March 20, 2015
BY PHILIP F. RUBIO
Philip F. Rubio is author of There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality. Rubio, a historian and former postal worker, brings to life the important but neglected story of African American postal workers and the critical role they played in the U.S. labor and black freedom movements. Having fought their way into postal positions and unions, black postal workers—often college-educated military veterans—became a critical force for social change. Centered on New York City and Washington, D.C., the book chronicles a struggle of national significance through its examination of the post office, a workplace with facilities and unions serving every city and town in the United States.
In this post, which originally appeared on the UNC Press Blog, Rubio marks the anniversary of the U.S. postal strike of 1970 by looking at its importance in both the lives of employees as well as the history of the postal service itself.
Who Remembers the Nationwide Postal Wildcat Strike of 1970 (and Why Does That Matter)?
Judging from sparse media references as well as historical scholarship, the answer to that question appears to be, sadly, not a whole heck of a lot of people. But what about those who participated in it? That is a whole other story, as I continue to find out firsthand in recording strike veteran narratives. Their stories, combined with readily available evidence already out there, should help make a convincing case for why this was such an important event in United States labor history. One could even argue that it even deserves as much attention as, say, the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37, where GM autoworkers in Michigan fought for control of the work process and won union recognition for the United Auto Workers union.
In 1970 what happened in a nutshell was this: postal workers had become fed up with working for wages that had lagged so far behind over the years that many were working second and third jobs to make ends meet. In cities like New York and Washington, D.C., many postal workers were even collecting food stamps and welfare. At the time, federal government employees only enjoyed partial collective bargaining rights (provided by Executive Order 10988 in 1962). That meant they had to lobby Congress for pay raises—a process they dubbed “collective begging.”
On March 12, a rank-and-file caucus of Branch 36 (Manhattan-Bronx) of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) spearheaded the demand for a branch strike vote. Striking the federal government has been illegal since 1912. But that is exactly what Branch 36 voted to do on March 17. Picket lines went up at midnight all over New York City. Other NALC branches voted to strike, spreading upstate and into New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania; then west to Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Colorado, and California. Together they shut down 671 post offices in dozens of cities and towns across the United States. Clerks, mail handlers, maintenance workers, motor vehicle operators, and other crafts from other postal unions joined what became the largest “wildcat strike ” (one not authorized by a national union) in American labor history. Over 200,000 postal workers struck for eight days. Despite the inconvenience of a total mail stoppage, strikers enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans.
Court injunctions were served on local union leaders, fines were levied, and government officials threatened to break the unions. President Richard M. Nixon called up 26,007 troops in an effort to break the strike by moving the mail—which failed. The strike ended on March 25 when strikers were convinced by union leaders to return to work after negotiations with Nixon administration officials. No one was fired or jailed. Further negotiations led to legislation signed that August by Nixon granting a 14% raise, with top pay “compressed” to 8 instead of 21 years, and full collective bargaining rights (except the right to strike) under a reorganized self-supporting hybrid government agency-corporation in 1971 called the U.S. Postal Service.
Who were these people? I’ve interviewed strike participants from New York to California, Denver to Detroit, and “almost strikers” from Miami, D.C., and Atlanta. Unfortunately, many older postal strike veterans have passed away, although some have left their recorded stories behind. But I was lucky enough to be able to interview 55 letter carrier strike participants at the 2014 NALC national convention. I had already interviewed 11 strike veterans from carrier, clerk, and mail handler crafts as part of the research for my first book on the post office, There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
There was a real diversity of strike experiences across the country. Participants told me of strike debates and votes held in union halls, bars, “swing rooms,” or even on the workroom floor. Some of these debates and votes started in the weeks preceding the strike, while others happened spontaneously. Once the strike started, some local union officers would have to “disappear” to avoid being served with court injunctions. Real rank-and-file leadership was being exercised by those who often had little or no experience in daily union affairs, and whose only communication was telephone, word of mouth, or news reports. I even spoke to one of the soldiers who had been called up by Nixon to move the mail in New York during the strike. He corroborated stories commonly told of troops unable to master mail-sorting in a few days but also sympathetic to strikers—some of whom had been called up as reservists and were working next to them.
The wildcat strike (really a general strike) transformed the post office and its unions. As it was itself inspired by other public sector strikes in New York during the 1960s, the 1970 nationwide postal strike in turn inspired no small amount of labor militancy and engagement. Every strike veteran I’ve interviewed or read has expressed pride in their action and the outcome despite the risks. Turnover dropped dramatically as post office work became a well-compensated, desirable career. In many ways, this strike helped revive a stagnant post office. But somehow today, forty-five years later, as it continues to grow with America, the post office has become a target for elimination or privatization.
Philip F. Rubio is associate professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and author of the award-winning There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality. For video of his guest appearance on the Colbert Report and links to additional articles and media appearances, check out his author page.
March 18, 2015
BY MARK JAMISON
Who owns the post office? Who is the post office designed to serve? What is the system’s ultimate function?
These questions are fundamental to the future and the fate of the post office, the postal network, and postal services in this country. How we answer them will have a significant impact on businesses, workers, and communities.
We know the Constitution instructs — or more accurately, permits — Congress to make arrangements for post offices and post roads. That is a good indication that the Founders saw postal services and the infrastructure that supported them as broadly essential to the nation — nation in their reckoning being the sum of the people.
But Congress has abdicated its responsibilities. It no longer functions as a deliberative body and has become increasingly ineffective as a legislative body. The Postal Service's Board of Governors has proven to be equally ineffective and has left postal managers to run operations as they see fit. The regulatory system is relatively limited and not really able to represent the interests of the public as a whole.
All in all, the Postal Service is simply not accountable to the American people in the way it should be — or the way it must be if it is to survive as a vibrant public postal system, as envisioned by the Founders
In the debates about the Postal Service, the public interest is too often forgotten. It's worth quoting yet again the stirring words of Title 39:
"The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people."
If these words are to mean anything, the leaders of the Postal Service, Congress, and the Executive branch must be reminded that the Postal Service is there to serve not some narrow economic interests but the people of the United States.
The vision of the Founders
There are only a couple of mentions of the post office in the Federalist Papers, the set of writings by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay which offered the explanation and underlying reasoning that supported the new Constitution. In Federalist 42, Madison wrote:
“The power of establishing post roads, must in every view be a harmless power; and may perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states can be deemed unworthy of the public care." (emphasis added)
Benjamin Franklin certainly had a great deal to say about the post office. As one of the inspirational leaders of the new nation and its first Postmaster General, Franklin clearly saw the importance and value of a robust postal system. Early in his career as a printer and publisher, Franklin was disadvantaged because a competitor, Andrew Bradford, used his power as a postmaster to deny Franklin’s papers access to the postal system — an act that impressed upon Franklin the importance of broad access to the post. In his biography of Franklin, Walter Isaacson says that the benefit of Franklin’s tenure as colonial postmaster, greater than the compensation he received, “was that it furthered Franklin’s conception of the disparate American colonies as a potentially unified nation with shared interests and needs.”
The Founders clearly recognized that an infrastructure that could serve to bind the nation together was essential not only for the free flow of information but also as a means of enhancing commerce. Washington even argued that newspapers and journals should travel the mails for free, while Madison suggested their cost be subsidized but that as matter of economy there should be a charge. Whatever the expectations on funding or self-sufficiency, it is clear that the Founders saw a need for a public post, a postal system that belonged to and served the American people broadly.
March 15, 2015
A former postal worker in Greensboro, North Carolina, named Paul Barbot has written two excellent articles for Alternet about his experiences dealing with Amazon deliveries as a City Carrier Assistant (CCA). The first of them — “The Horrific New Marriage Between Your Post Office and Amazon Sunday” — was published in February, when Barbot still worked for the Postal Service. The second, “The Real Cost of ‘Amazon Sunday,’” came out a few days ago, not long after Barbot left the post office.
Barbot describes what it’s like serving as an overworked, underpaid non-career employee and how the deal to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays is causing all sorts of problems. The problems got so bad, in fact, that Barbot had to quit.
Apparently, the high turnover of CCAs is becoming a serious issue.
In its 2014 Annual Report to Congress, the Postal Service noted that while the target for Deliveries per Hour in in FY2014 was 42.9, the actual result was 42.0. The Postal Service offered several explanations for why the target was not met, including the overrun of an aggressive work hour plan and additional hours used to avoid delaying mail during the Christmas season.
The Postal Service also pointed to three other explanations, all of which have to do with delivering for Amazon: the additional workload from Sunday package delivery, the hiring and training of many new non-career employees, and a high turnover rate — in excess of 40 percent — for CCAs.
As part of the Annual Compliance review being conducted by the Postal Regulatory Commission, the Postal Service was asked about the turnover rate in a Chairman’s Information Request.
The PRC noted that in FY 2014 the Postal Service extended the Voice of the Employee Survey to all employees. “Based on the Voice of the Employee Survey results,” asked the Chairman, “what insights were gained about the high turnover rate for city carrier assistants?”
In its response, the Postal Service observed that the FY 2014 VOE index score for non-career employees was actually thirteen points higher than for career employees. The Postal Service then went on to say the following:
“A review of the FY 2014 exit data indicates ‘Personal Reasons’ as the top cause of CCA resignation. Comments associated with the ‘Personal Reasons’ selection cited life situations that could not be accommodated with the job requirements, for example, dependent care, a desire to finish school, and work schedules.”
The Postal Service thus makes it seem as if CCAs are resigning simply for “personal reasons” that have nothing to do with how they are being treated or how the Amazon deal is causing problems. Barbot’s Alternet pieces tell a much different story.
Walmarting the post office
While the details of the Negotiated Service Agreement with Amazon remain secret, it’s become clear that the Postal Service’s deal to deliver on Sunday involves postal rates that would not be profitable were it not for CCAs, who earn far less than regular career employees. CCAs are the foundation upon which the NSA with Amazon is based.
In Greensboro, as in many other communities, CCAs are required to work seven days a week so they can deliver Amazon parcels on Sundays. After “Amazon Sunday” came to Greensboro in November 2014, some CCAs simply could not keep up the pace of working everyday. They got sick, missed days, and were threatened with being fired.
Barbot, who had been praised as an exemplary CCA during his two previous years, could not do Sundays because his wife works as a nurse on Sundays and he has to stay home to take care of their five children, ages 10 to 2. Explaining all this to his supervisors did no good. After he missed several Sundays and was threatened with being released from the Postal Service, Barbot resigned.
According to the Postal Service, then, Barbot chose to resign for “personal reasons,” and the only problem worth worrying about is missing the target for Deliveries per Hour.
But the real problem is that the Postal Service has made a deal with a large private retailer that would not be possible without exploiting non-career workers. As Barbot says, it’s all about the “Walmartization” of the Postal Service.
March 14, 2015
The Postal Service is closing the post office in Hinkley, California, on March 20 for an emergency suspension. According to the local news report, the building housing the post office is being sold to Pacific Gas & Electric. Hinkley's only gas station and market are also in the building, and they'll be closing too, so this will be a big loss to the community.
While it’s possible that the Postal Service will eventually find a new location in Hinkley, that doesn’t appear likely. The news report says PG&E offered to help find another location, but the Postal Service is installing a cluster box unit instead, and it has told residents that if they need to do business at a post office, they’ll have to drive over 14 miles to Barstow.
Hinkley is a small, unincorporated community in the Mojave Desert, with a population of about 1,900 (as of 2000). The new owner of the post office building is not just any business in town, and one wonders why PG&E wanted to buy the building in the first place.
According to the Wikipedia article, Hinkley is the location of a compressor station for PG&E's massive natural gas transmission pipelines. Between 1952 and 1966, the water used to cool the compressors contained hexavalent chromium to prevent rust in the machinery. The water was stored in unlined ponds and ultimately contaminated the groundwater in the area.
Residents of Hinkley filed a class action suit against PG&E, which resulted in a multi-million-dollar settlement in 1996.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the legal case was the subject of Erin Brockovich, the 2000 film starring Julia Roberts.
Unfortunately, the legal settlement wasn't the end of the story. The cleanup of the underground plume of contaminated water is still going on, and the plume is apparently just getting bigger.
Regarding the closing of the market and post office, PG&E issued a statement saying, "PG&E understands that the market is an important part of the Hinkley community, and that it will be missed by many Hinkley residents. PG&E remains committed to working with Hinkley residents on other community-focused initiatives.”
The letter PG&E wrote the Postal Service gives March 24 as the date for vacating the building. Coincidentally enough, that’s also the date that the Postal Service’s lease on the space ends.
More than likely, then, the Postal Service knew long ago that it would not be renewing the lease, so it it’s not clear why residents are being informed just one week before the post office is closing.
For those who can't make the long drive to Barstow, the Postal Service says that they can have stamps mailed to them by making orders on the U.S. Postal Service website at www.usps.com.