‘Postmaster DeLay’ Takes One Step Back amid Media Scrutiny, Public Protest, and Worker Resistance
A looming presidential election and a pandemic-fueled demand for vote-by-mail have trained a sudden spotlight on new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and his sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service.
Clearly feeling the heat, “DeLay DeMail” DeJoy announced yesterday that he would pause operational changes till after November’s election. But it wasn’t immediately clear whether that meant undoing the outrageous changes he has already made—or just postponing further damage till the media scrutiny recedes.
DeJoy had announced an “operational pivot” July 10 to limit overtime and drive speedup. Trucks were now supposed to leave sorting plants, and letter carriers were to leave post offices, at a set time—even if that meant leaving some mail behind, unsorted.
The memo claimed any left-behind mail would be only temporary: “we will address root causes of these delays and adjust the very next day.” But postal workers say the reality is the opposite. Each day the backlog gets worse. Application of the new policies is chaotic; local managers have little guidance, and some are as frustrated as the workers.
“We don’t have the right to go against instruction unless it’s unsafe,” said mail processing clerk Courtney Jenkins, the director of organization for his Postal Workers (APWU) local in Baltimore. But “we took an oath and it is unlawful to delay or obstruct the delivery of the mail. So now we’re in this Catch-22.”
USPS has also sparked outrage by removing mail processing machinery from plants and blue mailboxes from street corners. The justification that mail volume is down doesn’t carry much water since the coronavirus effects are presumably temporary, and an election-season mail surge is expected.
Protesters visited both of DeJoy’s homes last weekend, and more protests are planned outside post offices around the country August 22 and 25 (see box).
DeJoy’s backpedaling shows that pressure is working. It’s a signal to fight harder, not let up. Credit is due not only to the public attention, but also to workers pushing back.
In a Labor Notes story today, Milwaukee letter carrier Travis Albert describes how he and his co-workers got together and refused to go along with the new directives. With near-unanimous participation, they made their local management relent and established a new tradition of “Fightback Fridays.”
“There is nothing exceptional about our station,” Albert writes. “In fact, until recently it had been a station with very limited union presence and a very low grievance output.” His point: postal workers anywhere could do the same thing.
Letter carriers are the face of the postal service. But the speedup is just as acute for workers behind the scenes who sort and transport the mail.
CALLING MANAGEMENT’S BLUFF
A mail sorting machine is massive, at least 20 yards long. It takes two people to run: one feeds the mail in, the other hurries along its length, clearing the sorted mail that’s stacking up in dozens of trays. Both people must work together to reconfigure the machine for the next batch of mail, shifting the bulky racks around.
Local managers in Waterloo, Iowa, interpreted the new directives for no overtime and no late trucks to mean these employees must work faster. They started asking one person to reconfigure the machine alone so the other could start feeding in new mail sooner.
“It can be done, but it can’t be done safely,” said mail clerk Kimberly Karol, president of the Iowa APWU. “Those mandates are the result of another arbitrary decision by the Postmaster General to eliminate what he sees as waste. But it’s not waste if you don’t have the staffing to process the mail in the times they have determined to get the trucks out.”
So she has been encouraging her co-workers to say no. “They should work at the speed they are comfortable with, and spaced so that they are safe doing so,” she said, “and if they are disciplined as a result, they should take that as a badge of honor. I directly relate it to being arrested in a protest.”
So far, she said, workers in her facility are united in resisting the speed-up—and to her knowledge, no one has been disciplined.
“Management frequently threatens discipline but rarely follows through,” she said. “In this situation, without them having any kind of contractual rationale, I don’t think they’re going to follow through. I guess we’re calling their bluff.”
MUSICAL CHAIRS WITH TRACTOR-TRAILERS
Also feeling the crunch are platform expeditors, who coordinate an elaborate dance as huge trucks roll in and out to load and unload the mail at processing plants.
“The platform is the nerve center of any plant,” Jenkins said. His facility has 39 dock doors; expeditors have memorized the trucks, the drivers, and the patterns of the day’s mail flow. But with the new directive to rush trucks out, “these things are changing now, and there’s no opportunity for input from the people who are working,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to learn it on the fly, and you can’t play musical chairs with big tractor-trailers.”
He’s also concerned for the safety of post office window clerks and letter carriers. They’re the ones who take the brunt of customer anger when a prescription or paycheck is delayed. So Jenkins is piecing together a member-to-member relay communication network, with representatives and alternates in each station. His idea is, plant workers can give post office workers a heads-up when a batch of mail is late—and why—so they can give the customer better information.
Teamwork like this is a good starting point for organizing. “It strengthens our membership,” Jenkins said. He believes members who get involved this way will also be more likely to come out to the next union event or write a letter to Congress.
CRISIS UPON CRISIS
Postal workers have been hit by several waves of crisis. For years they’ve been calling on Congress to repeal a 2006 law that required the agency to prefund its retiree health benefits 75 years in advance, creating red ink as a pretext for service cuts and privatization.
That repeal is still needed. On top of that, because the coronavirus has temporarily punched a hole in letter volumes, USPS needs an immediate $25 billion in relief. The House passed such a bill but the Senate has so far refused.
Then there’s DeJoy, installed in June, a Trump crony who still has a financial stake in one of USPS’s competitors, the private logistics company XPO. He has to go.