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The battle for the United States Postal Service

Commentary by Travis Albert |
August 26, 2020
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A representative from the APWU in Milwaukee speaks at a rally to defend the post
A representative from the APWU in Milwaukee speaks at a rally to defend the post office on August 22. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Milwaukee, WI - On August 18, amid public outcry, political scrutiny and protests, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that his so-called ‘reforms’ will be put on hold until after the election. While voting rights advocates can and should take this as a partial win, postal workers and concerned postal customers must continue to escalate and build a movement that can permanently end DeJoy’s policies of deliberate sabotage and reverse the damage that has already been done.

What have the ‘reforms’ meant for postal workers and customers?

People around the country were shocked to see images appear of dismantled mail sorting machines, piles of removed collection boxes, and limited public hours for post offices. In and of themselves, these specific issues are not new. It is the speed, location and the context in which these changes are occurring which have caused concern to postal workers on the shop floor.

While USPS has claimed these changes are a result of lower mail volume, the decline is expected to be temporary. Abnormally low mail volume has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Volume is expected to rise dramatically in the coming months with an election and a holiday season right around the corner, and while it feels like coronavirus can’t be shook in the U.S., at some point life will get back to normal and mail volume will stabilize.

The dramatic limiting of overtime is more concerning than the removal of equipment which will be needed in the future. USPS has been hit hard by the pandemic and had been relying on overtime to meet service standards. In clearly perjurious testimony to the Senate, DeJoy claimed that he never attempted to eliminate or curtail overtime. However, according to his own document titled “Pivoting for Our Future,” “Carriers must begin on time, leave for the street on time, and return on time.”

This is a perplexing line, as volume fluctuates daily for mail carriers, as does the weather. There is no “on time.” The job takes as long as it takes. To demand that fluctuating volumes of work are completed by an arbitrary time is in essence a speed up. In fact, the title “Pivoting for Our Future” has a sly double meaning. Pivoting is a postal term in which a carrier does work in addition to their own route to fill out an eight-hour day. Management frequently attempts to force pivots on carriers to get them to run off eight-and-a-half to nine hours of work in an eight-hour day.

At every point in the collection, transportation, distribution and delivery of mail, DeJoy’s policies have either opened the door for frequent delays or have even enforced delays. Postal management was well aware of the consequences of the new polices. To quote again from “Pivoting for Our Future,” “One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that - temporarily - we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks.” This change has indeed been difficult for employees to stomach as just one month ago, such actions were worthy of termination and even prosecution. They have now become postal policy.

Postal customers have likewise felt the consequences of this policy as their bills, ballots, medications and parcels have all been severely delayed. One Los Angeles area mailhandler reported, “Packages piled up, blocking the aisles and the heavy sorting machinery. Boxes of steaks, fruit and other perishables rotted. Rats dashed across the floor. At one point, the whole building was filled with gnats.” People paid postage on these products with the expectation that they would be received in a timely fashion. In the world of shipping and logistics, speed is everything, and mail delays are unsustainable.

Postal workers fight back

For the most part, postal workers have been fighting back on the shop floor and through the grievance procedure. Mail delays have led to violations of USPS handbooks and manuals as well as multiple articles of the national agreement. That being said, the grievance procedure can be slow, especially when the orders are coming from the top. Management will force legitimate grievances to be appealed again and again just to delay justice for as long as they can. Some postal workers have been looking to other methods for achieving their goals.

In the Milwaukee area, a station fought back against the delays. By sticking together and resisting the speedup, they were able to get back to doing the job correctly weeks before DeJoy announced that his delays would be put on pause. It has also been reported that workers in Seattle-Tacoma and Dallas mail sorting plants have been reconnecting mail sorting machines against the direct orders of USPS.

The community stands in solidarity

On August 15, demonstrations began occurring outside of Louis DeJoy’s home in Washington D.C. Carrying pots and pans, protesters issued a ‘wake up call’ to DeJoy. A similar demonstration of over 100 people occurred outside of DeJoy’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. The demands included the need to maintain high standards for ballot deliveries, reverse the policies of sabotage, and for DeJoy to resign.

Move On called countrywide demonstrations to occur on August 22. Over 800 documented demonstrations occurred throughout the country. In Portland, Oregon there were 25 simultaneous demonstrations throughout the city. In Milwaukee, over 100 people turned out to take action outside the post office downtown.

Postal unions to the front!

These protests seemed to have varying levels of labor backing, and for the most part postal workers participated in personal capacity. This isn’t a fight that the community should be expected to fight alone. Postal unions should participate in and lead the rallies. One consequence of the low level of postal worker participation seemed to be that there was a heavy emphasis on the 2020 election rather than on the new horrific working conditions and dramatic decline in service which threatens the long-term viability of a public postal service.

The American Postal Workers Union seems to be standing alone among the postal unions in calling for and leading public demonstrations. On August 25, APWU-led protests will occur outside of post offices throughout the country. This is a good sign as it shows that the temporary end of DeJoy’s tactics of sabotage won’t lull postal workers into letting their guard down.

Continue the struggle after November

While the Move On demonstrations focused primarily on the elections, the real fight is going to begin after the 2020 election, when DeJoy’s policies are expected to resume. Postal workers need to take advantage of the time left between now and November to pressure their leadership to take bold action and to build the networks necessary to keep the heat on and escalate the fight until DeJoy has been completely defeated.