By Denis Lemelin
Summer’s here; let’s talk garage sales. When you hold a garage sale, people swoop down for the steals and ignore the rest. Similarly, some pundits want the government to privatize or deregulate Canada Post, which would allow private interests to skim the cream off the Crown corporation, conveniently ignoring that those profitable parts pay for the unprofitable parts.
Canada Post has the largest retail network in the country with enviable brand recognition. When CEO Deepak Chopra took the helm, he vowed to leverage this network, but has done little beyond promoting Epost. In the absence of any vision for the future of Canada Post, the baying for privatization and deregulation is getting louder.
Piecemeal privatization already happens when traditional post offices close, replaced by counters in pharmacies and convenience stores. These counters and the poorly paid workers staffing them come and go at the whim of the private operator, making it difficult for the post office to be as accountable as it should be. As for deregulation, the government deregulated international letters in 2010 and we’ll probably see a push for further deregulation during the review of the Canadian Postal Services Charter in 2014.
But where is this push coming from? Not from the public. In 2008, 69 per cent opposed deregulation. Even last summer, when Canada Post management locked out 50,000 workers, 65 per cent opposed privatization at a time when public disenchantment with the post office should have been at an all-time high.
If most Canadians don’t want to sell their post office, who does? Just a handful, but they’re obsessive about it. Michael Warren, a former Canada Post CEO, frequently beats the privatization drum and recently used the corporation's first loss in 17 years to do so again, failing to mention that the dip was due to one-time payments. There’s also Edward M. Iacobucci and Michael J. Trebilcock of the right-wing CD Howe Institute, who extol privatization as some kind of magical pixie dust.
Vague success stories and vaguer claims of efficiency shouldn’t fool us. Very few national post offices have successfully been privatized. Britain and Japan are currently attempting it, but it’s proving bumpier than anticipated. The Netherlands sold its courier network TNT to UPS for a one-time cash injection; the remaining chaos has families sorting tottering piles of the public’s mail on kitchen dishracks. Privatization in the Netherlands is an unmitigated disaster as in Argentina, which re-nationalized its post office.
Deregulation hasn’t worked well either, even at New Zealand Post, which owes its success to its popular postal bank. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has been advocating that Canada Post consider restoring an expanded public postal savings bank as a way to deal with its financial challenges.
Our national postal system must take into account Canada’s huge landmass and the remoteness of many communities. Here’s where the privatization pushers collide with the reality that service to these communities would be, in the words of the CD Howe think-tankers, “relaxed.” Stop to consider what that really means. Currently, Canada Post delivers “from anywhere to anyone,” from busy urban centres to the rural mailbox on a two-lane highway. Were this obligation to be “relaxed,” it’s unclear exactly how rural residents would get mail. Their answer is a “targeted subsidy” for unprofitable routes, incentives for private companies such as UPS or FedEx to deliver. How would this cost less or be more “efficient” than the current universal postal service? Both FedEx and UPS already use Canada Post for “last-mile delivery” to remote customers. Needless duplication not only raises costs, it increases pollution. What’s efficient about that?
Canada Post isn’t the financial disaster that those with privatization and deregulation agendas would have you believe. But mail volumes continue to decline. We need some real vision from Chopra, with the best interests of the people of Canada as a guiding principle, not a “Garage Sale” sign.
Denis Lemelin is the National President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.