In October and November, in response to the rotating strikes by members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Canada Post continually updated the public about the impact of the strikes on the service. They suspended delivery time guarantees, announced that there were 500 tractor trailers full of mail sitting waiting, and eventually told foreign postal service not to send mail through to Canada. Large Internet retailers, and in particular eBay, warned that Christmas wasn’t going to come this year if the government did not act soon.
In late November, in order to protect thousands of small and medium sized companies, across Canada, who depend on Christmas sales to survive, the Federal government reluctantly rushed through back to work legislation just as Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases were about to enter the clogged system.
This is the scenario that Canada Post promoted, and is the scenario that the government acted upon.
CUPW, on the other hand, claimed that the backlog was never as severe as Canada Post claimed. They said they did not want to cause hardship to Canada Post customers and had planned their rotating strikes to pressure the company into negotiating with them without causing the system to break down. They said that there were never any where near 500 tractor trailer loads of backlogged mail, and that the company was only claiming there were, in order to get out of addressing legitimate union concerns over forced overtime and job security at the bargaining table.
Although the national media reported that CUPW denied the existence of a huge backlog, as far as I have seen no one ever really determined which side was telling the truth. We will never know, definitely, if there was a massive backlog or a manageable one.
Obviously, The Frontenac News does not have the resources to investigate this kind of thing, but in our dealings with the local post offices we can say, anecdotally, that the parcel traffic seemed to have kept up through the strike. I checked with two local businesses that ship regularly via Canada Post, to customers around the province, across the country, and in the US. They report(ed) first that they continued to use Canada Post throughout the 5-week strike, and that the parcels seemed to be getting through to the United States and Ontario in about the same time frame as is normal for this time of year, but some locations such as BC were seeing delays. People in our office ordered items online during and immediately following the strike and received them. While this is not exactly an extensive survey, it certainly did not jive with the picture of a huge pile, thousands upon thousands of items waiting to be processed, with new items landing on the pile at an increasing rate.
Yet, even after the strike ended on November 27, Canada Post announced that parcel delivery would continue to be delayed into January of 2019, and international deliveries until March of 2019.
I, for one, was suspicious about those dates. A week ago, Canada Post announced that the backlog was not as bad as they had projected, adding that this was partly because they had received less parcels than they had expected, presumably partly because the strike caused people to use other carriers. As I write this, on December 18, Canada Post has just announced that the backlog has been cleared and the service is back to normal, three weeks to the day after the end of the strike.
While there are reasons to question how the strike ending legislation was engineered, two things can be said about how both sides have handled this latest dispute, as opposed to the contract negotiations in 2016 and the strike in 2011.
For one thing, neither side was as angry this time around as they were in 2011 or 2016. Management, taking a cue from the Liberal government, continually said they were committed to negotiating and to the issues of safety and job security, even if they did not provide acceptable solutions from the union perspective. The union said that management was not addressing the key issues, but until the end, they avoided some of the claims about union busting that were part of the rhetoric the last two times around.
The second, related point is that the union never threatened or carried out a general strike and Canada Post never locked them out. As a user of the service, the fact that, in spite of the uncertainty, the Frontenac News went out each week as usual, and that makes me feel a lot more sympathetic towards both Canada Post and CUPW.
For rural Ontario, Canada Post remains a core service, even if that is not the case in urban centres. For businesses like ours, it is quite an expensive service but remains the only viable way to get our paper out to more remote locations. The alternatives that we could use might work in the more populated south end of our readership area, but even there they are less than fully reliable, create more litter and involve excess packaging. South Frontenac Township is in the midst of considering how to deal with the problem of ‘flyer bags’ in township ditches. It was never a viable solution for the Frontenac News to become part of that problem.
For residents, the advantage of online shopping that only a robust delivery option like Canada Post offers, is of growing relevance as we confront our carbon footprint.
Ultimately, the two sides were not able to reach an agreement, and it seems inevitable that the government would have had to step in, sooner or later. They will continue to negotiate for the next two months, followed by an arbitrator imposing an agreement if they can’t find a way to settle it between themselves. We can only hope that the bitterness between union and management, which has spilled out this fall, is actually less entrenched than it has been for at least a decade.