When Canadian letter carriers went on strike three weeks ago they hoped to force the national postal service, Canada Post, to back down from a cost-cutting proposal to dramatically reduce wages.
Three weeks later, lawmakers are preparing to legislate them back to work, but Canadians are asking just how much a modern cyber-connected society needs the post office anyway.
“If I get my mail, I get my mail, but if I really have to do something I go on the Internet,” says Janina, a bank teller.
True, some businesses say they have had to scramble to try to fill orders and receive payments that would usually be sent by mail, and charities some say they are missing out on donations. But observers say that by going on strike, postal workers have likely sealed their own fate by proving it's possible to function without daily mail delivery.
“Many find mail in paper form to be quaint; it no longer plays a central role in society,” an editorial in The Globe and Mail daily newspaper concluded. “The strike will only accelerate that trend by making online converts of those who have hitherto been reluctant.”
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A worldwide trend toward e-mail, online banking, electronic bill payments, and communication through social media is causing a dramatic drop in revenue for the postal services around the world.
Canada Post has seen a rapid decline in first-class mail. It says the organization delivered 17 percent fewer letters last year than five years ago – the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) says it has dropped by just 6 percent – and anticipates a further 30 percent drop over the next five years. At the same time, it has to deliver to more homes as Canada’s population grows.
The volume of first-class mail has also dropped dramatically in the United States. The US Postal Service is set up to deliver 300 billion pieces of mail a year, but currently handles just 170 billion pieces and predicts that will fall to 150 billion by 2020. The USPS is looking to make reforms such as cutting back to five-day-a-week delivery and closing some of its post offices.
Struggling to adapt in a new online environment
Canada Post has been struggling for several years to adapt to the new online environment.
It has reduced management by 25 percent, bought more efficient sorting equipment, and replaced dedicated post offices with counters in pharmacies or convenience stores that sell a variety of products such as writing paper, envelopes, and packing materials. In addition, some of the losses in letter mail have been offset by an increase in parcel delivery, as more people do their shopping online.
The reforms already in place have helped cut costs and maintain revenues, says Canada Post spokesperson John Caines. But he says the post office will have to find more savings as modern communication evolves. A proposal to cut labor costs by setting up a two-tier wage system, which would cut pay for new hires by about 25 percent and force them to work five years longer before retirement, is at the heart of the dispute with letter carriers.
'We have to change the way business is done'
“It is clear people are using our system differently and we have to change the way business is done,” Caines says.
George Floresco, a CUPW vice president, argues that instead of cutting wages, Canada Post should try to become more relevant to Canadians by expanding its service.
“We know there’s a move to online services but we also know a lot of people don’t want to go there,” he says.
He says Canada Post should improve its parcel delivery service, especially to Canada’s vast rural areas, that post office counters should be open outside business hours and that a new post office banking service could appeal to people who still do not trust the Internet enough to do their banking online.
Meanwhile, others say the Canadian parliament should pass back-to-work legislation as soon as possible.
“I do all my communication through the Internet so I don’t miss the mail,” says Eddy Banakar, a manager of a high-tech company. “But the postal job is an uncomplicated job, and at the same time they get good salaries. So I don’t think people have much sympathy for them.”
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