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June 16, 2011

Posties stamped on by Canada Post

Reuel S. Amdur

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CUPW (Canadian Union of Postal Workers) is on strike. The union is resisting Canada Post's efforts to cut beginning pay from $24 per hour to $17.50. Canada Post also wants to switch from a defined-benefit retirement plan to a defined-contribution plan, with no guaranteed amount of pension at the time it is taken.

There are also other take-aways in Canada Post’s offer.  The Crown Corporation justifies its tough position because of the reduction of mail volumes, claiming that they have declined by 17% since the beginning of January, 2006.  CUPW says that figure is not correct.

Canada Post sees its challenge as serving a growing number of addresses with declining income, though the Corporation has not been losing money.  And Deepak Chopra, the new CEO, has a salary pegged at between $422,500 and $497,100, according to government figures as of June 30 last year. 

Should the new CEO begin at a rate around 25% lower?  That is what they are asking of the workers.  In addition, the workers–unlike Chopra–cannot look forward to a bonus.

There are two major matters to be considered in regard to the Canada Post situation: its strategy for dealing with reduced mail volume and its attitude toward its employees.  Beginning with the issue of reduction of mail volume, we need to examine the role of the corporation.  Basically, it functions in the areas of communications and delivery.  Since the demand for the volume of delivery of letters and parcels has declined, Canada Post should be looking at other ways of generating income.  It has moved in some ways to do this, with e-billing and with purchase of Purolator.

The decline in letter volume is due to the rise in usage of e-mail and fax.  One strategy is to look at ways of moving more aggressively into these fields, with fax machines and computer outlets in all post offices and in other locations such as airports, hotels, and motels.  High-speed internet is not universally available.  Why not get into the business of providing high-speed internet, especially in areas where it is not currently accessible?  Even in its more traditional letter services the Post Office could offer more.  It used to forward mail to a new address, but it no longer does so.  Why not offer a forwarding service, as well as a look-up service for an address?

Delivery is the other function identified.  There is no good reason that postal workers should deliver only letters and standard kinds of parcels.  How about arrangements to deliver merchandise from local stores, such as groceries and household and garden supplies?

Now we come to the issue of labor policy.  The Canada Post approach is to drive down costs by driving down labor costs.  It has been the approach for decades.  Under Trudeau, much of the janitorial work was privatized, making workers bid to do their jobs in competition with outsiders.  The 1987 postal strike–perhaps CUPW’s proudest hour–lasted because the union insisted on fair treatment for janitorial staff that Canada Post had contacted out.  And Canada Post also moved postal services to outlets in private retail businesses, where employees receive far lower wages.  Incidentally, getting a job at Canada Post requires a couple years as a temporary employee, at the beck and call of the employer and at limited benefits.

This kind of governmental exploitation of working people is hardly unique. Another Crown Corporation, the CBC, is notorious for its disregard for fairness toward its workers.  The CBC’s treatment of Barbara Budd serves as a graphic illustration of this kind of brutality.  Budd, who served as co-host of “As It Happens” for17 years, was then suddenly given the boot.  She was a temporary employee for those 17 years, with year-to-year extensions.

Federal departments and agencies make massive use of employment agencies to fill positions, sometimes genuinely temporary spots but also positions that need long-term coverage. Current Tory government policy makes these agencies pay as little as the minimum wage.  Even the agencies themselves complain about the extent of this exploitation of the workers.  And as Nicole Turmel, a new NDP Member of Parliament and former head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), put it, “It is not normal to work full time for the federal government and live below the poverty line.”  Or is it?

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