But now, the family business is in trouble.
There is a lot less mail these days, and job security is crumbling. Proposed cost-cutting measures that became public last week could eliminate 20 percent of the postal service workforce. The proposed cuts are the latest knock against a set of federal jobs that were once a trusted gateway to middle-class stability for families like Briscoe’s.
Across the nation, the postal service workforce has long reflected the makeup of America. The workforce is more than 50 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 21 percent black, according to figures compiled by Philip F. Rubio, an assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University who studies the postal service. Thirty-seven percent of its workers are female and about 1
4 are veterans.
In cities and small towns, postal jobs have long been respected jobs that could provide a stable income for a family. The American Postal Workers Union puts the average salary at $55,000.
“To get a job at the postal service meant an entrée into the middle class,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor who studies labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley. “For generations of Americans, it was the route to sending their kids to college, to having a decent life.”
For decades, the U.S. post service also was one of the nation’s largest employers, said Nancy Pope, the curator of postal history at the Smithsonian. The postal service employs 560,000, but the number is on the decline.
The appeal of postal jobs grew in 1970 after 200,000 USPS employees went on strike in protest of low wages and poor benefits. They won a 14 percent salary increase that year. By the 1980s, there were clauses banning layoffs, which guaranteed workers a job in the service even if their position was eliminated.
“It was the kind of job that, if you got it, you got to keep it,” Pope said.
In rural areas, being a postmaster was the next best thing to being mayor of the town. “It was the job to have,” she said. “And if you are a rural carrier, you know everybody's business.”
In urban areas, the jobs were especially important to African Americans, who were hired by the post office as early as the 1860s. Many major cities — including Charleston, S.C., Little Rock and New Orleans — had African American postmasters during Reconstruction, according to the National Postal Museum.
Later, the postal service was resegregated, along with the rest of the federal government. But between 1961 and 1966, the postal service became the single largest employer of African Americans in the country. Almost one out of 10 employees was black.