It was business as usual inside the marbled lobby of the main D.C. post office last night as tellers issued stamps and weighed parcels for lines of impatient patrons who seemed little concerned about a possible postal strike or postal union demands.
But outside, along rain-puddled North Capitol Street where postal workers gather between shifts, the mood was somber and tense. "Everyone is on edge," said Ronald Turner, a union member who has worked for the postal service for 12 years. "Nobody knows exactly what to do. It's really scary."
The question was personal: If the unions negotiating with the government call for a strike, would you walk off the job?
"Our people don't want to strike," said union official Paul Johnson, who stopped by to meet a friend and offer a pep talk. "They don't want to lose their income or jobs and a lot of them feel responsible for getting the mail out. I don't think anyone in the city post office is willing to walk off the job."
There was talk of a strike here once before, back in 1970 when thousands of postal employes took part in a national wildcat strike -- everywhere but in Washington. Nobody walked out here, recalled postal official George C. Conrad. "You couldn't tell a strike was even happening."
"People didn't walk then," said Turner, "and now folks are wondering who is willing to walk, will you do it? Will the guy next to you?
"The postmaster general says he'll fire everyone who walks," exclaimed a heavyset postal worker who covered the identification badge dangling from his shirt pocket while talking to a reporter. "And I believe he'll do just that. He'll fire every one of us. I've heard they're already taking down troublemakers' names."
"Hey, man," exclaimed a fellow union member standing next to him."They can't do that. The key, man, is solidarity -- just like those dudes in Poland are preaching.
"If we stick together, there ain't no way they is going to fire 4,000 people. Man, nobody gonna do that. But we got to stick together, otherwise they gonna get us all."
"I got four babies and a wife to care for," replied the man who was still covering his badge, "And this is the best job I got."
Back in the lobby, it seemed that most patrons couldn't have cared less.
"I was really worried about the strike messing up my paycheck," said Jesse Lee Wallace. "But I got it now. It came the other day, but I came down here tonight to pay my bills.I don't care if there's a strike now 'cause I'll just tell those creditors the same thing everyone tells me when I have money coming: it's in the mail."
"It's the same old soup warmed over," said Willette Coleman with a shrug as she licked a stamp. "I mean, why waste your time worrying about a postal strike? It's just like gas, every week the price goes up."
Charles Devonshire, a construction worker, had not heard about the strike until he visited the post office last night. "At first I figured they were talking about the baseball strike and I didn't give a damn. Then, I heard someone talking about a new strike and I got worried. I thought they were talking about football and that would have been terrible." i
Miame Williams, who was waiting for the rain to stop before dashing to a friend's car, wasn't too concerned about a strike. "I call most of my friends on the telephone if I've got something to say. By the time the mail got there, it'd be old news."
Thelma Martin was less kind. "The post office is for the birds," she said. "The employes are rude. They think they are doing you a favor by waiting on you and they lose your mail, it's terrible."
"A postal strike?" grunted John Potter. "Why, it'd take three weeks before anyone realized it. The mail is too slow."
Only Sharon Baskerville, who spent her day licking stamps in order to mail out a report she had intended to send next week, had a kind word for the postal employes. "I saw the postmaster general on television and he was making so many threats. He didn't seem to have much concern for the workers, for the little guy."
Had Baskerville made those comments out back, the group of postal workers might have applauded. "All we want is a decent living," said the badge coverer. "People complain about the post office, but they're the dumb ones. You should see all the mail we get with a zip code that goes with someplace in Idaho on some letter going to Florida."
As he grumbled, other workers listened to the news on portable radios. "Anything new yet?" someone asked. Many in the group were willing to bet there would be a strike, others were giving odds against it. And throughout the conversation, the question remained: will you walk or stay?
For Turner, the question burned. "You get tired of threats," he said. "You're afraid, but you wonder. When is it time to take a stand?"