To the supportive honk of passing cars, West Shore postal workers hit the picket line today on Station Avenue as part of a rotating strike across Canada.
Picket lines went up across postal depots in Victoria and Moncton, N.B., at midnight last night, following disrupted postal service in Montreal yesterday and in Winnipeg Friday.
Postal workers are protesting what they say is a lack of staffing, on the job health and safety concerns, and pension benefits.
Canadian Union of Postal Workers local 850 president Janet Barney joined the Langford picket line Tuesday morning with dozens of letter carriers and postal workers who serve the West Shore area.
“It’s 24 hours, it won’t have a major impact on business,” Barney said. She estimated the Victoria strike action would impact about 10 per cent of the mail volume in B.C.
“We took a lot of concessions years ago in lieu of pay raises,” Barney said. “We want to protect that.”
Barney said wages aren’t the issue – procedural changes in how carriers carry mail and reduced staffing add up to longer hours and more on the job hazards. A typical mail route can be 15 to 20 kilometres long, with up to five hours of walking and carrying a maximum of 35 pounds of mail.
The strike action highlights last year’s change from sorting mail in Victoria and on Vancouver Island to centralizing sorting in Vancouver.
Barney said more than 60 full time jobs were lost last year and eight this year, and mail sent within Victoria can now take days or longer for delivery. Canada Post has said that about 70 per cent of mail sent on the Island is destined for off-Island addresses.
“Sending mail to Vancouver for processing has been very negative,” Barney said. “Ninety nine per cent of what was sorted here could be delivered in one day. Now we have two ferry rides to contend with.
“To here, from here, we’ve seen it take a week or two weeks. It’s all over the map.”
CUPW postal workers on the picket line questioned why they are suffering cutbacks despite Canada Post’s 16th consecutive year of profits.
“Instead of overtime once in a while, forced overtime is happening daily, instead of hiring more inside and outside staff,” Barney said. “It’s a major issue.”
“It creates problems with staffing, it’s a health and safety issue being on the street for 12 hours doing forced overtime to staff the route,” she continued. “There’s not enough bodies.”
Canada Post says profits have come from internal cost cutting, not mail volumes. The 2009 Canada Post annual report says revenues are declining as volumes of mail, parcels and direct marketing decline.
Fred Oster, a labour relations expert in the School of Peace and Conflict Analysis and Management at Royal Roads University, said rolling strikes are a way for the postal union to demonstrate it’s membership has the discipline and capacity to disrupt mail service, but without overly inconveniencing the public.
“They want to give their people a taste of what a strike would be like,” Oster said. “It’s also trying to rally the troops and encourage members to take action. It wants to flex its muscles and keep people together.”
Postal workers went on strike for two weeks in 1997 and were forced back to work by federal legislation. The union has to be mindful of the notion that people think of the postal service as an essential service, Oster said.
“Both sides are vying for the public relations upper hand,” he said. “They want to demonstrate they will go on strike only because they are forced to.”
Oster said it’s not clear if rolling strikes will gain the union leverage in negotiations – the CUPW and Canada Post have long had an adversarial relationship. Postal workers feel they are micromanaged, he said, while management says the union is unbending and takes advantage at every avenue.
“Both sides are thick skinned and hard nosed,” Oster said. “It’s different from place to place, but the relationship has been bad long enough that there is a storehouse of stories about either side to justify being hard nosed.”