I remember my first day at Canada Post. I stepped into an elevator with an elderly letter carrier who proudly proclaimed that he had the highest seniority in the country. I have no idea if it was true. I told him it was my first day. He laughed and said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be rough at first, but they say the first forty years are the hardest.”
He was still laughing when I stepped out of the elevator and watched him disappear as the doors closed.
Rough? I didn’t think so. After all, I had just finished a two week letter carrier training course where the first words they said to us were, “Welcome to easy street.” I had been working construction before this. Surely this would be easier than hanging vinyl siding while standing on a plank suspended between two ladders three stories up with no harness.
When I told the crew at work that I had landed a job at Canada Post, everyone shook my hand. Congratulations all around. They all believed I had just landed the best paying, easiest job on the planet. I had won the lottery. I remember one carpenter told me about a letter carrier that he knew who delivered the odd side of the streets one day and the even side of the streets the next, so he never had to work more than four hours. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that these stories were just urban legends. I delivered to a lot of streets, but not Easy Street.
I had actually taken a pay-cut to come work at Canada Post. I made more working construction. But I knew Canada Post was stable, whereas the construction business goes up and down. I knew they had benefits, and paid vacation, things that don’t exist in the construction industry in BC. It would be nice to work these famous short hours. Turns out those didn’t exist either.
The next two years as a term letter carrier, I worked long hours. Never less than fifty hours a week. I worked eighteen hours straight my first Christmas Eve at Canada Post. I volunteered for pre-shift overtime, which meant I started at four a.m. Then I got sent to a different station to cover one of the worst routes in the city for the day. I didn’t finish until ten o’clock at night. I didn’t mind. The overtime was nice. I could have turned back when it got dark, but I felt it was my duty to get the mail out. I knew I was carrying lots of Christmas presents. I was wearing a Santa Claus hat.
The truth is I was proud of my job. I was proud to be a letter carrier. I was a mail man: an iconic part of Canadian society. I would walk into the elementary schools on my route and I would always see a young child pointing at “the mail man.” I cared about my customers. My job was important. And that was the culture that they tried to instil in us. We had it drilled into our heads in letter carrier training that our number one priority was customer service. But letter carrier training was a fantasy land.
The supervisors were assholes and they treated us like the enemy. Upper management was too busy fighting the class war to worry about anything else. It was surreal. I had organized unions before. I was an activist. I became a shop steward the day I passed my probation period, even without a permanent position. Still, this environment was unlike anything I had ever encountered. They had lost all sense of perspective. It was like getting the mail out was a secondary task – something they had to do so they could get back to the real work: sticking it to those union guys.
Really, “those union guys” were one of the reasons I kept applying at Canada Post. I was proud to be a letter carrier. And I was proud to be a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. I knew their history. They shook the Canadian government to its very foundations. Many of the rights workers have today are a result of struggles led by the posties. I knew that without CUPW we probably wouldn’t have maternity leave and the public sector wouldn’t have the right to strike among other things. They had the reputation of being the toughest union in the country and I knew that’s where I belonged.
That was eight years ago. I’m still one of the “new guys” by most people’s standards. Yet so much has changed since then – so much and so little. The focus on customer service has disappeared completely. Management is entirely focused on crushing the union. They don’t care if they destroy themselves in the process – in fact, that is the goal. We’re working for a corporation whose leadership is trying to destroy itself. They want to gut Canada Post and hand over the infrastructure to the private sector. Prime real estate in every city, thousands of delivery vehicles, the largest retail network in the country, the list goes on. Canada Post is a tempting target for these neoliberal vultures intent on looting the public sector.
And they can’t accomplish that without first destroying that iconic public image of the smiling letter carrier going door to door, without destroying the public service we provide.
Two years ago, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers saw it fit to elect me as a National Union Representative. To me, this is a great honour, of course. But it is also a great challenge. It is once again up to us to defend the public post office. The past struggles of CUPW are legendary in the Canadian labour movement. We must now rise again to the challenge posed by history. It is time for CUPW to lead the fight in turning the tide against the right-wing austerity drive. We will defend our postal service and we will run these crooks out of office.
Mike Palecek is a National Union Representative with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.