A union brother once told me, "You leave a bit of yourself behind each day on your route. It's up to you to decide how much that piece of you is sacrificed while delivering the mail. Be professional, be safe, and remember this is a 30-year marathon, not a daily sprint."
Being a letter carrier is a physically demanding job, and I dare say psychologically as well. Most of the bosses hadn't carried mail for more than a few years before they settled into ties and clipboards. Some have never carried mail, yet they have no trouble telling us how we need to do our jobs better. The bits of our bodies and minds that seep into the pores of the concrete we carriers tramp daily are the ghosts of the U.S. Postal Service.
I'm a firm believer in positive attitude. "Attitude is 10 percent of what happens to us and 90 percent of how we react to it." That's on a poster that I keep in my postal vehicle. "If you can't think of anything else to do, be kind." Those words of poet Charles Bukowski are taped to my dashboard. Most of the time I buy into my own line of New Age B.S., but not yesterday.
The elements have a way of ruining even the grandest positivity. And this day just sucked. As I wheeled my hamper of U.S. Mail out to my waiting truck, I was greeted by the wickedness of a 35-degree hail of steady rain: the coldest, and dampest of precipitation known to all mankind. This was gonna be one godforsaken day. Why does anyone even live in the state of Michigan? Unfortunately, here I am, stuck with carrying mail in these conditions, with overtime on top of my own route.
My extra piece was to do some businesses on Main Street, so I figured I'd knock that off first. With a grizzly demeanor I poured my wet ass into a local fast food joint to deliver one lonely letter. I stood there for a moment, trying to determine who looked the most boss-like to take charge of the precious, dripping correspondence.
In front of me, waiting to place their order, were two dads with their boys. The kids were antsy, doing their own version of St. Vitas' dance. One little feller wheeled around and his eyes locked onto my uniform. "It's the mailman, it's the mailman," he squealed, and then he ran up to me and gave my legs a big ol' bear hug. His buddy then began bouncing up and down, "It's the mailman, are you gonna bring me somethin' today? Gramma likes to send me stuff in the mail." I had my own "little guy" cheering section going on, so I told them to hold tight while I got them a surprise. I keep some coloring books and crayons in the truck for just these occasions. Suddenly, the day didn't seem so onerous. I could feel my heart crinkle. Life is good.
For all the travails the letter carrier has to go through on a daily basis, two things make this a job worth the sacrifice. One is the trust and downright admiration most Americans have of our work. We deliver to every household, regardless of economic or social status, for the same price six days a week. Imagine, a federal employee walks or drives to your home to give you a service on a daily basis.
We not only deliver mail, we save countless lives, befriend folks, return lost dogs, and do the nation's largest food drive.
Second, it is a good job. You can raise a family and plan a retirement with this job. You can even go to a doctor! But it wasn't always this way.
St. Patrick's Day marks the 41st anniversary of the Great Postal Strike of 1970. At that time, being a letter carrier meant having a second job to making ends meet. In some cities, such as New York, if you were a letter carrier with children you qualified for food stamps. It was a meager existence with very little in the form of pay raises and benefits.
The key to our dismal condition was this: we had no collective bargaining rights. Our only path to better pay and benefits was to lobby Congress to pass bills in our behalf, only too often to have them vetoed by the president.
Decades of resentment swelled up in the bellies of letter carriers, and on St. Patrick's Day 1970, the mushrooming militants of New York's Branch 36 voted to go on a wildcat strike. The strike soon spread to other major East Coast cities and worked its way westward. Before long, Detroit and my town of Royal Oak, Mich., joined in. By March 23, the strikers numbered over 200,000 strong.
President Nixon called in the National Guard and Army to sort and deliver the mail, but they were not able to do so. They couldn't do the job! The mail stream stopped, and the whole country took notice. Eight days later, a tentative agreement was reached and we letter carriers went back to work. The days of collective "begging were over. On August 12, 1970, we achieved full collective bargaining rights with our employer.
And now we have the Wisconsin story.
Gov. Scott Walker has openly laid out his vision for his state's future. He flat out wants to end all collective bargaining rights for public workers. It has caused a weeks' long uproar, and it has been so inspiring to see so many thousands take to the streets. Friends of mine came from all parts of the country to take part in the support of fellow workers. But I thought to myself, wouldn't it have been great to see this kind of action during the election? Instead, the tea party grabbed the headlines and created the "movement" that got these guys elected. And one thing is for certain; Walker and his crew, as well as Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and his legion, got a lot of our fellow union members' votes.
I work with a lot of Republicans. They are open about their political views. I've heard that one third of the union workforce votes in that direction on any given election. So I decided to ask a few questions about this Wisconsin thing to one particularly vocal brother.
He said we may have to consider workers whose paychecks come from taxpayers differently than those whose pay comes from private sources. The Postal Service receives no taxpayer subsidy (which is really true!) so our situation is different.
Well, I replied, aren't those folks workers just like you? And if they lose their collective bargaining rights, how do you think they'll feel about their mailman still having his?
He summed up his thoughts on the matter by saying he was really conflicted about the whole thing, and he was going to give it more rumination. His parting shot was that he still paid too much taxes and didn't appreciate federal funds going to some dudes studying the mating habits of sea turtles.
"We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the 'haves' and taxpayers are the 'have not's'." Gov. Walker said that. It's the pitting of the working class against itself, and it doesn't bother me that he said it. It bothers me that I work with a lot of folks that believe it.
As I continued to tromp through my appointed rounds on the aforementioned miserable day, I worked out the outline for this Dicktation in my head. It was my mental warfare against these abdominal elements. The temperatures dropped and the rain turned to heavy, wet snow. I grumbled to myself, and plodded along to my last stop. I rolled the postal truck back into the lot, the icy wiper blades and myself dripping with the frosty anticipation of rest and relaxation. Inside the Royal Oak Post Office, as I was clocking out, was another dripping wet beast of burden. A fellow letter carrier, union sister, and my dear wife, gave me my second great hug of the day. "We made it through another day. Let's go home. I'll make some homemade macaroni and cheese." I could feel my heart crinkle. Life is good.
P.S. This Dicktation is dedicated to Nancy Schafer, letter carrier from Dundee, Mich. On March 8, 2011, Nancy was standing on a porch delivering mail when the porch collapsed, dropping her 10 feet into a fruit cellar and pinning her between two concrete slabs. She died from her injuries. On this day, due to no fault of her own, she left every bit of herself behind on her route. Rest in peace, sister.
Photo: matthewspiel CC 2.0