A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
To be honest, I haven’t written a letter in over twenty years. I haven’t mailed a cheque since the last century. I don’t buy stamps anymore, and the only thing I get delivered regularly to my house is a magazine subscription that never seems to run out. The post office and I don’t interact except on occasional mornings when I say hi to the letter carrier and ask her, “How’s it going?” So why am I upset about a postal strike?
Like most Canadians I have a love/hate relationship with Canada Post. I rarely use their services but when I do, I want them to perform perfectly. I hate junk mail, but I want the post office to pay for itself without my tax dollars. I think letter carriers have a cushy job, but you don’t see me hauling a heavy bag of pizza flyers around in the pouring rain. And I’m shocked that it costs… (What does it cost?) … to mail a letter to New Brunswick, but I’m willing pay 10 times that much to follow celebrity gossip on my smart phone. The thing is Canada Post does a really good job providing a service that very few people need anymore. I’m worried that the union is going to destroy it before it can evolve into something useful again.
Here’s a brief history of the post office. It doesn’t cover everything and it isn’t even totally true, but — trust me — most Canadians see it this way. In the way back days, Canada Post was a valuable part of the Canadian landscape. People wrote letters to each other. They corresponded (it was like being connected but way more elaborate.) It was the way friends and families shared their news, photographs and ideas. Getting a letter was a big deal, and people had penpals for the specific purpose of writing to each other. When people went on vacation, they sent postcards home. At Christmas time, Canadians sent millions of cards to each other, just to say hi once a year. It was the way people communicated — especially over long distances — because everybody could afford stamps. Kids sent away for stuff that came in the mail. Household bills were sent and paid by mail. There were mail order catalogues and mail-in coupons. It was an accepted way to do business. This went on for decades.
Somewhere in the 60s going on 70s, the post office, a stalwart institution for a century, started to lose credibility. There were tons of reasons for this, but it was mostly because escalating costs had to be passed on to the public — somehow. Postal rates had to be increased and postal service had to be decreased — just to balance the books. At the same time, however, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) who may or may not be called militant (depending on which side of the picket line you’re on) began flexing its muscles to get higher pay and better working conditions for its members. The result was a series of strikes and slowdowns that stalled our country’s ability to communicate and do business. It also soured the public’s relationship with the post office. Ordinary people saw the union as the bad guy — a greedy loose cannon — willing and able to hold the entire country up for ransom in order to get what they wanted. It didn’t help that most of the union bluster usually came during the last 17 shopping days before Christmas every year, either. Over the course of the next decade, Canada Post devolved into a necessary evil, and very few people (who didn’t work there) had a good word to say about them. The problem was, as the corporation tried desperately to stop the bleeding ($600 million deficit in 1981 alone) CUPW didn’t relent. In reality, the exploding costs weren’t always the union’s fault — but the public saw it that way — and nobody down at CUPW saw the writing on the wall.
People started bypassing Canada Post if they wanted anything important done. Businesses used courier services, people sent parcels by UPS or Greyhound, and lower long distance rates encouraged Aunt May to call (instead of write) when she had news. Then along came fax machines, e-mail and the Internet. By the mid 90s, Canada Post was irrelevant to the vast majority of Canadians.
Today, Canada Post has seriously rebounded. By their own account, they handle 40 million pieces of mail a day, over the largest postal area in the world. They actually make a profit every year. Canada Post (and the people who work there) are doing a good job. In order to guarantee that my never-ending magazine subscription would continue to show up every month Canada Post took the ingenious step of becoming one of the largest purveyors of advertising in the country. It’s that junk mail we all know and despise; that’s what’s paying the bills. However, this is not going to go on forever because the cash cow is drying up. Canada is one of the most connected countries in the world — mainly because mail service had been so unreliable. As businesses look to catch the next generation’s demographics and lower their advertising costs, they’re turning away from printing expensive paper flyers, delivered — day after day — to your door. They’re going to the Internet faster than Canada Post can replace the lost revenue. Our post office is slowly softening to death.
Unfortunately, the dinosaurs at the CUPW still think it’s 1965. They believe in the antagonistic relationship between labour and management. They don’t understand times have changed. The downtrodden workers of the 40s and 50s have retired. Canada Post isn’t a Third World sweatshop and everybody knows it. After all these years, the CUPW has little or no credibility with regular Canadians. It’s going to be very difficult for them to convince the public that workers at Canada Post are getting the shaft. Canada Post isn’t essential anymore, and any job action will be met with indifference, at best. A strike of any magnitude will irreparably damage Canada Post – the reason the CUPW exists in the first place. Instead of sticking to their 19th century trade union guns, they should be trying to reinvent themselves for the 21st century.
Personally, I’m upset because I like the post office. I don’t want to see it go under. It’s part of what I grew up with. If I have to read my magazine online, I’ll do it, but I’m old enough (and nostalgic enough) to hate to see a time when Canadians no longer say, “Hey, did we get any mail?”