An account of sabotage, solidarity and wildcat strikes at a large postal sorting office in the US by Judi, a mail handler.
The Washington Bulk Mail Center is one of twenty-one centres in the United States. I worked there from 1976 to 1980. They spent lots of money and put together factories that just plain didn't work. These computer nerds design factories and they've never seen one in their whole lives. They didn't want to admit that it didn't work. They set an efficiency rate for the factory but since the machinery didn't work, they couldn't achieve that rate. Instead of hiring more employees and admitting it was a failure, they forced us to work overtime. We worked at least sixty hours a week, and in December they would work us eighty-four. A major problem was that we worked all the time, and started to go crazy.
Overtime was the main issue, but accidents and industrial injuries were two other ones. General harassment was a problem too - they give a ten point preference to veterans, so everyone thinks they're still in the army. The real army ass-kissers rise to supervisor. Since you don't have to make a profit in the post office, it lacks the semblance of reason you get in capitalism. In the post office it didn't matter how much money was wasted.
I unloaded and sometimes loaded trucks. It was supposedly all mechanised. We had these great big things called extended conveyor belts that went into the trucks. We froze our butts off in the winter and roasted in the summer.
Parcels and sacks were unloaded and sorted separately, but the machine was always jamming up. The best way to break up the jam was to throw some sacks on the parcel system because they were heavier and would push the jam through. This of course meant that they'd be landing on the parcels and squashing them to bits. That was a kind of sabotage that was actually endorsed by management because they wanted us to work faster [it is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of mail is corporate and advertising, rather than personal]..
There's no back-up system in the plant. If there's a tangle somewhere, the whole line shuts down. When the non-zip [zip codes are the US equivalent of UK post codes] chute backed up, everything we wanted to know the zip code of would shoot back up, and everything going to that place stopped. For every piece, you had to have a non-zip option, so if the non-zip chute closed down, the whole line closed down. We'd key every thing in as non-zip, and the system would overload. All the red lights came on and everything went down. When New York was in a wildcat strike, we keyed everything to New York.
As we began to feel our collective power, people got more obvious and flippant. We started doing little things like sending things to the wrong place and deliberately shutting things down. But as we got to be more organised, one of the games we played when we were bored was to deliberately break the machinery and make a bet on how long it would take the mechanic to figure out what was wrong. We'd try to break it in a bizarre manner. One of our favorite things to do was to turn off emergency stops to see how long the mechanic would take to figure out which one it was. We would take turns banging on the sides of the trucks while we were unloading them. The supervisors would get very upset and run back and forth trying to figure out who was doing it.
Eventually we began to do really organised things. When they ordered us to work overtime on Thanksgiving, everybody left. We were real proud of that one. Another time, we did a sick-out, where a lot of people went home sick at the same time.
We weren't allowed to strike. We met between the two shifts - there was an hour break in between - and I stood up on a table and gave a speech in the cafeteria. We drew up a committee of twelve and a list of demands, and eighty of us did a walk-in (since we couldn't do a walk-out) to our supervisor's office and gave her our list. Her reaction was to put locks on the door between the plant and the administration office so you couldn't get in. You had to have a computer card and a combination and all of that. Short of going on strike, the culmination of our action was the trash-in. They were famous for losing our paychecks on the night shift. The forklift drivers would drive around and tell everyone that they lost our checks again. We'd cause machines to wreck (which was pretty easy), the forklift drivers would drop pallets everywhere, and everyone keyed everything non-zip. One night we brought the place to a standstill. We trashed everything that came in.
The unions were very corrupt and the overtime didn't decrease in most of the country. But we won. They stopped giving us overtime. As we did such a horrible job on the parcels, people started using UPS more and the post office less. The volume started to go down, so the trashings and overtime and accidents went down. The safety conditions improved. After a year, when we did the wildcat strike, the union crumbled and fell into our hands. We ended up taking over the union and I became the Chief Shop Steward (the highest position in that plant) and began to expedite grievances. They got rid of the worst of the supervisors and brought in new ones specifically to appease us. Everyone makes jokes about postal workers smashing up mail because they think they don't care. But postal workers don't like the fact that we can't do a good job no matter how hard we try.