When Canada Post workers were deciding where to strike first, there was one city firmly in their sights: Winnipeg.

That is because the Manitoba capital has a new mail sorting plant and was the first city in Canada to feel the effects of the corporation's $2-billion modernization plan.

Inside that plant, which opened in 2010, there are new machines sorting the mail faster, while on the street, mail carriers have a new way of handling all the letters and parcels that are being generated. 

Workers hadn't opposed the idea of replacing obsolete sorting equipment, but all is not well on the plant floor and the mail route. Health and safety worries top the list of concerns. But while both sides say they want to see Canada Post modernized, the views surrounding this first stage are very far apart and a key element in the current standoff.

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Denis Lemelin, national president of the Candian Union of Postal Workers, announces on May 31, 2011, in Ottawa that the union has given Canada Post notice it will strike. (Adrian Wyld/CANADIAN PRESS)

"In Winnipeg, the implemention is really difficult," says Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. "This new technology is there to stay, but this technology has to respect the workers. That's one of the most important points in this negotiation."

As for Canada Post, it knows the union has concerns. But "we believe that we've addressed those concerns as best we could," says John Farnand, the corporations's vice-president of engineering and postal transformation.

"We continue to work with them on these issues. It seems they want more."

A big investment

As Canada Post sees it, its workers have been part of a continuous consultation process throughout the modernization project. Studies of the equipment have been done, and it is the most ergonomically appropriate equipment that can be found anywhere in the world, Farnand says.

And while that may be true, the union questions the level of respect shown to workers throughout the modernization project and went to arbitration at one point with some of its concerns.

 Canada Post is equally adamant that the safety of its employees has been front and centre as it tries to transform the way the corporation works.

At $2 billion, that transformation is a big investment, and one that touches all elements of the postal service.

About 60 per cent of the investment is devoted to equipment, systems and buildings across Canada. Another 25 per cent is directed toward delivery operations. The rest is for transition costs and training.

It's hard to argue that a renewal of equipment wasn't due: some of the machinery being replaced was up to 40 years old, considered obsolete and on display in postal museums elsewhere in the world. In some instances, staff were turning to eBay to find replacement parts.

Faster machines

The new multi-line optical character readers that sort the mail are "some of the most ergonomic and well-used equipment on the face of the Earth," says Farnand. He also notes that the new machines are quieter and can bundle more mail.

The union was involved in the selection process and Canada Post is "very pleased" with how the equipment is working, he says.

For workers, however, any ergonomic considerations that have been made in connection with the sorting equipment are not enough.

The "rhythm of the machine" is really fast and some people have difficulty dealing with it, says Lemelin.

"We knew these machines were faster than the previous ones," he says. The new machines can handle 50,000 to 60,000 letters per hour, compared to 24,000 to 30,000 on the older equipment.

What's more, Lemelin says, any ergonomic studies done were not in a "real-world" environment. CUPW had suggested the Winnipeg modernization be run as a pilot project so any adverse effects of the new technology could be eliminated before the equipment was more broadly introduced.

While new sorting equipment is changing the way the postal service works within the plants, a new delivery method is transforming the job on the road. More letter carriers will be driving vehicles and so will be able to deliver more types of mail, including parcels.

Letter carriers on foot will now carry two bundles, rather than one, that have been sorted by the new equipment in the order that the mail will be delivered. Less manual sorting on the part of the carrier (one hour per shift rather than two) is required.

Fewer people

"That way we can be more effective in what we're doing," says Farnand.

But Lemelin says the new process has led to carriers taking longer to deliver the mail.

"We've experienced a lot of problems that we feel are really unsafe," he said. The union has reported carriers complaining of soreness in their arms, and difficulty seeing stairs as they walk because the bundle on their arms limits their vision. But an arbitrator ruled the union did not prove its concerns adequately at an earlier hearing.

Canada Post says the new two-bundle method has been assessed by health and safety experts and was deemed not to increase risk to letter carrier safety.

Underlying much of the worker concern is a long-term worry about how technological change will affect the ultimate number of people who are employed by Canada Post. For the union, it's a worry that the modernization is a Trojan horse for job cuts.

No one denies that by the time Canada Post's modernization process has finished, there will be fewer people handling Canadians' mail.

Throughout the process, which is expected to continue into 2014, Canada Post expects its workforce handling mail — now at about 50,000 people — will be reduced by 4,000 to 7,000 employees. But the corporation says layoffs are not in the cards.

"We have much more attrition than we have reductions planned here," says Farnand. Still, employees may see their jobs or locations change, and people may be re-bidding for positions.

No layoffs planned: Canada Post

"Everything we're doing, we've done within the collective agreement," says Farnand. "There are no layoffs. There are no layoffs planned."

Looking ahead, Lemelin figures the union and the corporation will eventually find a "middle ground."

"We want a modernization that respects the workers and provides good service to the population."

Farnand's hope is equally focused on the future, with a desire to see Canada Post continue to be considered "relevant and important" for its customers as it gives its employees "good tools, good processes" and a safe work environment.

"What we do matters, and we want our employees to understand we're investing in the business. We're investing in safe and efficient operations that will enable us to be well-positioned for our customers going forward.

"If we don't, we will not be relied on as an important business and service in Canada, and that's what we want to be."