Two days ago I had to engage with the US Postal Service, and Amtrak’s call center in a single day. It made me realize how badly labor unions have failed their missions.
The setting: A USPS office. Nine people waiting in line, one at the counter, and a USPS “worker” behind the counter. Its deathly quiet in here. The clients are all either staring at their phones or staring blankly at the walls. The “worker” behind the high counter is staring at her screen, and using a hunt & peck method of typing on the keyboard. She has made no recognition of the people waiting in line. She asks some muted questions of the person at the counter and she goes back to her hunt and peck attack on the keyboard. Quietly, an old man who has not shaved in a few days, wearing an ill-fitting USPS shirt ambles up to the counter and begins the process to take his place as a second “worker” behind the too high counter. No acknowledgement of the people waiting in line, no smile or any sort of emotion. Just a blank state at his computer screen as he starts to re-organize the things in his workspace.
I can not stand it. I have been in line for better than 4 minutes, the line is getting longer, it is silent as a coffin, and no one from the USPS has acknowledged the line of people (customers!) waiting to do business with the USPS. I cut the line, leaned over the counter and spoke loudly into the vast open space behind the two counter “workers”, “IS THERE A MANAGER AVAILABLE?”. No response from the two counter workers or from anyone else who was in the building. I turned directly to the old man working the counter (he is still in the process of setting up his workstation), “Is there anyone I can speak to?” He responded without making eye contact though I was a mere three feet from him, “She is still on break.” With that I turned and left and watched with pride as a few more of the people in line left with me.
USPS employees, who are part of a very powerful union, have incredible job security and benefits. There is no need for them to be smart, efficient, or pleasant towards clients. The USPS still has a large portion of the physical delivery industry here in the US. But they are dinosaurs and their unions have put their heads on the chopping blocks. Dinosaurs because they are acting as if the world has not changed from the 1950’s. As if tomorrow will be like today. As if customers do not have choices. And the unions are at fault because they used their power not to promote the best workers, but to protect the worst workers. Job security comes from continued learning, not defending yesterday’s knowledge. The world is not what it was and its not today what it will be tomorrow. The only constant is change. You can not stop change. So if you do not willingly change yourself to go along with the change in the outside world, the outside world will leave you behind.
As the USPS union members fight the coming end to Saturday deliveries and the overtime paychecks, don’t blame the competition or the USPS management. Blame your longtime protector the union. Shortsighted, protective policies can work in the short run, but never in the long run.