Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Held hostage

OK, the postal strike: seems like it's been going on for months now, though  I don't know how long exactly. It began as "rotating" strikes, meaning your town could be hit at random. So who cares about a bunch of whining postal workers demanding to be paid more just for walking around?

I'm not directly involved in this mess, except to suffer the frustrating consequences, so the above statement is likely unfair, not to mention uninformed. All I know is that the NDP held the country hostage on the weekend, conducting a strange thing called a filibuster, which seems to be a cross between filberts (nuts!) and a Peanut Buster Parfait.

This went on for 146 hours or something, who cares how long, and people compared NDP leader Jack Layton to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where he filibustered his brains out to the point of collapse. (Unlike Layton, Stewart was a legendary talent who could pull it off and actually make the whole thing entertaining.) Finally the Conservative government ordered everybody back to work, and supposedly by Tuesday the mail would "flow" again.

From my standpoint, it wasn't exactly "flow". Two pieces of mail eeked through, both of them things that looked like bills (with windows) but actually weren't: advertising's way of making us think, gee whiz, look at this! It must be important.

Why did the posties deliver these things first? They looked at them and saw windows and said, gee whiz, look at this! etc. etc.

I have a tendency to ferret out books for one cent on These are brand new books, some of which have only been out for a couple of years. No one believes me when I tell them about this, though they're easy to find in the New and Used section. I think the problem, besides the fact that for some reason I seem to have zero credibility, is that no one wants anything "used": it makes people think of stale old Salvation Army bins reeking of someone else's armpits.

Literally, I had five books in the pipeline, a record number, when everything came to a screeching halt. Four were from Amazon, but one of them was a review copy for a piece I was assigned to write for the Edmonton Journal, which has now (in the lovely parlance of journalism) been "killed". I also have a free-floating cheque from the Journal for a piece I wrote for them in April. I honestly wonder if I'll ever see it.

I keep thinking about all those thousands, maybe millions of pieces of mail from all across the country that are now in that no-man's-land called the Dead Letter Office. I remember as a school child being threatened that if I didn't get the postage or the address exactly right, that's where my letter would end up, a T. S. Eliot-esque wasteland of correspondence from which there was no return. 

I think this whole bound-and-gagged feeling is stirring up resentment from a strike about ten years ago, infinitely worse than this one or any one I can even think of. It was a bus strike in Vancouver, the usual thing where the Union wanted a 5,000% increase or something like that. 

Since buses are primarily used by senior citizens, people in wheelchairs, the mentally challenged, blind people with golden retrievers, and teenagers, nothing was done for weeks. And weeks. And weeks.

There were a few letters to the editor about this, but the "issue" was so pallid and public interest so non-existent that the strike wore on for a month. Then.  . . two months.

Then, three. Then it became apparent that the month of August was even more useless for trucking around the lame, the halt and the blind than the month of July or June or May, because after all, everyone goes on holiday in August, don't they? For a whole month, at least.

If you don't have the means to go on holiday, if you're on a pension or a fixed income, why then. . . And if you're a bus driver, for heaven's sake, don't you deserve a break?

Irreparable damage was done by this strike, most of it invisible and unheard. Elderly people were unable to get to their medical appointments. People with mental challenges couldn't make their speech therapy sessions, and fell back. Mothers with small babies had to stay home on pitilessly rainy days and listen to them scream and scream and scream. The teenaged kids hitchhiked or sat behind older kids on motorbikes or just drove without a license. No danger there: they're just kids.

This strike was not even remotely addressed until September, when the workforce began to need bus service again. I mean, regular people. Working people, the kind that earn a living wage. None of those embarrassing folk who have to get around on the Loser Cruiser.

Yes, this thing went on for an incredible FOUR months, and this in a major Canadian city that constantly congratulates itself on being "world-class", a city that blathers away about "carbon footprints" and the "greener" alternative.

Such as, public transit.

I don't know, in all the years I've taken transit, not one person has praised me for being "greener". When people find out I use the bus, I get an "ohhhhh", a downward-inflected "ohhhhh" which expresses a sort of embarrassment tinged with pity, as if I've just told them I have bleeding hemorrhoids.

It's OK to pay lip service to transit. Or even to have the odd car-less day, covered eagerly by the news cameras to show the country how environmentally responsible we are in Vancouver. We lead the entire country, in fact!  But as for actually not driving. . .

As one of those mentally-compromised old ladies who regularly use the bus, I felt the lack of it keenly. But I also felt something else. Marginalized. Shunted aside. Powerless. I didn't even have a voice in this. I was shouting into a vacuum.

This stirs up stuff in me, you know? Because somehow, that just seems to be the story of my whole frigging life.

This postal strike didn't drag on for four months, but the only reason it went as long as it did was because of the sort of people who still rely on the mail: old people waiting for their pension cheques, charities mailing out those little guilt-inducing packages in hope of a donation, and people like me, waiting in vain for their piddly little, useless, unimportant review copies so they can get to work again.

It somehow just sounds all too familiar. If you're powerless, you can all too easily be held hostage.