Ordinarily, the weather triggers more conversation than any other topic. This week, however; the United States Postal Service appears to have nudged the weather out of first place.
Tomorrow night is the "bargaining deadline" in the contract talks between union leaders and USPS management. As these lines are being written, the two sides are nowhere near agreement, and the big question is: What will happen if they don't agree by midnight Thursday?
Will the postal workers defy the law and strike, as 200,000 of them did in 1970? Will those who strike be granted amnesty and rehired when the strike is over, as was done eight years ago? Or will the Public Service Research Council's lawsuit force the government to obey its own antistrike rules for postal workers? Will there be a slowdown instead of a strike? Will we all turn into pumpkins at midnight?
Nobody knows the answers, so the USPS is now the subject of much comment, some of it uncomplimentary. Berny Krug, for example, has forwarded to me a local letter sent to him in an envelope on which his address was accurately typed.
"This letter was delivered in nine days" Berny advises. "The postal workers threaten to slow down their service if their demands aren't met. The only way they can slow down this kind of service is to put it into reverse."
W. M. O'C. offered a variation of this theme. "Postal workers are threatening a slowdown," he wrote. "If it takes place, how will we know?"
If Berny thinks nine-day service is slow, he ought to have a chat with Jerry Cottrell of Fairfax. When Jerry was in the Army in 1962, he sent a postcard to his parents in Missouri. They received it a few days ago - after only 16 years.
Ruth Barber of Herndon could tell Berny what she went through trying to find her paycheck.Ruth and her husband moved to a new address almost a year ago, and filled out the proper "change of address" cards at that time. However, the Postal Service seems to have a mental block on the Barber move. It keeps sending things to the old address, and from there to the nether regions, apparently.
After days of heartache and frustration in chasing down that elusive paycheck, Ruth finally got a phone call informing her that the check had been delivered to her former address. "The check arrived in Herndon on Friday the 30th," she says, "but was returned to the regional post office in Merrifield. There it was stamped July 1 and returned to Herndon. Herndon immediately sent it back to Merrifield, and Merrifield returned it to Herndon again. When the postmaster intercepted it, it was on a truck, ready for another trip back to Merrifield."
But the USPS does have its boosters, and for good reason. Elaine T. Damelin of Hillcrest Heights offers an example. She called her dentist in Chevy Chase at 4:30 on a recent afternoon. At 5 he put an x-ray picture in the mail. It was delivered in Hillcrest Heights at 10 the next morning.
Lisa Strnad (I hope our proofreaders don't assume I've misspelled her name) is a postal worker. She is dismayed to find that many people think USPS workers are "a bunch of lazy bums" because clerks visible behind a counter don't step forward to open additional windows and speed up long lines. The decision not to open additional windows is "clearly a management decision," says Lisa. She adds:
"Our office was recently visited by a survey team. These people stated that the rule of thumb for determining how many window clerks are needed at a given time is that there should be five customers waiting in line for each window clerk assigned to the front counter. Our office has now adopted this policy and our supervisor refuses to give us additional window support. It does not matter if the line is all the way to the lobby door and the clerks at the windows are engaged in lengthy transactions; no additional help is given." The managerial people who decree such service aren't there to hear customer complaints, but "we are visible, and the customers take their frustrations out on us."
I am not in a position to judge how much blame to assign to managers, how much to rank-and-filers, how much to customers who expect too much service for the money they pay, and how much to circumstances beyond anybody's control. I have only one firm opinion about this subject: I think laws ought to be obeyed and enforced. If the law prohibits strikes agaist USPS, the president ought to have the courage to enforce that law.