By Joel Harden
At issue is what we can expect from our public post office, and two competing visions for changing existing services. Last week, in my hometown of Ottawa, I got an inside look at both.
Over the course of 48 hours, I heard powerpoint appeals from Canada Post officials and canvassed with letter carriers organized by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Both sides offer a vision for our post office, and a strategy to achieve it, but I’m not sure many grasp the stakes of this contest.
Why? Because this isn’t just about saving home delivery, though saving our public, door-to-door delivery system will be crucial.
It’s also about understanding the social purpose of Canada Post, and what postal workers do each day in our communities. This is what I learned first hand from postal workers themselves and from those they serve each day. Saving Canada Post is about building on their efforts and our existing public mail infrastructure, to meet the demands of an aging population, and other urgent social needs.
It’s about home delivery, and a whole lot more.
Inside the Management Bubble
On May 21, thanks to notice from friends at CUPW, I attended an “Annual Public Meeting” at Canada Post Headquarters. I used to walk past this massive, Star-Trek-worthy behemoth on my daily walk to work in Ottawa’s south end.
On this occasion, a large hall was crammed to standing-room-only capacity, filled mostly with Canada Post HQ staffers. As suited executives (and their many assistants) worked the room, a group of CUPW leaders, activists and allies huddled next to a row of TV cameras.
The first part of the meeting featured three speeches lauding Canada Post’s “five point plan”, all of which involve some measure of austerity:
1. Ending door-to-door mail delivery, and replacing this with community mailboxes;
2. A “tiered” price for stamps (lower costs for businesses, higher costs for everyone else);
3. Opening more non-union “franchise postal outlets” in malls or big-box stores;
4. ‘Streamlining operations’ through further automation and ‘efficiencies’;
5. “Addressing the cost of labour” in collective bargaining, and ensuring a smaller workforce through attrition (retirements).
As these priorities were announced, a common mantra was apparent in Canada Post’s Management bubble. Their powerpoint slides emphasized “tough choices” for our digital, Internet-centric age. Operations may be profitable now ($299 million in 2014), but this, we were told, was due to increases in stamp prices and the volume of parcel mail (with online shopping).
The decline in letter mail and rising costs of employee pensions, we heard, compel Canada Post to make reforms that “play to our strengths.” Deepak Chopra, Canada Post’s CEO, cites a potential $1 billion deficit in 2019 if the status quo persists.
These arguments were challenged by CUPW and its allies. Attacking workers, reducing services, or increasing stamp prices aren’t tough decisions. They are passing the buck at a time when more ambitious thinking is needed. Such austerity is also hypocritical when the pay of 22 Canada Post executives (before bonuses) topped $10 million in 2014.
The employee pension plan is healthy on a yearly basis, and larger “solvency deficits” can be addressed if management funds the plan appropriately (unlike a decade ago, when consecutive months of government-sanctioned “contribution holidays” exposed workers and pensioners to the worst impacts of the 2008 financial crisis).
But most importantly, where is Canada Post’s vision to meet urgent needs addressed by postal services elsewhere? What about postal banking (available in Canada until 1967) to address banking needs of marginalized groups, and the scourge of payday loan operators? What about services for elders, First Nations, parents of young families, and racialized communities? None of these ideas are considered inside Canada Post’s management bubble.
For Mike Palacek, CUPW’s newly-elected National President, the problem reaches well beyond Canada Post’s managers. He blames Ottawa’s political elite for this lack of vision, and setting the tone for the status quo. “The Harper government is driving the postal train wreck,” he says. “And it needs to stop before more people lose their services.”
The view from Bells Corners: postal reform with a community perspective
Two days after Canada Post’s public meeting, CUPW Local 580 (representing postal workers in the Ottawa region) organized a community canvass in Bells Corners — a quiet, tree-lined neighbourhood in the city’s west end. This area has been targeted for removal of door-to-door mail delivery in 2015, and CUPW intends to build a fight back effort from the ground up.
As I cycled out to Bells Corners, I had expected to meet new activist friends, and support an important campaign. I got that, but also a better sense of what postal workers do each day, and how enlightened reform could build on their daily contributions.
After speeches from CUPW leaders, I met Dan, Martin, and Gilles — three letter carriers based in the Bells Corners area — and we proceeded to walk Gilles’s nearby delivery route. As we canvassed, I learned more about each of them, and their daily relationships with residents.
Dan, for example, came to Bells Corners in search of better work. He was used to management testing efficiency schemes in his native Halifax and what this meant for letter carriers: heavier loads, higher expectations, and longer hours. These burdens created intense workplace strife, and more than a few internal conflicts.
Dan left Halifax because of those conflicts, but he fondly remembers many experiences of feeling valued on a daily basis. On one memorable autumn day, he arrived at a doorstep to find a young girl had been locked out. She was cold, sobbing, and anxious to find her parents.
The girl knew Dan, and took up his offer of fish and chips at a nearby restaurant. As she ate, Dan found other neighbours who then made contact with the girl’s parents. The parents sprinted home, expressing their heartfelt gratitude and remained close friends ever since.
Martin recounted a similar story from his previous routes in hard-hit areas of Montreal. Many residents were targets of mail theft, which frequently meant the loss of crucial income support cheques. Low-income pensioners or disabled people would often wait for weeks to have cheques re-issued, and suffer the consequences of gruelling poverty. In time, Martin worked closely with residents to catch the perpetrators. These efforts earned him wide respect, and tokens of appreciation from those with little to give.
A similar experience was also true in Gilles’s case. As we walked his route, he talked about the residents he saw each day and how much he valued their friendships. One man suffered from Amyotrphic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and rallied when Gilles came to chat at length. A different lady suffered from hip problems, so Gilles would bring garbage and recycling loads back and forth to her garage each week.
These are not acts of charity, Gilles emphasized, or gestures of faint praise. He considered these people part of his extended family, and he took their well-being very seriously. That sentiment was reinforced one day when he noticed mail piling up at a different resident’s house.
This person typically preferred to be left alone, but Gilles could sense that something was wrong. He rang the doorbell, knocked several times, but no one answered. He then notified the neighbours, who promptly called the woman’s daughter over right away.
As it happened, the resident had collapsed in her bathroom, and had stayed in the same spot for a horrifying thirty hours before Gilles could help. If he hadn’t done so, a far worse outcome was almost certain.
On another occasion, Gilles found a resident collapsed in his yard having fallen from a ladder while mounting Christmas lights. Paramedics said he had been unconscious for at least thirty minutes in bitter cold, and would have suffered acute hypothermia had Gilles not intervened.
Being a postal worker, I quickly discovered, involves much more than delivering the mail. It’s about also being a guardian in your community. Many residents know this, and therefore regard postal workers with great respect. Posties often receive generous gifts at holiday times and warm handshakes all along their daily route.
If Canada Post’s managers were serious about reform, they would build on this aspect of the organization’s strength. They would identify additional services that are possible with a delivery infrastructure that reaches every Canadian every day. Pharmaceutical needs, childcare needs, or banking services (among other things) are well within the scope of what’s possible.
Instead, management’s focus on shrinking services and austerity reduce the possibilities for postal reform. That’s led many to conclude Canada is following Britain’s lead, waiting for the moment to privatize its public post office. This objective would likely appeal to Deepak Chopra, whose previous job (as CEO of Pitney Bowes Canada) involved advocating for postal privatization.
Communities fight back: will unions respond?
Thankfully, communities are fighting back. Many have thrown their support to CUPW, demonstrating this is an issue that crosses typical partisan lines. How unions support them will shape the future of Canada Post and the upcoming federal election.
In Hamilton, city councillors have passed bylaws preventing the installation of new community mail boxes which would raze old forests, and convolute urban landscapes.
In Montreal, city councillors have taken similar action, supported by activists holding regular rallies and direct actions.
Elsewhere, residents have planted community gardens in places designated for community mailboxes, while others have occupied mailbox sites in protest. These are images of communities in resistance and they are deserving of union support.
At the moment, however, only CUPW is prepared to mobilize on a grassroots basis to save Canada Post. That’s unfortunate given what might be possible with a wider effort. This issue can fracture the base of conservative voters and contribute to ousting the Harper government.
If CUPW continues its community canvasses over the summer and into the fall, organized labour must mobilize beyond issue based campaigns, or appeals to vote NDP. It must support postal workers, knock on doors, and push back at Harper from the ground up.
Elections Canada rules allow third party advertising, and we shouldn’t fear running afoul of Harper’s rules if he interprets them differently. We have the right to speak to our neighbours, and should resist any official or policy telling us otherwise.
We can’t rely on promises from aspiring politicians. Change starts with us, plain and simple. In the end that’s how we’ll save home delivery, and a whole lot more.