As I walked by Lucy Parsons Park, it was dark and frozen and the Chicago wind cut through me. I was approaching my 12th hour of work that day as a mail carrier. My son and I had spent time running and playing in that same park just a few months ago on an unseasonably warm April day. Feeling disoriented from having worked ten straight days, I drifted into wondering what he was doing. As I thought about him more, I began to cry.
My first day at USPS, I walked from the loading dock into an area of the post office that most of the public will never see: the postal shop floor. I flashed my brand-new badge to the first person that approached me. He scoffed at my formality. “Don’t worry, no one cares about that shit,” he said. I laughed, and told him my instructions were to meet with the supervisor. He pointed him out, and quickly disappeared through the same swinging doors through which I entered. I would end up pushing mail and parcels through those doors hundreds of times.
I said hello to the supervisor, and he asked me why I was smiling. In a playful but ominous manner, he told me I wouldn’t be smiling much longer. This first interaction encapsulated the overall sense of anxiety that permeated this particular post office on a daily basis, but it wasn’t that it was an entirely unhappy place. In hindsight, my first moment with this supervisor came to represent what work for the post office meant: you live it and you breathe it.
The Mail Never Stops
There are moments of reprieve in a postal morning, like when regular full-time carriers are waiting for their shift to start so they can clock in. But like many work environments, stillness is discouraged. The post office in particular is, after all, in the business of movement. Sometimes I would pause for a few seconds, waiting on (or with) a colleague for the next task, adjusting my glove, stretching a muscle, or simply catching my breath, and all of a sudden hear my last name shouted: “Kase!” The supervisors were always watching and reminding us that we were on-the-clock. A moment’s informal discipline like this might seem innocuous, but the overall effect felt like boot camp. You are trained to move, which is important as you spend the majority of every day walking; after all, mail carriers are the last step in the process of moving mail to every household in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people make this happen daily. How are they prepared for this type of work?
It might be helpful to take a step back and examine the nature of the carrier craft, which varies widely across different cities, postal districts, and regions of the country. Anecdotes from postal workers range from horrifying to uplifting and everything in between. The carrier craft itself is divided into separate unions: the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association (NRLCA) which represents 115,000 rural letter carriers, and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) which represents all non-rural letter carriers. One thing all carriers in the NALC share is the national bargaining agreement between their union and USPS. The NALC also provides the Letter Carrier Resource Guide, which serves as a reference for common questions about rights, benefits, safety, etc. My experience is derived from that as a City Carrier Assistant (CCA) in the NALC primarily serving the Kilbourn Park, Irving Park, Belmont Cragin, and Portage Park neighborhoods of Chicago between August 2021 and February 2022.
Two-Tier Worker Structure
The creation of the CCA position on January 10, 2013 was one of the primary components of an arbitration award which modified the existing 2011-2016 National Agreement between the NALC and USPS. The CCA position replaced what had been previously defined as the Transitional Employee (TE) position. TEs were non-career employees and established as its own position in 1990. TEs and the later CCAs are both non-career positions, meaning that the years that carriers complete as a TE or CCA do not go towards their pensions, and their health care and life insurance plans are substandard compared to that of regular career carriers. This is a familiar and well-known struggle in the labor movement today, often referred to as the two-tier system, which UPS and BCTGM workers in recent years continue to fight.
Onboarding a CCA involves a two-day orientation, a third day for driving and safety instruction in a classroom setting, a fourth to obtain driving certification for the mail trucks, and a fifth day shadowing a regular carrier. My training went on hiatus due to contracting a breakthrough case of COVID-19 the day after my shadow day. Normally one would proceed with the four-day Carrier Academy following the shadow day, but in my case, I started after quarantining at home for 14 days at the order of the Postal Nurse. After such a long break in momentum, I wondered if I’d still have a job once I made my way back out into the world. After quarantining, I managed to pick up where I left off and was scheduled to attend the carrier academy.
The carrier academy is entirely conducted by active letter carriers themselves (no management). The carrier academy offered a clearer sense of the day-to-day work than the two-day USPS orientation. Most of my own research on the CCA experience prior to accepting the position was through YouTube channels (one being a very insightful Tinley Park-based CCA), Reddit posts, and Federal employee forums—any unfiltered takes about the job that seemed to come from the rank-and-file. These resources helped me construct an overall understanding that the CCA work week length, although greatly varied on a national basis, was around 60 hours for CCAs in Chicago. Although the carrier academy told us that CCAs work “a lot,” it did not prepare us for the reality of the workload not only as it relates to work hours but also the erratic nature of the schedule, the pressure that supervisors would put on carriers to work beyond the 11.5 hour shifts stipulated in our union contract, and the overall loss of any semblance of work-life balance.
The timeline for “conversion,” referring to when postal management decides to convert CCAs to the next step in their career path, is an ambiguous calculation that has a widely varied timeline between postal districts across the country. But it’s an important timeline to estimate: nothing about working as a letter carrier actually eases in a measurable way until you convert to being a full-time regular carrier. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
I spoke with a carrier in the Chicago suburbs before starting this job who offered me empathy, kindness, and mentorship throughout my time as a CCA. They initially guessed that I’d likely convert in a year — something even at the time I found surprising, and ended up understanding to be a projection of their observations working at a station completely outside of the city. My understanding was that in Chicago, CCAs were maxed out to a full two-year run as CCAs (per contract) before being converted to what is called a part-time flex (PTF) employee. PTFs generally endure the same working conditions as CCAs as it pertains to work hours and lack of a consistent route. Before the CCA position was created, if a carrier wasn’t hired on as a TE, they would be hired on as a PTF. Across the country, you will find PTFs who make that final conversion to being a full-time carrier after anywhere from four months to an additional two years—in addition to the two years spent as a CCA. So in all, a realistic career path in Chicago from CCA to PTF to full-time carrier is more or less four years.
My first couple weeks spent as a carrier met expectations: I clocked 63 hours my first week and 68 hours the next. My shifts throughout September mainly stayed under 12 hours and started to pick up once October rolled around. My first particularly extreme shift was a 14-hour day in mid-October, preceded by a 12-hour day and followed by another 12-hour day. CCAs are limited to an 11.5 hour shift by contract, but they can also be worked seven days a week if management chooses to do so. In spite of this, CCAs at my station managed to get one day off every week and were able to use it, with some exceptions. My original manager was able to grant CCAs some grace and notify them of when their off day was scheduled the next week. He was reassigned to detail work elsewhere in October and the new manager, A. Davis, took his place for the remainder of my time at the post office. She did not grant the same amount of grace. Under her management, it was commonplace to work ten days straight and then be notified of your off day the night before. It was under her management that my own stress and the stress of my fellow carriers started to mount and overall morale began to deteriorate.
My first negative experience with Davis was on October 12th, the day after the office had been closed for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I had been assigned to help clerks sort packages first thing that morning, which was a typical cross-craft assignment given to CCAs. After an hour of this, I was assigned to case mail at a route whose regular carrier was absent that day. Casing a route involves sorting loose mail and flats (magazines) into compartments at a specific route’s desk, containing slots for each individual address on the route to effectively sort the mail in the order it is to be delivered. With the holiday, we were catching up on three days’ worth of mail—Sunday, Monday, and now Tuesday. The time it takes to complete both casing and delivering mail out on the street is compounded exponentially by even small increments in mail volume. I had no specific instruction to bundle the mail in any particular way, namely keeping flats in a separate bundle from letter mail, often referred to as double-bundling the mail. By this point, most other carriers were gone since I had been sorting packages the first hour and had a late start as a result. As I was halfway through tying down the mail in order in their respective trays, Davis took advantage of an empty shop floor to yell at me for single-bundling all of the mail, to which I replied I had received no specific instruction to do otherwise. She immediately accused my On-the-Job Instructor (OJI) of training me improperly. I also felt shaken and in uneasy disbelief that it was an issue that she chose to raise her voice over.
I quickly moved on thinking the issue had passed, but that Saturday afternoon Davis called me and my OJI to her desk and proceeded to accuse her of improper training. I repeated that I had in fact been trained on double-bundling, but had not been instructed to do so on Tuesday. Davis ignored my objections and accused my OJI of lying after she shared my same claims. After a tense discussion, she let us both go. We went into the parking lot, where I apologized for feeling responsible for dragging her into the situation. She was understanding and offered empathy in dealing with Davis, who was quickly gaining a bad reputation at our station.
Other than this incident, I found the autumn delivery season to be the optimal delivery conditions for the work and grew to enjoy it more and more. It felt great to abandon the daily sunscreen routine and general caution and exhaustion from working in the heat. The days were long, but I had heard Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day was our peak season, so they were really just starting. October and early November provided a brief respite before job stress became more amplified. And by mid-November, stress and hours started to pile up.
Peak Season — 70 hour work weeks
The core group of CCAs at my post office worked 70 hours a week for the remainder of the year. Our days started at 6am, and we knew nothing other than sleeping, eating, and working. I felt completely detached and ungrounded from my home life, and my other commitments fell away. I began to forget where basic things were in my own home. On my one off day per week when I would actually be able to see my family, I would fall asleep on the couch halfway through a movie or other activity. My shifts at work went from a dance around 11.5 hours to 12, then 14, then a 16-hour shift beginning at 5:30am on Monday, December 6th. It wouldn’t be the last.
This was when I started to try to engage my steward; these excessive shifts were in direct violation of our contract. Unbeknownst to me and the other CCAs, he had been routinely filing grievances on our behalf over the issue of our shift lengths. He advised me to check my paystub for additional pay as a result of these grievances, but I had only seen two paystubs with bonus pay that I assumed to be related to grievances being resolved. My steward’s lack of communication on this concern was something I ultimately kept to myself, as I worried that challenging him would damage our relationship, but I did tell him that I didn’t want more money. I wanted reasonable work shifts as specified in our contract. But as many workers in unions know, sometimes all we can do is “follow instructions now, and grieve later.”
As the extreme shifts rolled on, I sought out advice and began to consider more effective tactics to address these contract violations and our mental and physical exhaustion. I had slowly been collecting phone numbers from my fellow CCAs and ended up starting a group chat with the core group of us, and I suggested we submit a petition or class grievance. I drafted a statement expressing our concerns, but when I discussed it with my steward, he discouraged us from doing so, saying that the grievance would likely lead to arbitration and bureaucratic traps. I found this odd, firstly because his own grievances weren’t addressing the problem of our long shifts, and secondly because a steward’s duty is to encourage, develop, and exercise worker power. I also asked him for a report on employee hours to cite in the grievance, but he claimed I didn’t have access to hourly reports (which is false—any carrier in the union is allowed to request this). I felt increasingly undermined and discouraged by him. On a separate occasion, I told him I was interested in eventually becoming a steward, but he warned me, “I don’t want to discourage you or anything, but it’s a lot of work, and it can be very daunting especially when you’re standing there getting yelled at by a postmaster in front of your supervisor.”
USPS Prioritizing the Amazon Contract
In addition to the extreme shifts, CCAs at our station were also subject to management’s will every Sunday. When I started, my first training on a Sunday was on how to deliver parcels for Amazon. USPS has had a contract with Amazon since 2013, effectively coinciding with the creation of the CCA role itself, to deliver parcels for Amazon. It often seems to be a natural assumption that USPS, Amazon, FedEx, and UPS are in some sort of antagonistic competition, but all of these companies function as customers of USPS and are collectively responsible for almost 10% of its entire revenue.
Prior to the USPS contract with Amazon, USPS workers had Sundays off, including TEs. Today, Sundays are used to fulfill the USPS contract with Amazon. This also has opened the floodgates to use Sundays as an opportunity for management to put CCAs to work under any number of circumstances — including the delivery of mail.
Every single Sunday we were assigned to work, and the day consisted of three possibilities:
1) assignment to a Y route, which consists of about 100 Amazon and UPS packages, typically completed in six or seven hours
2) assignment to a Y route in addition to completing mail deliveries that had not been fulfilled earlier that week
3) being reassigned to another station altogether to deliver mail.
When we were reassigned to another station we were often asked upon arrival by management how long we’d been working for the post office, which I came to realize was a way of gauging how much CCAs would be willing to put up with in terms of assigned work without CCAs challenging them. Being assigned to another post office usually implied that the office was very behind on routes. My first Sunday being sent away was to the Roberto Clemente post office in Logan Square, my home station. I had personally been on the receiving end of mail delays the year prior as described in this Block Club article. I often joked about how speaking to the press about mail delays in this article cursed me into working for USPS, and I’d often reference it when people would stop me on the street to express concerns with mail delivery to bring some humor into our interaction.
At the Roberto Clemente post office that Sunday, I was assigned 11 trays of mail (equivalent to three or four days of mail) and was told by the manager that I would likely be able to complete it within a few hours — I never saw that manager again. I ended up out on the street delivering that mail for a full 11.5 hour Sunday shift, periodically checking in with a fellow CCA from my station who was assigned a similar task to the route adjacent to mine. This being one of my first Sundays working for the post office, I had no idea if the assignment was atypical or just another Sunday.
Sunday Stockholm Syndrome
We made it through, but came to find that every Sunday produced the same amount of uncertainty and anxiety over this basic question: when will we go home? Will we get a Y route and finish at 3:30pm, or will we be sent to another station with the possibility of not getting home until 9pm? My son does not live full time with me, so I always needed to plan ahead with his mother in order to set aside time for him to visit. I was wholly unreliable to my family and friends on Sundays just as equally as any other day due to the constant uncertainty, and my bitterness grew, ironically in tandem with a sense of pride and commitment to work. Many carriers called this feeling Stockholm Syndrome: we know we’re being treated poorly and subject to management’s whims, but we also felt that we were needed and that the post office would fall apart without us. More seasoned carriers told us: the mail was here before you showed up, and it’ll be here when we’re dead. Great advice, but it was nonetheless difficult to break with the unhealthy relationship we all came to have with work.
Fall turned to winter, and the heart of the peak season in December afforded little to no rest. Most of the year, carriers are paid double time (referred to as penalty overtime) for working either more than 10 hours in any given service day or more than 56 hours in any given service week. But penalty overtime is not in effect for any letter carrier, CCA and career alike, for the entire month of December. This was when our work schedules started to get into the 80-hour week range. The detachment I felt from the rest of my life went from bitterness to an outright feeling of hypnosis. Nothing existed outside of work. The three days I had off for the entire month of December just produced confusion — all I could think about while I was not working on those three days was why I was not at work.
New Year’s Eve: A Breaking Point
As peak season was wrapping up, all the career carriers just as much as CCAs were more than ready to dial back on our workloads. As New Year’s Eve approached, the CCA group chat that I had cobbled together started rumbling about the possibility of getting New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off from work. A nice idea, but I’d believe it when I saw it. And sure enough, later that afternoon, all CCAs were instructed to call our supervisor to discuss expectations for the coming week. Davis asked me what my preferred off day would be, and when I asked about the New Year’s schedule, she said we would be expected to strictly work mail both New Year’s Eve out of our office and New Year’s Day at a different post office. I was livid, and texted my fellow CCAs for a damage check. We had all been assigned to the same fate.
This was also the beginning of the peak of the Omicron variant, which had been declared by the CDC on December 20th as the dominant strain of COVID in most U.S. states. The station we were being sent to had 19 carriers who were absent with COVID, and a week prior, one carrier at this station died from COVID complications. In other words, management wanted to send us to a post office with an active outbreak. My fellow CCAs and I discussed how tired we were, how much we missed our families, and the fact that we were being sent into a hazardous situation on a holiday we are by contract supposed to have off. And so we acted together: none of us showed up on New Year’s Day. I had never felt so empowered and part of a collective action in any workplace. It was a small victory, but it felt great that day. The next day, however, brought us all back down a notch.
January 2nd was a Sunday, and we all showed up to the office with no manager present. The clerks had prepared the Amazon Y routes; without a manager present to provide instructions otherwise, we allocated the work ourselves. Several of us paired up with other carriers to deliver Y routes as a team (one driver, one runner). But an hour later, we were called back to the station by management. Two CCAs were assigned to the Edgebrook station, and myself and another CCA were assigned to the Graceland station in Lincoln Park to deliver mail. Neither of these stations had a known outbreak, as was the case with the Rogers Park station the day before, but given that nearly hundreds of routes were down across the city due to carrier staffing issues during the Omicron surge, we were left to assume. Per my steward’s advice, I filled out a Form 1767 to declare a refusal to work due to a safety hazard or concern. I also cited the Memorandum of Understanding between the union and USPS that had been established on March 30, 2020 and extended through April 8, 2022 stating that USPS agreed to the following: “to minimize the possibility of exposure to the coronavirus or the possibility of unknowingly spreading the coronavirus to a larger portion of the workforce by working in multiple facilities, to the extent possible all city letter carriers will work in their employing facility for the duration of this agreement.” With Omicron at its peak and the culture at most post offices being very indifferent to and procedureless as it related to masks and vaccine mandates (I never had to provide my vaccination status to USPS in spite of the Biden administration’s mandate), I cited the safety hazard and this memorandum and refused to travel. To date, I had a good working relationship with the supervisor that day, D. Daniels, but in response to my refusal to travel, she threatened to fire me if I refused to go to the Graceland station. First, the threat was vague; she said the area manager ordered that, “If you refuse to go to Graceland, then your services are no longer needed.” It was immediately clear to me that she was avoiding any sense of accountability and liability, and in her defense, she was as flustered as I was over the situation. I asked her for clarification — “Does that mean that I’ll be fired if I refuse to work out of the Graceland station today?” She continued to hem and haw, but finally gave me a straight-forward “yes.”
I shared with Daniels that I was concerned about my health and had already contracted COVID shortly after starting work with USPS in August. I also expressed that it was already a risk having to work out of my own station with the active threat of the Omicron variant, let alone out of an entirely different station. She rejected my arguments, saying that the risk was the same as working out of our own station.
I stepped away to call my steward, who advised that I get in writing, directly from Daniels herself, that my services were no longer needed at USPS as a result of my refusing to work out of Graceland station. I did so, and saved it for my records. After making my copies, I was asked to turn in my employee time card and employee badge, which I complied with. I left the station.
In spite of my steward’s insistence that the union would defend me in time, I left that day as a terminated employee. A couple of the other CCAs also filled out a form citing a safety concern in solidarity with me, but they ultimately proceeded to travel to their assigned stations that day, fearing that they would be fired as well. I didn’t hold and never will hold any amount of hostility or disappointment towards them in that situation — it was incredibly tense, and frankly, we didn’t have a plan. I regret not planning for this situation with the other CCAs. There was potential for a group action similar to the one we executed the day prior; instead I took action alone and lost my job.
I went home in distress, but ended up spending the day and evening with my son. When we were eating breakfast together the next morning, Davis called me and asked me to come in. So much for being fired.
She made no mention of what occurred the day before. I told her that I was under the impression that I was no longer employed with the post office. She just sighed and told me to report in. I refused, saying that I had child care responsibilities, and that I’d be happy to report back in on Tuesday. I agreed.
That Tuesday morning, I met with her and my steward for about 15 minutes to discuss the situation, which gave me a chance to air my grievances verbally about our long hours, the anxiety surrounding Sunday work in general, and USPS’s lax handling of COVID. Davis responded with empty and airy statements about knowing how difficult it has been lately, how things will get better, etc.—sentiments I often kept in my mind to convince myself that the immense volume of mental and physical energy, and time, spent working at the post office was justified and would improve by the time I converted to being a career carrier. That’s often the only thought that non-career employees at the post office are left with. The main point of her calling my steward and I to a meeting was to essentially communicate that I would, eventually, be asked to participate in a formal disciplinary interview. That interview never took place.
The winter trudged on through January and the peak season work volume never slowed. On January 18th, the Biden administration began distributing millions of COVID tests through USPS. Our station, like many others, was entering its own rough patch of clerk and carrier absences due to COVID cases. My work weeks continued to hover around the 70-hour peak season volume — but peak season was over. All the while, our work volume intensified as COVID tests poured in. It was an entirely suffocating feeling.
Union Meeting and Contradictions
On Sunday, February 6th, NALC Local 11 called a meeting for non-career carriers only, which was chaired by longtime branch president Mack Julion. He explained that management was restricted from sending carriers to other post offices per a Memorandum of Understanding between the NALC and USPS — the same one I had cited in the January 2nd incident. Julion went on to explain how mail must be waiting for you on the dock preloaded in the truck when you arrive at the station and that a vehicle must be provided by management at your traveling station if we were sent away. It was a glaring contradiction, essentially admitting that the union knew very well that carriers being sent to other offices was a well-known and hot issue, and also: here’s what to do if you are sent away. No specifics were provided on how the union was trying to fight management on the issue, nor were CCAs on the call provided with suggestions for taking up the fight themselves.
On February 3rd, I had been on my tenth straight day without a day off, and went to bed that night planning to call into work for my very first time calling in. Other CCAs had received their days off that week, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was on the receiving end of prolonged retaliation from the New Year’s incident. Prior to this day, I had never called in or left early for any reason — including the late summer day when I was throwing up with the stomach flu on my way into work and throughout the beginning of my shift, and spent my lunch hour sleeping it off in the back of my mail truck.
I had received instruction from Daniels the evening of February 3rd to come in at 6am instead of 7:30am the next day. My alarm went off, and I called Davis that next morning at 5:30am telling her that I wouldn’t be coming in. In a blatantly snide voice, she told me that she gave me the day off. I told her that wasn’t the case, but she lied and said that she gave me the ok on having the day off earlier that week. It was another example of her habit to compulsively lie, but I just swallowed, briefly paused, and jokingly told her, “well I guess that just works out anyway then, doesn’t it.”
On the morning of Monday, February 7th, I reached out to my fellow CCAs after speaking to our steward about fighting our ongoing excessive shifts. I provided them information with the specific forms they would need to file, to make copies as always, and encouraged all of them to bring mail back if they were over-assigned work. I didn’t pry the CCAs throughout the week about what they did and didn’t do, but through most of the conversations I had with them throughout the week, it sounded like we struck a decent balance of not having to deal with excessive overtime in combination with bringing small amounts of mail back if we had to. I regret not checking in with everyone more attentively this week, as it wasn’t clear to me what everyone had been doing and when. This was one organizing lesson that I gained from this experience: get specific and organize a plan. Even if the stakes seem relatively low and it feels like you’re not actually engaging in an organizing effort, it’s always important to take inventory. Not everything at work is part of a formal organizing campaign, but everything at work is organizing, including every moment you interact with your coworkers.
On Sunday, February 13th, I was lamenting my general work situation with my spouse before we started another week of work. I was at my wit’s end and needed to set boundaries in order to stay sane during my journey to becoming a career carrier. I wanted to establish once and for all that I would not work past 12 hours in a single shift. I would bring mail back if I had it, I would bring parcels back if I had them. Amazingly, that next morning, Davis called all of the non-career employees to the supervisor’s desk to tell them that bringing mail back even if it was beyond that twelfth hour of the shift was prohibited. I felt defeated — it felt as if she had been somehow listening in on the very conversation I was having with my spouse the night before. Davis also told us that if we complied, she would “cut us a deal” by letting us know what our days off were ahead of time — another one of her manipulative tactics. I told her that our previous supervisor did this for us without any additional incentive. She said she didn’t care.
I stepped away, then a few moments later she approached me asking me what was wrong. She had a habit of approaching employees she knew she had wronged by asking them what was going on and if they were ok in a soft and naive voice. I told her I was on the way out the door to call my steward. She approached me later in the morning to tell me that she didn’t appreciate my interjecting on her orders to deliver the mail past 12 hours if necessary. I looked her in the face and told her that I wasn’t going to kill myself for this job.
Through all of the most dense and crushing moments of working as a carrier in respect to the mood in the office, my personal life, or the weather — anything that could positively or negatively affect my work ethic and general mood — I never thought that the letter carrier career path at USPS was unattainable. I certainly had moments where I felt it was crazy and that the price to pay to achieve career status was too heavy, but I carried on.
But a switch flipped the day after the Presidents’ Day holiday. It rained non-stop that day from the morning into the afternoon. It was cold, too, dropping from 40 degrees in the morning to 25 in the afternoon. Although I came prepared with my waterproof pants, raincoat, and the works, I was drenched and freezing. I completed my route for the day by 3:30pm and returned to the office to get my overtime, approximately 150 parcels that would have pushed me into about five additional hours of work on top of the eight that were already behind me. Davis told me not to even touch the mail and to just stick with delivering parcels — a common instruction from supervisors that undermines the importance and function of timely first-class mail for the sake of serving the Amazon business model. I decided then and there that I couldn’t do it and that all my hesitations and concerns to date were valid, in spite of my constant denial to myself and others. I wasn’t entirely sure I was quitting-quitting, but I returned those parcels into the office, filled out the usual forms to explain reasons for non-delivery, cited that I had to leave for an urgent personal matter, and received a final accusation from Davis: “Kase, I sure hope you’re not deliberately delaying the mail.”
The next day on Wednesday was my day off. I didn’t go in. But I didn’t go in on Thursday either. Or Friday.
I spent those days reflecting on that week, that month, the past six months: I realized how absent I was from my own life. I started to attend Chicago DSA meetings again, I started to cook dinner for my household again, and I was able to be present and listen to my spouse with my full attention, which I hadn’t truly done for months and months.
I also reflected on a moment between a father and his child I had witnessed while delivering mail the week before. They were both looking up as I passed by them with my mail cart, and the father said to both of us, “Check it out, that hawk is ripping that pigeon to shreds up there!” I peered through the branches of a tree down the street, and finally I saw it: a hawk ripping a pigeon to shreds with its talons. Dozens and dozens of pigeon feathers softly drifted to the ground and blew away in every direction. It was a perfect analogy for how I felt: postal management that hawk, me that pigeon.
Prior to and throughout the course of writing this piece, I spoke to carriers and clerks on the phone from New York City, Fort Collins, Portland, and the Chicago suburbs. Using Facebook, I managed to initially connect with a rank-and-file USPS group to discuss working conditions and campaigns being orchestrated by the group and other labor activists such as Dump DeJoy and the now successfully-passed Postal Service Reform Act. The CCAs in this group had similar experiences to mine: travel to other offices, lack of enforcing mask mandates, etc. But the long hours and Sunday surprises seemed particular to Chicago. My experience doesn’t reflect all of the incredibly varied organizing experiences of carriers around the country, including within Chicago itself. USPS is a behemoth of an organization, and workplace conditions and management tactics in shifting from a public service model to a business model is extremely difficult to determine even for retirees and those with decades working for the post office. In the words of Tolstoy, “all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Likewise, every post office has different levels and approaches to labor organizing, and the substance of these experiences varies widely. It’s an incredibly complex project to undertake, and the resilience of the organized postal workforce, including its retirees who still continue to fight, is something that will forever inspire me.
The Boss Never Stops
It’s difficult to organize in any workplace using only the grievance procedure. As socialists in the labor movement, it’s imperative that we recognize the power and strength of unions while maintaining a critique of them, especially when they follow a business union model and bureaucratic structure. In spite of my steward’s shortcomings, it was my responsibility to engage him and it was our responsibility as CCAs to recognize the power that we had together when we collectively decided to refuse to come into work on New Year’s Day. Unions are the backbone of worker power, and my union helped me keep my job after a contentious incident. But it was the recognition that successful labor organizing depends on being switched on just as often as the boss is. As one of the primary lessons states in Secrets of a Successful Organizer: always be organizing. Ask yourself what the boss’s next move is, and ask yourself if you and your coworkers are ready for it.
At my own post office and elsewhere, I have heard one tactic to fight back on excessive hours is to “find a doctor you trust” to grant medical restrictions to obtain reductions in hours. It also seems to be a common suggestion that becoming a steward, even as a CCA, can present benefits that make the journey to career worth it in a career at the post office. But neither of these approaches are organizing in and of themselves: they are individual actions inadequate to address systemic issues that adversely affect every employee in the rank-and-file. A real revived labor fight in the post office would involve career employees and union leadership stepping up to the plate both for and with non-career employees, the latter of which makes up about 25% percent of the total USPS workforce and growing, and building both a 2023 contract and apparatus of workers that demand that having your life stripped away for years in hopes of eventual career benefits is not worth any price tag. It primarily must be confronted with a non-negotiable settlement to let non-career letter carriers go home when their contract says they can go home.
I feel disappointed at having abandoned the postal labor fight, but I found it much more radical of a notion to be happy, and I find myself no further from the labor movement than I had before I started. It’s also not my intention to discourage comrades from choosing to engage in the labor movement at the Postal Service. Every job has its setbacks, and a lot of the negative aspects in my experience as a CCA was owed to particularities of my personal life.
In spite of all the negative sides to this journey, it was a learning experience for me. I had never been in a union, never combed so much through an employment agreement, and had never consciously organized with coworkers. It was one thing to peripherally understand the labor movement as a socialist, and an entirely different one to live it through it in both its most exciting and its most mundane moments.
If you are interested in the labor movement and want to consider additional ways you can join the fight, our comrades in the Chicago DSA Labor Branch are preparing for their first recruitment in Spring 2022 for the Jobs Pipeline Program. Its primary objective is to “identify and develop DSA members committed long-term to building worker power through their employment and assist them in getting jobs in strategic workplaces.” You can submit your interest in participating in this program using this form.
Sean Kase briefly served as the Managing Editor for the Red Star Bulletin and is a rank-and-file member of the Chicago DSA North Side Blue Line Branch and Labor Branch. This article does not have the official endorsement of either branch and reflects the author’s personal experience and opinions. Thank you to members of the Labor Branch who offered their insight to this piece. Special thanks to Justin Miller and Jason Broaddus for their contributions as editors.