Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Game over for the Postal Service?

Watching the current travails of the U.S. Postal Service has been for me a kind of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.

I’ve bored my readers before with tales of my postal employment from January 1983 to June 1994, but bear with me while I mention it again.

I began working for the Postal Service at its Hicksville, N.Y., Sectional Center Facility in January 1983. I had taken the postal test – you could if you were a veteran, and I was – and asked to be considered for the new Western Nassau SCF – near Roosevelt Field in Garden City — that would be opening up soon. Only a couple of months later, I was called in, given a physical and told I was hired. Western Nassau wasn’t finished yet, but we’d work at Hicksville until it was.

The great attraction of the Postal Service was good pay, benefits and union representation. It wasn’t like the mail was going away anytime soon back then, though the recession of the early 1980s had really hit the system hard. Mail volume was coming back, though.

My starting salary was a princely $10.01 an hour, increased a few months later to $10.02 and then $10.56 an hour. With night differential of 10 percent and Sunday premium of 25 percent, I could afford to rent an illegal apartment in Plainview and even buy a bad used car. Still, I was free of my parents and on the move.

The main thing about the Postal Service was that then the great promise was that it was what I like to call “the Stasis Service.” It was here yesterday, today and would be here tomorrow. If you wanted, you could spend your whole life doing the same job at the same location in the same building for the same bosses, surrounded by the same people, or so it seemed.

I was of an ambitious bent, but career development was never the Postal Service’s strong suit. There was no formal way to get training for management or other jobs, and the union stratification meant that the test you took to get into the Postal Service could determine job assignments decades into the future.

In any case, as a mailhandler, I soon discovered that that craft was considered “the strong back and weak minds” of the Postal Service. In New York I never heard that phrase, but I heard it a lot in Florida after I transferred to West Palm Beach in January 1986.

The Postal Service’s view of technology was that it was all fine and dandy to use it to improve service and the transportation of the mail, but I think the top brass was blind-sided by the possibility that the same technological advances that could make the Postal Service more efficient could also eliminate it.

In January 1983, people may have had computers but very, very few had access to online services or the Internet and e-mail. Even in January 1986, there wasn’t much going on in the online realm. But I still remember reading sometime in 1987 that a local high school had been connected to the “Inter-net” and that this was the future.

The Postal Service just soldiered along, content to use the Private Express Statutes to keep competitors out of the paper mail business and the technology to improve its operations. As employees like myself bought computers, got connected to America OnLine and started exchanging e-mail, we realized that there was a whole system outside the Postal Service that could be a means of communication. But managers rarely listened to us workers back then.

I recall one manager telling me that senior citizens would never figure out computers, and serving them would be a profitable niche for the Postal Service for a long time to come.

In the 1992 presidential race, there was much talk about the “Information Superhighway” and even a discussion of whether the Internet could be that highway. Even after I finished my college degree in 1994 and quit the Postal Service in June of that year, there was little doubt among the Postal Service’s managers that this online thing was just a fad that would go away, and the Postal Service would end up at the top of the scrum.

This conviction extended to the bottom of the system as well, and people constantly reminded each other that past “financial crises” had gone away, and we had all gotten nice pay raises and cost-of-living increases, as well as contractual bonuses in arbitration anyway. The public might gripe and complain, but they’d never abandon the Postal Service’s services for the uncertain online world.

In the early 1990s, there had been another of those postal financial crises and there was much talk of cutting back on management and administration. “The people who don’t touch the mail” were never as big in number as the workers thought, but the word began to be that they would be cut back. However, while a few acting managers might be temporarily demoted to craft work, they inevitably went back to management, and more management and administrative jobs at all levels were created and eventually posted.

Top brass would announce that “change takes time” and most seemed to hope to score their pensions before they had to do anything to make that change real.

Just before I quit the Postal Service, I attended a career awareness conference and saw part of the reason the Postal Service was in the state it was in. The event was run by about a hundred people, all or mostly rural letter carriers, and all on some sort of injury compensation and light duty. Their work had to be made up by others, while they spent their workdays making photocopies, writing reports and generally looking busy in the Equal Employment Opportunity offices then present in virtually every postal installation.

It disgusted me, and the conviction expressed that god wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the Postal Service proved to me that these people were deluded. I decided I didn’t have a future in the Postal Service and moved on.

The future
Sad to say, the Postal Service is facing a date with destiny, and it’s not pretty. Financially, as people transact more and more business online, revenue will fall and so will service. Saturday delivery is probably going to be the first to go, and more consolidation of facilities is probably on the horizon, too, despite the ongoing battles to save facilities.

Through attrition and retirements, the Postal Service can unload most of its work force and use more technology to get the job done.

Two of the biggest mailing periods are, I hear, no more. I remember the mad Christmas rushes, usually starting with Thanksgiving and ending a couple of weeks into January, when the place just seemed piled up with mail.

I worked in the letter cancelling operation for the first half of my shift and setting up, loading into the system and sorting first-class and priority packages in the second half (the former was called the 010; the latter was on the teepee).

It was a good feeling to work unsupervised and efficiently in the latter job, and I was a master at sorting on the teepee not only packages but magazine bundles. There was something so wonderful about that last work night before Christmas, sending off the packages to the post offices where they’d be delivered, and knowing I’d work on Christmas Day for the triple time pay and get my days off later in the week.

Busy but not as crazy was tax time. On the night of April 15 (unless it fell on a Saturday or Sunday, and then it was another day) people would drive up and drop off their tax returns, some of them doing their taxes in the post office lobby. We’d cancel their envelopes and send them to Atlanta. That rush began about two weeks before tax day and died about two weeks later.

Those days are gone. Most folks still send Christmas cards – but not as many – and packages, but most tax forms are filed electronically.

The technology has changed, and so much the Postal Service. This time, there’s no bailout or rescue.

Closing troubles
A big problem the “Stasis Service” has faced is closing certain centers, especially cancelling centers.

Back when I was a reporter for The Bradenton Times, the issue came up when part of the postal facility at Tallevast on the Sarasota-Manatee county border was up for changes. Basically, the Postal Service wanted to send mail cancelling – the 010 – up to Tampa. Employees would get transfers to Tampa and would have to commute, but would still have jobs.

One issue raised by the postal union was that the loss of the postmark would be a blow to the area. That’s an issue that’s often raised, though to be honest I really wonder who cares where their mail is postmarked or what the postmark reads. We almost never see our envelopes after they are processed through the postal system.

Focusing on symbolism or “sense of community” surrounding postmarks will keep the Postal Service from saving itself – unless that’s the goal of the unions.

The road ahead for the Postal Service is rough. There is still a need for some paper mail – I, for one, still get a lot of bills and magazines through the mail – and more addresses are coming on line. People expect good service, and expect it delivered regardless of the Postal Service’s financial issues.

Can the Postal Service deliver amid its fiscal woes? That’s the open question right now.

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January 28, 2011 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I joined the Postal Service in 1983 as a mail handler working at a bulk mail center. There were times a few of us would stay late to work overtime, and I would notice that there were more supervisors standing around than there were workers working. Strange?

    The following year, I transferred over to become a letter carrier (1984). The job was awesome. I was able to load the mail the first few hours of the day and then spend the next six, on the street, delivering the mail.
    What was terrible about the job, were the supervisors, overbearing,rude and obnoxious. Worse, was the fact there was one too many supervisors for our small office and it seemed that they would try to justify their job by writing up a clerk or letter carrier.
    I ended up being elected the union steward for over a decade. I always told myself that when I leave the Postal Service and get into management, I would look upon my experience as a letter carrier and remember how atrocious the supervisors were and I vowed never to mirror the spectacle that I had endured.

    I am saddened that the P.O. is ebbing through its demise. I do believe it is self inflicted.

    The best thing the P.O. could do is terminate 50% of all management across the board.
    It would save this top heavy public service, without missing a beat. Consolidation is already transpiring.

    Good luck to my Postal Service family since moving on in 2000, I have missed you not.

    Comment by don woolbright | January 28, 2011 | Reply

  2. Actually, I never let the supervisors bother me that much. By the middle 1988, two and a half years after I was in West Palm Beach, I was mainly focused on getting my college degree and leaving the Postal Service. In a way, those were the best six years of my life when I was going to community college and university while working at the P.O., if only because I was focused on my goal.

    A few people — craft and management — tried to dissuade me from college, but most were supportive. Oddly, one of the managers I had the best working relationship with liked to drop little hints, like saying that he had read something Henry Ford said that workers needed to know only two things: Where to report to work and what time to report; the rest was wasted effort.

    He expressed the view to me one time that the biggest pains in his butt were not the workers who refused to work or put out any effort, but those who did try to do a good job because the latter always expected to be complimented and rewarded. One time, he wrote up for discipline a new-hired woman who walked off a small package and bundle sorter coding station to clear a jam that was backing up the system and destroying the packages. She was really pissed off and let him know that he was wrong because she was trying to do her job and thought clearing jams was part of her job. He said to her that she wasn’t hired to think but to obey.

    He never tried that nonsense with me.

    If workers would just improve themselves and learn rhetorical strategies, they could gain the upper hand, but most of my co-workers were content to let the union fight their battles — and lose.

    Comment by Vincent Safuto | January 28, 2011 | Reply


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