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IN THE SHADOW OF THE INFORMATION AGE

On Sunday at the Mall of America, over 100 Twin Cities union members led by postal workers handed out a thousand shopping bags and leaflets critical of post office privatization and of Postmark America, a mall boutique opened in October by the U.S. Postal Service.

The union leaflet began: "Life is getting harder for too many of us. Millions of decent jobs, jobs which paid family-supporting wages and offered economic security, have been eliminated in the last twenty years. Far too many of the jobs which have replaced them are temporary, part-time, low-paying, often without benefits for ourselves and our families."

The store brochure begins: "There are heroes. And then, there are heroes. The Hollywood kind. And the real kind. POSTMARK AMERICA is a unique postal event that celebrates for the first time the real life of heroes of our nation's postal history." The brochure closes: "Where will the courageous explorers and trailblazers of the future be found? They'll be our own young Americans attired in their Just Delivered fashions & accessories."

The store's personnel, contract temps from Manpower, also have fuzzy bears dressed as mail carriers in postal blue and replica postal trucks, both made in China, for your little trailblazer.

On Sunday, union members, Christmas shoppers, mall security, and watchful temps milled around a sign at the store's entrance that reads: "Where the past meets the here and now."

True enough. But not the half of it.

Snow whistles sideways as I walk from the employee parking lot behind the St. Paul post office two weeks before last Christmas. I forgot my electronic passcard so I slip inside behind a guy in a mackinaw and watch cap. Along a walkway outlined by yellow tape I ask, "How come you know I'm okay to be here?" He gives me a late shift look and shrugs. "You aren't carrying a guitar case," he says.

In a space the size of an indoor football field, 24 dock doors span one wall. Across a concrete floor cluttered with rolling equipment used to move the mail, a wide ramp leads to the sorting floors. At the far end of the docks I hang up my dripping parka and put my lunchbox on a cabinet in the breakroom. The crowded room is dominated by a round table and six chairs, the domain of regular mail handlers. They are surrounded by casuals like me--part-time, temporary help--who stand around the walls in dripping boots and watch euchre and lightning chess games.

Just before 3:30 everybody moves out to mingle by the time clock at the supervisor's office. About two dozen of us work this end of the docks. Among the regulars are three women. The casuals include a couple black guys, some Mexicans, a Russian, and a mixed bag of gringos, or whatever we're supposed to be called these days.

This is my sixth temp job of the year, a prize at 11 bucks an hour with a night differential. If all goes well, both car and teeth get fixed.

We clock in and the supervisor, taut as a tuned guitar string, appears with today's roster. Looking us over she calls out names and assignments. I wind up on the center crew, which covers about a dozen dock doors.

Waves of afternoon mail begin to roll in from the countryside. Snow and cold swirls from the dock doors. Slam and clatter turns to roar. From somewhere a CD player thunders a bass line. Forklifts stream the ramp. The dock becomes a tiny stretch of whitewater in the great mail river.

Letters guided largely by hand to and from anybody anywhere in the country is a wildly impractical notion. There have been lots of quicker means over the years. Words by wire. By wireless. Pick up a handset, dial, and talk. Tap a keyboard and send instant digital mail to family, peers, and cohorts.

The postal service has endured for reasons beyond mere speed. Ben Franklin was the founding postmaster general. Tom Paine was next. Washington believed all newspapers--however partisan or radical--ought to be delivered free to make sure all the people were equally informed. The mail still laces every last one of us together, and not just those with the inclination and wherewithal to buy the latest gadget. You have an address, you have service. Use it when you want wherever you are. Thirty two cents for an ounce of words.

As our shift winds down, we reconfigure the rolling stock to channel a surge that will become the morning's work out in the countryside. Somewhere I hear a faint chirping. There is no time to ask about it. Mail streams down the ramp from upstairs. Dock doors slam open and we fill outgoing trailers. Suddenly we are in gridlock. The supervisor stands in its midst shouting dock door numbers and the names of men. It is like a moment of battle.

 

Then it's over. On this night over two million pieces of mail head every global distance and direction across our primitive junction. Included is a stack of chirping boxes with small circular holes. I peer into a hole. A quail peers out. One of four dozen en route from Florida to an upstate game farm.

At 11:30 I log out on the clock and walk back along the yellow-taped walkway.

Late November. About a hundred of us sit in plastic chairs awaiting orientation. I am surrounded by thin, fine-featured black people. A woman in front of me stands and arranges her coat on the back of her chair. In big letters her T-shirt reads: "Born in the USA." Underneath and smaller it says: "...but 100% Eritrean."

Some Eritrean must have gotten the word out. It's what happens these days. Jobs open up and you find yourself in the midst of Somalis or Laotians or guys who last worked as guerrillas in El Salvador. Global disruption brings them to frigid Minnesota in search of social services and decent livelihoods most have found unavailable in warmer southern states. Clinton's States' Rights version of welfare reform is now arriving daily in St. Paul by Greyhound.

As orientation begins we settle back for friendly, upbeat talks about regulations and job expectations, which generally come down not to whether you can do the work but whether you can get along. You will be immediately escorted out if you swing at somebody or if you retaliate. A training video featuring Cliffie and the Cheers cast relieves the bureaucratic tedium and then we all get up and take the standard oath to uphold the Constitution and defend the country. The woman in front of me finishes repeating the words and gives her neighbor a quizzical look. The other shrugs. They don't seem ready to fix bayonets.

But every one of us has filled out a work record and had our fingerprints sent to local police and Washington for felon and warrant checks. We've all taken the drug whiz quiz, had a physical exam, and thrown some mail bags around to show we can hold up under modest duress. The most exotic mix of Americans in a century, we will work temporary jobs for a decent wage along that endless stream of mail. Last year there were over 27,000 of us to go with over 750,000 regulars.

I don't lead a carrier's work life, or a clerk's. I've seen the electronic sorters and moved carts in the slapdash maze of this woefully inadequate building that was erected in FDR's first term. To most people "the post office" means their carrier. Me too. But as a worker I feel most at home on the docks.

About 4 o'clock each day we set up a U-shaped arrangement of rolling equipment near the mouth of the ramp to the sorting areas. Here we do a preliminary breakdown of mail that goes upstairs or back out to other processing centers.

One day everybody seems to be elsewhere and I'm at loose ends, so I begin arranging equipment. John appears and says, "What the hell you doing?"

"Just setting up," I say. John leans on a hamper and watches until I stop, walk over, and stand near him.

"You ever see The Sand Pebbles? The Steve McQueen movie?"

I say no.

"McQueen shows up as new engineer on an American gunboat in old China. He works on the ship's engines all the time. Likes to do it. One of the crew finally takes him aside and tells him how things work. Chinese who seem to be everywhere on the boat do much of the daily work. It's an arrangement everybody's in on. The Chinese get some money but mostly are paid in rice. The idea is to make sure every Chinese has rice in his bowl at the end of the day. With no work there's no rice. You see that?" I nod.

"Then you understand how the post office works," he says and walks away. I go sit on a pile of sacks and try to think about nothing.

After a time the others begin to appear. Some wait at dock doors. Others arrange the U or move loaded and unloaded equipment into patterns agreed on by means of minimal gestures and nods. As if on cue, the early trucks start pulling in. The tempo on the docks suddenly rises, and we are again sorting out a Mississippi of mail with tin cups.

Processing mail is like counting populations, building roads, or providing public transportation or water supply. Huge undertakings. The kind where it doesn't take long to discover the work will never end. Then you understand that in order to survive, there has to be some internal balance to the work and within the workers. The labor will work best when it is runs at a commonly understood, reasonable pace. And somebody has to lay in enough rice.

 

A physician from Mayo tells 60 Minutes that after her mail abruptly lapsed, a postal clerk said she had filed a change of address card redirecting her mail to a P.O. box number in Brooklyn. The doctor said she had done no such thing. The clerk produced a signed card, but the signature wasn't a good match and one letter in the doctor's unusual name was wrong.

Sizable credit card charges had begun showing up on the doctor's account. Eventually a credit card scam running out of a Brooklyn storefront was uncovered and stifled, and the post office closed an enabling loophole in its change of address procedure.

Scams happen. 60 Minutes warmly empathized with the doctor but not just because of credit card fraud. They also assured us all they understood affronts--all too common these days--in which the carefully ordered lives of young American professionals are undone by people on the order of postal clerks.

There isn't just a huge income gap these days. There's a chasm of attitude in which a principal blue collar function is apparently to be on call for those among us who need to remain cell-phone ready in silver Japanese sedans. There isn't a corporate training or marketing plan these days that doesn't make clear that causing boomer indignity is at least unspeakable.

Now, about this word "disgruntled."

Sometimes we get snow, sometimes bitter cold. Tonight both. And tons of boxes, bags, Christmas cards, X-rays headed for diagnostic centers, free mail for the blind, catalogs and junk mail, newspapers, stuff to Bosnians or from Serbs, an amazing number of trinkets for John Madden, and long tubes or heavy bags of coins. Up the road or across the world.

A bundled-up man with ice in his beard comes in blowing and stamping. At his side is a boy no more than 5. The man is a contract driver in from a small town with a semi of mail. Nine below and his heater's out. He stands the boy at the wall by dock door seven and says, "Don't move." One of us throws the dock door up and the driver slams the lever on trailer hatch and jerks it open. We raise the steel runway at the edge of the dock and then walk up the ramp until it slams across the gap between the dock and trailer bed. The driver disappears into the darkness and a parade of mail begins. Equipment spins in all directions. Up into the building. To sorting. Other doors. Ramps rattle. Carts crash together. Shouting.

Then the trailer is empty. The driver slams the trailer door. The ramp is raised with a hooked rod and bangs down on the dock. The dock door rolls down and crashes shut.

The boy has stood silent and unmoving. Eyes large. Seeing what work is. How it sounds. Watching his father.

The boy's father takes him to the break room for hot chocolate. Other doors need hands. When I come back both have gone out into the winter and onto the road.

It is summer in another corner of the postal service. Dr. Bob has roused from his fatigue with another story.

"The English left rows of neat bungalows where their civil administrators lived. Our doctors and lawyers moved in. Sometimes they even kept the same houseboys and maids."

Dr. Bob is a Ghanaian and works day shift at a Mail Transport Equipment Center where I too have landed a 90-day casual job. Part of a four-man crew, we stand at adjacent carts called Nuttings that are piled with mail bags full of mail bags. We examine each bag for damage and overlooked mail, then turn and flatten it according to type and condition on squared stacks rising from a row of pallets behind us. Dr. Bob does this for eight regular plus two overtime hours on weekdays, plus eight more hours on Saturday. I do just the regular 40. Both of us have night jobs as well.

"A houseboy told a surgeon who had moved into one of the English bungalows that sometimes during the day a man came and slept with the surgeon's wife. The doctor said to phone him the next time he saw this. One day he did. The surgeon came home, waited until the couple napped, and chloroformed them both. When they awoke the wife was groggy. The man as well except he also had a neat bandage between his legs and no balls."

 

Dr. Bob came by his title because he wears a white face mask to ward off dust from the bags. John and Big Bob are the other two casuals on our crew. Both have come out of retirement, John to finance a family trip and Bob to pay unforeseen medical expenses. Together we examine 10 to 15 carts a day. Perhaps 4,000 bags. There are two other work crews like ours. Dwarfing us all in the long warehouse are rows of five-high stacks of pallets holding over a half million bags.

Some jobs in the postal service are active, interesting, or at least outside and in contact with the public. Not this one. Showing me around on my first day the supervisor said, "Whatever you've heard about job satisfaction, don't look for it here."

So you get your work done, get through the day, and then join up with your real life. After you learn the repetitive motions here everybody gets sorted out into crews in such a way that, like on the docks, there's rice in every bowl. What then?

Music wars for one thing. You're surrounded by boom boxes and CD players. From all sides comes U2, Travis Tritt, Soul Asylum, Rush Limbaugh, and somebody saying, "Ah come on, who's playing that shit?" Except when Tony, the large black guy, switches a boom box to R&B it doesn't get changed until he goes on break. Those with arcane or, by acclaim, no taste, eventually withdraw behind fixed eyeballs and personal headsets.

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.

So it may not matter whether the new and improved mail bag sorting system works. The consultants sound good, the look of the new system is slick, and a foundation has been laid for the next step, which will be the privatizing of the whole refurbishing operation.

And eventually everybody will cooperate, partly because the new system has already destroyed the old pattern of work socialization. It spread everybody out at separate tables and created a new work environment. If nothing else, that neutralized some of the malcontents. But then it also extinguished the easy flow of talk whereby job lore gets passed along, peer respect is earned and lost and regained, personal problems surface, and the drudgery of a work day is lightened.

One of the regulars left his family's farm when he was 19 to join the Marines. He said it was just a way to leave and go somewhere. Not long after he got to Vietnam, he took a burst of automatic weapon fire in the stomach. During the summer sometimes he'd go a day or so without talking. One day he walked by my new gray table and said, "Are we here or are we there?" I have no idea what he meant.

Another casual, Uncle Sam, earned his nickname when he got his citizenship in mid-August. Years ago he walked to freedom across Cambodia. With unfailing good cheer he'd treat us to lichee nuts preserved, as nearly as one could tell, in kerosene. By then most of us were at the end of our assignments. It seemed clear that in order to get the new system off the ground, the current casuals would have to be flushed out and a new batch brought in. The latter would be content to stand at gray steel tables with little chance to marvel at a regular who followed his work compass for 37 years or listen to tales of snakes arching like graceful rockets into blue Wyoming sky.

The corporate perspective these days is that the postal service is a huge musk ox wallowing in a mudhole on the information highway. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon says, "We have to talk like a business to perform like a business and deliver the bottom line." The man is a delight for the flood of opportunists eagerly lining up to collect whopping tolls on the bridge into the next century.

The postal service has usually been wary but not unfriendly to change or new technology. Rural free delivery doesn't sound very radical, but a hundred years ago it was an innovation that connected our most remote citizen with the outer world, laid out a network that became the national highway system, and made Sears, Roebuck and Co. rich. While you're reading this, over a hundred thousand carriers are driving 57,000 routes an aggregate daily distance equivalent to eight trips to the moon and back. No commercial venture has stepped up to take over service at the going rate. None will.

 

That's because privatization isn't progress. The post office is already self-sustaining within the federal government. It does not require a cent in tax revenue. In fact, Congress owes the post office about $2 billion and exacts an annual tribute to service its own deficit. Last year the post office paid $47 million toward servicing the national debt.

If Washington believed in privatization, they would have spun off the postal service under legislation regularly submitted to Congress that includes a plan to sell stock to employees.

Privatization is officially sanctioned opportunism. Positioned to capitalize, you select high-density, high-demand postal products with high profit potential, appropriate technology paid for by the postal service, hire away postal management, cut labor costs in half--and prosper. Seminars are regularly held along the beltway around Washington to help you work it out.

President Bush once said he wouldn't allow defense contractors to "beat their swords into pork barrels," but those firms are in the front rank of privatization. Former Postmaster General Paul Carlin now heads Business Mail Express, which is associated with the defense contractor, DynCorp. DynCorp got nearly $3.9 million in public money to open a remote postal coding facility in York, Penn., to handle a postal services contract the company won. The people who worked there got $6.12 an hour.

The Postmaster General and a nine-member Board of Governors, all appointed by the president and accountable to him and the Congress, are chartered to represent the public interest and operate the post office as a public service. Every outside member of the Board of Governors represents corporate interests. Nearly all private sector members of key postal task forces are large-scale mailers, primarily direct marketers.

What this means is that junk mailers who pre-sort get whopping rate breaks. Journals that don't meet those requirements don't. Magazines too small to print regional editions don't. Periodicals heavy in editorial content over advertising don't.

But doesn't junk mail subsidize the cost of regular mail? No, it doesn't. Sarah Ryan, vice president of the postal workers union in Seattle, provides these numbers. You pay 32 cents for first class. A mass mailer who presorts first class rather than have postal workers do it pays as little as 23 cents. That's nine cents or $90 per thousand. The U.S. Post Office itself says it costs $4 per thousand pieces to sort mail on automated equipment. That's a $90 discount on a $4 operation. Who's paying for whom?

The urge to automate is not endangered at the post office. They once even studied the notion of firing mail to Europe in submarine-launched rockets. But the core work is human. Work by hand. There are parts of this country where the mail is still delivered every day by mule. It's hearsay, of course, when the heroes of commerce these days are its great downsizers, but it is possible that better postal service for the customer and the long-term public interest may be better served with more rather than fewer people in the postal service.

Symbols are everywhere in the postal service to remind you it's not a hotshot marketing idea that will come and go in a flash. Not a Schwarzenegger picture with Sinbad playing a postal grotesque. Not a low wage, high mark-up boutique.

A number one canvas bag weighs about 3.72 pounds. It is made in the prison systems, most recently in Illinois and Arizona. A leather-reinforced pouch version is still sometimes snatched off a harness by a moving train out in the middle of nowhere after midnight. The month and year a number one was made is stamped on its side. While sorting bags sometimes we'd look for the oldest date. Last summer's winner was March, 1930. Sixty-six years.

Some carts in use on the docks were invented by Elijah Nutting at the turn of the last century as baggage carts for the railroads. At the equipment center there was a stack of 200 broken all-aluminum, 485-pound carts that were supposed to replace the Nutting. But there weren't any of Nutting's shin bangers. They were all in service.

There are 23 kinds of bags in use, from heavy number ones to featherlight plastics. Now and then foreign bags turn up. Bags are like their countries. Swedish air mail a clean light gray with wide yellow and blue stripe and national crest. German somber grey with yellow and red stripe. The silken royal blue French model for a mail service, now privatized, that no longer guarantees delivery.

 

Fred Raabe began delivering the rural route in Hillview Mo., the week after Pearl Harbor. He still does, 55 years later. Walter Beams, who has farmed the Hillview Valley for decades, says, "Fred's the best rural carrier I ever had. You can set your watch by him. Of course, now that I think of it, he's the only one I ever had."

So the sign outside the new post office boutique at the Mall of America says, "Where the past meets the here and now." The fact is the postal workers milling around outside admire the place and would like to be a part of it. But Manpower temps and toys from China? What the hell could Washington be thinking?

Time for the dinner break approaches. It's Christmas Eve 1995. A clearing has been made amid the equipment. Two picnic tables have been brought in and the snow cleaned off. Break time approaches. Boxes are opened and food laid out. Tossed salads. Vegetables. Pies. Cakes. Casseroles.

The mail is in its nightly lull. At 7 a truck pulls up and the main course arrives. A huge standing roast of beef and container of fat potatoes that have been rolled in kosher salt, wrapped in foil and baked.

It is John's work. He fills in as cook at a nearby hotel restaurant. Now he slices off great steaming slices of beef and we fill our plates and find room at a table.

I get a queasy feeling. Val, the Russian, is standing behind me. He has no plate. You were supposed to pay five bucks for the main course and sign up to bring another dish, in my case a couple of pies. I turn around and look at him. I am committed morally. He has told me when his mother first came over they took her to Cub and she cried so hard at the food they had to take her home.

"Sit down." I cut him half my beef and get him a potato.

"What the hell's going on down there?" John's voice. I say I can't eat all that meat and don't want it to go to waste. In the time I explain, Val has cleaned his plate, gristle and all. John walks by and growls something short and Slavic. Val stiffens, looks at me, shrugs.

When I go for pie, John says, "Those sons-a-bitches always do that." Who? Do what? I let it ride.

An hour later, food and tables gone, the mail is running again and we are all side by side along that river that will roll by us for the next hour. The next day. Week. Years. My lifetime. Yours.


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