Canadian Union of Postal Workers

I was recently reading a Maclean’s article. The article essentially states that the postal workers are over paid and get too many benefits, therefore they shouldn’t strike. In addition, it suggests that we should take this time to consider how over bloated they are (due to less mail delivery), and thus downsize them.

The article:

Rain or snow or sleet or hail can’t disrupt the mail. But what rhymes with seven weeks of annual paid vacation, out-of-whack pay scales or infinitely bankable sick days?

While the rotating strike by workers at Canada Post has proven to be a hardship for many Canadian businesses, it is also shining necessary light on the massive disparity between postal employees and workers in the private sector. Outside of bureaucrats in France, it is hard to imagine a more coddled, out-of-touch and overcompensated group than postal workers.

Canada Post’s efforts to bring labour costs in line with common sense, modern technology and market rates should be supported regardless of the strike’s immediate implications. A successful conclusion to this strike might even spark a broader rationalization across all Crown corporations and government operations.

By any objective measure, a job at the post office is well-rewarded, despite the weather. Research by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in 2008 found postal workers enjoyed a 17 per cent wage premium over comparable private sector jobs. The current offer from Canada Post would raise wages by 7.4 per cent, on a cumulative basis, over the next four years. Union officials are demanding 11.55 per cent—a massive increase for workers who are already demonstrably overcompensated.

As with most sinecures, however, the real advantage to working at Canada Post is in the benefits. Postal workers currently accumulate sick days at the rate of 15 per year, with no maximum. The extent of this bottomless bank of sick days is illustrated by a recent Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) bulletin that offered up the apocryphal example of “Narinda,” who has “402 days of sick leave credit.” Canada Post is sensibly proposing to buy out this improbable inventory; Narinda would receive $3,000 cash for her hoard of sick days.

Then there is the matter of paid vacation. Current full-time Canada Post employees are eligible for up to seven weeks of holiday, a prospect far beyond imagination for most in the workaday world. And the pension plan has an unfunded liability of $3.2 billion.

The business of mail delivery has changed dramatically since the last postal strike in 1997. The advent of electronic bill payment, email and the rest of the digital revolution has led to a 17 per cent decline in letter mail volume since 2006.

Canada Post’s sensible strategy is to establish a more reasonable pay and benefits system for workers in this declining industry—but only for new hires. Other than replacing the absurd sick-day bank (which Canada Post has offered to refer to binding arbitration), full-time postal workers would keep all their existing wages and benefits, whether appropriate or not. New employees would have a lower starting wage, receive six weeks of vacation instead of seven, and subscribe to a different pension plan.

Canada Post’s offer is reminiscent of the deal given North American dockworkers when intermodal shipping containers revolutionized the stevedore business in the 1960s. Existing workers had their jobs, wages and benefits protected for the extent of their careers, but anyone hired after the deal was signed was expected to accept reality. It seemed more than fair back then. The same logic should apply today.

While disputing the decline in mail volume and continuing to make unrealistic demands on wages and benefits, the postal union is nonetheless seeking new ways to hold the Canadian economy hostage: CUPW has called on Canada Post to expand into banking and finance. The prospect of rotating bank strikes is no doubt pleasing to union organizers. Not so for the rest of the country.

Of course the current postal dispute has significance far beyond the future of letter mail or the ambitions of Canada Post and its union. The gap between private and public sector compensation has now reached crisis proportions, and must be addressed for the sake of equity, affordability and coherent labour peace.

One example of how large and untenable this gap has become can be found in Statistics Canada’s recent observation that public sector employees now constitute a majority of all pension plan participants, despite being outnumbered more than three to one in the workforce. This suggests two types of retirement in the future: one of carefree luxury for public sector employees, and one of reduced expectations for everyone else. A similar dichotomy is at work with Ontario’s practice of paying a bonus to every corrections staffer who takes fewer than 23 sick days per year.

A postal strike seems as good a time as any to start imposing a new sense of reality on the public sector.

Essentially the article focuses only on the benefits and wages, and perhaps suggests the mail should be handled by a private company (maybe I read too much into that).

I also don’t understand their logic: since public employees have it good, and private employees don’t, we should bring down the public employees. WHAT? As someone in the comment section wrote:

“Why shouldn’t a private sector employee recieve a bankable sick time program? It seems to me that too many people think it is a bad thing for hard working employees to recieve a good pension, sick time, vacation leave, etc., instead of realizing that the public sector is what is bad. Just because your job doesn’t offer these things to you doesn’t mean they are wrong, it just means your employer’s are profitting more and giving less to its employees. And isn’t that wrong?
The Ceo of Canada Post makes almost 500k a year plus bonus’. It is still a very profittable organization due to online shopping, advertising, plus very necessary for small business owners. I personally do not believe that it is wrong for there employee’s to stand there ground on better wages for new emoployee’s, good benefits and vacation time (we all could use more). With the cost of living rising so drastically how can we possibly say it’s okay for younger people to except less pay. How will they ever be able to afford to buy houses or raise families. Too many work places are doing this and the outcome for the future generations scares me.”

Anyways,  I found this short piece about myths and facts about the postal system, which I liked:

There’s nothing like a postal dispute to bring out the harbingers of “the death of the letter” and even the post office. Right wing groups tend to come out of the woodwork as well. They pounce on the opportunity to advance their view of a postal world where competition prevails and everything magically improves. As a rule, there’s a lot of rhetoric and talk about productivity, volumes and much more. Much gets said during a postal strike and quite a bit of it is bunk.

POSTAL MYTH #1: No one writes or sends letters.

It is true that lettermail volumes are declining slowly. But the letter is by no means dead and buried. In fact, transaction or lettermail volumes are 10 per cent higher than they were in 1997, the last time CUPW went on strike (Source: Canada Post annual reports).

POSTAL MYTH #2: Postage rates are too high.

Our 59 cent stamp is one of the biggest bargains in the industrialized world. People in Japan pay the equivalent of 94 cents Canadian to send a standard domestic letter. In Austria, they pay 88 cents and in Germany they pay 78 cents (Source: Japan Post, Austrian Post and Deutsche Post).

The real price of a stamp has actually decreased since Canada Post was set up as a Crown corporation in October of 1981. At the time, the government of the day established a 30 cent stamp because the post office was losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The price of a stamp has increased 96.7 per cent since this time (January 1982 to March 2011) while the consumer price index has increased by 128.8 per cent over the same period.

POSTAL MYTH #3: Canada Post is a drain on the public purse.

The truth is that the post office and postal workers do not cost the public money. Canada Post has made $1.7 billion in the last 15 years and paid $1.2 billion in dividends and income tax to the federal government. By keeping Canada Post profitable, postal workers actually save the public money (Source: Canada Post annual reports).

POSTAL MYTH #4: Canada Post has low productivity.

Canada Post is very productive. Unlike many companies, Canada Post has significantly increased productivity in the last two years. For example, mail processing productivity levels for transaction mail have increased by 6.7 per cent (Source: Canada Post through Appendix P of our contract). That is, the number of pieces of mail processed per paid hour has gone up. In addition, the number of workers has gone down. The corporation has cut staff to compensate for the decline in mail volumes. Proportionately, the cuts to staff have been greater than the decline in volumes. The corporation is also expecting large productivity gains from its $2 billion modernization program. Canada Post’s high productivity has allowed it to keep postage rates low, make profits and put substantial dividends and income tax into public coffers.

In short, don’t believe everything you hear or read during a postal strike. Check the facts first. You can normally find them on your local bulletin board or CUPW’s website. Watch for ‘Postal myths – Part 2’ in the days to come.

Finally, I had a talk with my Mom recently (well, several months ago), about my work with the Hamilton District Labour Council, and she was talking about how unions are evil. I was once again flabbergasted by the difference in opinion my Mother and I had. I recently found an article that touched on this issue, so I thought I’d share it with you. The title is “Fast Facts: How Unions Protect Our Human Rights”

Unions are usually thought of as being about higher wages.  It’s true. Unions do produce higher wages for their members (and often, as a result of knock-on effects, for other workers as well).  As of April 2011, for example, the 200,000 Manitoba workers covered by collective agreements earned an average hourly wage of $24.57, 30 percent above the $19.00 earned by workers not covered by collective agreements. Unionized workers also get better benefits.

Many people, including trade union members, see that as the end of the story.   But unions do much more than this, and while wages and benefits are important, the other things unions do may be even more so.

Perhaps of greater importance is that unions bring the rule of law and the rights that go with it into the workplace.  Without a union, management can treat employees arbitrarily. With a union they cannot. They are constrained in their actions by the legal contract—the collective agreement—agreed to by the union (on behalf of its members) and the employer.  That contract, the product of negotiations between union and employer, places limits on the potentially arbitrary exercise of power by employers, and empowers union members to defend themselves against abuses in the workplace.

A good example of how important such rights can be is the recent case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and potential candidate for the Presidency of France, and a New York hotel worker.

The initial focus of the media’s coverage of the alleged sexual assault charge brought against Strauss-Kahn was on the implications for him, and on his arrest and treatment by the New York police and justice system. Subsequently, questions were raised about the implications for the IMF.  The media were largely silent about the situation of the New York hotel worker and the circumstances that motivated her to report the sexual assault.

A piece posted on Alternet, May 19, 2011 (see: http://www.alternet.org/story/151022), titled “Accusing DSK of Sexual Assault Took Guts – But Union Protection is Essential”, reports that the victim of the alleged assault is an African woman from a former French colony who works as a housemaid in the Sofitel Hotel.  It is, of course, a story far from over. But the author observes that there would be no story at all if the housemaid were not protected by her union contract.  “There’s a reason why most rapes go unreported.  But there was one thing the housekeeper knew could not be done to her for reporting her account.  She could not be fired for having done so, because of the contract between her union, the New York Hotel Trades Council and the Sofitel Hotel at which she works.”

An editorial in the New York Hotel and Motel Trades paper also stresses the importance of union membership.  “In the worldwide hotel industry, New York City has the highest proportion of unionization (75%), and hotel employees here have the strongest union with the best contract.  They enjoy the highest wages in the industry, excellent benefits, strong job security, good working conditions, and powerful grievance rights.  They also have a militant union – their own organization, governed and funded not by wealthy donors but by themselves – that aggressively enforces those rights.”

The burden of both the Alternet article and the union editorial is that “the union does make us strong,” both collectively and individually, by creating the conditions that allow workers who suffer abuse in the workplace to retain their dignity and seek redress and justice for the harm done them.

A Dirty Little Secret

It is generally believed that employers don’t like unions because they raise wages and improve benefits and working conditions. However, experience in the USA since the Second World War and in Canada in recent decades suggests that the decisive motivating force in employers’ animosity to unions is that they lose the right to treat employees in an arbitrary fashion. Unions empower workers to protect themselves from abuse (unfair dismissal, discrimination, etc.) by employers and, as in this case, sexual assaults by powerful patrons of hotels. And so businesses, and many governments over-friendly to businesses, work to undermine unions.

The drive to destroy unions in North America has progressed furthest in the USA. Steven Greenhouse reports in the January 21, 2011 New York Times that union membership in 2010 was down to 10.9 percent, the lowest rate in more than 70 years.  “The percentage of private sector workers in unions fell to 6.9%, the lowest rate for private sector unions in more than a century.”

The situation is especially grim in the 22 so-called Right-to-Work (and Employment-at-Will) states, which started after 1947 in the old slave states, and then spread to agrarian and oil states. Union rates in 20 of these states are less than the U.S. rate of 10.9 percent.  North Carolina is at the bottom with a rate of 3.2 percent, less than 1/10 the current rate of 36 percent in Manitoba.

The union movement is stronger in Canada than the USA. However, in recent decades both the overall rate and the private-sector unionization rates have been declining.  For Canada, the rate has dropped from an average 35.7 percent in 1980-89, to 34.4 percent in 1990-99, to 30.9 percent in 2000-06. The 2010 rate was 29.6 percent.

While the Manitoba labour movement has managed to sustain its strength in recent years, labour bodies must remain vigilant and intensify efforts to expand the movement in order to prevent the decline experience in the USA.

What is at stake is not just higher wages and benefits, but also, as revealed by the case of the powerful man who is alleged to have sexually assaulted a female worker, the defence of fundamental human rights in the workplace. Unions protect these rights, and for this reason alone deserve vigorous public support in a free and democratic society.

Errol Black and Jim Silver, CCPA – Manitoba board members and authors of Building A Better World:  An Introduction to Trade Unionism in Canada.

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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8 Responses to Canadian Union of Postal Workers

  1. Ryan Mortell says:

    Great post!

  2. mikes says:

    I’m not sure what I want to add to this. but since this is a subject very dear to me I feel the desire to throw a few things out there.

    That last section which said something along the lines of: it’s not wages and benefits that employers hate unions for, it’s their desire to hire and fire arbitrarily. But the desire to treat employees however they want comes back to money just as quickly as wages and benefits do, so I don’t think this is some ‘dirty little secret’. But that’s just a issue of rhetoric that sticks out to me.

    But maybe more importantly I wish you went into a little more (or any really) detail about why your mom thinks unions are evil, instead of just posting a puff piece from a left wing think tank (not that I got anything against left wing think tanks, but I come to your blog to see your ideas in action). I’m sure she has valid reasons to hate unions, a lot of people do. The interesting thing though is whether their issues are with necessary ingredients of unions, or some contingent side-effects, like bloated bureaucracies, corruption, or amoral members taking advantage of unions in ugly ways.

    I’m totally pro-union, I just want to see the debate elevated and reflect the real issues instead of trading on false-assumptions and phony facts, like you point out about the macleans piece.

    I also think you (or really, whomever you quotes) dismiss the public v private thing a little too quicly. While it’s true that levelling down isn’t the best (or only) way this should be approached, it’s not enough to simply tell tax-paying-private-sector employees (who obviously pay for the public services) that they just need to go out and get their own benefits too. that just comes off as ugly. And better solutions need to be proposed.

    anyways, yay!

    • dontdontoperate says:

      Yo Mikes,

      Wow! Thanks for the response. Unfortunately you’ve gone way over my head. I don’t know enough about this stuff to give you a good response.
      My Mom hates her union at her hospital because she says it prevents the employer from firing incompetent employees. I can’t comment on that because that very well may be the case: I don’t know anything about her union. But the fact that she hates all unions (at least that’s how I took her comments) disturbs me.
      So, in response, I don’t know if the union she’s part of is over-bloated, corrupted, or has power hungry amoral members 😦

      I hope I didn’t come off as ugly when I suggested that I was confused when people want to tear down the benefits that come with unionized jobs *because* they are better than non-unionized jobs (although, perhaps I’m generalizing and assuming that most public sector jobs are unionized and the private ones are not. I guess I’ve gotten tangled between private v. public and unionized v. non-unionized.)

      I just wanted to reiterate the one commenter’s point that levelling down isn’t the only solution (as you just put it).

      I wish I had better solution to propose, but unfortunately I’m still VERY new to this whole world (I’m seriously ignorant, and will try harder to admit it).

      Thanks again for your input! Any articles you’d like to share?

      • mikes says:

        hiho,

        and you’re mom is similar to a lot of people then. it seems like the most common complaint directed at unions (from within) is that they protect those who (so the complaint goes) don’t deserve it, typically older employees who take jobs away from younger, more energetic, less cynical ones. This raises the issue of what is owed to people after years of service vs concerns of efficiency (and not just in an economic sense, but also in services provided and oppurtunities not squandered, as in potentially excelent employees who take their skills and knowledge elsewhere because they don’t feel valued).

        but sorry, no really good articles to share, but you should listen to this one episode of This American Life about this car plant in california. it’s called NUUMI (or some variations thereof, NUMMI? NUUMMI? i don’t know). it’s a fun look at both sides of the issue, and how everybody’s fucked. it’s a little removed from the kinds of stuff we were talking about above, but it’s good at showing how neither side (management/union) is as saintly as they present themselves. (that is if i remember correctly, it’s been a while).

        and obvi you didn’t come off as ugly. i just mean the tactic of responding to the complaint that ‘why should you have it so good when we have it so bad’ with ‘hey, you’re right, your situation is bad, why don’t you go fix it!’ is clearly not a helpful comment. You’re sentiment was appropriate one, that is, levelling down is hardly justified for it’s own sake. (though i think it’s an interesting moral question, what is the more just state of affairs, the world where public sector employees (where the strongest unions tend to be) get better deals than their private sector counterparts, or the world where both groups are equally compensated, though at a lower rate than what the public sector employees received in world 1 (and where this falls between the 2 levels itself leads to interesting questions)? I think in reality we need to account for the momentum strong unions cause in bringing about positive change, but we can bracket that issue to think about distributive justice in a more static way, but this is a little off topic).

        and don’t worry about your ignorance or the need to make it any clearer. it’s a blog. you should use it as an oppurtunity to spitball ideas on different topics that interest you (especially when they are unrelated to areas where you ought to know your shit, like MRIs on silly chiildren).

        Just have fun with it!

      • dontdontoperate says:

        I’m also really interested in what is more just. I could totally see how it may be lower for the more powerful unions and better for the non-represented private sectors.
        But how to go about getting that?
        Unions may not even be the answer.
        What are your thoughts on co-ops? Do they only work for large companies/organizations? Are they viable in a free-market economy? Ya know?
        Also, although it may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, what are your thoughts on the optimal social organization to attain the best distributive justice? Is it representational democracy (something like our canadian system); an anarcho-syndicalist type system; an anacho-capitalist type system; communism (not the state run / soviet union kind) etc. etc.
        Or, what are some of the current criticisms of our system, and how are we to actually go about making it better. I’ve become involved more and more with my city’s labour council (the union of our local unions), and I see how much good they do for human rights and giving power and a voice to the often powerless and voiceless. Which is awesome, but then again, that’s only one side of the whole issue. You still need a viable economy for us to live the lives we’d like to live (which ITSELF is a whole other can of worms. Am I being brainwashed into wanting something that is in the end simply vacuous and serves only the means of those that are selling me this lifestyle?)
        Have you read up on these kinds of ideas? Anarcho-syndicalism SOUNDS lovely, but I don’t know what the academic consensus (if that even makes sense / is something to care about) is on how practical / realistic it is…

  3. David Himel says:

    The Post Office : mixed feelings. Canadaposts upper management is bloated and not effective, the customer service is next to impossible. If it wasnt for paypals deal with Canadapost the service would be unuseable. That being said, and in spite of the amorphous “service” standards which rarely get met and mean little, Canadapost is still the cheapest package delivery inside canada, as Fedex and UPS refuse to lower themselves to compete, and because the customs and brokerage is well done at Canadapost. If the union upped their game an shed the highly visable poorly performing posties that bring down the unions rep, pressured upper management to reduce their size and focused on reasonable wages Canadians would embrace the post office. They are the best option for packages in Canada and in 20 years I have only lost two both stolen by private postal operations of Canadapost. so for the most part I support the union. This idea that private sectors have no pensions is a direct result of the majority of Canadians not voting for parties that represent their interests for protected private pensions.

    • dontdontoperate says:

      I heard that one of the things they were originally striking for was related to safety. Does anyone know about this?

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