A chilly reception for the postal code

Was the postal code meant to move mail more quickly, or minimize employee numbers at Canada Post?

Workers actively boycotted system for sorting mail quickly in 1972

Mail sorters worry the new system will threaten the nature of their work. 3:14

Postal codes are taken for granted in Canada these days.

But when the familiar six-character letter/number system was introduced, postal workers met the code — and the implication of automated mail sorting that went with it — with suspicion.

In 1972, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) actively boycotted the postal code.

Against automation

"I boycott the postal code. Do you?" Postal workers met the new system with suspicion in 1972. (CBC Archives/Weekend)

"The automation program is all based on the postal code," said CUPW spokesman Jean-Claude Parrott, rolling his eyes at the suggestion the union was opposed to progress. "Postal workers don't have the real right to negotiate the effect of automation."

CBC reporter Tom Leach alleged that because of the boycott, mail sent to Montreal using the postal code took longer than mail without the postal code because workers were holding it back.

The president of the local union branch in Toronto, Lou Murphy, said automation was happening too fast.

"They're trying to change it too drastically," he said. "If they had worked it in on a slower basis ... it would have been much better."

Automation at the post office using a code on each letter had been tested at least as far back as September 1952, as the clip below shows.

Will an experimental 1952 method of assigning codes to every piece of mail speed up the system? 2:15

Each letter was fed into a reader, where a worker punched in a code that was translated into a sequence of dots.

A sequence of dots on each letter could tell the machine where it should go when being sorted. (CBC Archives/Newsmagazine)

"The letters pass an electric eye that scans the code as the envelope passes a small round hole," explained the announcer in a 1954 report on an experiment at the Ottawa post office. "The eye takes note of each dot and signals what it has read by means of a pulse."   

From there, the machine consulted its memory to determine where to slot each letter.

"One machine doing the work of 500 human sorters," continued the announcer.