Black Postal Workers Brace For Proposed Cuts
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, how the D.C. earthquake made me think about immigration reform. It's my weekly commentary in just a few minutes.
But, first, when you think about the post office, what image comes to mind? Letters to Santa, care packages to the kids away at school and to servicemen and women overseas, the rush on tax day to give Uncle Sam his due? The post office does all that and more, but it has also been an important source of consistent employment for minorities, particularly African-Americans that has helped many climb the first rung of the middle class.
The United States Postal Service is facing a budgetary shortfall forcing the organization to consider cost-saving measures such as an increase in the cost of stamps and the possible elimination of Saturday delivery. Last week such considerations were under review by the agency that provides regulatory oversight for the Postal Service. But we wondered what that means both to the people who frequent their local post office and also what it means to the people who work there.
So we've called William Burrus, the president of the American Postal Workers Union. That union represents clerks, maintenance workers and those who maintain Postal Service vehicles. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us is Philip Rubio. He's the author of "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality." He's also a professor of history at North Carolina A&T University. And he joins us from Durham. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. WILLIAM BURRUS (President, American Postal Workers Union): Thank you for having us.
Professor PHILIP RUBIO (History, North Carolina A&T University; Author, "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality"): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So, Mr. Burrus, let me start with you. Why did you first go to work at the post office?
Mr. BURRUS: I was seeking employment fresh out of the United States Army. I was looking for a job, and discussed it with my father, who was a product of early years, the upward mobility of the African-American community. And I asked his advice as to would the Postal Service be a good place of employment. He said, it's your decision, son. But they don't have strikes.
MARTIN: Now, was this want to do or have to do work?
Mr. BURRUS: I was a young man. It was have to do work, yes. I had to find employment. I was a painter and I was looking for something more permanent and more reliable. And the Postal Service at the time, government-appointed jobs, but I took the examination. And I was hired from the exam and went in as a career employee in February of 1958.
MARTIN: Also, Rubio, this is probably a good time to bring you into the conversation. Tell us more about this. To whom has the post office been an important source of employment and tell us a little bit more, if you would, about what role perhaps the political appointments may have played in that?
Prof. RUBIO: Actually, when I think about politics in the post office, I go all the way back in my book to 1802 when blacks were legally barred from working at the post office because the postmaster general, Gideon Granger, and Congress, the Southern Democratic white congressmen especially were afraid of blacks reading about the successful Haitian revolution. After that, some of the first black postal workers were Civil War veterans and abolitionists.
And many of them received appointments through the Republican Party back when the Republican Party was a progressive force. That they would not only appointed as postmasters, but as letter carriers, clerks and janitors. And then in 1883, you had the Civil Service Act where you began having examinations.
And even though you might have prejudiced personnel officers throw out the applications of blacks, what I talk about in my book is how blacks made this kind of a magnet where they would fight to get their way in and then help others to come in either through politics, political appointments, or through successfully passing the exam. Many blacks even from the 19th century, following up till today, had higher levels of education than their white counterparts.
Frequently they would find in the private sector that white management would be keeping them out. And the post office was a way in, a way that they could get in through political appointments or through successfully scoring on exams.
MARTIN: And, now, I wanted to ask you more about that because I think a lot of people, particularly this is an area where there are a number of colleges and universities, certainly in Washington, D.C., there's Howard University and there are a number of students who will still tell you that they had parents with advanced degrees who were working at the Postal Service when perhaps they were not being well received by the private sector. But what was the appeal? Was it, so, first of all it was the opportunity, and then what else?
Prof. RUBIO: It was the job security. The fact that a civil service appointment meant something, and it was a decent salary, it had other benefits, sick leave, annual leave, and it has status in the community. Black postal workers in general were oftentimes thought of as middle-class. And, in fact, they were also very much civically engaged. They were presidents of the local NAACP, or the Elks and other orders like that. And what you have are people who are well-educated and able to find a job where the hours permit them to go to school or that they can work while they're trying to start their businesses up or start their practices up.
MARTIN: So tell me about that. Was that part of the appeal? Mr. Burrus, you said it was consistent and also I assume, benefits. You had sick leave. Was it also like regular work in the sense that it did allow you kind of do other things, live the rest of your life?
Mr. BURRUS: Yes. Myself and most of my co-workers had other employment in addition to the Postal Service. The pay was so inadequate at the time that to maintain a decent style of living one was required to have two sources of income. But it was steady. It had no great physical requirements. And there was a lot of freedom, a lot of freedom. And it was a good atmosphere to work in.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm speaking with William Burrus. He's the president of the American Postal Workers Union. And Philip Rubio, author of "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality." And we're talking about well, what impact the Postal Service has had and work at the post office has had on various communities and what affect these anticipated changes might have on communities and workers.
So let's talk about today. So William Burrus, who works for the post office now?
Mr. BURRUS: In terms of the demographics, the Postal Service looks almost like America in terms of minorities. There are 21 percent African-Americans, 39 percent minorities, including Hispanics, Asian and other minorities, and 57 percent white. So in many parts of this country and something I've been fighting against all of my life - all of my postal career, has been there are many communities in this country that have never hired an African-American in the Postal Service.
There are some communities where the job's been handed down in the white community from father to son to cousin and so on for hundreds of years and theyve never seen a black or Hispanic in that community serving as either letter carrier or the clerk that sells postage stamps.
MARTIN: Philip Rubio, why do call your book, when you refer to "Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality," what are you referring to?
Mr. RUBIO: That was from the start when African-Americans entered the post office, that was how they literally entered the post office was having to fight, first of all, fight to get into the post office and once they were there, fighting discrimination both in the post office and the unions, fighting to - for the right to get promotions, fighting against Jim Crow union locals, which unfortunately persisted right up into the early '60s.
And I talk about how they essentially brought the civil rights movement into the post office, into the labor movement and took labor issues into the civil rights movement.
MARTIN: And what about to the present day? I mean it's no secret now that because of, you know, fax machines and because a lot of people pay bills online, for example, there just isn't as much traffic as there used to be. Mr. Burrus, what do you think that - are you concerned?
Mr. BURRUS: Of course, we're concerned. But the perception is that the advent of electronic communications has been at the expense of the United States Postal Service. But our volume over the last 40 years has not been predominately private communications. Even after all the advances of communications that have occurred over the past five years, 50 years, I receive more mail today in the down economy in one month than my father received in his entire life.
MARTIN: But still there's been talk now about curtailing service in some way. I mean there's talk about ending Saturday delivery. Back in 2009, there was a lot of talk about closing some post offices. And I just wanted - obviously, you know, you have a stake in this on behalf of your members.
Mr. BURRUS: Yes.
MARTIN: But I would like to ask, what is your perspective on that? I mean the argument is that the revenue just isn't sufficient to match the service. So choices are either cut service or raise prices. What's your take on that?
Mr. BURRUS: We oppose the reduction of delivery days, the elimination of Saturday or any other day of the week, we oppose it. We oppose it for some very basic reasons, and the least of which is protection for our jobs. However, that's not the basis of our opposition to the reduction of delivery days. I think primarily just by definition a service organization cannot succeed by cutting service.
We have a monopoly unrecognized by much of America. We dont deliver on Sunday. American public can't receive mail on Sunday. They can't receive mail in the mailbox. They can get a flyer on the porch but they can't receive anything in that mailbox on Sunday. We deliver in that mailbox six days a week. If we walk away from on the sixth day, on Saturday, we're telling the American public you cannot receive mail two days a week. I dont think the American public would accept that.
MARTIN: I'm going to ask you - we're down to our last couple of minutes - so I'm going to ask each of you to reflect on where we started out. Mr. Rubio, the title of your book is "There's Always Work at the Post Office."
Mr. RUBIO: Right.
MARTIN: And do you think that that will always be true?
Mr. RUBIO: Yes, as long as there's a post office. It's a line that I took from Robert Townsend's movie "Hollywood Shuffle" from 1987. And at the end, when he can't get a job that doesnt have, you know, the Hollywood stereotypes of blacks, then he does a public announcement for the post office where he says: through rain, sleet and snow I deliver your mail. I'm a U.S. postman and I have the respect and the admiration of the community. So if you can't take pride in your job, remember there's always work at the post office.
It was a joke that we always tell on the shop floor. The double meaning being, there's always work as long as youre at the post office. And it's interesting as Mr. Burrus also observed, the percentage of African-Americans at the post office has held roughly at 20 percent. Yet, a lot of people have lost their jobs through attrition, but again, I would say as long as we fight to hold on to the post office there will always be work there both in the physical sense there will be work to do there although, many cases of a different nature, and that there will be good paying jobs.
MARTIN: So final thought from you Mr. Burrus? Do you think there will always be work at the post office?
Mr. BURRUS: Well, it depends on the civilization. How will civilization communicate 20, 50, 100 years from now? Will they still use hard copy as a means of conveying information from point A to point B? If civilization still uses hard copy - and I think they will because there are certain advantages. Messages are sent in other means dont have the same personal effect. I'm positive that if civilization continues to communicate through hard copy then there will be a post office.
MARTIN: Okay. Now I have to just ask you this before I let you go. When do you send your Christmas presents out? Are you an express mail guy, a priority mail guy? Are you one of these guys who get's things out like the first of December and you use standard?
Mr. BURRUS: I just use regular parcel post.
MARTIN: Oh, so youre one of those. Oh. Oh.
Mr. BURRUS: I go the easy way. I know it's a lot less expensive and I know the service is sufficient if you give yourself enough time.
MARTIN: Oh, so it's like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURRUS: Yes.
MARTIN: Your wife does all the shopping, though I bet and does all the wrapping. You just take it over there, is that it?
Mr. BURRUS: No, I send it a week in advance and you can send it much cheaper than other express services and it still gets there at the front door, delivered by a letter carrier.
MARTIN: All right. Shaming us in here. You're shaming us in here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: William Burrus is president of the American Postal Workers Union which represents clerks, maintenance workers and those who service Postal Service vehicles. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Also joining us from Durham, North Carolina, was Philip Rubio, author of "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality," and a former postal worker himself, we should add.
And thank you both so much for taking the time.
Mr. BURRUS: Thank you.
Mr. RUBIO: Thank you, Michel.