Gone Postal: documentary lens on USPS
Anne Pyburn Craig
It’s no exaggeration to say that the U.S. Postal Service is under attack. A Google News search for “post office closing” returns over 53,000 results: hours being cut, branches being shuttered, irate residents protesting closure plans or wringing their hands over the loss of their local PO.
Post offices are community centers of sorts, where you can pick up the latest news and gossip along with your mail and see a friendly face or three. Post offices, along with libraries, are a place where we are treated not just as consumers, but as citizens. The U.S. Postal Service was established in the Constitution.
Useful and beloved as they may be, post offices are dropping like flies: in Mumford, Texas, on Starlight Lake Road in Pennsylvania, on Rt. 7 near Albany. Locally, the closing of the mail-processing center in Newburgh added a day or two to delivery times, as mail now needs to be routed through Albany.
A privatization deal struck to allow office supply mega-mart Staples to carry out many postal functions means mail being handled by $8 an hour employees rather than sworn civil servants in 1,500 locations; although Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe swears no jobs will be cut and no post offices closed as a result of the pilot program, it doesn’t seem to be holding true on the ground.
How to fight back? Rosendale filmmaker Jay Galione, whose father was a postal clerk for 30 years, has teamed up with fellow filmmaker Sheila Dvorak to make Gone Postal, a feature-length documentary and work of unabashed advocacy that exposes the untold stories, from what might have made a postal worker snap to how Congressional manipulation has set the USPS up for failure and privatization. The BlueStone Press spoke to the filmmakers about their project.
BSP: Beyond Jay’s dad, how did you locate former postal employees who would speak out? Were current ones afraid or forbidden to do so? In your trailer, I see one interviewee with his face blurred; I’m guessing that might be someone who still works there?
SD & JG: You’re right; it wasn’t easy finding workers who were willing to talk to us. Most postal workers fear their jobs are at stake if they speak out. We started our search online, finding workers who had written books and articles and were not afraid of talking publicly about the problems inside. Once we found these activists, they connected us with other workers across the country who trusted us with their stories. In North Carolina, when mail carrier Steve Spencer killed himself at the post office, his friends and coworkers felt it was too important to keep quiet and gave candid, emotional interviews.
BSP: Did any theory emerge about where things went wrong? I mean, I have loved the mail deliverers and counter people I’ve met in every place I have ever lived, but apparently management is another story…why the disconnect? Do they not promote from within?
SD & JG: Most people start a postal career looking for a secure honest living. The problem lies in the leadership. There are good managers at the post office, but they don’t have much influence.
Someone a thousand miles away is watching everything that happens in a local post office. Every post office and postal worker operates in a real world situation. No two post offices are the same, but the goals they have to meet are. The USPS tracks, monitors and counts everything, measuring to death the delivery of mail. Managers spend much of their day recording and reporting data to their bosses who are harassing them to meet goals. There are so many layers of management that the pressure compounds and the work environment is fraught with hostility.
Promotions are not based on showing leadership skills like the ability to motivate people and adapt to changing environments. Once you become a manager, your worth depends on how much you are willing to falsify data and pressure employees to work faster. Pressure means harassing workers, yelling at them in front of coworkers, canceling their vacations, and looking for other ways to provoke them. The others learn not to be the target by shutting up and working faster. This is a toxic workplace. The manager most willing to compromise ethics is most likely to succeed. The system demands a concentration of bullies and liars at the top.
BSP: What’s your favorite moment in the film?
SD & JG: We follow several workers involved in cases against the Postal Service. They’re fighting against retaliation. They’re fighting for their jobs and for stolen wages. Not everyone wins, but some of them do. Our favorite parts of the film are their moments of vindication.
BSP: What’s something that was surprising to find out?
SD & JG: We were really surprised to find out how many postal workers have been sounding the alarm to change their toxic workplaces. But they haven’t been able to make any progress. Across the country we met workers who organized pickets, circulated petitions, alerted their congress people, and confronted managers to stop the abuse. It was hard seeing that nothing came of their efforts. We want our film to raise the profile of this issue so it can’t be ignored, not only for postal workers but all workers fighting for dignity on the job.
BSP: What reforms do we need? And what do you think of Liz Warren’s idea of post offices doing lending/banking?
SD & JG: First we need to demand accountability from the federal government that acquired billions of dollars from the USPS in overpayments and pre-funding of worker health and retirement benefits. Adding that money back to the USPS budget will give us a true picture of the health of the Postal Service.
We also need a change in the governance of the USPS. Workers need a powerful voice on the Board of Governors. Unions and their members are coming up with ways to innovate and expand services, but they’re excluded from the process. Citizens and mail customers need a voice on the local level about how their communication needs can be better met by their post office, giving the Postal Service new avenues of revenue. Anything that makes the local post office more relevant to its community should be considered.
Postal Banking is a great idea to pursue. We’re glad Senator Warren is raising its profile. The USPS Inspector General estimates it could generate nine billion dollars a year for the Postal Service. It would serve the working poor in communities where there are no banks. It’s expensive to be poor in a country where 68 million people are spending an average of 10 percent of their income just to access their own money through predatory check cashing outlets.
Plus it would offer an alternative for many of us who’d rather take our money out of the big banks and support a robust public option. Postal banking was successful in the US throughout the mid 20th century and it’s successful right now in many postal services worldwide.
Fractured Atlas, the filmmakers are running a $50,000 crowd-funding campaign to raise finishing costs and get the film done while we still have a post office left to save. The Indiegogo project runs through Aug. 19; you’ll find more information and a film trailer at www.gonepostalfilm.com/trailer.