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Dropping mail volumes weaken postal unions

Canada is on the verge of possible labour disruption at Canada Post. Did you know? Do you care?

Strike action or a lockout is possible starting July 2. Contract negotiations have dragged on, with the company looking for concessions, the union decrying cuts when the corporation keeps posting profits (last month, it reported a first quarter profit of $44 million).

There was a time when people knew the names of postal union leaders. Strikes were plentiful, and plenty disrupting. That was before email and couriers and other alternatives to what is now known as snail mail.

Certainly a halt in postal delivery would be hurtful to businesses and residents alike. Or at least some of them. But nothing like in years past. That reality, along with zero public sympathy for posties – and public sector unions in general – explains the relative labour peace: Workers know they have a weak hand, and they’re not eager to play it.

The volume of mail continues to decline – down by 83 million pieces in the first quarter of this year – leading to losses the corporation says need to be countered by cuts in services. The parcel business, on the hand, has continued to increase (volumes up 14.4 per cent), buoyed by online shopping. In the quarter, Canada Post employees delivered five million more parcels than the previous year, boosting revenues by $41 million to $421 million.

Even with the shift to community mailboxes – halted by the federal Liberals – the plan has been to continue to deliver packages to customers’ doors.

With its current labour costs, Canada Post argues it has a much higher cost structure than its competitors in the private sector have, a situation it calls unsustainable. The corporation expects nearly 15,000 employees to retire or leave the company over the next few years, more than enough, it says, to allow for the reduction of between 6,000 and 8,000 positions, mainly through attrition.

Not surprisingly, that model doesn’t cut it for the unions representing postal workers.

While much less militant than in the past, the postal unions have made few friends over the years. With animosity towards public sector unions growing, postal workers will have trouble finding sympathy for their plight, even among those who support keeping home delivery services intact.

Demographics are not in the workers’ favour, as many younger people have grown up with community mailboxes. More to the point, the younger generations simply don’t user letter mail – its existence is irrelevant to them. That they don’t write letter goes without saying, but electronic replacements also extend to bills, cheques and a host of other paperwork that used to be the mainstay of letter carriers. Today, all of that is largely irrelevant.

Canada Post’s letter delivery isn’t helped by the large hikes in the cost of stamps. Each increase makes the price tag of electronic alternatives – free – that much more appealing.

In that environment, it’s easy to see why the union has no real desire to go the strike route used so many times in the past. Not surprisingly, an extended “cooling off” period requested by the union should the July 2 date fall through was also rejected by Canada Post nabobs. Picket lines aren’t likely imminent.

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