How We Began To Bring the Mail Back

A letter carrier delivered mail in Detroit this winter. In Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, carriers are refusing to work after 12 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Photo: Jim West,jimwestphoto.com.

Across the country and here in Portland, Oregon, carriers are working 12-, 14-, and 16-hour days, into the dark as late as 9 p.m., 10 p.m., even midnight! At several stations we have begun to bring the mail back at 12 hours (or 10 hours) and stop work at 60 hours in a week.

We are refusing orders to continue delivering. Filing form 1767 (hazardous conditions, “exhausted”) and form 1571 (undelivered mail). And we are getting away with it.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

We heard it through the grapevine. Several carriers in Seattle refused to carry past 12 hours and brought the mail back. Their discipline (for “insubordination”) was overturned because management had violated not only Article 8.5G (Hours of Work) but also Article 14 (Safety and Health).

The leadership of Letter Carriers Branch 79 (Seattle) created a pamphlet, distributed to all carriers, titled “Stop Working More Than 12 Hours a Day!” with a section on “How to bring back the mail.”

In Portland, some of our aggressive stewards (members of the PDX Rank-and-File Caucus of Carriers) started to distribute the pamphlet and advise their carriers to refuse work over 12 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Some brave carriers began to do just that, and none has been disciplined, that we know of.

In the 1980s and 1990s, after we secured local contract language against delivery in the dark (“both inefficient and unsafe”), carriers in Portland would bring the mail back, instead of delivering in the dark.

But then—with pressure from management, fear of discipline and a sense of duty by carriers, and acceptance of grievance payments instead of insistence on safety by union leadership—we began to deliver in the dark.

First, grievances paid $25 per violation. Then, with more grievances, $50 per violation. But then the escalation of remedies stopped.

“Escalation of remedies” is an accepted union grievance strategy, to eventually cost the USPS so much money that they stop violating the contract. Instead it just became “pay us $50.”

Management pressure and understaffing starting in 2020 pushed carriers to deliver late into the night. Carriers were afraid of discipline and also felt a sense of duty. We bowed to the principle that “all the mail goes out every day.” And union leadership was accepting the grievance payments instead of insisting on safety. We began to deliver past 12 hours a day and past 60 hours in a week.

STEWARD RAISED A STINK

Then this year, one of our vigilant stewards discovered that a union representative was allowing management to work carriers past 12/60 without even grieving the contract violations.

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After this steward raised a stink in their own station, and at the Branch meeting and the Executive Board meeting, other stewards raised the issue at the Branch Steward Council: “Look what Seattle is doing. Will you defend carriers who refuse to carry past 12/60?”

In the face of growing agitation in the ranks and challenges from militant stewards, Branch leaders—the President and Chief Steward—agreed they would defend carriers who brought the mail back or refused to continue work after 12/60. Here’s an excerpt from President Norton’s monthly column in November:

“You cannot be required to work more than 12 hours in a work day and management cannot make you… Tell them that you have already worked 12 hours and you are going to adhere to your contractual limit. If you believe it is unsafe for you to continue, tell your boss that you feel it is unsafe. Fill out a PS Form 1767 if you need to. If you bring mail back fill out a PS 1571 Mail Curtailment Form. Keep copies…”

GOTTA STICK TOGETHER

What about carriers who want to work extra hours? And what about the vulnerable new hire who is afraid of retaliation?

First of all, the legal language is clear: “The 12-hour and 60-hour limits are absolutes—a full-time employee may neither volunteer nor be required to work beyond those limits…” a national arbitrator wrote in 1986.

Second of all, we must stick together if we want management to change its evil ways. Bringing the mail back means that some mail will not get delivered. Undelivered mail means customers complain; Congresspersons and the media get involved.

Undelivered mail pressures management to figure out our understaffing. Undelivered mail pressures management to hire directly to career positions, not the lower-paid vulnerable job category of city carrier associate (CCA), and to raise wages, the real solution to understaffing.

It worked in Seattle, where they now hire directly to career positions and wages are $3 an hour higher. Portland is still stuck hiring non-career CCAs.

JOIN THE REFUSAL!

This is working because we are sticking together and refusing to work past 12/60. It can spread if more carriers call station meetings to explain this new policy of our Branch leaders and why it’s best if everyone refuses to work past 12/60, together. Get a commitment from each carrier to support each other. The more carriers who refuse, the less likely management will discipline anybody. And the more carriers who refuse, the more pressure on management to fix understaffing

We all deserve to have a life, spend time with our families, rest, and keep our bodies healthy.

Jamie Partridge is a retired member of NALC Branch 82 and former union officer. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 Newsletter of the PDX Caucus of Rank & File Carriers.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes Issue #527, February 2023. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.