By A Rural Carrier Comrade
I work as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA) with the United States Postal Service. RCAs (and our city counterpart, City Carrier Associate, CCAs) are casually known in the service as “subs” because our main purpose is to cover a regular carrier’s days off. We learn multiple routes, work on-call, and rack up to 60 hours a week.
In this job, I experience more unpredictable scheduling than my time in the food industry; the physical exertion and hours rival my past farm labor; and management practices are more exploitative than my past private sector jobs. Ten-hour days are normal, twelve-hour days are common.
I was thrilled to get the job initially. A union job with decent pay and actual benefits providing a valuable public service sounded like the perfect solution to my unending series of alienating service jobs. The reality is I’m unable to make plans or appointments for my life outside work. I look at the schedule every day before I leave, hoping no one penciled in my name in an empty slot when I wasn’t looking. Every inch I drive and step I take is monitored by a tracking scanner. I’m told to behave as though I’m “always on camera, because you probably are.”
And I’m still in my trial period—which is 90 worked days or a year, whichever comes first—which limits my benefits and exposes me to abuse by supervisors. Without the same protections as regular carriers, I have to answer every call, work every shift asked, and be terrified of calling out sick or requesting a day off. I feel like a hostage.
So when I hear Senator Bernie Sanders’ new plan to fight privatization of the USPS doesn’t include a plan to save postal workers—I know it’s bullshit.
In Bernie’s letter to Steve Mnuchin outlining his proposal to reform the postal service, he bemoans the “slower mail delivery” and proposes restoration of speedier practices as one of his solutions. Meanwhile, postal workers are working six days a week or more, often 10-12 hours a day, just to barely manage their workload. Our supervisors already demand faster and faster delivery while parcel volume steadily climbs upward. Another sub said our postmaster recently told her, “You’re supposed to be getting faster, not slower.” She had just returned to work after treatment for a life-threatening illness.
One of my city comrades detailed his experience with the inhumane demands of postal service employment in his “Letter from a Red Letter Carrier,” including a story about how one woman had to sleep overnight in the office with her young child because of the outrageous hours. He also writes about the physical toll of the demands for speed:
The number one rule for CCAs was, ‘don’t get hurt.’ You may not read about it in the news, but USPS is number one for non-fatal work injuries, mainly from trips and falls…They work carriers to the bone, which drives them to work unsafely, which leads to injuries, but they then fire the carriers for ‘injuring themselves,’ in order to not pay compensation!
The USPS contract with Amazon accelerated the deterioration of working conditions. The USPS added a seventh day—aptly branded as “Amazon Sundays”—which was made possible by the introduction of a new position. Assistant Rural Carriers (ARCs) are non-career employees hired specifically to deliver Prime packages on Sundays and holidays. Without caps on days worked in a row in our union contracts, city and rural subs are often forced to join them. We could potentially work two weeks, a month, several months, without a day off.
It wasn’t always like this, my older coworkers tell me. “I used to love this job, before Amazon.”
We’re expected to be grateful to Jeff Bezos for saving our jobs and our salaries from the irrelevance brought on by digital communication. Unsurprisingly, some workers are grateful—capitalism has crushed the capacity of many wage laborers to collectively organize for creative demands by purposefully limiting our time and energy. We are dehumanized, driven to physical and psychological exhaustion, until imagination is replaced by the tired choice between irrelevance and a broken back.
Another component of Bernie’s plan for the postal service is the introduction of public banking services and, in a real stroke of innovation, gift wrapping. His letter is filled with references to “business,” “revenue,” and the need to “become more entrepreneurial.” This, all the while criticizing those who would wish to privatize the postal service.
But we are, essentially, private. The profit motive has already degraded what could be a public service, and adding new products or services will not save it.
Politicians in both parties talk about the USPS as though it’s a public entity struggling for relevance against private forces, but this is a misleading characterization of the entire distribution industry. The USPS is as completely dependent on private companies, as private companies are on the postal service. We have a contract with Amazon; we pay Fedex to fly our packages; and the USPS provides the “last leg” of delivery for many UPS parcels. As in other industries, the rhetoric of competition is a facade for the inextricable business interests of capitalists.
The postal service also has no federal funding. It is funded through postage and other services, not taxes, and is therefore private by any practical definition.
Politicians do not want to secure the future of a public service as much as they want to privatize it in a neoliberal, cynical fashion. Without challenging the unspoken, bipartisan agreement to withhold public funds, the “public” aspect of the USPS will further deteriorate. Without collective investment and subsidization, and truly democratic accountability to workers and the public, the postal service will continue struggling to maintain relevance within a volatile market.
The postal service, and postal workers’ conditions, will not improve through progressives’ continued fetishization of the service as a symbol of a well-functioning government. Even leftists are known to cry, “It’s the most popular government agency!” in defense of social democracy as a concept. But this service was built on the backs of exploited labor and capitalist practices, so adding duties without eliminating the existing pressures of profit is a temporary patch on a crumbling foundation.
Bernie is correct in his assessment that the right-wing plan to fully privatize the USPS would “devastate rural communities,” and that policies like the pension-funding mandate have obliterated the USPS budget. But instead of gift wrapping our way to the top of the distribution market, we need to opt out of the competition entirely.
Postal workers themselves must acknowledge the collective power we have to create a humane, public service. We need to revitalize the militancy of our union and challenge contracts that bargain for pensions but ignore the working conditions of RCAs and CCAs. We should make radical demands of our employer and state. Those demands should include federal funding — which would make the capitulation to Jeff Bezos unnecessary —, an end to constructed staffing shortages, predictable scheduling, a return to fewer delivery days, and a renaissance of the 19th century demand for real weekends.
USPS unions also need to join in solidarity with our co-workers in Amazon, UPS, and FedEx who experience similar (or worse) working conditions.
Our hands deliver medication, food, rent, and paychecks. Those same hands can stop cooperating with capitalist distribution systems if the ruling class, on both sides of the aisle, try to write our future without us.
You need to get in touch with your comrades and fellow workers and to become conscious of your interests, your powers and your possibilities as a class. You need to know that you belong to the great majority of mankind. You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are. You will be exploited; you will be degraded…You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor.
(Eugene V. Debs, The Canton, Ohio Speech)