For Letter Carriers, every day is a dangerous mission
Scott Marshall / People's World

CHICAGO – Every day every home in America welcomes a visit from an agent of the federal government. And it seems like almost every day one of these agents is assaulted or threatened in carrying out their duties.

Over 2,000 postal carriers have been assaulted or robbed since 2020 with 305 carriers targeted in 2023 alone.

The “Arrow Key” — which every carrier must have on them as they make their rounds in our nation’s neighborhoods and business districts — is worth thousands of dollars to criminal gangs which assault the workers to steal their keys. The arrow keys can be sold for thousands of dollars on criminal networks to access the boxes they open. Mail has a new value now that checks can be “washed” and re-written for large amounts.

Sitting Ducks left to fend for themselves 

The postal service has been looking into technologies to protect the mailboxes, but the workers say they are being left to fend for themselves. The Postal Service, headed by Trump appointee Louis DeJoy, seems indifferent to the attacks suffered by a workforce that in this city is predominantly African American.

As wage inequality and employment discrimination across racial lines persist in this country, working for the Post Office has traditionally been one of the jobs that African American workers could access that provide good union wages, benefits, and security. Such jobs are an important part of that community’s stability, but now these workers are at risk.

Still in uniforms

Scott Marshall / People’s World

Still in their blue and grey uniforms, right off the streets, letter carriers massed outside the headquarters of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 11 on an August evening on this city’s southside to demand action. NALC Branch 11 President Elise Foster cited 90 instances where local letter carriers were robbed or assaulted on the street. “We should not have to work in fear,” she said. Most of us rarely think about our letter carrier as being on a dangerous mission even as we look forward to their visits.

“We ask our customers to look out for us, but ultimately the Postal Service needs to take responsibility to protect its workers,” Foster continued. In a letter to the Postal Service calling for an end to violence against letter carriers, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D) cited the latest assault: “On August 1, in the middle of the afternoon, an on-duty letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service … was shot on the northside of Chicago during an armed robbery. Fifteen minutes later, near the same area, a second letter carrier was robbed at gunpoint. The next day, two suspects, one armed with a handgun, robbed a letter carrier and stole their bag in Berwyn, a suburb west of Chicago,” Durbin’s letter read.

Rank and filers at the rally had plenty to say: “We want to deliver the mail,” Patrice Samuel, Lisa Tillis, and Jewel Lewis,” a trio of long-time friends and letter carriers who work at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn Station, told Peoples World. But the changes the co-workers have been subjected to only add to the danger of their jobs.

Their hours have been inexplicably altered, they said. Where they used to start their shifts early — at 6 a.m., working during daylight hours — now their start times have been shifted to 9 or even 10 a.m., extending their workdays on the street into the nighttime hours. Overtime shifts, due to short staffing, require delivering mail as late as 8 or 9 p.m. By the nature of their jobs, letter carriers work alone.

In addition to the “arrow keys,” new technology now has carriers required to tote an electronic scanner that tracks the workers’ every move, but no provision is included to call for help. “What are we supposed to do, hit them over the head with our scanner?” one asked bitterly.

It’s on the Postal Service and elected officials to come up with a plan to assure the safety of its more than a quarter million letter carriers. It’s not up to the employees, union officials emphasized. It’s not just a Chicago problem: Branch 11 President Foster told People’s World that she’s heard of the same fears from suburban counterparts and even a union sister from as far away as Salt Lake City whose member was robbed on the job.

Remembering a union sister missing since 2018

And perhaps not unrelated, Foster remembered a union sister, Kiera Coles, whose picture hangs prominently at the entrance of the union headquarters. Coles, dressed in her postal uniform, went missing on her way to work in 2018, and her coworkers and union are still seeking information about her disappearance.

In May, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) criticized Postmaster General DeJoy’s announced plan for combating  mail-related crime as “light on proactive protection for letter carriers.” Raskin, along with Reps. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD) and Gerry Connolly (D-VA), sent a letter to DeJoy ahead of a Congressional hearing requesting details on the Postal Service’s new plans to protect postal employees.

Elise Foster. | Scott Marshall / People’s World

Raskin raised the question of authorizing postal police officers to protect carriers on their delivery routes, not just post-office facilities. In 2020, under the Trump administration, these federal police officers across the nation were stripped of their authority to protect postal employees and restricted to only protecting post offices and mailboxes. In his response, Trump appointee DeJoy said he was not going to be restoring that responsibility to these uniformed federal officers.

Mack Julion, Assistant Secretary-Treasurer of the NALC, the beloved former president of Branch 11, flew in from union headquarters in Washington DC to support his coworkers at the August rally. He applauded Sen. Durbin’s efforts but warned that letter carrier safety is on the ballot and they expect more: “We’re calling on Congress to act,” said Julion. “Somebody needs to protect us. Your constituents have these public servants but if they do not feel safe, they will not deliver the mail,” he warned. “Somebody needs to protect us.”

Rain, snow, sleet, and hail,” but we don’t do bullets!” the veteran letter carrier concluded.

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Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.