Down the tree-lined street we make our way. An elderly lady pulling a two-wheeled hamper, trying her best to keep pace with the middle-aged gent three strides in front of her who seems to be on a mission to get some sort of job accomplished. They both catch a glimpse of the paper bag, bulging with boxed and canned foods, sitting on the porch steps beneath the mailbox. “I see a bag,” the senescent one hollers to the other as he approaches the house. This is the ninth year that this duo has repeated this ritual. This day is May 11, 2013, the day of the National Association of Letter Carriers National Food Drive. It is the one day my mother walks my entire route with me and, just coincidentally, it is the one day of year that I am on my best behavior.
On one particular street that day, I pass a house that is overgrown by the passages of nature and time. A sense of melancholy surrounds the entire lot. A lone miniature scarecrow adorned in the colors of autumn is limply tied to what was once a flag holder. When the wind is blowing, the sad figure ever so gently bobs back and forth as if to tell me, “You think yourself immortal. Even you are in the fall of your life.” I flash back to a January day only four months previous.
A mailman completing his appointed rounds was what I was doing that cold sunny day in January. As I stuffed the mail into the last mailbox of my loop, I saw a screaming young figure dash across the street hollering at the top of her lungs. Pounding at the door of a neighbor’s house, and getting no response, the frail figure crumpled into the street in a ball of tears. I was only a few feet from my postal vehicle when my eyes told my brain what was happening, so I threw my satchel into my truck and ran over to help.
“I think my grandmother is dead inside the house,” the young lady sobbed. “I just came over to visit her and it looks horrible.” I pulled out my phone and called 911. As I tried to calm down her down, waiting for EMS to arrive, she told me, “I haven’t seen my grandmother in months. She doesn’t want anything to do with me or my family. The only reason I came over was to borrow a coat hanger because I locked my keys in my car three blocks away. I can’t believe this is happening.”
The police and EMS arrived. I stuck around because the cops asked me to. When the police finally came over to me, they asked me a few questions. Did I notice anything, did I smell anything, and did anything look suspicious? No, the old woman was a recluse and I saw her maybe twice in the last couple of years. I didn’t even know she had a family.
The gumshoes told me she had been dead for at least three, maybe four weeks. Apparent suicide, 20 bottles of empty vodka bottles strewn about the place. Drank herself to death. We see this all the time. Sad, no family to take care of her. The coppers are pretty matter of fact about this kind of thing. I thought to myself, yeah, sad that they are so matter of fact about death. Guess that’s why I’m a mailman.
I tell my mother this story as we walk by the house on Food Drive Day. There is nothing to say afterwards. We collect many bags of food and we finish the route before I get hollered at by my boss. It is a good day for both of us as well as the whole city of Royal Oak, Mich. Our city collected 28 tons of food in just one day for our local Salvation Army food bank. They tell us that our one-day food drive gives them enough food to sustain their food bank for four months. That is an amazing statistic. Nationwide, in one day, we collect over 70 million pounds of food for neighborhood food banks. On that day, I am most proud to be a member of the Labor community. As I reach for each bag of food and load it into my postal vehicle, I sense on the strongest level the connection between each of my patrons, the community in which I live and work, and my commitment to the principles of unionism.
And I don’t want to say just unionism. I want to talk about the precepts of social unionism. This is where the crossroads of unionism and social activism come together. Labor unions in this country are dying. There is no sugar coating that fact. Our union, the NALC, is losing members every year. Nationwide, organized labor consists of less than 12% of the workforce. Can we turn this around? I believe it is possible, but only with a major rethinking of our roles as union members and what it means to be a member of the working class.
We feel so proud and humbled on our Food Drive Day to be serving the community, and let me say the working class, by our efforts. I hope that in the coming year we can become more enlightened to engage in more social unionism by paying attention to the plights of the striking Walmart workers, the fight in the fast food industry to obtain a living wage, the defense against banks evicting folks unfairly, and the host of other social injustices brought against working people whether they are in a union or not. We are past the point of worrying about saving the labor movement. We need to save the working class.
If we don’t rethink our strategy, our noble goal of a Saturday Letter Carrier Food Drive will be a moot point. The community will no longer support Saturday delivery, because we did not support them when they asked for our help. We will have cut ourselves off from our family of fellow workers in our own narcissistic sense of what it means to be a “union” member. We will die in our own sad house, alone, with no one even caring to look for our corpse. The only thing left will be to clean up the empty vodka bottles.
Photo: Postal workers in Atco, N.J., at the end of their food drive, May 11. Stamp Out Hunger/Facebook