ROYAL OAK, Mich. — There’s this guy named Daniel in the neighborhood where my wife and I carry mail. We see him almost daily as he rides down the street on his adult-sized tricycle. He’s always carrying a rake, a broom, or shovel, and many times he’s draggin’ a gas lawn mower behind his trike. It’s the darndest thing to see how this dude can pedal his 3-wheeled velocipede while toting all these implements.
Daniel is not a young man, probably around 50, and he has a noticeable handicap. He walks as if his spine has a curious curve in one of his lumbars. His left arm twists at a strange angle and his left hand has three disfigured digits that pass as “fingers.” He has a slight speech impediment that may be the result of many missing teeth. The first time you meet him, you can tell that life has not been kind to this man. The local business owners and caring neighbors pay Daniel to cut their grass, rake their lawns, sweep their sidewalks, pull a few weeds, and shovel the snow. He’s a fixture in our community. He never asks for a handout; he told me he will not take charity. Always willing to work, and always a good man with a kind word to say about other folks. And I’ve never once heard him complain about his personal problems.
Daniel moves around quite a bit, both on his trike and in his housing situation. He currently lives in a cheap studio apartment on Main Street, but in the past his pickup truck was his home. He has nowhere to store his lawnmower or his trike now that his truck died, so we see them chained to a variety of telephone poles and street sign posts around the city. And darn it all, his precious ride and lawnmower have been ripped off more than once. In true Daniel style, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess they needed that stuff more than me.”
This week, I was schlumping the U.S. mail during one of our recent oppressive dog days of summer. Temps in the 90s with humidity right about there as well, my skivvies were goin’ in all the wrong places, I felt like I needed to go “commando.” Well, here comes good ol’ Danny Boy pedaling his trike down Washington Street and draggin’ his mower. Instead of yelling “hot enough for ya?” or some other inane remark, he hollers, “On days like this, you guys are way underpaid. You should be making 90 bucks an hour!” I start laughin’, so he stops and gets real serious. “I’m not jokin’, man. In this heat and especially winter time I don’t think you carriers get paid what you’re worth. Them bosses in there (he points down the street to the Post Office) make more money than you for sittin’ on their butts. You carriers should make a lot more money!”
He was serious, and I thanked him for his thoughtfulness. I also told him he’d make a great Postmaster General with all his wisdom. We both laughed as I went back to my job and him to his.
But the trend in this country is not the enlightened thinking of guys like Daniel who thanks us for the hard work we do. There are many who think we and other public sector workers make too much money!
Do you, the reader, think you make too much money? You’re probably laughing yourself silly, but Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels thinks you do. He was recently quoted as saying, “The new privileged class in America” is government employees, who are “better paid than the people who pay their salaries.”
Mort Zuckerman, billionaire editor of U.S. News and World Reports says, “We have to escape public sector unions’ strangle hold on state and local governments or it will crush us.”
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot ominously predicts “a showdown looming across the country between taxpayers and public employee unions over pay and pensions.” The Heritage Foundation warns that the “more the government taxes, the more it can pay its unionized workers.”
And it’s not just these bastions of conservative ideology that think we get paid too much. I use “we” because, as letter carriers, we are public sector employees. We don’t get our wages from tax dollars, but when the price of postage goes up you’re gonna hear it. We will be blamed because of our “generous” wage and benefits package. A lot of folks are hurting in this Great Recession, and there is a tide of resentment towards the workers who are still making a decent wage. In Michigan, 18% of the work force is unionized with about half of these workers in the “public sector.” This includes city, county, state, and federal employees. Nationwide, the number shrinks to 12% unionized, half of that (6%), public workers. At levels that low, it’s easy for the demonization to begin.
Public sector is a sterile term. Instead, think of teachers, bus drivers, police officers, fire fighters, clerks, DPW crews, letter carriers, etc. These are all the vital components of any thriving community. And yet, these workers have been under constant assault these past few years with the threat of layoffs and firings. In my town of Royal Oak, the school board just privatized the whole school maintenance department, and this after privatizing the school bus system. These workers were offered new positions at $9.00/ hour. That hurts me and my town. Police and fire positions were eliminated shortly thereafter. In city after city, county after county, state after state, workers are being told, “You need to give something back. You make too much money.” Mayor Dave Bing is demanding a 10% pay cut from Detroit’s city workers. And I believe the letter carriers may be next on that chopping block.
Do you make too much money? I’ll ask that silly question again. If your answer is no, you need to become part of the counter offensive to this glacier of blame and scapegoating of public workers that is fast blanketing our nation’s landscape. We need to find out who our political enemies are, Republican or Democrat, and make sure that they do not win political office this year. We need to educate our neighbors, family, and friends that we, as unionists, are fighting to uplift every worker, not just our own. We need to support other unions in our cities, counties, and states so that when the time comes, they will support us. We need to have a vision that when a teacher is laid off it hurts my town. When a bus driver takes a pay cut, it affects my family. When a city clerk is asked to take a furlough day, my standard of living goes down. If we don’t make the connections the forces of ‘divide and conquer’ will win. And I guarantee if we don’t start fighting for these folks, they won’t care about saving Saturday mail delivery.
I’ve already heard it from my family members and neighbors. These are hard working folks who don’t have the benefits of a union job. As the tax base of our cities, counties, and states is rapidly shrinking, the knee jerk reaction is to blame the “lavish lifestyle” of the union public worker. It is a myth, as I’m sure you agree. Or, maybe, you are right now sipping cognac on your 60 foot yacht in the middle of the Aegean Sea.
But the afore-mentioned right-wing myth makers know it’s a powerful talking point. By attacking public workers, they can demonize “Big Labor” and “Big Government” at the same time. But let’s not forget the real reason that we’re in the worst recession since the Great Depression, with cities and states reeling from shrinking tax revenues. It’s the games the Wall Street Banksters played with our economy. To add insult to injury, our tax dollars bailed them out and now public workers are being blamed for the mess.
This is turning out to be a case of class warfare. In the past, we have been called “union thugs” for fighting for a decent standard of living. Instead of shunning that moniker, I’ve decided to wear it as a badge of honor.
My wife wears a shirt proclaiming “International Troublemakers and Boat-Rockers Union.” Get active, get connected, and if Daniel ever runs for office please give him your vote. He doesn’t think you make too much money.
P.S. If you see Daniel around town, tell him “thanks” for all the kind words about letter carriers. If you see his trike outside Gusoline Alley, go in and buy him a can of Black Label. As Daniel would say, “None of the fancy stuff for me!”
John “Cementhead” Dick is an active member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 3126, Royal Oak, Mich.