We Want to Deliver

April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

When a member of parliament stepped out of her office one morning this winter and tripped over an unclaimed box dumped on her doorstep, she saw it as a threat, a desperate plea for help from the post office, or yet another complaint about the mail.

For months, Michelle Simson, MP for Scarborough Southwest, had been inundated with complaints about the postal service. Starting last September, local residents flooded her office with upwards of ten phone calls, emails and letters daily, concerned that their mail wasn’t being delivered on time, it was coming at “bizarre” hours – as late as ten o’clock at night – or it wasn’t being delivered at all for weeks on end. One street complained that an entire day’s mail had been switched with another street’s a block over. In late January, she received an anonymous email from someone who claimed to be a postal worker and wrote that if she could somehow get into her local postal depot, she’d find “thousands upon thousands” of Christmas letters and packages dated back three and four weeks.

“At first I thought sabotage,” says Simson. She considered the possibility of a “rogue” carrier dumping or hoarding the mail, but after talking to fellow Scarborough MPs Martha Hall Findlay and John McKay, she realized the problem was city-wide. After the Globe and Mail published an article about a dental clinic in her riding that hadn’t received mail for a week, the public thrust her into the role of unofficial postal liaison. Calls and emails poured in from Manitoba and New Brunswick and the problem became country-wide. In early February, she got one more irregular delivery. A flyer dropped in her mailbox on a Saturday morning read:

WE WANT TO DELIVER

In September 2010 Canada Post implemented a change to the routes serviced by this location. Since then the mail has been delivered late in the day, or not at all for a week or two. Employees are ordered to work up to 12 hour days, and still can not deliver all the mail. Employees are working through breaks and lunches, they don’t want to work 12 hours a day five days a week.

The information for the Member of Parliament for the areas impacted is listed below if you wish to voice your concerns.

We want to deliver your mail every day and on time. We apologize to you as customers, but we are not responsible for decisions by management that impact your service.

Yours Truly,

Mike Duquette, President, Scarborough Local

Frustrated that she had become a ”clearinghouse for complaints,” she invited Canada Post to a caucus meeting to provide a public explanation for its widespread restructuring kinks, and the result was a “dog and pony show. They gave me the media line.” She concluded, “if they’re treating the workers like they’re treating the customers – like idiots – then they’re working towards something that neither of us are going to like.”

Simson had “done every possible conventional thing” she could as an MP: nothing helped. So she did something unconventional. She examined the box at her feet. It wasn’t even remotely addressed to her office or anywhere else on the street. She Googled the address of rightful owner, walked the box through snow and sleet and hail to its rightful home, and placed it in the doorway, behind the screen. She didn’t wait for a signature.

Despite its size and the complexity of its operations, Canada Post has two simple mandates: to be reliable and to stay out of deficit. Unfortunately, as the country grows but relies less and less on the postal system, those two mandates have begun to clash.

Every year, Canadians add 200,000 new points of call to the postal network, which is already the largest in the world in terms of service area. But even though Canada’s population is growing, mail volume has steadily declined since the turn of this century. In the past two years alone, letter mail decreased by 11.4%. Despite our waning affection for snail mail, however, Canada Post – consistent with its second mandate – has posted a steady profit for the past 15 years, and it’s achieved this by cutting staff and contracting out its labour in call and retail centres.

While points of call multiply and spread at the rate of suburban sprawl, Canada Post’s workforce is dwindling. The remaining 54,000 plant workers, letter carriers and drivers are faced with the burden of distributing less mail through a larger and larger network every year. Over the next five years, Canada Post will spend $2.5 billion on the corporation’s first modernization program in 40 years. All of its sorting facilities will be expanded, many of the plant staff will be replaced with machines, and letter carriers will spend two to three hours longer delivering the mail, every day. It’s called Postal Transformation, and Canada Post claims it’s the only way to ensure a profit.

At the same time, the Crown corporation proposed to re-negotiate its contract with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) in November, to introduce a new type of employee into the workforce: one who works for less pay, delivers to more houses, and will do the work of a driver, a letter carrier, and a parcel delivery person all in one. The negotiation could rollback the working conditions and benefits of its employees to pre-1970 standards, before mail volumes– and union bargaining power – peaked.

Amidst the international backdrop of Wisconsin’s anti-union legislation in February, and various local efforts across Canada to contract out public services; with union membership steadily declining, CUPW threatened its first strike in 14 years. The union’s success or failure will depend on – and indicate – how much we still rely on daily, door-to-door delivery, and how much of that dependence is simply

Inside the Scarborough Southwest postal station, as in depots across the country, in New Brunswick and Manitoba, letter carriers waged their own battle against staffing cutbacks and route restructures that Canada Post did not negotiate, and they fought back using a familiar medium: the letter.

It’s 9 a.m. in depot 11 and Mark Della Vella’s in full sweat. He’s got 300 pounds of mail in his case – a vertical rack of pigeonholes that mashes the addresses on his route into a neat grid – and he has to bundle it all into elastic-wrapped packets for each of the 500 residences and businesses he’ll deliver to today. His supervisor calls through the PA system from the office five feet in front of him to a speaker on the roof behind his head: Please have your mail in the trucks by 9:20 a.m. Please be advised that 9:20 is cut-off time today.

The carrier beside him pokes his head into Mark’s case. “Sort faster,” he jibes. Mark’s hands work a fast maze down the front of his case, pulling out packs of letters, flyers and magazines in a pattern he says takes six months to memorize and a year to perfect. He’s been on the route for eight months. Mark shakes his head and mops his eyebrow with his forearm. “Okay. Now it’s crunch time,” he says. His hands work faster.

The mail looks different today than it did in 2001, when Mark started. The cases are crammed with flyers. There are few magazines for the affluent neighbourhoods and almost none at all for the poorer areas. Mark counts four personal letters today.His case also looks different than it did when he started. For one, it’s been fitted with two extra wings of cubbyholes, and even those accommodate the mail for up to three residences. The sorting can be confusing when the mail is doubled and tripled up, and he’s cut thin separators out of some spare plastic sheets he found lying around the depot and inserts one into each.

The postie’s case is his office, and he can spend up to half his shift inside the station on a busy day. Mark’s decorated his with a shrine to the old-timey post office; there’s a teddy bear with a Canada Post T-shirt and a Dinky Toy Canada Post truck circa 1965. Other carriers have taped up pictures of their kids, old Christmas cards, and letters from customers that read, “Where does the mail go? – Signed Ginette. P.S. PLEASE TELL ME.”

Next year, the routes will get even longer, and Canada Post has designed new cases that wrap almost entirely around the carrier’s body. Most of the mail will be sequenced by machine and the letter carrier will spend no more than an hour inside the station, and five to six hours on the street, delivering to almost twice as many points of call as today.

At 9:18, he wraps up the last bundle, throws it into a duffel bag and tosses it onto the floor with five others. He collapses on his stool and leans back for a cat stretch. He slips off the Crocs he wears for the sort, and selects a pair of navy blue Adidas cross-trainers from a rack of shoes on the floor.  Another announcement cracks through the loudspeaker: Have a safe day.

The population of Scarborough Southwest, where Mark works and Michelle Simson serves, has dropped by about 6% since 2001, and during the 2008 and 2009 recession, mail volumes plummeted disproportionately.  Generally, the post office reassesses the routes in all its stations once every five years or so, to reflect the changing composition of Canada’s neighbourhoods. After ten years without a restructure, depot 11 was long overdue. In June 2010, a Canada Post restructure officer descended on Scarborough Southwest and assessed the routes according to reduced mail volumes.

Mail routes are measured punctiliously – every step; every stair; every opening of a screen door or the lifting of a mail flap is accounted for, and the route is assigned time values for each of those tasks. Traditionally, time values were calculated by hand, which meant that a restructure officer or station superintendent physically walked the route with a surveyor’s wheel in tow. Three years ago, Canada Post switched from the old analog way to GeoRoute software that calculated the time values for the route automatically. Anyone who’s used a GPS system to navigate through a rural area and been directed to drive into a body of water will understand how GeoRoute software can make some pretty strange assessments. At one point, the software dictates that Mark walk a kilometer along a main road with no mail, bypass three bus stops, and then catch the bus at the fourth back to the station for his lunch break. The new software also came with new transparency guidelines for Canada Post. That is, there are no longer any transparency guidelines.Whereas before, CUPW representatives could access the route structure lists in the station, they now have no access whatsoever to the rationale behind some of the deeply strange routes that have afflicted depot 11.

To add to the station’s problems, winter this year was unusually long and harsh, and carriers who started the extended routes in September were burnt out by the time Christmas hit. Injuries had almost doubled throughout the station. As employees fell away to sick leave, those left standing were forced to work overtime to cover the routes that had been left unstaffed. Those routes were often neglected for days and weeks on end, either waiting for their owners to come back and deliver 10 to 15 times their regular load of mail, or they were divvied up between carriers who had already finished a full shift. Injuries multiplied, and the mail kept piling up.

A little after ten, the TTC drops us into a humble 1960s suburb of bungalows. Mark likes the morning sorting, but here’s where he feels what he calls the “heart and soul” of the operation. And there’s a lot of it. After just eight months on the route, he knows the names of the dogs he crosses and pets the ones he trusts. He peeks behind the counter of a local convenience store and waves at the toddler sleeping beneath. He knows the posties who live on the route and the customers who complained when their mail didn’t come regularly over the winter.

Overwhelmingly, though, he wants to talk about his old route, which he walked for eight years before the restructure. It takes a few years to really get to know a neighbourhood and Mark calls himself a “nester.” He talks so much about his old walk, in fact, that we finally break down and drive there during his lunch break. It’s a hilly, landscaped suburb near Victoria Park and the Danforth, next to the Warden Woods Ravine, where deer sometimes trot by in the early mornings.  We park near the gatehouse of an upscale retirement condo community and look through the gate. For the most part, posties look for the same thing everybody else does in a community: “affluence, friendliness, a Land Rover in every driveway – that’s the dream,” says Mark. It’s here that he MC’d the annual Christmas party two years ago (and where he collected nearly $2000 in Christmas tips); it’s here he dropped off a farewell card to every resident on the route after the restructure, despite strict Canada Post rules prohibiting it.

Mark didn’t intend to make a career out of letter carrying, but at some point along this route, he did. He got the job through his own letter carrier, upon moving back to his parents’ house after a year at college for industrial design. For the first two or three years, he didn’t take the job that seriously. “I was still a kid,” he says. “I drank and smoked on the route, I showed up to work in all kinds of conditions.” He cultivated the ironic air of the friendly neighbourhood mailman, ordering vintage Canada Post jackets and T-shirts over the Internet. If Ralph Kramden from the Honeymooners were a letter carrier and not a bus driver, that’s who Mark wanted to be.

But it wasn’t until he went to the funeral of the property manager at this complex that Mark realized he had become a career postie. “I cried at that funeral,” he says, “and then I realized how much I liked my customers. And my job.” He also cried on the last day he pulled up to this gate to deliver the mail. “I know it sounds melodramatic,” he says, “but it really was like a death in the family; it was surreal. As the leaves fell off the trees, so did my…. I don’t know. That route popped my cherry.”

But while Mark was deciding to become a career postie, Canada Post was realizing it could no longer afford him. Over the next ten years, nearly half the country’s letter carriers will retire from Canada Post with full pensions and benefits. If Mark stays with the corporation until he can legally retire at 60, after 37 years on the job, he’ll collect nearly $3,000 per month. Multiply that by 20,000 – that’s the burden Canada Post is facing.

Historically, employment at the post office has occurred in spurts – one after the second world war; one in the late 70s when the postwar cohort retired; and one wave that began in the late 2000s and will peak around 2015. Few intend to stay at the post office their whole working lives, but many do, because it’s one of the last remaining blue-collar jobs that can support a family and supply good benefits. However, as one Toronto station superintendent put it, “Canada Post is an employer of last resort. It’s death to a resume.” Letter carrying is not a transferrable skill.

I know something about this. Enamored with the idea of manual labour, I applied for a job at Canada Post after high school. In 2002, already planning for Postal Transformation and the motorization of its letter carriers, Canada Post had begun to reject all applicants without a clean drivers abstract. So I applied for a job at a local courier company and became a “metropass courier,” meaning that I delivered rush packages throughout Toronto by transit. It was one of the best jobs I ever had – I met my husband there and my thoughts were my own – but I couldn’t live off the wages. In the summer, when business was slow, I made as little as five dollars a day. For a few months in late 2008 and early 2009, CUPW organized a unionization campaign aimed at urban courier companies. My former employer waged an aggressive counterattack at the dispatching office, and in March 2009, the employees settled for vacation pay and free turkeys at Christmas, on the condition that the vacation pay could be revoked at any time and without notice. In April 2009, my husband quit and went back to school.

This is the vision former Canada Post CEO Moya Greene had in mind when she met with National CUPW director Gerry Deveaux in 2008 to discuss Postal Transformation. “Moya’s vision was like a courier company: people come to Canada Post at 25, work for five or ten years, and then leave without collecting a pension,” he explains.

It raises the question: where would they go? Under the current union contract, Canada Post is obligated to accommodate its injured workers. First, afflicted workers apply for modified duties through the union. They work the apartment buildings and community mailboxes, where the legwork is lighter. If their health declines further, they move to inside duties, as registration clerks – the people who scan and catalog the packages that come back to the station undelivered – or retail clerks. Besides one or two per nine stations, registration clerks will be phased out in Postal Transformation. As for retail clerks, Canada Post has contracted out over 2,000 of those positions across the country since the mid-1980s. The only place left for the injured and aging career postie is at the sorting facilities and distribution centres like Gateway.

Gateway is a one million square foot sorting facility in Mississauga. It processes almost two billion packages per year. It’s also one of the last glue factories for decommissioned posties, to put it bluntly, and it feels like it. Compared to the healthy banter and irregular clatter of depot 11 in the morning, the plant has a constant hum that makes conversation just uncomfortable enough to bear. There are charming nooks tucked away in the odd corner, where bookish-looking women with bifocals around their necks named Debra and Eleanor investigate mis-labelled mail, messy handwriting and addresses written in indecipherable scripts. In another corner, a woman lovingly applies tape to the packages that fall through the machines or burst open spontaneously.

But then there are assembly line-like sorting machines that Canada Post bought used from USPS over thirty years ago and that a spokesman for Canada Post says were so nearly obsolete that the corporation was buying parts for them on eBay. On a smoke break, I sit with the operators of those machines in a gazebo on the front lawn while they recite a catalog of occupational injuries to their necks, shoulders and wrists. In a syllable, as one machine operator articulates it, it’s “grim.”

I rejoin my guide, a short, springy floor supervisor with doll cheeks named Chandra Ramsucht, as well as a staff trainer and the corporation’s latest hire who’s being primed for telephone sales. A forklift operator passes by and Ramsucht flags him down. When he shakes hands with the new hire, he says, “Sales, huh? I didn’t think we had a sales department anymore.”

Our final stop on the tour is the first element of Postal Transformation, the unromantically named “package sorter.” It consists of a complex network of conveyor belts that would compare to a rollercoaster if only the belts moved faster. Packages are piled on from a loading dock on the ceiling, and they wrestle for space on the conveyor belts high above our heads. Sometimes letters fall into the packages by accident, and for ten minutes I watch one flail in the spokes between two sections of belt. Boxes and Fragipaks pause inside a glass box at intervals along the route and have their postal code pictures taken. In this section of the plant, the background noise is so loud I have to yell my questions directly into the machine operator’s ear.

“SO THIS IS POSTAL TRANSFORMATION?”

(Nods.) “THIS MACHINE REPLACED 16 PEOPLE!”

Chandra gestures toward a door and we pass through a silent room that looks a bit like a high school computer lab. At monitors lined up along three walls, operators work away at an infinite typing test as the pictures of postal codes flash on the screen. The operators have six seconds to key in the postal codes before they flash off the screen and a new set appears. It’s possible a package could circle around the plant on those assembly lines for hours before its postal code gets read. Possibly it could circle forever.

On the way out, something unlikely – a miracle – occurs. We pass by a loading dock and I happen to glance at a four-by-four foot solid cube of packages on their way to the US via a FedEx plane. I discover, amongst the nearly two million packages that will travel through that alien plant today, a package from a friend. The package isn’t addressed to me, unfortunately, but I know what’s inside it. My friend sews and prints T-shirts from scratch and sells them on eBay. I know how much work went into the contents of that little packet that looks like a sprawled squirrel atop a thousand similar bubble-wrapped packages. I know what’s at stake.

According to a 2008 CUPW poll, Canadians trust the postal system more than any other Crown corporation or government department in the country – even more than the military. I’ve never thought twice about tossing a letter into a mailbox on any corner in any city in any country with a hastily guessed postal code or street name. I’ve sent letters to my sister in Swizzlestick, Swissyland, Schweizerland, and Sweden, and they’ve never failed to end up at her home in Switzerland. On postcards, I always write into top three address bars and trust that a postal employee, somewhere, will take the time to read the street name and postal code crammed into the bottom line.

The trust we have in email is easier to come by than the trust we build in people. The latter takes longer, and it takes more investment. The trust we’ve built up with our postal system took more than time to build. It took money. A 1929 version of the Postal Department’s mandate reads, “the cost of this new service [the post office] may exceed many fold the revenue obtained, but, viewed from the standpoint of nation-building, it is good business. It will thus be seen that the post office accomplishes many things for which credit cannot be taken on a balance sheet.”

Compare that statement with Canada Post advisor, Robert Campbell’s opinion of the situation today: “If the public still want the post office to serve a social function, the public will have to pay for it.”

The sun is sinking, and Mark’s got a few streets to go. He climbs 3,400 steps per day – only 150 steps short of a climb up the CN tower and back down again. He takes shortcuts across a few lawns, rests between steps and shuffles up stairs one by one to save the extra pressure on his knees. If he looks like Kramden, he says he channels Charles Bukowski more often lately. He’s only 33, but has severe arthritis in both knees. He visits a chiropractor regularly, wears a knee brace, changes shoes and orthopedic inserts every six months but nothing’s helped. “My doctor said, ‘You only have so many steps in a lifetime,’” he says, “’and you’ve already used yours up.’”

While labour standards in the workplace have consistently improved since Canada Post first unionized in 1918, the street is an inherently unpredictable workplace, and the injury rate will never go down. While trade factories, warehouses, kitchens, and workshops consistently improve their workplace safety standards, the letter carrier’s job will never get any safer than it is now. In consequence, letter carrying and couriering are fast becoming some of the most injury-prone professions in Canada. According to Mike Duquette, one in four letter carriers experiences a form of lost-time injury every year in Canada.

And when the mail gets unpredictable, the job gets even more dangerous. In February, a man from Scarborough North was surrounded and then chased by a mob of angry customers outside a public housing building – he was late delivering their welfare checks. A Toronto carrier reported customers leaving spit and dirty diapers in the mail slot for him over Christmas when his station wasn’t supplied with relief workers.

Frustrated and exhausted, one carrier sent an email to his MP, advising her that if she could somehow find a way into the Scarborough Southwest station, she’d find “thousands upon thousands” of backdated mail that had been waiting to go out since Christmas. Another carrier asked union Vice President, Cathy Beth, to write a letter to the depot’s customers. The idea was to flood the feisty MP’s office with complaints and prompt her to do something about it, if the standard, slow methods of grievances and arbitration could not persuade Canada Post.

Michelle Simson arrives in her office at 9:10 on a Friday morning in mid-March. She’s just arrived back in Toronto from Ottawa, and as she hangs up her coat and pulls out her briefcase from under the desk, the phone rings.

“Michelle Simson.”

“Hi, I got this flyer…I want to make a complaint about my mail service lately?”

She takes out her pen. Each complaint call takes about ten minutes to record, but she transcribes them all and forwards them to Canada Post. At the end of the phone call, she puts her pen aside and pulls out her laptop. She starts writing.

She writes another letter to Canada Post, asking them yet again to please explain what is going on at the Scarborough Southwest postal depot and what it plans to do about it. She writes yet another letter to her fellow Scarborough MPs Martha Hall Findlay and John McKay, urging them to help her pressure Canada Post to do something about the poor mail service in the Scarborough Southwest postal district. And finally, she sends a letter to the local newspaper, the Bluffs Monitor. She writes, “I cannot stress strongly enough that I find this lack of prompt service and subsequent failure to provide appropriate causation or communication both unprofessional and unacceptable on the part of Canada Post….I will continue to fight and hold Canada Post accountable for the service they provide.”

A week later, Canada Post announces it will hire and train 12 new casual carriers at depot 11, effective immediately.

“…That’s when we say, we made Canada Post profitable, and they’re not going to stay profitable on our back!…”

Denis Lemelin, CUPW National President, is pumping his fists at the podium in a conference room at Scarborough Delta Hotel. There’s a custom-made Scarborough Local flag pinned up on the wall behind him. He speaks haltingly, in a thick French accent. Six hundred postal workers fresh from a shift overflow the seating area and line the back and side walls. Their faces, which looked healthy and flushed in a shabby postal depot, now seem hard; wind-whipped and sun-burnt from a collective thousands of seasons spent outdoors. Mark taps on my knee and passes me the list of CUPW’s 99 bargaining demands. “They shouldn’t really call them demands,” he says. “They’re not really demands if you’re not asking for anything new.”

“…And we have to be clear that everyone who is working here is guaranteed that security too. That’s all they always say. They always want to cut, and make profits, and make the corporation profitable on our backs...”

Mark: “The union is in big, big, big trouble.”

“…And in the beginning. In the beginning, we said no to that. We said no, you won’t make the profit of Canada Post on the backs of the workers. For five months and more we said that, since the first meeting with Canada Post we said that. And I think that’s what we said to them today. They are doing it wrong. They are doing it the wrong way…. But we say GIVE money. GIVE money to services that can be used, to inVEST, in services, that can inVEST, in jobs for the future workers at Canada Post. “

Lemelin bows, and the crowd claps fervently. He gestures to Mike Duquette and Cathy Beth, who stand to a standing ovation. CUPW staff hand out strike ballots which ask, “Do you support the unanimous recommendation of the National Executive Board regarding the strike mandate?” Yes ( ) No ( ). 98% of the membership checks yes. It’s the highest “Yes” vote in CUPW history.

On his way out, Mark turns to me. “The thing is, we’ve only got one more, two more generations left, until nobody cares about the post office anymore, and then that’s it. We’re done…. Why’s everybody in such a fucking hurry, anyways?”

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