In 2012, the postal workers’ union struck against Serpost, Peru’s national post office. The Serpost strike is puzzling given the internet age we should be entering and the state of the industry (the United States Postal Service lost over $15 billion in 2012).
Just before the strike, a replacement debit card was sent to my parents’ house. My father mailed it to me via the United States Postal Service, which works with Serpost in Peru. My debit card joined a pile of 50,000 undelivered letters and packages in Arequipa.
Unfortunately I had no local work in Peru earning cash. I was surviving on money withdrawn from an American bank account. With no debit card, I had no access to cash. I had to make all purchases with my credit card, which in Latin America is unbelievably inconvenient and expensive.
The vast majority of businesses don’t accept credit cards. Not the corner store, the corner restaurant, the corner printing service, the taxis, the buses – nobody takes credit. We couldn’t get our groceries at the informal markets. We had to go to corporate supermarkets like Tottus or El Super. If we wanted to eat out, we had to go to expensive local restaurants or American chains like McDonald’s and TGIFriday’s. We lived like that for a month.
The postal workers were demanding a pay increase of 30 soles per month (from 900 soles, a 3% hike) and an annual bonus of 575 soles ($206). I don’t know if the pay increase was warranted, but I do know there is a 0% chance I will use Serpost again.
What makes the strike puzzling is the global trend away from the use of paper. Because of more convenient means like email, Facebook, and internet banking, fewer people are communicating with paper. The American Postmaster General is trying to downsize operations to stop the hemorraging losses at the USPS. His efforts are impeded by Congress and politicians, but the trend is undeniable. Government mail service as we know it will end. The post office will be a fraction of its current size, if it exists at all. The possibility of a postal workers’ strike in the U.S. is about the same as the possibility of me using Serpost again – zero.
The public mail services in Peru have never reached the size and scale of their American counterpart. In Arequipa, a city of one million, there is only one post office. My Peruvian wife had never mailed a letter before we used Serpost to mail our wedding invitations, a few months prior to the strike.
Mail has a little more relevance in Latin America because a significant number of people don’t have email addresses. If they don’t have email, they won’t pay their bills online for a few more years. Most people receive their utility bills in the mail and pay them at their neighborhood bank. But besides bills, there is little use of paper communication.
Despite the importance of receiving bills, the historic trend away from paper and the small scale of mail in Peru make the Serpost strike unbelievable. You would think the labor leadership would be conscious of the industry trends and do everything to preserve jobs, which would include not losing customers for life. Besides me, how many other Peruvians had packages with gifts or other important correspondence held up? According to La Republica:
In the days the postal workers’ strike has lasted, many small businesses have been affected. One of them is Perubookstore S.S. Their representative, Daniel Hurtado, explained that the company is losing money and credibility with its clients. “Serpost is important and necessary for electronic commerce,” he said.
There are private courier services in Peru and greater Latin America. DHL and FedEx aside, Servientrega, Rapidisimo, and Deprisa are probably better known in Colombia than the national post, 4-72. Have Mr. Hurtado and other Peruvians considered using private services since the strike? Was the the Serpost strike a good move for the union, or a blunder?