New YVR postal plant a strong contrast with home delivery cuts as Canada Post seeks business transformation

With just two months to go before they move into Canada Post’s new $200 million Pacific Processing Centre at YVR, touted as one of the most technically advanced postal depots in the world, members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have plenty of questions about the future.

This week’s Canada Post announcement that it will cut 8,000 jobs, eliminate home delivery and sharply raise first class mail rates unfolded against widespread media acceptance that the national service is on the ropes and has no choice about the cuts.

But CUPW members believe the service could have a much brighter future if it would take a new approach to labour relations rather than treat the workers as a problem.

Example: why will many workers at the enormous new facility have to make do with only half-size lockers when they get full-size units at the old plant in downtown Vancouver?

“It’s just callous of them, they have plenty of room,” says John Bail, Pacific regional director for CUPW, who is helping negotiate the countless scheduling, health and safety and contract issues related to the move. (I interviewed Bail earlier in the fall as as I researched the state of Canada Post’s labour relations for a column in Business in Vancouver.)

Another bug-bear: the more than 500 security cameras in the new building. “They pay as little as they can and spy as much as they can,” declares Bail. He expects the workforce, now about 1,100, to dwindle to as little as 800 as the technologically-advanced plant hits its stride.

The workplace friction disguises a deeper reality: Canada Post and CUPW are working through a massive transformation of the nation’s postal service as letter mail revenues tumble into free fall and parcel mail registers major annual gains.

Or at least, they should be working together. This week’s announcement raises doubts.

Both employer and the union say they are committed to making that change and there are signs they could be successful.

That’s good news for businesses, both regional and global, who increasingly rely on online sales and parcel delivery for their success. Canada Post’s requirement to provide universal national service is vital for any businesses located outside urban centres, where the private sector firms focus their efforts.

Forget the old stereotypes about a “horse and buggy” business meeting its inevitable reckoning. Canada Post is better positioned than its global counterparts to make this change and its $2 billion Modern Post business transformation will mark a key milestone here in Vancouver.

As CUPW research director Geoff Bickerton points out, Canada Post has the best financial record of any postal service in the world, offering lower-cost services in a massive service area.

Despite serious declines in letter mail, the company reported a $98 million pre-tax profit on postal operations last year, generated in large part by $152 million in pension and benefit savings negotiated with CUPW under a new collective agreement.

Unlike some unions, focused on maintaining the best of the past, CUPW has a lengthy list of additional innovations it is advocating to extend Canada Post’s business lines and the jobs they generate. At the top of the list: more retail outlets and provision of basic financial services, as is done in many other countries.

Canada Post is not standing still. In September, it inaugurated Delivery Tonight service in the Greater Toronto Area, guaranteeing “this evening” delivery of online purchases from retailers like Best Buy, Indigo and Walmart.

But both union and management agree the launch of the Vancouver plant is a vital element in the transformation strategy, ensuring Canada Post can provide its best possible service to customers moving documents and parcels between Asia and North America.

The new plant will shrink delivery times, allow online parcel tracking and improved productivity, said Anick Losier, Canada Post’s director of media relations. The number of employees will not decline if Canada Post succeeds in growing the business.

As for the half-lockers, they have not been an issue at the existing Richmond plant. The cameras? Canada Post makes no apology for providing tight security.

When moving mail by rail was cutting edge, the new Vancouver Main Post Office included a dedicated tunnel to the CPR station on the city’s waterfront. They were too late; airmail took over and the tunnel was never used.

Now Canada Post is preparing for another transformation.

The lights will soon be on at the PPC. How well employer and union make the new plant work will say a lot about Canada Post’s future.