IN THE SHADOW OF THE INFORMATION AGE

Days and nights at the most maligned workplace in the country--the U.S. Postal Service.

There is also the social arena. Unavoidable and unpredictable. A foil for boredom that is by turns hilarious or hostile. Unspoken agreement keeps general talkers, selective confiders, the convivial, and the silently withdrawn in civil balance for the sake of getting through the day.

Tension is tightest between seasoned regulars and supervisors. It doesn't help that the postal service is probably the strangest collection of affiliated individualists this side of Chechnya. Or that most supervisors came from the ranks and some in the ranks took a shot at being a supervisor and gave it up or got taken down. Or that, even in our own tiny corner of the postal system, you have three dozen people from six countries, ages from 20 to 70, high school graduates and a pre-med at Duke, men, women, all colors, union, non-union, temporaries, and men pocked with bullets or shrapnel from two, 20, maybe 40 years ago.

Moving a fan in the wrong direction on a hot day, exchanging a favored rubber mat a man stands on, or the mere hint of ridicule can bring a flash of anger. Often it is just part of the day's entertainment and passes easily. Sometimes there is a deeper grudge that doesn't go away so much as beat a seething retreat. Like a lot of industrial jobs, this one can become a test of endurance and patience that sometimes fails.

You think it's all mindless and then Carl takes a break from driving a forklift to come over and work the bags with you.

"You know what a Canadian bag looks like?"

"Sure," I say. "It says Canada and there's eyelets on it."

"Where's it go?"

Something dawns. I turn and see a Canadian bag sticking out of my stack of U.S. number ones.

"What the hell'd you put that in there for?" I say.

"Dumb shit," he replies. I move the Canadian to where it's supposed to go and marvel. There is no manual for this kind of training. After 37 years of the postal service Carl still watches. He's not a supervisor. He just watches.

"What don't you go check Dr. Bob's stacks?" I say.

"Because he's not as dumb as you."

Dr. Bob is telling about his days working on wildcat oil rigs in Wyoming. "You add sections of pipe as you drill. The pipe is stacked nearby, and when you need a section you want to make sure there isn't a rattlesnake taking a nap in it. If you can see through the pipe you're fine. If you can't, the welder fills the pipe with acetylene and lights a match. BOOM. Wake that snake up good."

"This is a canvas bag," the woman says, holding up a number three that has seen better days. Carl's eyes are bugging out in an attempt to control himself. He won't look at me.

The trainer is a smart-looking woman about 40. New Breed, her company's name, is embroidered in dark blue above the breast pocket of her starched white shirt. A dozen of us stand around her amid hampers, carts and piles of mail bags.

"Who can tell me what size bag this is?" she says. We stare at the large number three on the side of the bag. From somewhere comes a sigh that sounds like, "Geezuz."

The trainer says, "That's right. It's a number three, isn't it?"

Carl turns and disappears among the stacks of pallets. If I wanted to find him he'd be hunkered down against the wall outside the doorway at the far end of the warehouse having a smoke and watching the tomato plants grow on the hillside across the service road.

We are being trained in a new method of processing mail bags. For two days the trainer mingled with us while an associate sat off to the side making notes and doing sketches on a large pad. The new system amounts to matters of technique and three big changes. We no longer form into crews to sort and stack. A separate crew pre-sorts the bags. We are to stand at gray steel tables made, oddly enough, by New Breed, and examine and stack one kind of bag at a time. Finally, there will be no talking.

A boring repetitive task has become, through the miracle of a 50-year-old time-and-motion study, a boring, robotic, inhuman routine. Nonetheless, after a few weeks under the new system, out-of-town postal management comes to gather solemnly at the head of the rows of gray steel tables. They nod. Surely, we look impressive.

Except in the old system, each time you cleaned off a cart you marked it off on a form. The daily aggregate of all three crews usually ran between 30 and 45 carts. In the new deal, carts are only counted at the point of input where presorting takes place. Three weeks into the new system the tally never goes higher than 18 carts. The New Breed seems to have sliced our productivity nearly in half.

Which may be beside the point. A postal executive who is not teamed up with a favorably positioned consultant these days hasn't been listening to Washington.

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