to a contract agreement. As Canada’s 1981 nationwide postal strike—the all-too-familiar paralysis of the country’s most visible and all-pervasive public service-drags into its fourth week, national attention is focused once again on the huge psychological and economic costs inflicted by an apparently interminable labor dispute that few Canadians support and even fewer understand. With more than a dozen national or regional postal interruptions in Canada since 1968, many were pushed to agree with the disgusted sentiments of Vancouver lawyer Joel Kerbel: “We’re the laughingstock of the world.”
For the average Canadian the day-today concern is simply one of inconvenience: the delay of letters, parcels, even the junk mail; the loss of that casual, regular thud in the front hall or the daily excursion to the lockbox or post office. But for thousands of businesses, and for the Canadian economy as a whole, the postal strike is like a breakdown of the central circulatory system—a halt in the vital flow of orders, invoices, bills, payments and all the
other instruments that form the lifeblood of a functioning economy. Though no hard statistics are yet compiled, the postal strike is likely costing more than $9 million a day in lost business across Canada and has caused at least 10,000 job layoffs so far. Indeed, says Frank Ferguson, president of the Canadian Direct Mail Association, layoffs will soar six or seven times higher if the strike drags on into August as feared.
Many of those layoffs will be permanent, according to Walter Carson of the Canadian Organization of Small Business, who estimates that more than 1,000 small businesses are being forced into bankruptcy every week the strike continues. Already strained to the breaking point by record high interest rates on loans necessary to carry inventory during the recent months of slow economic growth, many small businesses are now forced to seek additional lines of credit while payments languish in the mail sacks or simply aren’t sent. “Make no mistake,” warns Denton Clark, chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, “we are at the brink
of disaster. Unless a solution is found, and quickly, serious damage will be inflicted.”
How quickly a solution can be found was the key issue preoccupying Parliament last week. The government finally invoked closure in the face of a Conservative filibuster to delay the summer recess as the strike dragged on like a cicada droning in the July heat. What has become clear, even after a week in which several significant steps were taken toward solving the impasse (including the acceptance of Judge Alan Gold as conciliator by both sides), is that settling grievances between the post office and hard-edged CUPW negotiators may be the most challenging in all of Canadian labor.
What some labor observers find frustrating is that the current strike, which began June 29—five months after the previous oneyear CUPW contract expired—revolves around several demands also made last March by CUPW’s sister union, the Letter Carriers’ Union of Canada (LCUC)—items that were negotiated and settled satisfactorily without a strike. One of the key demands by both unions—17 weeks of paid maternity leave—was rejected by the conciliator brought in during the LCUC negotiations, but recommended by the CUPW conciliator, Pierre Jasmin, after the letter £ carriers had settled, giving the “government a convenient opportunity to choose the hard line. “It’s hard to say whether we would have taken a strike vote if things had gone the other way,” says LCUC President Robert McGarry. “Generally, our members don’t see themselves in the same state of constant conflict with post office management as CUPW members do, where the tension carries right through into negotiations.” He adds: “We also find it a bit frustrating knowing the public blames our members—the postmen—for the strike when it isn’t us at all. In fact, we’re laid off work because of it.”
The legacy of tension between post office management and inside workers, reaching back more than two decades, lies at the heart of every postal strike since 1968. It’s a labor-management dis-
pute so profound that it mystifies not only most Canadians but postal authorities in other countries as well. “Obviously things are far from perfect in our own system,” says spokesperson Jeanne O’Neill of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, “but your situation absolutely baffles us.” Those familiar with the workings of the post office in Canada blame the problems on a poisonous mixture of high-handed and paramilitary management techniques with militant and inflexible union policies. “Looking at it from the outside,” says economist Ian Welton of the Ontario ministry of labor, “it looks as if the two sides are totally disinclined to negotiate on almost every issue. Indeed, you have to wonder whether the issues are even what’s at stake in the negotiations.”
This year both CUPW and the government (acting through its negotiating arm, the Treasury Board) seem to be _trying out new strategies. Following Mast year’s rare but expensive strike-
free settlement and the swift but bitter back-to-work legislation in 1978, the federal goal this year seems to be based on “toughing out” a negotiated settlement, even if it prolongs the strike all summer—paralleling the painful 43day CUPW strike in the fall of 1975. Both Postmaster-General André Ouellet, reputed to be “softer” in negotiations, and future postmaster Michael Warren (see box, page 20), who is likely to remain hidden until he assumes office Sept. 1, have been kept out of the negotiations.
That job has been left to Treasury Board President Donald Johnston, former partner in a Montreal law firm that has been involved over the years in a number of high-profile pro-management cases in both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, CUPW President Jean-Claude Parrot (see box, page 19), although firm in his demands, has learned from his 1978 feud with Canadian Labour Congress President Dennis McDermott that rabid extremism from CUPW will only alienate large segments of the labor movement and is thus adopting what seems to be a more moderate and reasonable personal style than in the past.
Underlying the government’s strategy appears to be an attempt to extend the push for austerity and restraint through tight money and high interest rates into all sectors of the economy in the battle against inflation. While the actual cost of the fringe benefits de-£ manded by CUPW would not be high—g not as high, for example, as the CUPW2
settlement accepted voluntarily in last year’s negotiations—the government is apparently reluctant to create a precedent among the more than 300,000 other civil servants. In this scenario, little short of a public relations disaster, the government two weeks ago announced (and all but 11 MPs approved) pay increases for MPs of 31 per cent, far more CUPW. or anv other union
has demanded this year.
Little wonder, then, that many Canadians are fuming. Among those hurt is Harry Bagley, who runs a rare and used book business from an old-fashioned second-floor shop in downtown Fredericton. “I put a piece of paper in my typewriter recently and wrote a letter to the government demanding that my business go up 20 per cent next year,” he says. “Then I realized the letter wouldn’t even get there anyway.” The mail-order trade is essential to Bagley’s business. “The postal strike has shut me down,” he says. “My business is gone without the post office.” His off-thestreet trade might meet his rent but nothing more, and Bagley says he will not be able to last through the summer. George Grisim, president of Sovereign Products Ltd. of Cornwall, Ont., and vice-president of the Canadian Direct Mail Marketing Association, says his small mail-order company is losing $100,000 a day and has laid off 116 of 130 employees. Jack Pauls, comptroller for the Army & Navy Department Store Ltd. in Regina, part of an eight-store chain in Western Canada with mailorder sales accounting for about 10 per cent of its total volume, is considering giving up altogether, partly because of the persistent unreliability of the postal service and frequent strikes. So far, half of the company’s mail-order staff has
been laid off because of the strike. Among publishing companies, which frequently rely upon the mail for at least 75 per cent of magazine and newspaper subscriptions, Saturday Night magazine has suspended publication of its August issue, while Owl, a children’s magazine, is losing $5,000 a day in subscription revenue and, along with several other magazines, “may not exist
by fall,” according to Sherrill Cheda of the Canadian Periodical Publishers Association.
For many businesses, the key to staying alive during a mail strike is to find alternate delivery services. In a country with such an embarrassing reputation for unreliable mail service—even when the mail is running smoothly—it is hardly surprising to find Canada honeycombed with private courier and parcel delivery companies. While dozens pop up and disappear again with each new strike, like tiny desert wild flowers after a flash flood, the big firms—particularly the five U.S.-owned giants— consolidate and grow bigger (by about 20 per cent) after each strike. The five big courier companies—United Parcel Service, Purolator, Loomis, BDC and Emery—now crisscross the country with hundreds of vehicles and aircraft. Some of them, according to angry accusations made last week by striking CUPW members, even operate under sub-contract to the post office to help run the government’s Priority Post service for premium-paying postal users. Not all couriers welcome the increased volume from the strike. Tom Eddie, vice-president of marketing for Loomis in Vancouver, says, “The postal strike doesn’t do anything for us except destroy the quality of service.” And Ken Carlton of Choice Courier, a small Montreal delivery company, says: “People drop you like a stone when the strike ends. Once the need passes no one wants to pay the bill.” Other couriers can’t help noting the irony that even they need the mail to send out bills and receive payment.
Sometimes it’s those little touches of irony that add to the lighter side of the postal strike. For other enterprising Canadians, the strike has set off a reac-
tion of creative entrepreneurship. Denise Brown, a blonde Montreal exmodel, has rented three postal substations in suburban Montreal shopping centres and is operating her own courier service. Similarly, 14-year-old Jeff Sheehan of St. Stephen, N.B., gathers mail from the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce and is driven 175 km across the border by his parents where he posts it in Calais, Me., for a modest commission. In Saskatchewan, the city of Swift Current has hired six students to deliver all city correspondence, while in Nova Scotia, a company called After School Projects Ltd. has expanded its normal handbill delivery service, and with a staff of 120 high-school students, delivers letters for 35 cents each.
The strike has spawned zealots, too. Bill Metzger, proprietor of Spiritual Press of Toronto, has launched a string of lawsuits against all key government and union officials, claiming past, pres-
ent and future financial losses through postal interruptions. David Ingram, an accountant who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Vancouver last November, left the West Coast in his mobile home last week heading eastward, pulling behind him, in protest, a giant two-metre red mailbox, ready to hand out hundreds of thousands of printed fliers with the message: “We’re mad and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
In some communities, the postal strike has even altered the basic rhythm of daily life. In Yellowknife, for example, the post office is the hub and meeting place of the community. Without the mail, the daily ritual has lost a vital spark. By contrast, in Blaine, Wash., across the U.S. border from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, the wait in the post office lineup is sometimes as long as half an hour, with Canadians swelling post office volume by 600 per cent. Postmaster Ted Holtzheimer says he’s used to Canadians flooding across the border to post let-
ters or buy beer every year or two because of one strike or another.
That may be where any lighthearted view of Canada’s postal strike should end. During each of the past five years, Canada has lost an average of more than seven million man-days due to all strikes and other work stoppages. In three of those years, Canada’s strike record was the worst in the Western industrialized world, surpassed in the other two years only by Italy or Britain. Public sector strikes in Canada are fewer in number than strikes in the private sector—largely because most provincial governments do not permit strikes by government employees—but in spite of this, the number of man-days lost through postal strikes called by CUPW over the years is disproportionately high. Sometimes scornfully referred to as the “Canadian disease,” the postal strike has come to rank alongside federal-provincial resource disputes as a stain in international standings revealing Canada as a nation with an unfortunate tendency toward self-destruction.
Whatever the outcome of the current postal strike—and the abrupt use of closure last week means the strike will be settled by negotiation, or not at all— both sides are looking toward Sept. 1 before any real unclogging of those ancient, hardened arteries can begin. The post office, newly incarnated as Canada Post Corporation, an autonomous Crown corporation, will get a fresh chance at putting its house in order. But the people in it will be the same. And unless they change, nothing will.
With files from Anne Beirne, Peter CarlyleGordye, David Coates, Gail Duyar, David Folster, Malcolm Gray, Diane Luckow, Ann MacGregor, Patrick Scott and James Walker.
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