The first letter I ever wrote was not sent through the United States Postal Service. Instead, I slipped it under the door of my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night. Dear Mom and Dad, I wrote, I really really really really really want a dog. I’ll walk it and feed it and take care of it. Similar letters were found under their door many nights after, until they brought Bear home. That’s the power of letter writing.
But I learned how to write real letters, which I addressed and stamped and put in a blue box, during my first summer at sleepaway camp. My mom packed stationery in my trunk, and I first used letters to tell my grandparents what I was up to all summer—becoming a better swimmer, and folk dancing during Shabbat, mostly—and asking my parents to send me stuff I needed, which was really just candy to share with my bunkmates. Every summer thereafter I wrote letters, fewer to my family and more to my friends. I wrote to my best friend Zoe and told her I missed summer at home, even though I loved camp (there was no word for it back then, but if I was writing to her now, I’d say I had FOMO). She wrote back: “everything is boring. I walked to Little Dipper with Jennie Snyder and I got a cone of moose tracks.” We weren’t allowed cell phones or computers at camp, and mundane as our letters probably were, each one was like a message on AIM and a text message and a whisper, combined and magnified. But of course, Zoe and I still write to each other today, from 8 miles apart: when the grocery store is out of chai tea, she stuffs tea bags until the envelope is bursting at its seams; I send her son a book called “Delivering Your Mail: A Book About Mail Carriers.” She tells me he reads it all the time.
The United States Postal Service, as we know it today, didn’t exist until 1970, when postal workers in New York City went on an 8 day wildcat strike. Prior to their successful strike, postal workers were extremely underpaid, earning only slightly over $6,000 a year to start, and many survived on food stamps and other government assistance to fill the gaps. The annual starting salary for postal workers was 27 percent lower than for New York City sanitation workers and less than 50 percent for police and transport workers. Even veteran workers with decades of service made less than $8,500. It was difficult for postal workers, especially ones who lived in cities with higher living costs, to support their families. And even though they would get sporadic raises, they got nothing at all between 1967 and 1969; in the same two year period, Congress raised its own pay 41 percent. Like all federal employees, postal workers had no collective bargaining rights, and it was illegal for them to strike. (It still is.) To get raises, they were forced to basically beg Congress—and used to joke that they didn’t have collective bargaining, they had “collective begging.”
As postal workers’ rage toward Congress grew, the world around them was on fire. By the late 1960s, the movement against the Vietnam War had exploded. Millions of people were in the streets fighting to end the war and the draft. The Civil Rights Movement had also gained steam—by 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, banning discrimination in the housing market. And in the streets, young Black people were rioting and protesting, demanding jobs and an end to police violence and structural racism. The Black Power movement was also on the rise, challenging non-violence and demanding the right to self-determination. Many postal workers were Black, as white workers left for better jobs in the 1950s and 1960s; the movement for Black power in the streets resonated with these Black people at work. In addition, the era bore witness to an ongoing wave of rank-and-file rebellions in private- and public-sector unions across the country. In New York City, transportation workers went on strike in 1966. Two years later, sanitation workers and teachers walked out. Postal workers in New York saw their neighbors and friends stand up and fight back—and win. These movements and victories paved the way for postal workers, who may not have gone on strike without them.
The postal worker strike of March 1970 lasted over a week and stopped the mail in New York City, electrifying postal workers all over the country. It was the first major strike against the government, ever. Immediately, the union was ordered to go back to work, with the threat of an organizational fine of $100,000 per day looming over them. The stakes were high: elected union officers hid from subpoenas; veteran letter carriers were told they’d lose their military pensions; and each striking worker was staring down a $1,000 personal fine, a year in jail, and automatic and permanent job loss. But the strike erupted because workers were so fed up—beyond poor wages, postal workers had been forced to deal with uninhabitable conditions at their stations, and harassment from management. The workers were ready; no threat would stop them. Within a few days, postal workers in New York were joined by 200,000 postal workers in 13 states, 200 cities and towns, and 671 postal stations. The striking workers created a complete and total crisis for the entire country. Mail in New York City was between 98-99 percent shut down, and was slowed elsewhere as well. And the strike was a catastrophe for the ruling class, too: checks, stock certificates, and bonds couldn’t be delivered to Wall Street, causing the stock market to fall. After six days, President Nixon declared the strike a national emergency and sent 19,000 members of the National Guard to New York to sort and deliver mail.
Nixon and the National Guard failed. They underestimated the importance and power of postal workers, and the role they play in our society. Postal workers are letter carriers, sorters, and clerks, yes, but their job encompasses so much more than that. Letter carriers can often be the only human contact that some of our neighbors have—they’re a consistent, friendly face; a constant in a lonely world. And while letter carriers are known to fear dogs (thousands of workers are attacked each year), many carry dog biscuits in their trucks for all the dogs on their routes. Letter carriers are part of our communities, and their presence is felt far beyond the postage they sell or the mail they deliver. But the importance of the mail they deliver can’t be overstated: in 2019, USPS delivered 1.2 billion prescriptions, including nearly 100 percent of Veterans Affairs’ prescriptions. And because of USPS’s mandate to deliver to every home and business in this country, no matter how remote (the unofficial motto is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”), they have to get creative. Workers deliver mail by plane, bicycle, snowmobile, and even donkey. Imagine Amazon doing the same for only 55 cents per letter.
After the striking workers transformed the postal service, a job at USPS became one that anyone could be proud of—and they are. The postal service employs over 600,000 people, most of whom are union members. More than one-third of workers are women, 18 percent are veterans, and a quarter are Black. The people who make up this diverse workforce are working class heroes, and they’re under attack.
One of these heroes is my mother.
In 2008, millions of Americans lost their jobs in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. My mom was one of them. A successful loan officer at a bank that no longer exists, she and my dad gave me and my siblings everything we needed, and much more. After she was laid off, she quickly became a limousine driver, and after that, a letter carrier. She’s not sentimental like me; she doesn’t write many letters. When she asks what I want for my birthday, I always say the same thing: a heartfelt card, please. But usually I just get a pre-filled greeting card, with only “XOXOXO Love, Mom and Fran” (her partner) in her handwriting. She likes being useful, though, and she likes helping people. She’d often thought about being a letter carrier, believing that it would be nice to walk outside all day, delivering letters and packages to the people who need them. Plus, she had worked for the federal government before, and she knew it was a good union job.
The good job that my mom was after at the post office is hanging on by a thread. All letter carriers start as an associate carrier, which is a kind of temporary or part time worker. My mom was hired as a rural carrier associate in 2011. She was an RCA for six years, making $18 an hour. She received no paid sick time or vacation, and no health or retirement benefits. It took her six years to become a regular carrier—and she now makes $25 per hour, with benefits. Even though she started at $18 an hour, new RCAs these days start at $13. This is not uncommon in postal worker union contracts, or union contracts anywhere for that matter. Tiered wage systems separate new workers from more senior workers, and diminish possibilities for solidarity and insead open the door for resentment. In their arbitrariness, they emphasize the power of management, and it’s that much harder for workers to fight back.
But USPS workers are beloved. The postal service is viewed favorably by 91 percent of people in this country, no doubt because of the clerks that patiently help customers pick the right envelope, and the letter carriers that have the same route for decades. Floyd Martin, a Georgia letter carrier who had the same route for 20 years, was beloved by the families he delivered to. He always had food for the cats and lollipops for the kids; even a long-time customer suffering with dementia remembered him. When he retired, the families on his route threw him a party and started a GoFundMe for his dream trip to Hawaii. It reached its original goal in two hours, raising nearly $33,000 in four days. My mom has only had her current route for a year and a half, but her people leave her vegetables from their gardens and gifts during the holiday season. One family gives her tootsie roll pops; another replenishes her dog biscuit supply (she gives their dog a treat every day). She’ll work until 2023 so she’s vested in her pension. She’ll retire at 69 years old, and she’s lucky.
My mom is not a political person. She wants to save the postal service, but isn’t quite sure how. She goes back and forth about getting involved in her union; she’s insecure and she’s afraid she won’t do a good job for the other members. I try to remind her that when she first started delivering mail, her route would take her 12 hours. Practice makes perfect; it’s why the National Guard was unable to process and deliver the mail in 1970. Mail work is skilled work, just like organizing. My mom had hoped that the pandemic would renew our country’s commitment to programs and services like the post office, because of how equitable and important USPS is—and because of how many people depend on it, and how many love it.
Of course, she was wrong, and we’re all the worse for it. The postal service has been under attack by Republicans (and many Democrats) for years now. In 2006, Congress passed the bipartisan Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which requires the USPS to have enough money to pay retiree health care benefits seventy-five years in advance—i.e., before many of these future postal workers are even born. It should go without saying, but this is unheard of for any other public agency, and of course for any private business. The Act serves no social usefulness; its only goal is to make it appear that the postal service is failing, so that the general public will turn its back on the USPS, seeing it as a failure or a tax burden. Historically, the USPS has funded itself through the sale of postage and other products, not through tax dollars. But it has struggled to stay afloat because of both the 2006 Act and the ubiquity of the internet (i.e. many people now pay bills online and substitute emails for letters), and has had to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury Department. And now the postal service is in trouble—in large part because of the Postal Accountability Act—and it needs a government bailout.
But the government is not interested in saving the USPS—they want it to fail so they have an excuse to privatize it. The postal service is a model social benefit for every working person in this country, and we have the imagination to dream beyond it. Almost every single zip code has a post office. What if these offices had more than just stamps and envelopes? Post offices could offer banking services and public internet. They could become community centers where people could go to charge their phone, or wait out a hot day in air conditioning. These additional postal services would be available and accessible to every single person in this country, including and especially the very poor. A destroyed or privatized post office will never be improved or expanded, certainly not in a way that will be accessible for all to use. And if UPS or FedEx (or God forbid, Amazon) are our only options for sending and receiving mail, we can kiss affordable rural delivery goodbye—along with the dream of postal banking, or any other expanded public services.
While the attacks on the postal service have been ongoing for decades, they’re in the news now more than ever. People believe Trump is trying to complete the ruin of the USPS in order to steal the election, and I’m sure they’re right. In the spring, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy, a businessman who has never sorted mail, sold stamps, or delivered mail, as the postmaster general. It’s the first time in 20 years that the postmaster general hasn’t previously worked for the postal service. Like Nixon and the national guard, DeJoy knows nothing about the mail. He has removed some sorting machines, ended late trips, and cut back on overtime, with plans to eliminate it entirely. It is important to understand that while this may in part be about the election, it’s really about—and has always been about—destroying the postal service as a popular institution and as an employer of steady, union jobs.
My mom hates Trump and wants to see him defeated. So do I. But her two most immediate concerns about the post office are that 1) they won’t be able to provide the best service possible, and 2) that they won’t go back to the way they were. She fears that it will be too late, and the forces of privatization will destroy it. My fears about the post office start as sweeping, and then zoom in: Jeff Bezos growing his power and wealth; 600,000 union jobs gone; my mom losing her job and her future pension. But I also think about all the letters I’ve ever written, no matter how small they may seem: to Zoe and her son, to almost every lover I’ve ever had (or wanted to have), to my on-again, off-again pen pal Michael. And I think about every person who has made it possible for me to do so, who has sold me stamps, processed the envelopes, and delivered the letters; and how they’ve done the same for thousands of other people, enabling connection and love and even good health, every day but Sunday. I think about Floyd Martin, and how deeply he touched people by just delivering their mail. And I realize that for us, it’s not just about the mail—and for Trump and DeJoy and the right wing, it isn’t either. Defending the post office isn’t just about making sure seniors get their medication, or about protecting good union jobs, although it’s those things too. It’s about deciding that we want a society based on human connection instead of a society based on profit and atomized human misery—and it’s about being willing to fight for it.