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My 34-year career with the Postal Service (USPS) included a troubled relationship with unionization. There are five unions associated with the USPS. The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) is the carrier’s union. The National Rural Letter Carriers Association is specific to the maverick rural carriers. The American Postal Worker’s Union (APWU) organizes postal clerks, those mostly unseen faces behind the mail that comes to your box. The National Postal Mail Handlers Union stands behind the really unseen workforce, those folks who muscle mail into and out of the semi trucks and distribute sorted bins, trays, racks, and bags of mail to their appropriate location within postal facilities. There is even a National Association of Postal Supervisors.

I had studied the history of labor in the U.S. when I initially signed on as a clerk in Wyoming. I had read books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and I understood the value of organized bargaining. I was a young idealist, excited to be a part of the proletariat, carrying my lunch box and my union card. During my first APWU union meeting, a representative from the AFL-CIO presented information about benefits and retirement, all things that seemed lofty and far away, nevertheless, terribly important to me. I came away from that meeting excited to be part of something larger than myself. I faithfully attended every single union meeting for the next two years.

That first meeting turned out to be an anomaly. The meetings that followed devolved into little more than Boy Scout sessions. Before each meeting adjourned, the labor-management committee chair needed to have “an issue” to bring up in the upcoming labor-management meeting. Often there were no issues. The Postal Service had recently reorganized, thanks to the efforts of the old union stalwarts. In 1973, Postal employment was lucrative, comfortable, and highly sought. Meetings often drug out because “we’ve gotta have something to take to the labor-management meeting.” So, there we’d sit; A mostly satisfied group of workers, trying to think of an issue to complain about. “Okay, how about some mats in front of the sorting cases to relieve leg stress?”  So, at last, we could adjourn. I thought, if there is no issue, why make one up? But the union stance was, “If you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile. We gotta stand up for our rights!” I was quickly disillusioned by the petty whining that underpinned the local APWU.

Flip forward a few years. Relocated to Boise, I was thrilled to be rehired, this time as a carrier. I had three-months in which to prove myself. I was determined and I’m a naturally energetic person, so I began my career at breakneck speed. I impressed my supervisors but the carriers—not so much. I was the recipient of many stern lectures.

  • You’re going to hurt yourself.
  • You’ll never be able to keep up that pace.
  • You’re making us look bad.
  • I saw you running on my route yesterday. (frown & finger-wagging in face)

The kindly warnings grew more strident. I noticed that the most threatening comments came from the carriers that I recognized as the slowest, the least enthusiastic—the troublemakers. These troublemakers were often highly involved in union activities. I began to hate the union and everything it represented. I spent most of the rest of my career as a haughty scab.

Things within the Postal Service began to change. By the late nineties, labor-management issues had become strident, complex, and volatile. Front line supervisors were victims of both union labor rules and upper management’s greedy desire to squeeze blood out of granite. The old ways of doing business were disappearing. Supervisors could no longer work with their employees to hammer out differences or meet each other’s needs. Everything had become rule driven. I had to rethink my animosity toward the union as I saw more and more egregious behavior on the part of management. My previous mantra, Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution, was ludicrous in an environment where I was directly instructed to leave my brain outside the front door and just follow the damned rules.

Miraculously, one good thing did happen before union and management arrived at complete loggerheads. In 1992, the NALC spearheaded an effort to support a nation-wide spring food drive. Postal trucks present the most efficient  infrastructure for involving every home across the country in a food donation effort. Typically pantry shelves go bare during the summer months, but the need for food never diminishes. The NALC food drive has been enormously successful during the past 20 years. The event is tremendous financial burden for the USPS, both in fuel costs—due to heavily laden vehicles, extra trips, and extra trucks—and in labor costs. Not only is overtime required on food drive Saturday, but during the week prior to the event, carriers are asked to deliver promotional bags and postcards to every house on their route. This may not sound like a big deal, but those plastic bags present an unprecedented fourth frustration to already over-burdened carriers who are required to juggle and integrate three distinct sources of mail while traipsing or driving down the road.

For one day a year, I am enormously proud of the Postal Service and the NALC. Several years before I retired, I swallowed my pride and some of my grudges and actually joined the NALC. I could see the pendulum sadly swinging away from the worker and back toward fat, pencil-pushing, administrators who sit behind four air-conditioned walls dreaming up programs to protect their own cushy positions. These job-saving ideas land squarely on the backs of the poor grunts who must deal with the realities of ideas and programs that do more harm than good.

The pendulum keeps swinging. The gains made by workers in the late 60s and early 70s have been eroded by a series of economic booms and bubbles and administrative philosophies that have swung from employee involvement to employee exploitation. Who knows where it will all lead? But today, the day after the NALC’s 20th Annual Food Drive, I am proud of my former fellow colleagues and their union. Job well done, my exhausted friends. 

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 Volunteers help unload and presort food collected for the Idaho Food Bank.