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On the morning of November 14, 1991, recently fired letter carrier Thomas McIlvane entered the post office facility in Royal Oak, Michigan, walked to the area where management sits, and shot his former bosses. He killed four people, wounded four others, and then killed himself. It was not the first nor the last time a postal worker murdered his coworkers, nor was it the deadliest. But it was one of the most illustrative events of the "going postal" phenomenon.
By now, Americans are all too familiar with the pattern of media coverage after a mass shooting, much more so than they were in 1991. A common feature has always been the news interviews with coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances of the shooter in an attempt to create some kind of profile of why this person committed such an atrocity.
Perhaps it is only in retrospect, having seen tragedies like this unfold so many more times, that I could truly appreciate how unusual those post-shooting interviews were in Royal Oak. Instead of the typical attempts to reckon with an unthinkable event, nobody at Royal Oak seemed to think it was so unthinkable. In fact, many of them had been waiting for something like this.
"When I heard there was a shooter, in my mind it could have been anyone," one postal worker told a news crew shortly after the shooting. Then, he said something you almost never hear anyone say after a mass shooting.
"I understand why he did it."
As I talked to some of my coworkers about this week's edition—who doesn't love someone slacking them about 30-year-old mass shootings?—I learned not everyone knows the term "going postal" refers to actual events. In the late 80s and early 90s, a spate of shootings by disgruntled postal workers became the primary way most Americans thought of the post office. Until Columbine, any outburst of violence was framed through the lens of "going postal." But if you grew up in a post-Columbine world, "going postal" generally means "going berserk" regardless of whether a violent act took place. Gradually, it even became a joke.
In the meantime, a series of investigations into the post office's workplace uncovered a culture that not only contributed to those shootings but many viewed as the main culprit. There were more than a dozen General Accounting Office (GAO) reports on labor-management relations at the post office and a full House investigation and hearings (the USPS Inspector General's office, whose reports I have frequently cited in this newsletter, wasn't created until 1996).
The findings of these investigations were scandalous. Time and again, they found the postal service fostered a broken and dangerous relationship between bosses and workers at best, a cruel and abusive one at worst. They found everyone knew the problem but no one could (or would) fix it. And they found that attempts to replicate small but successful experiments disappeared into a morass of bureaucratic complacency and petty fighting between USPS management and the various worker unions. The country largely averted its gaze from this story. And when it didn't, it was turning "Going Postal" it into a late night comedy punchline.
To be perfectly clear, none of this is meant to excuse or condone the actions of any of the shooters. Ultimately, these dozen or so individuals—the number of these incidents fluctuates depending on exactly how one defines a workplace shooting—were a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of postal workers who found it agonizing to go to work every day. Most of them did not deal with this difficult situation by murdering anyone. Many of them simply kept suffering, afraid to leave their job because the post office was one of the few employers willing to provide middle-class wages with benefits to workers without a college education or any trade skill set.
It is easy to be fatalistic about the shootings and conclude that troubled people will always do troubling things. But the post office shootings are worth exploring again. Not because those dozen or so people committed murder, but because of the hundreds of thousands of other postal workers who didn't. The post office's workplace culture impacted more than 810,000 Americans at the time (yes, the USPS now employs some 180,000 fewer people than it did in 1994). Postal workers tried to get people to care, but they almost never could.
In recent years, thanks in large part to the rise of the gig economy and a resurgence in the organized labor movement, Americans have started to care a bit more about the conditions under which we work. And the post office ought to be no exception to that re-examination.
So today is going to be the first of a two-part series about working at the post office. This issue will be about the lessons learned from the postal shootings of the "going postal" era. The second will be about whether any of this has gotten better in the years since and what that says about the nature of labor in modern America. If you work for the post office and have thoughts for the second part after reading this issue, email me. I'd love to hear from you.
One final disclaimer: It's impossible to talk about working for the post office as a singular, unified experience. Individual postmasters and supervisors play a huge role in determining whether that specific office is a good or bad place to work. What we'll be discussing here are troubling trends that have repeatedly emerged in the USPS's history. But by no means are they universal. Just like every other huge organization, the USPS has good bosses and bad bosses. Unfortunately, it has had an awful lot of bad ones.
On August 20, 1986, USPS employee Patrick Sherrill killed 14 co-workers and wounded six before killing himself at the Edmond, Oklahoma post office. While there had been shootings at other post offices earlier in the decade, the scale of this one—it was one of America's worst mass shootings in history at the time—brought unprecedented attention to the USPS. The Edmond shooting is widely regarded as the beginning of the "going postal" era.
After the shooting, National Association of Letter Carriers president Vincent Sombrotto (who had been a key leader of the 1970 postal workers strike) gave an unconventional post-shooting statement to the Washington Post. "While we are shocked and dismayed by what happened and offer our prayers to those surviving victims now in the hospital, we cannot help but believe that Mr. Sherrill was pushed over the brink by irresponsible and coercive management policies by the Postal Service in the Oklahoma City region."
While many at the time interpreted this as union posturing—a USPS spokesman called it "absolute balderdash"—a GAO report published three years later specifically on labor relations in the Oklahoma City area, which included Edmond, proved Sombrotto right.
For 16 years, relations between bosses and workers had been "poor" in the Oklahoma City region, the report found, but worsened in 1986 when "new management tightened its control over the workforce by implementing stricter policies and practices."
This 16-year timeline would date the problems back to the founding of the USPS in 1970. It's no coincidence that these long-standing conflicts between efficiency and harassment started to bubble up from the surface in the mid-1980s. Although the USPS was formally created in 1970, it received steadily reducing government subsidies for about a decade to ease it into self-sufficiency. The last of those subsidies came in 1982. From then on out, the USPS has been under constant fiscal and political pressure to operate more efficiently, to do more with less, to automate, and deliver on its universal service mandate while paying for itself. Since all price increases needed to be approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission and a unionized workforce means mass layoffs aren't practical, the only lever the USPS has to pull is to squeeze existing workers as much as possible. That burden often falls on supervisors and middle managers, a situation one manager described to GAO as "a pressure cooker." This manager added they "do not have time to practice human relations skills."
The best illustration of the different worldviews workers and management had came in an anecdote about a San Francisco post office. The workers there filed a class action grievance against their station managers for widespread harassment. The GAO report said managers used harassment to "push carriers to meet productivity goals." But management said they were just trying to "promote operational efficiency."
As a general policy, supervisors punished workers without confronting them first or giving them an informal opportunity to improve. They retaliated against workers who filed union grievances and ignored contract provisions meant to protect workers from abusive management practices. Managers also obstructed union stewards from making legitimate union requests and moving through the grievance process, resulting in a general feeling among workers and union officials that they had no legitimate recourse against management's increasingly abusive behavior. After Sombrotto's remark to the Washington Post, management and labor officials stopped speaking to one another until high-level USPS officials intervened the following year. The breaking point was not when an employee murdered 14 people, but when, a few months later, there was a toxic chemical spill at one facility and management didn't tell anyone.
This pattern of new managers coming in, instituting harsh new policies, and deteriorating relationships between labor and management was an oft-repeated one across the country's post offices. Reviewing 145 discipline cases between 1985 and 1988, as well as interviewing 128 supervisors, the GAO found managers could and would punish the same acts completely differently.
The discrepancies were both within individual regions and when comparing regions to one another. Within one region, managers issued a warning for a second offense of absenteeism about 40 percent of the time, but a seven-day suspension 51 percent of the time, meaning it was roughly a toss-up whether you got suspended or not for the same infraction.
And punishments varied wildly between regions. In the Atlanta region, 92 percent of cases of absenteeism with one prior warning got a written warning. But in the Dallas region, those same cases would be issued that punishment just two percent of the time, instead getting suspensions or removals 96 percent of the time.
And some punishments could be straight up draconian. The GAO found a case of one employee suspended for seven days because he didn't "refrain from talking in a loud and disruptive manner" and for "using the word 'damn' while talking to himself." The suspension was eventually overturned by an arbitrator who noted another employee in the same facility that same day got only a written warning for a similar infraction.
During this period, the word "authoritarian" is repeatedly used to describe USPS management, sometimes by USPS leadership itself. In 1981, Postmaster General William Bolger announced an initiative to transform the USPS's management philosophy "away from the traditional, authoritarian style of management and toward increasing worker involvement in finding solutions to problems in the work place." Thirteen years later, a management official told GAO investigators "upper management should not expect a culture change quickly because 'employees have been used to an authoritarian whip them into shape mentality'"" The going philosophy among USPS management, according to outgoing Postmaster General Anthony Frank in 1992, was "I ate dirt for 20 years, now it's your turn to eat dirt."
One particularly problematic division, the GAO found, was Indianapolis. After a structural reorganization which installed new management, disciplinary cases doubled. According to the GAO, there were 2,700 disciplinary actions against 4,000 workers over a two-year period, about five times the national average. But because a spot-check of these punishments were found to generally be within USPS's broad guidelines, at least technically speaking, the GAO concluded in 1990 there was "no basis for employee concerns about widespread mistreatment of employees."
As a reward for his performance in Indianapolis, supervisor Dan Presilla was promoted to Postmaster in Royal Oak, Michigan.
One of the managers Presilla brought with him to Royal Oak was Chris Carlisle. Through subsequent investigations, a clear portrait of Carlisle emerges as a workplace bully who used the shield of USPS disciplinary procedures to pick on subordinates. In Indianapolis, Carlisle and an employee got into a shouting match which led to Carlisle jabbing his finger into the employee's chest, attempting to provoke him into a fireable offense (an arbitrator later ruled against Carlisle and the USPS). Carlisle would "stand behind an employee and berate him or her hoping to provoke a response from this employee. If the employee then accosted Carlisle, he would discipline the employee." Carlisle was also heard telling people he didn't care if his decision to fire employees ultimately got overturned by an arbitrator, because the grievance process took so long during which time "the employee might lose his house or his family during the waiting period."
One of the reasons Carlisle not only wasn't fired but got promoted was because of a basic bureaucratic inefficiency. Royal Oak was in a different division than Indianapolis, so higher ups weren't aware of what Presilla was bringing with him in the form of four of his favorite supervisors. This resulted in a situation much like what happens with police officers, where ones disciplined or fired in one department simply transfer to another one, a problem a GAO report later found was widespread.
The GAO found that problems like this were rampant, but rarely went into detail on any one facility. The 376-page House report delved into Royal Oak because there was a mass shooting there and local politicians had amassed a 621-page file on problems at the facility. It is one of the only in-depth reports on what working at the USPS could be like, so while it's impossible to say specifically why a mass shooting occurred, we are able to at least get insight into the working conditions there.
But there were also profound problems with the way USPS hired and retained managers. A USPS headquarters official told GAO investigators in 1994 that "there are no criteria" to identify bad managers who should be disciplined or fired. Union representatives widely reported to those same investigators that supervisors were not held accountable for harassing employees or purposely violating the labor contract like Carlisle did. They knew, as Carlisle did, even phony allegations of getting an employee fired were unlikely to result in discipline against him, while the falsely accused employee would potentially lose everything.
In Royal Oak, Presilla and his crew picked up right where they left off, according to a detailed 1992 House investigation into the shooting. Local union officials noticed it immediately, telling investigators "management became especially 'authoritarian' beginning in 1990," when the management change occurred. The most egregious incident occurred when "one female carrier, who was 6 weeks pregnant, was given a Letter of Warning for falling down on the cement which resulted in her losing the baby." It was apparently not the only time a worker accidentally injured themselves on the job only to receive a formal reprimand.
Upper management received complaints about Royal Oak, but they didn't do anything. One theory was because Royal Oak was hitting its numbers. In the USPS, managers are not given dollar budgets, but work-hour budgets. In 1991, Royal Oak was 1.4 percent below its work-hour budget (nationally, the USPS was .4 percent above budget). They were hitting these numbers, investigators later found, by intimidating workers and gutting service, reducing the number of window hours at the post office and rushing workers to deliver mail faster, leading to more errors and undelivered mail. Many of the complaints the USPS received about Royal Oak were not from workers, but from customers complaining about the deteriorating service. Nevertheless, it was only after new management came in did these trends change.
Nor was this limited to Royal Oak. The 1994 GAO report found widespread labor-management problems across the USPS. The GAO found "supervisors and managers are under pressure from postal headquarters and operate 'by the numbers.' That is, if they meet budget targets they are rewarded with good ratings regardless of how employees are treated." Meanwhile, management said the problem stems from understaffed facilities and budget constraints, creating tension and stress. A union president said "an autocratic culture is prevalent at every level of the postal service." After years of shootings, everyone agreed there was a problem, but not what the problem was or how to fix it.
The bullying by Royal Oak management very much included the eventual shooter, McIlvane. It's impossible to say with any certainty what the exact relationship between McIlvane and management was like (partly because USPS re-used Carlisle's work computer and wiped all the files rather than preserving it as evidence). The House report includes hundreds of pages of exhibits including official grievances, rulings, witness statements, and arbitrator findings in the year leading up to the shooting. Several managers attest to McIlvane's crude and abusive language, including calling his female manager a "cunt" and "bitch" and Carlisle an "asshole." In one incident, he allegedly reversed his vehicle aggressively towards his managers, although the record is unclear—and one-sided—about why he did this. There are 21 documented cases of McIlvane threatening to kill his managers after the termination process began.
"They pushed the wrong guy" is a phrase that comes up a lot when reading about Royal Oak. According to McIlvane's disciplinary files, he was a mentally unstable worker with a history of vulgar and disrespectful conduct towards managers. His military records back that up, detailing a number of strange incidents like driving a tank over a car without authorization—it was empty, intended for a fire extinguishing exercise—and generally not following basic orders. He admitted to a military doctor he had a "short fuse" but thought he could control it.
As experienced bullies, management likely picked on McIlvane because they knew he was not a credible witness and they could get a rise out of him. On one occasion, three supervisors insisted the brake lights on McIlvane's delivery truck weren't working properly and made him go to maintenance to get them fixed. When he got there, the vehicle technician told him the brake lights were working fine, just as McIlvane asserted.
McIlvane is repeatedly accused in his files of thinking management was "out to get him" and of harboring a conspiratorial mindset. If one were to rely only on his disciplinary files and not the mountain of evidence amassed after the shooting, McIlvane sounded paranoid. But we now know the truth is more complicated.
The House investigation asked a question that I have been stuck on since reading it: had McIlvane never murdered his bosses, would the situation at Royal Oak have gotten better? Would it have received, in the words of the report, "the management attention it warranted?" Although the report doesn't directly answer the question, it does imply the answer is negative. After all, less than a month before the shooting, the Detroit Division Postmaster John Horne publicly praised Presilla and his management team at Royal Oak, citing their "number of accomplishments."
That question can be expanded to the USPS as a whole. If not for the shootings, would anyone—government investigators, the media, politicians—have ever paid attention to the terrible working conditions at the post office? Even after the shootings, USPS upper management were dismissing the problem as statistically insignificant or passing blame onto mentally disturbed military veterans with PTSD, excuses experts later dismissed. The deeply uncomfortable and unfortunate truth is there was no sense of importance in making the post office a humane place to work. The numbers were all that mattered.
In the second part of this series, we'll dive into what has changed since then, and the legacy of "going postal." Again, if you work for the post office and have thoughts for the second part after reading this issue, email me. I'd love to hear from you.
The Week In Mail and Postcards
I'll send another email later this week with links and postcards. This email was long enough.