By Doug Nesbitt
Postal workers are widely recognized as essential services during this crisis, but they’re sounding the alarm about working conditions which pose a glaring threat to themselves and the public.
On social media and in the mainstream media, postal workers are frustrated with the failure of management to respond effectively to COVID-19 threat, and adjust work routines and implement proper cleaning procedures and new health and safety safeguards.
“Cleaning is atrocious”
Conditions in the depots and garages are unsanitary. “Cleaning is atrocious. It’s not even atrocious, it’s actually non-existent,” says Basia Sokal, a letter carrier and union steward in Winnipeg who is also co-chair of the health and safety committee.
“They do everything they can to get around doing anything,” says Jonathan Shepherd, a letter carrier in Toronto. He reports that the trucks are never cleaned or sanitized, which makes simple things like eating a lunch difficult.
Sokal has spent 4 hours each of the last two days cleaning in the depot with supplies purchased by workers. In an interview with Rankandfile.ca Sokal rattles off a head-spinning list of equipment, machinery, materials and other things that postal workers touch every single day in the depot – including inside workers who touch every letter and every parcel that comes through. There is also the garage where the vehicle fleet is maintained. Desks and vehicles are also shared between workers.
There are reports in many locations of shortages of gloves and disinfecting cleaning supplies need to clean equipment, vehicles and surfaces used in retail locations with the public.
“We do have [standard issue puncture-proof] gloves but I think it’s a false sense of security,” explains Sokal. The work gloves are not the same as latex gloves. They are made of a rubber and a thick fabric material, but they are not at all designed to stop COVID-19.
Workers are nevertheless leading the efforts to change conditions. Initiatives have been made to improve social distancing measures in retail offices, including taping floors and installing plexiglass as has also happened in grocery stores.
Work routines have hardly altered since the outbreak of the pandemic. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the continuing distribution of business flyers, making every letter carrier expose themselves to numerous unnecessary points of contact. Some businesses being promoted are not even open and others will likely go under in this economic crisis.
Shepherd walks 20 kilometres and climbs 8,000 stairs per day. He says the business flyers comprise about a third of his points of call. Shepherd says he’d cut out at least an hour of work each day not delivering the flyers.
“It’s stressful enough exhausting yourself every day without a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it’s not very good for my immune system.” But he chuckles about delivering flyers for real estate agents. “Are they really doing open houses?”
Sokal reports that there has been a health and safety work refusal in Winnipeg, but says the collective agreement is incredibly restrictive. Work refusals have to be made day after day and only apply to the worker making the work refusal.
Shepherd intiated a work refusal but says his steward undermined him, saying he had no case. “We sat down with management and my steward said nothing. I made my case having no one on my side. I ended up doing the work anyway.”
Policy and process
Management inaction and neglect isn’t the whole story. Some postal workers are also angry with what they see as the failure of national union leaders to enact some kind of coordinated action in response to management neglect.
Sokal says the collective agreement only allows the national leadership of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers to call a general work refusal. “We had a wildcat strike here a few years ago and there were huge fines and the national leadership was furious.”
When asked why CUPW national leadership isn’t acting, Sokal believes that the national leadership is busy on conference calls with management and tied up with “process and policy”.
“We’ve had no collective agreement for two years. What does it take to say “fuck it” and call massive workplace actions?”
“We can’t wait for direction,” says Sokal. As a shop steward she says “you can’t have 150 people angry at you all the time.” Sokal is going to continue to cleaning the depot every day. “I’m probably going to get sick but at last I’m helping out my co-workers.”
As for the public, Sokal’s advice is blunt: “Please stay inside. We touch so much stuff all day. Stay away from us for your own safety, not ours.”
“I’ve had a lot of awkward conversations,” says Shepherd. “You don’t want to be that guy telling people what they can and can’t do.”