Yesterday was a milestone for me. Not a day of sadness as much as a day of reflection. January 12, 2015, was the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. His demise came suddenly. A massive heart attack, then – poof! – he disappeared from our lives.
I remember vividly getting the phone call from Big John. I was setting up my route and my phone kept ringing over and over. I was too busy to answer the damn thing but something didn’t feel right. I answered the fourth time John called. “You have to get to the hospital right away. Something’s wrong with Bob.” I dropped my mail and rushed to the emergency room. My heart sank and then shattered into a million shards when the doctor told me, “There was nothing we could do.” I felt like an orphan.
Bob “Moses” Dick was a proud union man. He had worked at the Ford Utica Trim Shop for thirty years. From 1963 to 1993 he sewed seats for the automobile giant. He was not a fan or a great example of what you might call the “work ethic.” He told me many times as I was growing up that his bosses and even the Ford family only cared about what he could do for them, and he was sure enough gonna return the favor. He said “I got a contract with those folks. I do my thirty years sewin’ those goddam car seats, and in return I have a decent paying job and a secure retirement. I don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like me. Don’t ever fool yourself, son. You’re just a number to them. A cog in the wheel. I don’t give them any more than I have to.”
He would regale me and my brother with stories about working at the plant. He was outrageously honest, and claimed to have the worst discipline record at the Trim Shop. His temper was legendary, and if he thought a supervisor was acting prickly it was not unusual for him to threaten the health of his bosses. According to Pops, at one discipline meeting his exasperated steward exclaimed, “We have no defense for his actions. We plead insanity!” He loved the UAW, but I am not sure the feeling was completely mutual.
He was proud when I became a letter carrier on October 7, 2000. The first question he asked me was if I had joined the union. He loved reading my “Dicktations,” and we had him added to our mailing list so that he would receive his own personal copy. He said something to me about my writing that I will never forget. He said I was profound. It was not his style to talk in that way, and all I could say was “Thanks.” His death was premature at the age of 70, but at least he was able to retire at the age of 54 and enjoy 16 years of a Ford pension.
Much has changed in the five short years since my father died. Michigan is now a right-to-work (for less) state, and America is sliding backwards from the promises it had made to previous generations. The middle class is stagnating economically and the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest is dramatic. Many companies no longer make promises to their workers. My employer, the United States Postal Service, still does. But I have to wonder, “For how much longer?”
Our Postmaster General, Patrick R. Donahoe, is retiring in February after a nearly 40-year postal career. He started as a mail clerk and worked his way up to the head honcho position of the Service. At a recent speech at the National Press Club honoring his retirement, I was shocked to hear these comments from him: “Most young people aren’t looking for a single employer over the course of their careers. In today’s world, does it really make sense to offer the promise of a government pension to a 22-year-old who is just entering the workforce? And how reliable is that promise?”
Postmaster Donahoe went on to say what the future of the mail would look like. He said, “It will not be a person putting a piece of mail in a blue mailbox, but rather a far leaner organization, with a smaller workforce and less generous health care and pension benefits, that competes for e-commerce business, online advertising and other Internet based services.” It is hard to imagine these comments from a man who spent his entire career at one organization. Guess he wasn’t wearing his party hat at this retirement dinner!
Postmaster Buzz Kill made some other parting shots at the postal unions for single-mindedly fighting to preserve jobs and benefits, and the myopic shortsightedness of the mailers for trying to keep postal rates affordable. Rumor has it he kicked a dog and pushed an old lady before the speech was over. For those of us who have been trying to understand the decisions and direction this man has taken the Postal Service over the last several years, this one speech wrapped it all up in a tidy package and put a bow on it. He is a true believer in the “New America,” where workers have no guarantees or contracts and bounce from job to job every few years. This is the philosophy of our very own Postmaster General.
In February, Megan Brennan will become the new Postmaster General. She has shattered the glass ceiling at L’Enfant Plaza and will become the first female to assume that position. I hope she has differing aspirations for what is possible for the United States Postal Service and its workers. We are the nation’s second largest employer, and we are vital to this nation’s economy. The “twenty somethings” I work with deserve a promise from our employer for the hard work they do every do. This is not a job; this is a profession and a career.
A photo of my old man sits on the shot glass shelf of the bar I have in my basement. I will do tonight as I have done many nights in the past; I will raise a glass of strong libation and toast to his memory and honor. The toast will be one of his favorites, and I will look at him with a salty tear in my eye: “God bless the union!” And for good favor: “Work Sucks!”
Photo: John Dick (courtesy of Jacqueline Dick)