From the Pony Express Post Office To The U. S. Postal Service of the 21st Century Part Two
By: Bob Gersztyn
All Photography: Copyright Bob Gersztyn
After I made regular at the Royal Oak, Michigan GMF (General Mail Facility), in the Summer of 1985, I bid on a graveyard shift job from 2030 hrs. to 0500 hrs., which I got and it worked out perfectly for me. If I got to bed by 6:00 AM I would be up at 12 Noon to spend time with the family and eat before I had to go back. After I was in my second year, we knew that we wanted to move back to the West Coast, because that’s where our heart was at. I sent letters out in early 1986 to GMF’s in Sacramento, California, as well as Eugene, Salem and Portland, Oregon. Salem, Oregon contacted me and I accepted their offer and was to report for work on July 5, 1986.
I worked at the Salem, Oregon 973 GMF from July 1986 until I retired in May 2004, as a mail handler. During the 18 years that I worked at the Salem office, the post office I went through many changes along with the postal service. The U.S.P.S. had already gone through many changes since I first began working in Birmingham, Michigan, which were necessitated as a result of the strike in March 1970. The strike took place after the postal reorganization act was passed by Congress and the U. S,. Postal Service was created for the first time, with a board of governors headed up by the postmaster general, like the corporate business model. They in turn were ultimately governed by a postal committee in Congress, so any major changes like postage increases, pay raises, major expenditures, exceeding the budget and downsizing had to be approved by the committee and voted on in Congress.
The post office was guaranteed by the constitution of the United States and everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster General.. However, most people do not know that initially the post office was controlled by whatever political party was in power and everyone from the Postmaster General to your ordinary postman was subject to political appointment and vulnerable to election results. As I mentioned earlier President Garfield was responsible for implementing the civil service exam system that based appointments on merit rather than political payback. So now it became an entirely new entity that used the existing one as it transformed itself.
The lesson that Nixon and the political powers learned by the strike was that you can’t send novices in to do work that requires extensive training. At the time of the strike in March 1970 the old post office was completely manual in sorting the mail, which required as long as 3 months of training to become proficient at, with a 90% failure rate. So automation in the post office was born out of necessity rather than just innovation. When I got to Los Angeles they were talking about the post office of the future, which would be comprised of machines that would sort the mail right down the individual carrier routes. The mail carriers would no longer have to take 3 hours to sort their mail, but would receive it in order of delivery, which would allow the routes to increase in size, therefore reducing the amount of mail carriers needed to deliver the mail.
When I came back to the post office in 1984 they were just beginning the 2nd generation of letter sorting machines. The first generation were begun before I quit in 1976 and were called LSM’s (Letter Sorting Machines). The way that most worked was you had 12 positions with 9 digit keyboards and an operator at each console with 2 people pulling the sorted mail from the back of the machines and putting it into the carrier routed trays. They would rotate positions every half hour and the goal was to sort 60 letters a minute. The old manual way averaged 20 letters per minute, but when the new OCR (Optical Character Reader) began to be implemented it was capable of sorting over 600 letters per minute, with only 2 operators. However, the OCR was new and began to be used in the largest plants first, to test it out and along with the OCR came the BCS (Bar Code Sorter).
They had just received the first OCR and BCS at the Troy, Michigan SCF 480 plant when I started working there in November 1984 and when I arrived in Salem, Oregon in July 1986 they were talking about getting one by the end of the year. They had 6 LSM’s in Michigan, but only had 2 in Salem, since the population was much less. It really didn’t matter to me, because I was a mail handler and not a clerk and clerks ran the automated sorters. I mainly worked on the dock loading and unloading trucks with mail coming and going everywhere to and from SCF 973 cities and other SCF offices like Portland, Eugene, Seattle, San Francisco, Bend, Salt Lake City and dozens of others.
Over the 18 years that I worked at Salem, until I retired in 2004, I had a variety of jobs that I bid on covering nearly every mail handler position. Even if I didn’t bid on a job, I would sometimes have to do it if I was the only one available who knew how to do it. This was the case with being the Dock Tech. When a mail handler performed the job as a dock tech it was level 5 pay, but when a clerk did it as an expeditor, it was level 6. However, they are both one in the same job. There was supposed to be a level 6 clerk expeditor with a Level 5 mailhandler group leader, but in Salem the clerks relinquished their position and allowed the mailhandlers to completely handle the dock.
The dock is its own world at a mail processing facility, with dock workers are separate from inside workers and in some of the larger facilities consider inside workers consider them as a lower caste. The dock is intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with it, and in some offices the supervisors won’t ever go to the dock unless they are called. I learned to be an expeditor in Michigan, because I had to fill in for one for 2 hours, until the midnight shift began. Initially I volunteered to learn the job, after no one else wanted it. This should have been my first clue that it was once again a mistake to volunteer. However, it was the reason why they wanted me to come to Salem, because Kent Corwin, the weekend dock tech was going to be off for a year because of some medical issue.
When I got to Salem I began on tour III and Kevin McGrory was the tour superintendent. I worked in 010 breakdown and assisted on the dock as needed, except for Saturday and Sunday, when I was the only person on the dock until 2200 hrs. and was responsible for all the incoming and outgoing mail for the 973 zip code. Sure a supervisor was ultimately in charge and sitting in the office inside, but unless there was a problem the dock tech was on their own. I made regular in only 2 months and ended up as the equipment operator on tour I, a year later, with Ron Francisco as the tour supervisor.
I channeled my frustrations from leaving the ministry into power lifting during the 1980’s, until I had a couple of serious injuries and operations. Then I decided to concentrate on photography, since that was my passion during the 1970’s. I photographed the power lifting meets that I lifted in and sold prints to interested competitors. I wanted to shoot rock concerts so I tried to get connected with a publication and ended up being hired by the Pentacle Theater as their house photographer for the year of 1991. Since I was working the 2330 to 0800 graveyard shift at the post office at the time, I had no problem being available to photograph the evening rehearsals. Then I processed the film and developed prints to hang in the lobby, along with selling prints to the actors and director, if they wanted them.
Then, as if an answer to prayer or fanaticizing, one day in 1993 a connection to rock concert press credentials showed up at the Salem post office, in the form of a transfer from New Jersey named John Gordon. John was a “Deadhead” and claimed that he had connections to the Grateful Dead business office, that ran everything. He wanted me to go with him to see the Dead play in Eugene, Oregon and gave me the connection’s phone number. I ended up photographing the show from the press pit, with a milk crate to elevate me, shoulder to shoulder with photographers from Rolling Stone and the Oregonian. I thought that it was ironic that the Grateful Dead were the band that got me started in music journalism, after I found out that Phil Lesh, the bass player worked for the post office in San Francisco, when the Dead were starting out and still needed day jobs to pay the rent.
The post office was always going through some sort of restructuring or reorganization, as it continued to try and keep up with technological progress. One of them took place in 1992 when (Carvin’) Marvin Runyon became the postmaster general and completely restructured the SCF offices and took the top position away from the city postmaster that the plant was located in and created a new position called the plant manager. Postal employees from every craft and managerial position were relocated, as part of the reorganization.
I became the equipment operator on tour I in the beginning of 1988, with Dale Brockelman the dock tech. My job was to drive the forklift and mule to load and unload mail to and from SCF 973. The dock had 22 dock stalls, but at the time of the busiest morning dispatch there were no more than a dozen in use. Only the 1st 6 stalls were deep enough for semi trailers, the rest were for small bobtails, other than the last 3, which were normally used for the large city bobtails. I did that job for 6 years until Dale Brockelman became the Tour III dock tech and I became the Tour I dock tech in 1995. I kept the job for a little over a year, and then bid on the city belt inside the building.
The city belt job began at 2200 hrs. and ended at 0630 hrs. The job was sorting all the SPR’s (small parcels and large enveloped that were kicked out of the automated machinery. The breakdowns were for the city routes of 97301, 02 & 06, 03 & 05, 07, 08 and 09, along with large holdouts, like Willamette University, Statehouse, Rehab and about a dozen others. The first city dispatch was at 0500 hrs., until the auxiliary DCU (Detached Carrier Unit) office was built for the Hollywood and City carriers, which left at 0300 hrs.. I kept that job until 1998 when I got a chance to bid on a split shift job that was 3 days Sat, Sun and Mon. on tour II, from 0600 hrs. to 1430 hrs. and 2 days, Thurs. and Frid., working Midnight to 0830 hrs.. That job involved mainly working on the dock as the dock tech on the weekends, setting up the areas inside on Monday and working in area any that I was needed on Thursday and Friday. Over the years I leaned and performed every mail handler job that existed at the post office in Salem, Oregon.
The post office was my day job, as they say, but I never considered it my purpose in life. It was just the way that I paid the bills as I lived my life the way that I wanted. I was married and had 7 children, which took much of my time when I wasn’t working. However, the reason why I worked the graveyard shift for 15 years was because the only thing that you do between Midnight and 0800 hrs. is sleep, so if I could do that during the day, when my kids were in school, then I could spend time with them in the evening before I went to work.
After the Grateful Dead concert in 1994 things began to move quickly in the rock & roll journalism world. By 1995 I obtained press credentials with a Grateful Dead magazine called Duprees Diamond News. When Jerry Garcia the leader of the Grateful Dead, died in August 1995, it didn’t diminish their popularity but made them even bigger legends. For the rest of the decade I became a rock & roll photographer and journalist for a half dozen publications and was published by another dozen at least once. I photographed, reviewed and interviewed artists ranging from bo Diddley, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Alanis Morissette, the Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against The Machine, U2 and the Jars of Clay to name some of over a hundred artists and festivals that I covered before I retired in 2004. At the same time that I obtained complimentary tickets, back stage passes and photo passes, I brought my children and friends that worked at the post office with me to enjoy the show and spend time with them experiencing something that we all loved, music.
In 2004 I retired from the post office but from the early 1990’s to the time that I retired I took thousands of photographs of my friends and co-workers at the Salem, Oregon mail processing plant. I mentioned earlier about the continual reorganization of the postal service. Our SCF 973 office was reduced in status to an AO (Associate Office) instead. during the late 1990’s. Then in 2013, 9 years after I retired the entire office was shut down as downsizing and consolidation continued. All the mail processing equipment and processing employees were moved up to the Portland, Oregon facility. The unions are always fighting with the fiscal conservatives about privatization of the postal service and step by step and piece by piece changes have taken place over the decades since I went on strike and walked out with the Birmingham, Michigan mail carriers in March 1970.
More postal photographs by Bob Gersztyn