On Strike at Canada Post

This is the second of two pieces our comrade Mordechai just sent us on the current Canadian Union of Postal Workers strike, a topic dear to our hearts (and for some of us, our livelihoods) here at Recomposition.

On Strike at Canada Post
by Mordechai Eben

A few weeks ago, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers gave notice to the public, and the Canada Post Corporation, that they had 72 hours until a possible strike. This has transpired, and we’re now in the first postal strike in over a decade and a half. For the last 16 years Canada Post has been consecutively profitable, paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the Canadian public in dividends and taxes. The potential for a strike has garnered some interest in the media, and a big national event like this can little be ignored. Nonetheless, background and context has been thin on the page. The process which has led up to this industrial action, this small example of workers’ power, has been obfuscated under the collective weight of an advertising-driven and anti-union press and the seduction of immediacy of explanation, namely that “the posties just want more cash.” The main strike demands aren’t of wages, as the “wage issue” on both sides are well below inflation, tantamount to a wage cut. The strike issues are of a two-tier system, where new workers are hired at a lower wage, sick time and pension issues. Posties aren’t striking for themselves, they’re striking for future workers. That being said, if one digs a little deeper into the postal quagmire, a much more interesting, and worrying, picture emerges: one of multiple vector attempts by the rich and powerful to eliminate the few gains made by working people since the post-war era, inclusive to driving down wages for all Canadians and eliminating the potential for independent, bottom-up agitation outside of the electoral-political sphere.

Canada Post is currently in the process of fundamentally altering the way in which their employees distribute mail, parcels and other sundry items to Canadians. Riveting issues, I know, but there is something a touch more nefarious afoot than merely your monthly bill going through a different machine than before. Technological change is a part of capitalism’s Frankensteinian lurch through history. This march, however, has largely been a sad slow one of decline for the working class. Despite the seemingly ubiquitous cries of “our” economy being “hollowed out” by off-shoring, or blatantly racist hysterics pertaining to immigrants “stealing our jobs,” more jobs have been lost in North America due to mechanization than any other factor. Profitable businesses drop exceptional amounts of capital into machinery, and this capital, produced by their workers, is used to eliminate their jobs, transfer skill from the shop-floor to management and weaken the workforce. Canada Post’s scheme of “postal modernization” is firmly within this tradition, on all fronts. Furthermore, this movement towards “modernization” is a systemic shift, one designed to weaken the union while increasing profitability; a less-than-subtle effort towards privatisation of the post, a privatisation which would have extremely negative repercussions throughout Canada’s working class. But why are us workers whining? Are we not lazy, overpaid bums sucking at the public’s teat? In a word, “no.” In two, “fuck no.”

Canada Post makes money. A lot of it. In 2009, during a deep recession, the Canada Post Corporation made a profit of $281 Million on revenue of $7.2 billion. Far from anomalous, for the last 16 years the corporation has been profitable continuously, paying over a billion dollars in taxes and dividends. These dividends go directly back to our single, rapacious shareholder: the Canadian government. So every time you see your letter carrier schlepping the mail through Canada’s egregious weather, remember that they’re not just delivering your mail, they’re dropping your taxes

Despite the profitability of Canada Post, they’re changing every aspect of delivery. The corporation has purchased some last generation sortation machines from USPS. These sortation machines will “pre-sort” letter carrier walks. Under the new system, the carrier will lose “time values” for sortation, and have this formerly used time transferred to walking. So routes will get longer, around 25% longer, give or take the rapacity of the boss. Four to six hours of walking will turn into a magnitude more. No longer will posties pull all of their mail together, now they will juggle a bundle of letters, a bundle of magazines, a pouch of parcels, and some ungainly bundle of junk-mail. All while walking. And to many more points of call than before. Posties who used to deliver only parcels will lose their jobs, as all parcels will be delivered in the letter carrier’s area, with no overlap, and little or no weekend delivery. With such an increase in workload, Canada Post will be able to fulfill its dream of shedding jobs, increasing workload to extreme levels, and increase profitability. It will also make all of the routes interchangeable, bringing scientific management and full interoperability of employees to bear.

This is what happens with mechanization. It is not designed or procured to make the job better or easier, it manifests to destroy the job. Bosses get more productivity, workers get bent. But if mere profitability was the goal of these changes it would not be so huge an issue. Workers could soften out the edges through direct action and union activity, could pressure to company to redirect some of the increased profits back to our pay cheques. But this, of course, is not the company’s goal. What this modernization will do is make workers, again, interchangeable from one job to another. It transfers the skill of being a letter carrier from the workfloor to the boardroom. It eliminates a significant portion of our workforce. It further anatomizes workers from each-other, hampering solidarity and limiting job action – it is an attempt to break the union.

The cynical amongst you might rightly argue “so fucking what. The public makes more money, and I don’t have to deal with snooty union members delivering my bills.” Well, the long term goals of Canada Post are more ideological than business. Crown corporations are operative in a strange nether world where the goals of the company are often not profitability, but the elimination of the company itself. The goals of the Canada Post Corporation in this contract isn’t increasing profitability, but paving the way for a possible sale. As my friend who writes policy for a certain party noted, “selling Canada Post is like trying to get a kid with AIDS adopted. You want the kid, but not the disease. The union and the public are the disease, and we’re gonna give them retrovirals.”

Conservatives wax incessantly about “low taxes.” Therefore, aesthetically, the profitability of Canada Post should be a good reason to maintain our postal service as an intrinsic public good, as it comes with the side benefit of paying money to tax-payers. Such an assumption, however, belies the basic drives of “small-l” liberal government in this period of high capitalism. Nearly everything about our public Post Office runs against the basic ethos and interests of conservatives, specifically, and economic liberals of all stripes. Apart from the normative belly-aching about how the public should allow the market to decide everything, there are some very pointed arguments that pertain to dismantling public services. The big one is that if Canada Post were to be sold, someone would get very, very rich off the deal. Canada Post is worth billions of dollars, and few organisations have billions kicking about in cash with which to make such a purchase. Hence, if the corporation were sold, it would be at fire sale prices, the sort of prices which would make immediate liquidation of assets for a quick profit turn ludicrously easy. Furthermore, like most drives for privatisation, it would go from being a publically controlled and publically accountable semi-monopoly to a privately controlled, profit driven semi-monopoly. There is not going to be competition in the market, the barriers to entry are far too massive.

So if the goal of privatisation cannot be offering the public more or better services, or eliminating the “drain on the public purse” – Canada Post does the opposite – what then is the driving force of privatisation? This leads us back to the strike. Canada Post sets the basic wage for Canadian workers looking for a decent job. Since Canada Post employs workers literally everywhere in the country, every business must compete with the corporation for workers. If a boss is offering $18/hour for a “decent” job, then workers will head to Canada Post and get a job as a letter carrier. This is the main crux of the argument against Canada Post by employers: postal worker’s wages, as unionised workers, drives up the cost of labour for all Canadian employers, and any way to drop that wage would be tantamount to a massive tax cut – cum profit boost – for every employer in Canada. Currently the average wage for a (male) worker in Canada is $24.81, almost exactly what a postal worker earns, and getting that lowered gets every boss in the country salivating. A drop in postal wages would quickly lead to a big loss for all workers and increased profits: one more yacht, ten thousand more families in shitty housing. The war on posties is little more than low rent house-cleaning within the thinly veiled class war, a class war which has been driving down wages since the 1970’s, which, in an obscene inverse relationship, has seen worker productivity , business profits and CEO remuneration skyrocket. This is why the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses has been so callously vigorous in urging the CPC to impose a two-tier wage scale, where new hires would make ~70% of what a regular postal worker earns. It would lower wage competition, furthering the race to the bottom and lower wages for all working Canadians. This is great for employers, because then they can get richer off your bloody labour.

Apart from setting and maintaining wage standards, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers has made tremendous gains through direct action. If one looks at, say, the discrepancy between maternity leave in Canada and the United States, one could look at our less inhumane and more benignly misogynistic laws as reflective of Canada’s supposedly supplementary and “decent” social democracy. However, maternity laws in Canada and the United States were essentially the same until CUPW went on strike for 42 hard days to gain paid maternity leave in 1981. The law was changed to reflect a position closer to CUPW’s, not out of the state’s benevolence, but to prevent an outbreak of worker unrest demanding the same. CUPW has also been on the forefront of fighting against racism and sexism, queer, and later, transgender rights. Winning fights against the employer on issues of queer rights in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s produced safe(er) spaces for people to openly organise against harassment and bigotry, playing a not insignificant part in the long, and very incomplete fight against gender and sexuality-based oppression. That a whole bunch of lowly workers were able to band together to create real change that affected real workers in very real ways, completely outside of the electoral system was, and deeply remains, absolute anathema to the employing/political class. Workers should work, not fight. Independent workers’ organisations like CUPW, and their ability to make progress on significant issues of the working class like maternity leave is reason enough to limit the extent of their influence, and the idea to whether they should be extant at all.

In Edmonton, the bosses at the CPC were loathe to hire new workers, as they believed that the new postal regime would eliminate the need for new workers. This lead to a situation where, at many depots, the corporation was so short staffed that if not a single worker phoned in sick, the entirety of the work floor would be “forced back.” “Force back” is a situation that, under threat of firing, workers must finish their normal eight hour day, and then do another two hours of delivery, often in the dark and always in the cold. “Force back” was the absolute norm over the entire winter in Edmonton. It got to such a point that at Depot 9, the Whyte Avenue depot, workers got together on the shop floor and refused. The workers from Depot 9, alongside other depots in the city organised an Edmonton wide refusal of “force back,” outside of the union bureaucracy and against Labour Relations. They simply couldn’t work heavy days, in the dark, with the snow, cold and ice, anymore. Again, this sets a dangerous precedent for labour relations and industrial peace, as the direct action of the postal workers forced the bosses to hire hundreds of new workers, a situation independent to Edmonton. If workers stand up and fight back, like the building trades and their wildcat strikes in 2007, then there is a threat of discontent and direct action spreading, just like what we’ve seen in the Arab world. Working class cultures that engender actions like this are dangerous to the bosses absolute rule and must be reined in.

This, of course, leads us back to the original point. Why is CUPW on strike? Why has the membership of CUPW given our union a 94.6% strike mandate? Furthermore, why have posties in Edmonton organised internally to refuse forced overtime? The answer to all of these is a similar one: there is a war on workers, the working poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, the homeless. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The attacks on your postie are not a simple one of “posties vs. Canada Post.” The attacks on the friendly folks who walk your mail, deliver your parcels and send items around the world are part of a larger drive against Canadian, and international workers. The time to fight is now. Workers have been losing out for almost forty years, wages have been driving down, costs have gone through the roof and income disparity between the rich and the poor is approaching levels seen in the late 19th century. If we don’t stand up and fight, we’ll lose everything. And if posties lose, so do a lot of normal working people, and we’ve lost for long enough. That’s why when this goes to print, the only place you might see your letter-carrier walking is on the picket line, and it’s also why you should come too.