Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Giving your life to fix the Postal Service is not worth it

I’ve been reading the long laments over the possible loss of postal facilities and post offices, and somehow I get the feeling it’s déjà vu all over again.

Maybe it’s because when I quit the Postal Service in June 1994 it was going through the same talk of changes, and remember that the Internet and Web were nowhere near as powerful as they are now.

Back then, there was chatter about cutting the “people who don’t touch the mail,” but that died away after a few postal managers and 204Bs (acting supervisors) either had their jobs changed or were sent back to regular work. Soon, those who were out of management were reinstated, and people who’d been taken out of the administrative offices found themselves back among the desks, copiers and filing cabinets.

And there were even more people in management and administration. A little-known thing outside the Postal Service was that people who had been injured (or claimed that they were injured) on the job sometimes ended up working in the office, pulling down the same pay but posting stuff on bulletin boards, making copies, etc. One of my strongest memories from the early 1990s was of a career awareness conference where almost the entire EEO office of several facilities was people on some sort of injury comp.

I had ambitions to improve myself, which is a ticket to career stagnation in the Postal Service. I guess taking management classes on my own time and at my own expense marked me as someone to keep out of management at all costs. When I managed to talk my way into a position as a 204B, I was assigned to oversee an unmotivated group of people, most of whom could not follow even the simplest instructions. My fondest memory is of someone I had worked with making a lame excuse for not doing something, and me shouting “Bullshit!” at her. I got a talking-to for that from another supervisor.

One thing that is certain: when it came to supervision, I blew chunks. (I didn’t do much better as a manager at a newspaper, though I’ve mellowed since.)

Another “fond” memory is that when one supervisor (who nearly set the record for sex harassments and often wrote people up for discipline on their first night on the job) saw me dressed for supervision and announced: “Now you’ll see what kind of trash these assholes really are.”

Getting busted back to craft was almost a relief, and while I was really upset, it actually was a good thing because it motivated me to register for college and get serious about a new direction.

Oddly, I continued to work and work well. Admittedly, I did decide to burn up a small portion of my mass accumulation of sick leave if there was a big test the next day, but mostly I came in, did the job and went home. My heart was in college, and while most were impressed at my determination to get my degree, a few were convinced I was crazy. One thing you have to do when you’re trying to improve yourself is to remember that others become very worried when you’re starting to change.

People would tell me that I’d never get a job outside the Postal Service, that I’d be an educated idiot, about their cousin Wilbur who had a bachelor’s degree but was still a moron, or their Aunt Hortense, who got a college degree and was working the drive-through at Burger King because she couldn’t find any job in her field.

A couple of the management types noticed that I had stopped applying for management jobs. I used to intensely study the openings, and wore out several typewriter ribbons making up the Form 991s and 2945As (I think that’s what the latter form was), sending the forms in and waiting to hear if I got an interview. My lack of success became frustrating, and helped convince me that I was wasting my time and theirs.

A tour supervisor said one day she noticed that I hadn’t applied for the latest batch of management jobs, and I said that I was on a new track and didn’t want to waste any effort on a hopeless endeavor.

It takes determination to get ahead. For six years, I worked at a large postal facility at night, then went home to sleep, then went to college, first at Palm Beach Community College and then at Florida Atlantic University. I was able to pay as I went, and graduated from both colleges with no student loans. I was also active on the schools’ newspapers.

I can see why so many, especially in management, were trying to discourage me from pursuing higher education. One manager had told me, “Henry Ford said blue-collar workers need to know only three things: Where to show up for work, when to show up for work, and how to do their job. Everything else is a waste.”

In fact, managers with just GEDs or high school diplomas were mostly eager to keep the upper hand intellectually over workers. Someone with college could stir up a lot of trouble and might even take seriously the notions then being bandied about regarding  contacting the Postmaster General directly about conditions at the facility. (They even gave out a toll-free number.)

I did even more than that. I wrote opinion pieces in the local newspaper, and even sent long, detailed letters to the Postmaster General. I’d get back from the latter’s office mildly threatening letters about not bothering his excellency with my comments. One of the nastiest letters I ever got was from the local head of HR at the postal facility, telling me – he thought – once and for all that I should just stop griping and accept that I was doomed to be a low-life.

Seeing no future in the Postal Service, I decided that trying to change things was pointless. But I was developing journalism skills, and decided to tweak the nose of management with a new employee newsletter. I called it “Samizdat” because I knew no one would even know what that meant. (Samizdats were illegal publications written by dissidents in the Soviet Union.)

I’d lay out articles, grab stuff out of Federal Times and other publications, and even take stuff from memos sent down from Elephant Headquarters. I loved to watch incognito as people picked up my newsletter in the break room and read it. Right then, I fell in love with journalism and the power of the written word.

I was nearing the end of college, with enough credits to graduate. I decided that I’d graduate in April 1994 and quit in June 1994, so I decided to go out in a blaze of glory. I sent the Postmaster General a copy of several issues of “Samizdat” and a letter detailing the racial views of one supervisor (a very bitchy white girl with a propensity for using the “N-word” whose reward for hating black people was being put in charge of a number of black employees) and another who was just evil toward everyone. Local management seemed to figure they had the right idea even if they were violating several rules governing behavior, and I thought since I was leaving I might as well do something good.

Well, I got more than I bargained for. The local plant manager summoned me to his office, with the black shift supervisor. I had asked the Postmaster General to come to the facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., where I would name names. The plant boss asked me to name names, so I did. I also reported the use of the “N-word” by one supervisor, and said I didn’t care what happened to me since I was leaving in June (this was around March 1994, before my graduation.)

The plant manager actually tried to talk me out of quitting, and dangled the prospect of an immediate promotion to management if I stayed. I could help fix the Postal Service from within with my knowledge, experience, education, training and understanding, he said.

It’s important to recognize that the above-mentioned qualities were often used as reasons to not advance someone in the Postal Service, so I was immediately skeptical. What would happen when he or the other people moved up, I wondered. I could be left in a very bad position. I said I’d think about his offer.

Also, I had seen in more than 10 years multiple plans to treat the workers better, and they all fell apart due to management opposition. Supervisors rarely acted to make like better for the workers in the Postal Service, and those significant few who tried found themselves treated as outcasts and usually transferred to less desirable shifts or even sent back to craft. When all else failed, kick ass and take names and write everyone up was the way to go.

I talked to the few supervisors I respected, and they expressed their own dismay with their current positions. I appreciated the honesty, and decided not to accept the offer.

Did I ever regret quitting the Postal Service? No. I moved on in my life and career, and found that no one cared that I had worked there when I went looking for a job. Could I have fixed the Postal Service? I doubt it. The system rewarded those who were corrupt and punished those who were honest. New hires would sometimes foolishly believe that if they blew the whistle on something that they had protection, but that was on paper. Announce that a facility was sending mail to the wrong place or doing something else wrong, and the offenders would get off scot-free while those who made the charges would find themselves with a ruined life.

In one case, a supervisor who reported over-reporting of mail volume nearly had his life destroyed. To me, it just wasn’t worth losing everything to fix a broken system whose managers wanted it to stay that way. Life is just too short to waste on lost causes.

This goes for a lot of other places as well. It would be nice to believe that one person can fix some place, but unless you’re rich you’ll probably end up destitute, in debt and unemployable.

Face it, some places will never work right. I’ll admit that I get all the mail I’m supposed to from the Postal Service. I suppose it does a good enough job. About the only thing I’d give the agency credit for is giving me enough salary to have a decent middle-class life (albeit as a single man living alone with cats) and to finish a college degree without taking on debt.

Other than that, the Postal Service went its way, and I went mine.

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May 24, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. You look like a “real” reporter on the field with that notebook in your left hand! Thanks for the photo.

    Geez, this postal post was kinda depressing…

    Comment by Diana-NYC | June 1, 2009 | Reply


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