Letter carriers bear a heavy weight for all of us

ILCA, Second Place, Best Labor History Story

I hear the alarm. It’s the first sound in the morning. My leg extends to make the first muscular stretch of the day.  I hear that “pop.”  It’s an unfortunate, but familiar resonation. It comforts me because I know I am not dreaming.  I am still alive for another day. Pain is good that way; a reminder that this day is worth living.  My knees seem to have taken the brunt of my fifteen years of carrying mail, and both my right and left kneecaps is where that insidious, infernal “pop, pop, pop” explodes from. We live with it:  whether it is our knees, our backs, our feet, or our shoulders. It is the price we pay for carrying the US Mails for the United States Postal Service. At the age of 56, every day I feel a strong sense of honor and responsibility to walk my six miles a day representing a part of our Federal Government that has been around since the National Constitution of 1787.  I am proud, and every Letter Carrier today should be proud. We are walking in the footsteps of those that came before us.

I have a unique situation.  My wife, who I worked next to for many years, is a retired Letter Carrier. She carried the US mails for 31 years and pounded the same streets for more than 20 of those years. Since she retired, I have had the opportunity to take over the duties of delivering the mail to those same patrons. I am literally walking in her footsteps every day. Those sidewalks, those mailboxes, those door slots, my wife touched with her hands and feet every day for over two decades. And I am doing that now.  Quite amazing and humbling.  I hope to reach my retirement doing this route, just as Jackie did.  I am five years away from that furtive date, and I pray to the Gods of Arthritis every day.

Having a job with retirement benefits seems like such a basic idea.  You, as a worker, give 30 or 40 years of your most productive life to a company and you get something in return; a “thank you” in the form of a monthly dividend payment and benefits till the day you die. A just reward. But for workers today that is a fleeting promise. And for the Letter Carriers that came before us, it was a cause that was stained with much struggle, and even stained blood red with death.

Since its founding in 1889, the NALC had been lobbying unsuccessfully for some kind of annuity or pension for aging carriers, or as they were called then, “the superannuated carriers.”  In 1913, Postmaster General Burleson was adamantly opposed to any retirement benefits and the Postal Service had a callous program of firing any “old” carrier who could not keep up the pace.  A protest emerged in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1915.  The Fairmont postmaster, complying with Burleson’s strict instructions, fired an “old” letter carrier because he could no longer perform his job satisfactorily.  Furious at the postmaster, the remaining 25 employees decided to resign from their jobs at the same time.  All 25 workers were then immediately arrested and thrown in jail for striking against the federal government.

The jailed workers were shocked at the government’s reaction. They were not striking; they had simply quit their jobs. But the government persisted in prosecuting the case. Without money to pay for their defense, the carriers and clerks threw themselves on the mercy of the court. In turn, the court imposed fines ranging from $5 to $500 upon all but one of the 25 employees of the Postal Department.  The 25th worker, a Letter Carrier by the name of W.H. Fisher, had hanged himself in his cell the night before the trial.

NALC persisted, and its prolonged efforts finally bore fruit. On May 22, 1920, the Civil Service Retirement Act (CSRS) became law, and for the first time, Letter Carriers received retirement benefits.  Two weeks later, on June 5th carriers received their first sick leave benefits.  Fifty years later, after the Great Postal Strike of 1970, our nation’s Letter Carriers achieved collective bargaining. But the one fact I never realized until I read the history of our Union is that someone gave their life in the quest for our retirement benefits.  Jailed simply for quitting a job and called a criminal. That is the unwritten history of our country and I will make darn sure that my children and grandchildren learn that history from me, because I know they will not learn that in an American History class.

I want to thank the writers and researchers for the book Carriers in a Common Cause, a history of NALC. Our union has done a great job of promoting the history of America’s Letter Carriers and I have stolen much of the material for this article from that masterpiece. Or let’s say borrowed.  I hope to join my wife and many of my comrades one day in the ranks of the retired letter carriers. I will fight for the hope that in my grandchildren’s future there will never be another W.H. Fisher swinging from the end of a noose.

Photo: Postal workers strike, March 1970.  |  National Postal Museum


John Dick
John Dick

Award winning writer John "Cementhead" Dick is a retired letter carrier and proud member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 3126, Royal Oak, Mich.