An interview with a postal carrier in Canada. Their union, CUPW, is currently negotiating a new contract with Canada Post. After 37 days of rotating strikes and occupations, workers were legislated back to work this week. National union leadership is not defying the legislation, but switching to a campaign of political pressure against the government.
The worker talks about day-to-day life as a carrier, the grievances workers have, his reaction to the union executive’s decision not to continue economic actions, and his expectations for the political pressure campaign.
Tell me about the day you had yesterday [Tuesday].
That was a long one. Two nights ago [Monday], I was hassling people to go occupy the plant. Then the word came out that we were actually going to be on strike at 6 o’clock in the morning. That fizzled out the occupation plan. I went to sleep, for not long enough, then got up at 5:30 AM to go picket the depot.
We have a phone tree, so we’re letting everyone know about the picket — and catching some flak. Some people are saying, “This doesn’t make any sense; you’re just going to inconvenience people.”
The CUPW presence is not as strong on wave 1 [the early shift] despite everybody being members. There are some shop stewards that I’m not sure everyone really trusts. Some of them are friends with management and go out and smoke together. But we’ve done a pretty good job of getting people on board with the union, having meetings, talking back to the boss, changing the dynamics of the workfloor.
There was a mass resignation of shop stewards just in case we [CUPW] were going to defy legislation. If you defy the legislation, you could be fined $1,000 a day, but if you’re a shop steward or on the exec, the fine is $50,000. And the union could end up with a $100,000 fine.
So if you’re a shop steward and you participate in an “illegal” picket, you get fined $50,000 per day?
I think the wording was “up to.” So [it comes down to] how much do you trust the lawmakers, or the people enforcing that. Which is part of what really broke the spirit of people in 2011, with that back-to-work legislation.
Is that when those fines were first introduced?
I’m not sure. I think so, based on the way people talk about it. I’ve only been around for three and a half years at this point.
So how was that decision made, for all the shop stewards to resign like that? Did everyone decide individually to do it?
The word came down from the local president, and then it was sent over the phone tree. Just to protect us.
Encouraging folks to resign?
Just in case the people on the national executive made the call that we wouldn’t be going back. And then the fines would be much less.
So technically, there were no shop stewards today?
There shouldn’t have been. I know people on the executive started saying they take back their resignations, before the day was even over yesterday.
Do you feel as though there is some uncertainty, going forward, about economic action and defying the legislation? Or do you feel like that’s a done deal?
[Sighs] I really don’t know. I’ve heard there were six out of fifteen [on the national executive] who were willing to defy the legislation.
What’s the mood like among your coworkers?
There are certain people who never believed in it anyway, so they were happy to come up to people who were involved and say, “How did that work out for you?” Which, like, great thanks.
Some people were definitely feeling defeated when we were out picketing yesterday. They were like, “What is the point of this, even? Why are we here? What are we doing?”
Because they knew the legislation was coming…
Oh yeah. We knew for a few days at that point that it just needed to go through the Senate.
Tell me a bit about the overburdening issue and forced overtime issue, and the stuff the carriers were fighting for in the contract.
There’s a pretty good example that happened here in [redacted city] over the last year. There’s a depot called [redacted], on the northeast side of the city. It was one of the bigger letter carrier depots: there were 90-some routes there. And Canada Post “Route Optimization” came in to do a restructure. Routes are broken down by the second: how long you get to go to a door, how long you get to drive to your next stop, or clear a street letter box. If a house is vacant, for example, you are no longer given the few seconds to go up to that house. But things aren’t necessarily kept up to date.
So, at [redacted] depot they found 500 minutes that were unaccounted for, which is one new route and then some. A route is supposed to be 480 minutes, to make up an 8-hour day, and then when Route Optimization came in, they somehow cut nine or ten routes.
Instead of cutting one route?
It would have been make one. And they cut nine or ten. They had had a number of routes they had wanted to cut from there for years, and they just went in and did it.
So they just distribute that work among other workers?
Yeah, I mean, now the routes are all longer. This is something that has been coming up in negotiations: CUPW has been asking for a greater say in the route restructure process, because the parcel-moving business has exploded. The amount of parcels we get. And a route may be designed for 12 or 13 a day. But people end up with 60, 80…
Just with that information alone, it would have made sense for no routes to be lost, and more made, because of the time it takes to deliver those parcels.
So what kind of consequences does that overburdening and speedup have for the worker?
It makes your route longer. You end up having to walk farther. They’ve done “route optimization” to have fewer people working there.
And this leads to health and safety issues. I was at Canada Post for two years before I really found the time – or the courage, I should say – to take all of my breaks. But new people who are working there, they’re just going to work ten hours straight, and maybe stop for ten or fifteen minutes, probably still not get done, get back to the depot, be harassed by the supervisors…
It took me a year to be able to get more than two-thirds of a route done by the time I was supposed to be done. And then I heard from the older carriers that the routes are about a third to twice as long as they used to be.
So how do folks manage? Do they just stay out longer than they should? You’ve already said they eliminate their own breaks. How else do they manage?
I think it does lead to some possibly unethical behavior. Some people, if they only have one letter for a house, they just won’t go to it.
And they’ll just deliver it the next day?
Yeah. And it depends on what it is: if it looks like a check, or a card, or a letter from an actual person, and not just an ad, then they’ll deliver it. But if it’s just an ad… I’ve also heard people talking about just not sorting all of the mail – they’ll take some [out] and just call it a mis-sort. With parcels, if something says “Do not safedrop,” it means you need to put it someone’s hands for it to be considered delivered. They’ll just set that on the person’s doorstep.
So people find shortcuts because they are forced to by the way that the company creates the routes.
It should be on the boss’s conscience, yeah. It’s become unmanageable. People like their jobs, and they want to do a good job and be done, but you end up with these roadblocks where you literally can’t do it.
Going back to the strike and the legislation, where do you think things are going to go from here?
I’ve been trying to look for something positive in there. The only thing I’m really seeing that could benefit postal workers in any way is that the legislation has some guiding principles. I don’t remember what they all are at the moment, but I believe the first one is that health and safety must be taken into due consideration when the arbitrator is making their decisions.
Will that be done sincerely? I don’t know, but CUPW has won multiple cases against Canada Post on health and safety grounds. So if evidence of past victories is of any use to an arbitrator, and I certainly hope it is, I think some of those health and safety concerns could be addressed.
Other demands, I imagine, will definitely be lost. I don’t know if you know the numbers, but postal workers used to start at $25 an hour, and after 2013, they start at $19. We’ve been trying to get rid of that two-tier wage system, but I think Canada Post is going to do a pretty good job of claiming they don’t have the money to do it. I saw a headline today that they are claiming a $70 million loss. Last quarter they claimed a $242 million loss, because they have to pay the RSMCs [Rural and Suburban Mail Carriers — as part of a gender discrimination / pay equity matter]. They didn’t pay them then, so that was a projected future loss. Did they actually lose $70 million this quarter? I don’t know.
How is the arbitrator selected?
I actually don’t know.
What do you think of the new strategy of pivoting to political pressure?
[Long sigh, laugh, sigh] In my heart, I want it to be useful, but I really don’t think it is. We tried that already. And that’s not to say it can’t – maybe a miracle will happen. But there are photos of [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau holding an “I heart posties” sign. Like, oh yeah? Do you?
And we’ve all sent letters to our MPs and Senators, and I just… I don’t know. I feel it would have been more useful to just defy the legislation. Because last time, it was ruled unconstitutional. It took five years for that to come out. And then nothing could be done about it.
So it was ruled unconstitutional to have legislated you back to work last time, and it happened against this time?
It did, which creates a lot of frustration with those people on the national executive who weren’t willing to defy it. It is worded differently, but the principle is the same. Maybe they’ll find it constitutional this time for some reason, and then maybe those people who were not willing to defy it were right for not getting us fined millions and millions of dollars.
And like, people haven’t forgotten, because it just came out two years ago that it was unconstitutional, so like, whyare we going back to work?
I think it was found to have infringed on our collective bargaining rights.
Yeah. And yet. Here we are with the exact same thing. But I did hear that people from outside of CUPW were picketing the Vancouver processing plant today, and shutting it down. So that makes me hopeful. More than publicly pressuring Members of Parliament again. Just go and shut it down.
So you’d like to see more of that happen?
I think it is the most reasonable response. I’m open to any number of approaches, but I think if that happens, it would be the most effective. The direct action.