From the new January-February 2012 issue of News & Letters:
Battle Creek, Mich.–For nearly 200 years the U.S. Post Office Department functioned as a public service agency. The delivery of the mail relied almost exclusively on manual labor, with management in the hands of politically appointed individuals. More recently, however, it looks as though the renamed United States Postal Service may go the way of the horse and buggy.
The post office lost the parcel post business to United Parcel Service 50 years ago. Over 20 years ago it lost out again to Federal Express, which created a new “overnight” class of mail.
Angered over unsafe working conditions and low wages, postal workers took matters into their own hands in 1970 with a nationwide strike–the only government workers to strike during the Vietnam War. Afterwards the government treated them like “the enemy.” The government’s response to the strike was the passage of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971.
The replacement of human labor by machines and “scientific” management of the workplace became the order of the day. The centers of the 1970 wildcat strike had been in the major postal facilities in large cities. In Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City, some 50-75% of the workers–and strikers–had been Black. Moving the postal facilities to the suburbs altered the racial composition of the workforce.
Beginning with the 1986 massacre at the Edmund, Okla., Post Office by postal worker/army reservist Patrick Henry Sherrill, a ten-year series of shootings and mass murders occurred at post offices across the country. The PO became the definition of a toxic work environment. Postal workers were depicted in the mass media as objects of derision.
One of these mass killings happened near where I worked on Valentine’s Day 1998. Gary Hicks, model postal worker who was getting divorced, doused his house in Vicksburg, Mich., with gasoline and lit the incendiary, killing himself and his three young daughters. They are all buried in the Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek. Today, perhaps the operative phrase is “e-mail is the new snail mail.”
The PO’s business model is obsolete. The main aim of the 1971 reorganization was to weaken the unions and destroy the social networks that existed in the old downtown post offices and the surrounding neighborhoods so that a 1970-style strike could not happen again. In this they have succeeded, but in the process they destroyed the post office. It reminds me of that gem of wisdom from the Vietnam War–“We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”
If the politicians manage to finally kill (privatize) the postal service, it will certainly prove to be a gold mine for whatever vulture venture capitalist firm takes it over. It will mean the end of universal service–the glue that bound this country together.
It will also mean another spark for the bellows.
–Retired Postal Worker