Ignorance, incompetence, favoritism, bullying, and obsession: Just another day at the Post Office
October 6, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
On September 30, 2001, the management of the Postal Service published a document entitled Outline for Discussion: Concepts for Postal Transformation. As the title suggests, this document described the terms of future discussions about what the Postal Service was and what it should become. In April of 2002, the Postal Service issued another document, this one entitled simply Transformation Plan 2002.
In light of the current problems facing the service and particularly the problems raised by the recent advisory opinion issued by the PRC regarding Mail Processing Network Rationalization (MPNR), looking back at these two reports is instructive. Both documents question the very basis of universal service, and they are laser focused on a future model of the United States Postal Service as a privatized entity.
What becomes apparent from the 2002 plan, as well as subsequent documents that address the progress of implementing the plan, is that the senior management of the Postal Service saw the future in terms of a greatly reduced network. From the standpoint of retail, Postmaster Jack Potter and then Patrick Donahoe called for the closure of as many as 15,000 post offices. For the mail processing network, the vision suggested that the future was in outsourcing much of the mail processing network through worksharing and similar initiatives.
Finding love in all the wrong places
March 25, 1984 — my second night working for the Postal Service. I’m sent to the basement of the old WPA-era post office for scheme training, the exercise of memorizing the local office’s delivery network so I can sort mail to routes. The basement of the building is a confusing labyrinth of offices, locker rooms, mechanical rooms and the like. Having only been down there once, the night before, I get turned around on my way to the designated room.
I turn a corner and walk into what appears to be a break room off of a boiler room, and before me I see the Superintendent of Delivery Operations having sex with one of the female clerks. I back out of the room quickly before anyone sees me and find the room where I’m supposed to be. Needless to say, my hour-long memorization session isn’t very fruitful. My concentration is somewhat distracted.
During my nine years at that office, the events of that second night come to seem less and less extraordinary. I see a number of fellow employees fired for theft of either mail or postage stock. I see supervisors who appear to be drunk on the job, and more than a few employees have chronic substance abuse and attendance problems. There isn’t much discipline and there isn’t much organization. Those who work, whether they be carriers or clerks, are rewarded with more work, while those who slough off seem to escape much if any scrutiny. Often it seems that promotions to supervisory positions are based on getting the most unproductive employees off the floor.
“I make the rules”
It’s June of 1993, and I’ve transferred to a plant in Georgia, in an effort to get back home to the mountains of North Carolina. There’s been another “early out” and realignment, which has opened up the opportunity for transfer.
The transfer came with a specific job offer, but it was revoked shortly after I arrived in Georgia. Not knowing anyone in the local branch of the APWU, I’ve sent the plant manager a certified letter notifying him that I intend to grieve the change that resulted in me being reduced a level and becoming a PTF.
The plant manager is a short, volatile man built like a fireplug. I learn later that he’s a weight lifter. On this particular day, when I tell him I intend to file a grievance, I learn that he’s also a bully. He’s standing in front of me screaming, “No one files a grievance in my plant without my permission. I know the rules. I make the rules. I don’t need a pissant like you telling me what the rules are.”
There doesn’t seem to be much point in arguing with him, so I reply simply that I took the step of sending the letter to preserve any grievance rights and that I would like to see my union representative. “You’ll get to see your fucking union rep all right,” he says.
A few weeks later I get a letter from the Postal Service telling me there had been an error and that they are restoring the original job offer. I also get asked by the local if I would be willing to be a steward. The plant manager takes every opportunity to make it clear that he is not happy about any of it.
Over the next few months I’ll see the man stand and scream at employees and his supervisors many times. Rumor has it that he’s seeing one of the operations support people and they have an abusive personal relationship. I don’t know that for sure but they do come to work together a lot and she often has very heavy makeup, which seems to cover black eyes.
I do know that his numbers are very important to him and that we often run the same mail through the machines several times. While I was in limbo (before the original job offer was restored), I was assigned to the BCS and DBCS machines, but now I’m learning new schemes and spending most of my tours on the LSM, a machine that was supposed to have disappeared five years ago.
I also know there’s a locked equipment shed into which mail seems to disappear, most frequently when people from District or Area are expected and the volumes are too much to process. I know we work lots of overtime, ten hours every day, and never seem to catch up. Since I’m trying to save money, I don’t mind that I make an extra $10,000 in less than six months.
This is the time when TE’s are first introduced to the clerk craft. A good many of the TE’s in the plant are young men who turn out to have been high school friends of the plant manager’s nephew, boys the plant manager lifts weights with. One morning, after an especially long tour, I’m approached in the parking lot by several of these boys.
“You know you’re giving Uncle Tony a hard time and we don’t like that," one of them tells me. "Be better for you if you stopped.” At this point I’m too tired to be intimidated and I’ve become so used to the yelling and bullying at the plant that I simply don’t care. No one touches me but the message is clear.
The road back home
The endless postal reorganization is still going on. The year before I was hired there had been a reorganization and a number of people from my original office were excessed. I was hired in a group of eight that replaced the excessed employees. That seems to be standard procedure. No plan ever works as advertised and we end up back where we started. After nine years one learns to expect the management pronouncements followed by some sort of new plan followed by a deterioration back to wherever we were that supposedly wasn’t working.
I’ve become friends with the local APWU president. She knows about my dream to get back to North Carolina and tells me that they have tons of opening for transfers up there. Since I’ve only transferred to Georgia in May, I won’t qualify for another transfer for a year. Karen says that maybe she can do something. One day she mentions to the plant manager that I’d like to transfer to North Carolina. “Good riddance," he says. "If he can get somebody to take him, get him out of here.”
I contact several offices and, as luck has it, there’s an opening in a post office in a town in the mountains of North Carolina, just where I would like to go. The postmaster there seems like a nice guy, but he’s definitely administratively challenged. It takes several weeks but finally everything is arranged and I’m scheduled to make the switch in September. The forms are done, the paperwork is cut, so I drive up to my new office to look for a place to stay. I end up finding a nice little house to buy and sign papers on it.
Everybody back in Georgia is happy for me, seems like everyone wants to escape the hellhole. Then, a few days before I’m scheduled to move, I get a letter from the plant manager rescinding my transfer.
After the shootings at Edmond, Atlanta, Anniston and Escondido, they’ve had Congressional hearings about the way the Postal Service treats its employees. They’ve set up hotlines to report abusive treatment. I call in and tell them my story.
The guy on the other end can’t believe it, but he makes some phone calls and verifies my story. Phone calls go back and forth for two days between District, the plant, me and Washington. The postmaster at the office where I'm transferring says if I can’t get there as scheduled, he’ll have to give the position to someone else. Finally, it gets worked out and the day before I’m scheduled to there, I get a new Form 50 sanctioning the transfer. As a going-away present, my Georgia office schedules me for a ten-hour shift with mandatory overtime the night before I’m supposed to be at my new office. It makes for a long couple of days but I get there Saturday morning at 6 a.m.
The postmaster is clueless. He’s been the supervisor in the office, but it appears the only thing he really does well is put circulars in post office boxes. He’s been elevated to postmaster in the latest reorganization. I’m told the previous postmaster didn’t do much but sit in the basement and drink wine and look at porn. I don’t know but it seems possible. There are a lot of wine bottles and a porn collection in the basement locker room.
The office is a mess. There’s six months worth of paperwork stacked in flat tubs in the postmaster’s office. There’s no plan and no real routine. The office runs by inertia, but given my past experiences, it’s heaven.
After three years, I’m asked to go to another, larger office to fill in for a supervisor. This turns out to be something of a nightmare. The postmaster there is a woman who spends most of her time flirting with the contract janitor, with whom she’s carrying on an active relationship. She’s gone for days at a time but never takes leave. The fellow who left the job warned me that no matter how much they beg, not to take it. It’s obvious why. Years later, when this woman retired, she left 22 skids of unworked mail for those who followed her.
After a month I go back to my old office and vow never to supervise anyone again, but my hours are dwindling to nothing so when they ask me to take an OIC assignment I agree. That leads to a Level 15 postmaster’s job and then, two years later, Webster, a Level 13 with only a PMR.
The Red Laws
It’s October 1, 2007, and I’m driving an empty flat tub the fifty miles to the Asheville GMF at 9:00 p.m. Why, one might wonder, was this necessary? Earlier in the evening the CPMS system that records our collection box scans had been balky, but after a half hour it had apparently verified my scans. A couple of hours later I get a call from a fellow at district telling me that the scan hadn’t downloaded and that according to procedure I must drive to Asheville. I tell him I watched the truck take the dispatch away, that the scan had appeared to register, and that I have no intention of going out on a rainy night for a nearly hundred mile round trip to deliver an empty white tub.
Too bad, he says, that’s procedure. A few minutes later my POOM calls and tells me I will be going to Asheville. I inform her that I have just taken pain medication, I have psoriatic arthritis that requires it, and I probably shouldn’t be driving. “If you can’t go then, you must find another postmaster to go.”
“That’s asinine.” I say. “No, that’s policy — the Red Laws. You will report to Asheville with an empty tub verifying there is no outgoing mail in your facility or you will face disciplinary action.”
The Red Laws — a set of rules regarding conduct of collections and other tasks associated with EXFC — were promulgated by David Fields, then manager of Mid-Carolinas District. I suppose there are similar sets of rules in every district, at least that’s what I’m told. Some of the rules make sense. They were reasonable procedures, for example, to ensure that mail was both collected and delivered in ways that would preserve the all important EXFC scores.
But then again, most of the rules just seem like bullying. Maybe naming them Red Laws was taking things a bit too seriously. The language seems as if it comes from a military handbook, but the postal bureaucracy has a certain love for military sounding language that conveys a sense of importance at levels approximating nuclear launch codes.
The zero bundle drill
Among the Red Laws was a procedure known as the zero bundle drill. This little bit of pointless fun was originally devised by Jerry Lane, former Cap-Metro Area vice-president, before he left the Postal Service after assaulting an aide that he was rumored to be having an affair with. She had been installed in a position of authority, apparently as a reward for her services to Mr. Lane, but regardless of past services rendered, her postal numbers were not up to standard. As reported in the news at the time, Mr. Lane went to the aide’s office to make her resign her position. She would not agree to do so, which caused Mr. Lane to get mad and assault her. Unfortunately stories like this, even among very senior managers, circulate all too often.
The zero bundle drill was an exercise wherein a postmaster would receive a call and at a moment’s notice be required to fax several documents to an undisclosed location, actually somewhere at district headquarters. The documents were all standard pieces of information — training forms, certifications that training forms had been completed, truck schedules, certifications that carrier’s vehicle had been checked for loose mail, and so on — pieces of information that were either already on file at district or readily available on postal computer systems.
The purpose of the drill was somehow supposed to convey the idea that the Postal Service took very seriously the matter of collecting mail from collection boxes, although how a postmaster’s or supervisor’s ability to fax documents quickly conveyed that is somewhat unclear. When the procedures were first instituted, small offices were instructed to buy fax machines or, if they had a balky one, to purchase a better, more reliable machine.
Test drills were instituted and people were detailed to go to offices to ensure that zero bundle drill files were present and accounted for and up to date. In many offices training forms had to be completely redone to ensure signatures were full, clear, and always exactly within and on the proper lines. Military precision was involved, and given the multiple teleconferences and extraordinary amount of time spent discussing and preparing for the dreaded zero bundle drill, such precision was apparently absolutely necessary.
Among the Red Laws was a requirement to take an empty tub to the plant if for some reason the CPMS computer system failed and scans were not properly documented. This empty tub was to represent perfect surety that collection mail had been collected and dispatched. Watching the mail get on the truck wasn’t enough. If a power failure occurred, it wasn’t sufficient to let the scans download at some future point in time. It was necessary to drive to an office that might still be open and download the scanner there.
So because of the Red Laws I found myself driving to the Asheville plant with an empty flat tub on a rainy night when I was full of pain medication. I arrived, got checked off the list, and drove home — all at a cost of about $180 to the Postal Service. I’m told that several other postmasters also made a trip that night.
Sometime the next day it was discovered that there had been some sort of computer failure and that all of those trips with empty tubs weren’t actually necessary since there were procedures in place to fax clearances in the event of computer failures. Then again, they could have taken our word that the mail had been dispatched.
Over the years I’ve seen more stupidity and waste and clear lack of organization than I care to remember. I’ve seen drunks carry the mail and drunks supervise those carrying the mail. I’ve seen nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism in hiring and promotions. I’ve seen dishonesty in reporting numbers and I've seen managers that hide mail or run mail through machines over and over. I’ve seen behavior that ranged from merely the tendentious to outright bullying. And I’ve talked to enough of my fellow employees to know that my experiences are not only not unique but may actually be rather pedestrian.
Privatization and the end of universal service
What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the plans of postal executives and the Board of Governors to transform the Postal Service into a modern, efficient postal system that provides the American public with a necessary degree of universal service? What could any of this possibly have to do with the PRC's advisory opinion on Mail Processing Network Rationalization?
The Commission's opinion on the MPNR plan is couched in muted, restrained language, but the conclusion is clear: “The Commission suggests that a network model that focuses on minimizing costs, rather than minimizing the numbers of plants and equipment, would be more informative to Postal Service management.”
In a scenario that is supposed to be about wringing costs out of the system, as Mr. Donahoe has repeatedly claimed, the Postal Service took an approach that was virtually contrary to that objective. Rather than coming up with a plan that would reduce costs most effectively, it came up with one designed primarily to reduce the number of plants and workers.
It has been clear, at least since 2002, if not longer, that the Postal Service wants a smaller network, that it wants a redefinition of universal service, and that it essentially wants to privatize. The 2002 Transformation Plan contains an entire section devoted to the possible ways in which these goals might be accomplished. The following statement about universal service appears in that section:
“Universal service. The Postal Service provides universal service in terms of product coverage, delivery service, pricing, and retail access. Today’s universal service requirement is a broad set of legal and regulatory mandates and constraints. If retained, the current universal service requirement would severely impair the Postal Service’s ability to differentiate price and product/service offerings. The best alternative would be a contractual arrangement where the Postal Service would guarantee significant core elements of the universal service obligation. The economics of the alternatives would have a major influence on valuation.”
How clearer could the fundamental direction of the senior leadership of the organization be? PAEA, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which followed the transformation discussions, gave the BOG and the PMG only a few of the things on its wish list: separation of market dominant and competitive products and a slightly less regulatory and more flexible pricing mechanism.
But it didn’t give the leadership of the Postal Service and the industry stakeholder groups what they really wanted — a clear path to privatization. And it didn’t come close to holding the leadership of the Postal Service accountable, neither for the dysfunctional culture of the organization nor for the fundamental management incompetence that stems from that culture.
What about the hub system?
The MPNR plan itself does not discuss one of the most critical aspects, the hub system, that would be necessary to get the plant processed mail to the carriers who will deliver the mail. It’s as if the whole point of processing mail has been forgotten, that the end product that must be placed in the carrier’s hands doesn’t matter.
The failure to address the hub system in a thorough and comprehensive way is only part of the neglect to consider the final user of the processed mail. The advisory opinion clearly shows that for the plan to work as projected the increases in productivity would have to be nearly 20 percent. Aspirations of that magnitude are laughable unless one knows postal management well enough to understand that numbers don’t matter when lies and dissembling can massage the data and fix the reports.
Does anyone with any familiarity with mail processing believe the Postal Service can achieve those kinds of productivity increases without severely undermining the integrity of DPS mail? I’ve worked on the DBCS and I know it can be a hectic and backbreaking exercise. Does anyone believe we can stage that much more mail, get it through the machine, turn it over to a hub system, and maintain any reasonable DPS quality while increasing productivity by 20 percent?
Every day District and POOM offices are bombarded by e-mails from postmasters and supervisors looking for missent trays of DPS. For years the Postal Service has maintained shadow networks to deliver missent and priority mail in order to support EXFC scores. That expensive exercise is justified under the aegis of service, but the fact is that it is a fundamentally dishonest exercise that games the standard setting system. Worse, there is no feedback system designed to document, correlate, and ultimately correct these types of errors.
The goal, as always, is to make the numbers. All over the country, every day, postmasters, supervisors, plant personnel and others drive misdirected mail around. Some of the cost of that doesn’t show simply because employees are bullied into not taking the time or the mileage they may be entitled to. In some case, the hours are shifted into other categories.
An oversight like failing to account for the hub system or expecting impossible productivity improvements can only come if the intent of the Network Rationalization plan was not to improve performance or efficiency or hold down costs but simply to shred a large part of the postal network and in doing so cause further deteriorations in service that would accelerate the irrelevancy of First Class mail.
One bad plan deserves another
The Postal Service, many in the mailing industry, and the postal sycophants in Congress like Senator Carper argue that the PRC advisory opinion process takes too long, that it is too burdensome, that it interferes with progress. This argument defies the facts and is designed solely with the purpose of undermining the only legitimate oversight of an institution that clearly needs far more of it.
Virtually all of the advisory opinions that have been requested over the last few years relate to matters that the Postal Service has long wished to change. Regardless of how many months those opinions have taken, the PRC has demonstrated a significant ability to thoroughly review the data and the record and to offer clear, concise, and useful advice. In many cases, the process has taken more time than it might have because the Postal Service presented its case in a rushed and sloppy manner. More often than not, the Postal Service has indicated that it wasn’t interested in the PRC’s advice any way.
The Postal Service has known for ten years or longer that it would like a smaller retail network. In the late 1990’s this was such an issue that the Postal Service was forced into a moratorium on retail closures. As a response, it resurrected old shibboleths about offices that don’t make money and engaged in emergency suspensions that appear so calculated that they make a mockery of the word emergency. Lease negotiations have become legendary for being difficult and unfair.
Then last year the Postal Service announced the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), the plan to close 3,700 post offices. It was sure to draw Congressional fire as representatives from both end of the political spectrum and every ideology pay cynical lip service to constituent service while wholly ignoring the needs and interests of the American public by working on meaningful postal reform. Further, one need only look at the timing of POStPlan to know that it was in the works well before the RAOI docket was eventually adjudicated.
POStPlan is a sham, a plainly dishonest plan and plainly only a step to post office closures. Yet the postmaster organizations sold their souls to endorse the plan and abandoned their members in the process. By bowing out of the advisory opinion process, they also cleared the way for an essentially uncontested docket. The surveys and community meetings are a pro forma exercise designed to give an imprimatur to a clear denial of the terms of Title 39 requiring the Postal Service to provide maximum service to rural areas.
Now we have Network Rationalization, a plan, as the advisory opinion docket clearly demonstrates, conceived not with the goal of reducing costs but with the sole, cynical goal of closing as many plants as possible without regard for service. The opinion clearly shows that it is likely that greater cost savings could be achieved without reductions in service if the Postal Service had used its sophisticated modeling techniques to find the best solution rather than the preordained solution.
The advisory opinion is muted in its criticisms but that’s likely a bureaucratic necessity, like when two senators take turns throwing adjectives like “esteemed” and “honored” at their opponent so that the flowery accumulation is an unmistakable dismissal.
The market research designed to determine how much mail the change in service standards might drive out of the system was shoddy and unprofessional. The PRC couldn’t even replicate the data analysis and concluded that the research was simply “unreliable.” And that’s the research that the Postal Service submitted in its original testimony. Forget about the earlier research that was begun, abandoned, and all but hidden because it was leading to very uncomfortable conclusions.
A blind eye and a single obsession
The last three Postmaster Generals — William Henderson, Jack Potter, and Patrick Donahoe — have come up through the ranks of the Postal Service. None of them could have missed observing the damaged and dysfunctional culture of the Postal Service. All of them should have taken responsibility for fixing it. In failing to do so, each of them has demonstrated a fundamental incompetence.
The problems with postal management result in millions of dollars wasted on costly grievances each year. They result in a system that is far less productive than it can and should be. The vast majority of those who work for the Postal Service are honest hardworking people who sincerely want to do a good job. Many do a good job in spite of an ignorant management culture that sweeps problems under the rug and is virtually deaf. Many, however, are defeated in their best efforts by a system that is unaccountable and incompetent.
If three men who rose through the ranks to the highest office in the institution can turn a blind eye to this culture, what does that say about the chances for success? If those who make the strategic plans for the Postal Service are unwilling or unable to address fundamental competence issues, what might that say about the validity of their plans for the future?
For the past four years the response of the leadership of the Postal Service to a crisis that is solidly based in the inane accounting machinations of PAEA and the worst economic conditions in seventy years has been to wander incoherently from plan to plan — plans that do not address the current problems nor point the Postal Service toward any sort of reasonable future. What they have done instead is simply and repeatedly advance an agenda that they believe would lead to privatization of an essential government service.
Postmaster General Donahoe has made every effort to paint the Postal Service’s financial situation worse than it is when it suits his narrative. Postal “losses” are reported in the most sensational way, and the losses in First Class volumes are accompanied by dour predictions that seek primarily to ascribe irrelevancy to a still viable and essential communication that much of America relies upon. The Postal Service is challenged by technology, but that’s happened before and the organization has adapted and even profited.
It’s true that transactional First Class mail volumes are likely to drop, but Mr. Donahoe is irresponsibly undermining confidence in a system that tens of millions rely upon, without offering an alternative. If the American public loses confidence in First Class mail and the system breaks down, will millions be left to the whims of predators in the financial sector who would like nothing more than to extract fees and charges from several million more customers?
Since taking office, Mr. Donahoe has offered one new revenue product – Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM) — while ignoring opportunities to develop alternative offerings that would have benefited average customers, like a postal bank or an electronic transaction service. He claims those aren’t reasonable because Congress must approve them, but in each and every public statement he has made in the last six months he has referred to the need for Congress to act on behalf of the Postal Service. The difference is that Mr. Donahoe and the Board of Governors want Congress to act only on their preferred options, the ones that disrupt and dismantle the network, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, and undermine the integrity of an essential infrastructure.
The politicians, in both the legislative and the executive branches, have abandoned the Postal Service. They have left its future to a virtually unaccountable group, the Postal Board of Governors. The PRC, in its very limited statutory role, has performed well and wisely in issuing thorough and complete advisory opinions. Those opinions and years of experience and evidence can lead the average American to only one conclusion: The leadership of the Postal Service has a single obsession — the privatization of the postal network — and their management of a cherished and necessary American institution has been wholly incompetent.
[Mr. Jamison recently retired as a postmaster for the US Postal Service. He can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com.]