Peter Pringle's America: This job could be the death of you

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The Independent Online
THE neighbourhood postman is dressed for the hot weather in Bermuda shorts, long socks and a pith helmet. His seasonal change is like the coming of a migrating bird, a sign of life constantly on the move, yet reassuringly the same. In the suburbs, where these humble footmen provide the average American's only daily connection with the federal government, you can almost hear the citizens bursting into 'America, the Beautiful' as the friendly figure strides down the garden path.

What could be more uplifting of the national spirit today, Memorial Day, when Americans remember all those who gave their lives for their country? Yet Americans are looking at their letter carriers somewhat askance; it turns out the seemingly peace-loving postmen are more prone than the average American worker to outbursts of violence, even of mass murder, while on the job.

Thirty-four postal workers have been shot dead by colleagues in seven different states in the last decade. This month alone two were killed and three wounded. Just before 9am on what is now called Black Thursday, a postal employee in Michigan walked into the garage where the mail vans were parked and opened fire with an automatic rifle, killing his supervisor and wounding two co-workers before taking his own life. Hours later in California, a worker from the sorting room killed a letter carrier and wounded a clerk.

Various reasons are given for postmen going berserk. Sorting letters is a tedious and unsatisfying task, and hi- tech communications systems make those who do it prone to lay- offs in a shaky economy. But it is not really the boredom of the job, or its insecurity, that turns these postmen into murderers. The trigger for such violence seems to be the way post offices are run.

The tone of moral uprightness, efficiency and devotion set by the postmen in their summer attire conceals the service's troubled history. For a long time, American postmen have worked under an authoritarian rule which treats employees more like recruits at an army boot camp than members of an essential public service. Bullying supervisors eager to meet new standards of efficiency have been fostering anger and resentment.

Because the idea of a violent postman is so contrary to his image, the post office is the focus of government and congressional inquiries. Murders among the postal service's 700,000 employees - the largest civilian workforce in the US - are seven times the average. But the killings signal a growing trend of violence in the workplace generally. The FBI estimates at least two murders a month are committed by disgruntled employees against their employers or supervisors. Homicides in the workplace are the third leading cause of job-related deaths, after car and machine accidents. The killings are highest among sales workers, followed by service industry workers, executives and managers, labourers, transport workers, and craftworkers. The professions registered the lowest murders. Guns are used in 75 per cent of the homicides, most of which occur in the American South, the areas of greatest unemployment.

Television news and chat shows have begun featuring the victims of workplace shootings. Last week a man described on television how he had been shot three times by a worker who went crazy in a print shop. The talk-show guest had known the killer for 24 years and never suspected that anything was wrong. The killer came to work during the morning coffee break, took out an AK-47 and started shooting. Then he left the room to reload, returned and emptied a second magazine. The most astonishing thing, the victim said, was that his co-workers were so stunned they never moved, or screamed, or made any noise at all. They just sat there in disbelief and got shot.

Postal workers complain their conditions could provoke these outbursts from the sanest employees. They speak of unbearable tension in overmanaged offices, where it is not uncommon to find one barrack- room-style supervisor for every 10 employees. Workers must time themselves by a punch clock when they move from one task to another, go to lunch or use the lavatory. They must punch the 'OL' button for 'Out to lunch', and on return push the 'IL' button for 'In from lunch'. Anyone who is late is 'Awol', and minutes off the job are counted as 'LWOP' - leave without pay.

It is the drill sergeant's credo, and many in the post office recognise it only too well. After the Vietnam war, the service made a point of accepting veterans, especially the disabled. Many saw it as an extension of service to their country, and they tend to resent more than most the day they are laid off, threatened with termination or denied a promotion.

It is the kind of management system that drove the postmen to organise a nationwide strike in 1970, the first against the US government in its history. The postmen won the right to bargain collectively with the government, but although postal workers now have good average rates of pay and benefits, they are still upset.

A recent survey reported only 24 per cent derive much satisfaction from their work and only 14 per cent felt their contribution was recognised. Supervisors still get their jobs through patronage, just as they always have; and they still behave in outrageous ways. In Philadelphia, an especially power- crazy postmaster threatened to dismiss any member of his 'troops' who failed to say in advance when they were going to be sick.

Reform is promised to make the postman's life more civilised, but what a shame the US government never paid attention to what G K Chesterton recognised. 'Nobody ever notices the postman somehow,' he wrote. 'Yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.'