Technology has changed the way Canadians communicate dramatically over the five short years since labour unrest last shut down Canada Post mail delivery. Social media has crept into all aspects of our lives. Canadians send more than 300 million text messages a day, up by 40 per cent since 2011. Meanwhile Facetime, Apple’s now ubiquitous live video chat app, had only just been launched. So it makes sense to think Canadians might be less panicked at the thought of being denied snail mail this time around.
That conclusion would be wrong, at least if Google is an accurate indicator of what’s on Canadians’ minds. Using the search engine’s Google Trends tool—which tracks the intensity of interest in a given topic relative to other searches—Canadians appear to be considerably more interested in this looming postal lockout than they were in 2011, with search interest roughly 20 per cent higher this week than during the week when the lockout began in five years ago. (The second peak in search activity in 2011 accompanied the former Conservative government’s decision to impose back-to-work legislation.)
Surprised? Don’t be. In the same way technology has changed how we communicate, it’s also revolutionizing how we shop, with more and more people ordering goods online for delivery to their homes—via Canada Post.
Since 2011, Canada Post has increased its parcel delivery business from 94 million domestic parcels to 133 million, establishing itself as the country’s top service provider. Until recently the Crown corporation was delivering two out of three domestic parcels in Canada. However now, under the shadow of a possible lockout, it’s lost 75 per cent of the business coming from its largest e-commerce customers.
“Just the threat of the strike has had as much, or not more, impact as an actual strike just a few years ago,” says Jon Hamilton, a spokesperson for Canada Post. “It’s that uncertainty.” Rotating strikes in 2011 culminated in a three-week lockout, only resolved when the federal government tabled back-to-work legislation—leading to the highest point of interest in “Canada Post strike” on Google Trends.
Canada Post and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are again butting heads at the bargaining table—Canada Post saying it can’t afford the added cost of $1 billion CUPW is demanding. The ongoing dispute, and the possibility of a work stoppage as early as Friday, has forced Canada Post’s largest e-commerce customers—businesses who use Canada Post to deliver their goods—to make contingency plans.
“There’s no guarantee of any of that business is coming back,” Hamilton says. “Even more so if we have to return with a big jump in prices to pay for demands to get back in business.”
Even though the trending search term is “Canada Post strike,” CUPW is pressing the importance of distinguishing between a strike and a lockout—which is what’s currently being threatened by Canada Post. “A strike is when a worker withdraws their labour until they get x, y, and z,” says Mike Palecek, national president of CUPW. “A lockout is when an employer locks its doors and says you can’t come in until you reach an agreement.” He says this confusion is being caused intentionally by Canada Post in an attempt to provoke the workers into striking, and that CUPW has no intention of issuing a strike notice.
If Canada Post meets CUPW’s demands, Hamilton says it would force the corporation to increase shipping costs and make it harder to regain its status as the largest parcel delivery company in the country. The volume of letters delivered by the service has been on steady decline since 2006, and the only thing keeping the corporation competitive is its parcel delivery business.
“We can buy labour peace at a billion dollars, but then we’d be out of the marketplace,” he says. “The days of a monopoly are gone.”
While Palecek is definitely concerned that Canadians are taking their business elsewhere, he says the union has been sounding the alarm for months that Canada Post was preparing for a labour dispute. “It’s Canada Post that’s issued a lockout notice,” he says. “They’re the ones driving their business away.”
Purolator—of which Canada Post owns 91 per cent—is one company reaping the benefits of a work stoppage. In a statement to Maclean’s the courier company said it was already experiencing a significant increase in shipping demands: “Purolator is prepared, and has been in conversations with our current customers on contingency plans – which include additional staff and overtime hours – to ensure optimal service in the event of a labour disruption.”
UPS Canada issued a similar statement on its website. It’s also been tweeting to worried Canadian Twitter users to switch to UPS for their delivery service. Shoppers have been taking to the platform to reach out to large e-commerce companies like Amazon and TicketMaster, and check if their orders are going to be delayed in the event of a work stoppage. And e-commerce companies, in return, are tweeting to their customers letting them know about delays, and in some cases, complete suspension of service.
As big of a role that the Internet plays in Canadian commerce and communication, there are still people who rely on Canada Post for good, old fashioned letter mail service. In N.W.T., Yukon, and Nunavut, the intensity of searches for “Canada Post strike” relative to other search topics is significantly higher than the rest of Canada, because remote areas are more likely to use Canada Post to pay bills and send letters.
The fact a larger number of people are googling the work stoppage before it even happens, whether they’re concerned about letter or parcel delivery, means they understand the implications of a delivery disruption; they remember 2011. So instead of waiting for it to happen, they’re taking the proper measures to ensure their mail doesn’t sit in dusty mailrooms for days, perhaps weeks. And if or when the lockout happens, the search intensity will likely increase even more.
“I can’t guarantee that somebody’s going to get something on Monday that they ordered on Friday,” Hamilton says, “so they’re going to go somewhere that can.”