Correspondence on the Programme

Postal Wage Slaves

Revolutionary Worker #1067, August 20, 2000

The following is taken from a correspondence we received from a comrade in the San Francisco, Bay Area.

I've been reading the RW series of articles that have run in relationship to the Party's efforts to do investigation towards writing a new Programme and I thought it would be interesting for readers to know about some of the changes-in the 20 years since the Programme was written-that have taken place among what might be called the better-paid or union wage workers.

I work at a major "Processing and Distribution Center" of the U.S. Postal Service. There are 800,000 postal workers, and a lot of them are concentrated in these "P&DC's" which are in almost every major U.S. city. In my many years of working at the PO, I've seen a lot of change. And the changes over the last eight or so years, particularly with automation, have been very abrupt.

Working conditions for postal workers have never been all that great. In the 1970s, there were strikes at the bulk mail center in Richmond, CA and New York. But there was some sense that what the post office lacked in terms of salary and other working conditions were made up for by some sense of "job security." Today, pay is about $32,000 to $39,000 per year or about $16 to $20 per hour depending on craft, government level, seniority, shift, etc.

The post office has been a job where your military service counted-10 points preference on the postal test for combat duty. And even though postal tests can be discriminating in themselves, there was definite room for Black people to enter. If both husband and wife worked, you could actually buy a modest house even if it wasn't in the "best" neighborhood.

Then, in the mid 1980s, as the U.S. entered an era of downsizing and global competition for wages, it was no longer deemed necessary to buy workers' loyalty with decent (union scale) wages and benefits. At the same time, further and more drastic automation in the post office began to take place. The relatively good job security of a postal job began to rapidly erode.

Starting in 1992, Postmaster Marvin Runyan (nicknamed "Carvin' Marvin") began slashing positions, even in management, and began running the post office like a lean and mean business. He called himself a CEO and his friends called the post office their "company." Runyan and company even suggested that they would be willing to risk a strike by taking the "no-layoff" clause out of the next contract.

It's difficult to describe what it's like to have a position that you've had for decades suddenly be given to a machine that you now merely "feed." But this is precisely what's been happening more and more. There are machines that read 30,000 letters per hour, put two different barcodes on them and sort them right to the individual carrier in sequence! There are now 175 new flat sorting machines being distributed nationwide that are three times faster than the previous machines that are less than five years old. Again, the only thing workers have to do is "feed" the machine.

The robots that were supposed to make our lives full of ease and leisure, we now are beholden to. Our living and working schedules are changed to meet the maintenance demands of the machines. Soon we are told, we will have to change to odd starting hours like 4 a.m., maybe work overtime.... Forget the contract... Forget your "bid" - job position and days off that you may have had for decades. This is a new ballgame. As my union rep said, "We're in for big changes. People ain't gonna like it, but they're coming."

There are two plants which are considered "lights out, fully automated" where robots do all the work except deliver the mail. These plants are in Seattle, WA and Ft. Myers, FL. The plant in Seattle uses a skeleton crew-replacing 2,000 or so workers-to oversee the smooth running of the machines. The truck docks have huge conveyor belts which guide the equipment off the trucks, open the equipment and remove and sort entire trays of mail by barcode. Other robots guide the mail to the appropriate machine and then later dispatch it via other barcoded equipment. This is a bit in the experimental stage, but already the new machines are taking their toll.

A Chinese woman I work with lamented that starting later was going to really mess things up for her family. She has a hard enough time raising her children, with her husband working at night. With the new time change, she said she'd have to go on the graveyard shift-midnight to 8:30 a.m. She said, "What am I going to do? The kids are still in school and I have to be there for them when they get home. I know this means I won't be able to see my husband, but what else can I do?" One Latina woman cried when she heard of the impending change, saying that her public transportation wouldn't be available when she gets off on the new schedule.

As an example of other changes, several of my co-workers were highly skilled level 6 LSM (letter sorting machine) clerks just 10 years ago. But they were forced to take a level 4 job, "feeding" the newer high-speed machines, as the old LSM's were piled on the scrap heap. The "levels" generally correspond to pay, so they had to take a cut in pay. The new machines recognize the address or barcode, and further encode it and sort it, at a much higher rate than before. Machines that took longer with 12 people to operate it were replaced with high-tech machines that require only three workers.

Many other industries have become very decentralized-making this part at a maquiladora in Mexico and that part in Indonesia. But the post office is much more centralized. Its automation is concentrated in the P&DC's, with over 2,000 people working under each roof 24 hours a day. The volume of mail in the U.S. has quadrupled since the '70s. And even with all the automation that has gone on in the post office, it still needs a lot of workers. E-mail is impacting the volume of first class, but the Postal Service still delivers about 700 million pieces of mail every delivery day. 1998 recorded 198 billion pieces delivered for the year. There are also a wide variety of other services the post office performs, like Priority Mail.

Increased automation is going on at the same time as the rapid growth of globalization. One example of this is that the Postal Service now actually imports mail from foreign countries. They put barcodes on the letters in the U.S. and then send them back to the home countries. This is called "International Outbound mail." At some of the designated post offices, it's not surprising to see mail going from Denmark to Denmark. The USPS is renting out its automation, and the mail is being delivered in the foreign countries quicker, even though it's taking a detour of thousands of miles.

The 3 Tier System

It is a feature of imperialism in the year 2000 that it is able to have workers doing the same job side by side, with one worker paid twice as much as the other. Since the late '70s, the Postal Service has been reorganized severely. There are the facts and figures, and there are the real life hardships behind all these changes.

Starting in the late '70s, the Postal Service began thinking about putting newly hired workers on a different track, where their starting wages would be less than previous contract starting wages. By the early '80s, this idea of a "second tier" was happening nationwide. And for this second tier, there was less of everything, including job security-"no layoffs" is only fully guaranteed to those hired before 1978.

Also, the retirement system underwent big changes in 1984. The previous retirement plan was the burden of the postal service plus what your paycheck put in. But after 1984, the new retirement system was a complex formula of investing in "thrift savings plans" (i.e., the banks) and social security. The new retirement system was so inferior that when old-timers were offered it in place of what they had, only 1% took the bait. 38% of the workers are the first tier, under the old retirement plan, while the remainder of regular and part-time workers are covered by the other retirement plan.

Some of the newer second-tier workers are definitely in tougher situations. Many of the "Part Time Flexibles" are in this category. These are workers who are not guaranteed eight hours, yet are often forced into overtime. They have no ability to "bid" to a job assignment and are rotated from shift to shift. Although they are supposed to be converted to full time positions in six months, many remain in this limbo for years. Nevertheless, these workers are paid close to the same as the first tier, and they are eligible for regular benefits.

Then there is a third tier that gets all the shit that management can dish out. These are called the "casuals" or temporary ("not to exceed 89 days") workers. At one time, considered "Christmas help," these workers are now used full time as part of the workforce. Casual wages are roughly half what regulars make-from $7.50 to $12 per hour depending on where you work- with no benefits or security. They're supposedly limited to 12.5% of the workforce, but these numbers are always in dispute as the turnover is high. It is quite disturbing to see management fire a casual for something as little as calling in sick twice, while regular workers can get paid from their "sick leave." Also, these workers are at the mercy of the bosses. They typically work six days a week, overtime, and no holidays. They have no job position, and are often used to replace regular workers, creating tension at times. They are given a minimum of training and then subject to dangerous situations with moving equipment.

In the areas I've worked, the casuals are overwhelmingly young and non-white, and the majority seem to be women. However, there are also older casuals who were previously employed in other industries-like laid off auto workers. And many of these casuals have to take public transportation because they can't afford a car.

There is also a growing number of immigrant workers in the post office. I work alongside people from El Salvador, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Mexico, etc. And this often brings a breath of fresh air as many of these workers are not so caught up in the "American way." Recently a worker from an Asian country came up to me and said that he used to celebrate May Day back in his own country and he was amazed that Americans knew next to nothing about it.

Working and Living Conditions

Anyone who has worked in the big industries in the past can understand some of the basic work conditions that have always greeted workers under capitalism-like deafening noise levels amid huge clouds of dust. A recent report from NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) revealed in a survey of 145 workers that all but three suffered from some sort of problem related to the dust like sinusitis or eye irritation. Some workers with asthma problems (also an environmental illness) have to be hospitalized. And as more room is made for automation (new machinery), less room is made for the workers-leading to the overall feeling of being "rats in a cage."

The fastest rising injuries in the post office, soon to overpass lifting and back injuries, are repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. This is obviously related to increased automation, and a testament to how these machines force us to work faster and faster with the same tedious motions. At the same time, the post office has instituted different ways of not compensating workers for injuries. For example, it implemented a Return to Work Initiative, which really coerces workers into returning to work, despite debilitating injuries. With compensation cut, many injured workers are forced to return to work even when they are in a lot of pain. The Postal Service recently had a magazine feature about one worker who had his legs crushed by one of the machines. He was now back, working as a janitor, and his job was to push a broom from his wheelchair.

Postal employees are constantly watched and monitored. Catwalks with tinted windows overlook the workroom floor. But these seem ancient, with the use of electronic and camera surveillance. A few years ago, a group of workers were busted for football bets (believe it or not, these were just $2 bets) which were caught on camera. Now there are "smart cards" which double as ID badges that activate the front gates of some buildings. Now they know not just when you begin work, but what time you enter or leave the building. So you can be disciplined if you leave the building during work time even for a minute.

The bad working conditions also impact on people's living conditions outside of work. I work with a Black woman in her 40's who has teenage kids. She owns a house in an area being gentrified. She has had to refinance the mortgage a few times and so now she has to work a second job. She says simply "All of my money goes to my mortgage." And as I'm finding out, this is pretty typical.

And for the casuals, it gets even tighter. One Black woman I work with, close to 50, is working one full time and one part time job. She works the machines in the day and takes the bus to another service job at night. She told me that she used to work for the housing authority for almost a decade until "a man came from Washington in 1985 to trim the fat, and I guess I was one of them they had to let go." She said she was unable to find a decent comparable job, and had to settle for this arrangement. She is tired all the time, and joins the ranks of people who take naps during break time.

Low Morale, High Anger

"Yes, I'm angry, I'm angry every day." A fellow worker with 25+ years who was coerced into taking this new automation job with a pay cut is incensed. He is a Black man who has been looking forward to retirement but is now uncertain as to his future. He's actually kind of a quiet guy, so I wonder about the REAL level of anger. You have to really talk to people in a deep way to find out. A lot of people complain but it's a whole different thing to feel helpless about changing anything for the better.

The post office itself is quite concerned about the level of anger among workers. There are signs on the outside of the building warning people not to carry weapons inside. The areas of the building where the executives work in carpeted air-conditioned suites are inaccessible without a special magnetic entry card. Yearly, we are subjected to allegedly anonymous surveys conducted by Price Waterhouse, which ask us how we feel about our supervisors, fellow workers, etc. on a "1 to 5" rating scale. Our bags are checked frequently either on entry or exit.

No one of course feels "safe" by all this. According to a 1989 L.A. Times article, the Postal Service was on record (over a three and a half year period) for 355 assaults of employees on supervisors and 183 instances of supervisors assaulting employees. Although that was 11 years ago, things seem no less volatile than before.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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