The first postal clerks association was formed in Vancouver in 1911. They were soon joined by the clerks in Halifax, Charlottetown, Saint John, and Moncton, to form the Dominion Postal Clerks Association. By 1917, it had branches across the country, representing people whose primary function inside a post office was to sort the mail. Naturally, the more they found themselves working in densely populated urban environments, the higher their numbers. In 1884, there were about 50 postal clerks in Toronto; with the robust growth of the city, this number increased to 377 by 1914. Sorting the mail meant putting some order in the chaotic flood of letters, newspapers and parcels so they could be dispatched efficiently. As early as 1886, over 245 000 letters and papers were delivered each week in Toronto. The work of a clerk could be roughly summarized as follows. Upon receiving the mail, the workers divided letters and postcards from the larger items comprising parcels and newspapers, which were sorted separately. Dumped on long tables and moved about with an instrument similar to a baguette or stick, the letters and postcards were then "faced up," that is, arranged with the addresses facing up. Mail with insufficient or no postage was then separated.

The next step was affixing the date stamp and cancellation. The first electric cancelling machines appeared in Montréal in 1896. Although they could cancel up to 6000 letters an hour, manual cancelling was still used for oversized letters.
Next came the presorting stage. The clerk did a very general sort in the corresponding pigeonholes by province, country, urban delivery, rural delivery, railway post office, etc. In the final sortation, the mail was sorted according to letter carrier distribution routes and tied in bundles (a maximum of 75 items) to be deposited in the appropriate mail bag. In a large post office like the Toronto General Post Office, the process was repeated day and night, starting at the end of the 19th century.

The working conditions of the clerks were very difficult. As they faced up and cancelled the mail, for example, they had to work standing at tables in a dusty and noisy environment, and they worked at night without adequate lighting, especially in the period when gas was used. However, their union kept watch over the situation.

During the Winnipeg General Strike, the Dominion Postal Clerks Association was on the front lines with the letter carriers resulting in 700 postal workers losing their jobs. Clerks and letter carriers joined forces again during the disastrous postal strike of 1924, which in the end proved a net loss for the union and dampened the fervour of the movement for many years. This union became the Canadian Postal Employees Association (CPEA) in 1931, and in 1944 joined with the letter carriers and railway mail clerks to form the Postal Workers Brotherhood to fight for bargaining rights.

The year 1965 was a decisive one: a two-week strike resulted in not just pay increases, but incorporation of the right to strike in the new public service labour legislation. It was in the same year of 1965 that the postal clerks' union, then 10 500 strong, adopted the now-familiar name of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. As the sixties moved into the seventies, the introduction of mechanization into postal work translated into massive job losses for the clerks. The 1970s were consequently punctuated by a series of strikes (1970, 1974, 1975, 1978) plus a national campaign to boycott use of the postal code (1972-1976). In 1981, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers launched another strike, which lasted 42 days and led to numerous gains, including 17 weeks of maternity leave for women paid at 93 per cent salary. This marked a first in the Public Service.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has been the official representative of all postal employees since February 1989.

Gérald Pelletier


Canadian Union of Postal Workers. "Course: History and Orientation. Instructor's Notes," CUPW manuscript, 18 February 1994.

Gendreau, Bianca and John Willis. "Peu de machines mais beaucoup d'hommes: le tri du courrier à Montréal et Toronto à la fin du siècle dernier." In Histoire postale, 190 (March 1995): 19-21.

"The Postal Factory." Canadian Postal Museum research paper.