Let me be the first to say, “Happy Tax Day 2010!” OK, relax. Congratulations on being done early. Or, best of luck, don’t worry, you’ll get it done by midnight.
Today our author Philip Rubio writes about his twenty years as a postal worker, his memories of working on tax day, and the perspective his years doing this work gave him, especially as he wrote his book on African American postal workers.
To give you a taste of his book: in it, Rubio focuses on African American postal workers and the critical role they played in the U.S. labor and black freedom movements. Having fought their way into postal positions and unions, black postal workers–often college-educated military veterans–became a critical force for social change. Centered on New York City and Washington, D.C., Rubio chronicles a struggle of national significance through its examination of the post office, a workplace with facilities and unions serving every city and town in the U.S.
So read on to hear more of his thoughts on tax day as well as on how he came to write his book. And, when it comes to your taxes, may the force be with you.
The April 15 income tax deadline is so iconic that even procrastinators can’t help but remember it with the constant media and word-of-mouth reminders. People may forget birthdays and anniversaries, but this day has turned into a public ritual. I participated in that ritual every year that I was a letter carrier delivering mail in Colorado and North Carolina between 1980 and 2000. Mail collection boxes were always full in the days just before–and especially on–Tax Day, while tax returns were frequently clipped to mailboxes for me to pick up. This was the day that invariably saw people running down the street or even flagging me down in their cars while waving their income tax returns in their hands to get my attention as I walked my mail route or drove my postal vehicle. When they handed me their returns they would often anxiously ask, “Will these be postmarked by midnight?” I assured them that they would, I felt confident that they would, and they always seemed to take my word for it.
My reflections on my career with the U.S. Postal Service before I entered academia still combine nostalgia with a relieved realization that it was time to move on to work at something else. But in many ways I learned more about the post office researching and writing a history of black postal workers’ activism for well over a century than I had working for the post office for 20 years. Yet my experience at the post office interacting with black postal workers and hearing their stories was the spark that lit the fire for me to want to write about their story.
I deliberately dedicated my book There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality “to everyone who has ever moved the mail” because this is a universal story that I tell of those who dealt with archaic management styles, technological changes, limited workplace issue redress over many decades, and progressive as well as reactionary postal unions. Yet the long story of black postal workers’ struggle to get into the post office and its unions, to be treated fairly, and be allowed to advance based on their talents and abilities is one that is also unique. That is why I chose to write about black postal workers’ activist history as both a compelling topic in itself and a lens through which to view the larger postal worker story.
My postal experience was certainly no photocopy of that of my African American coworkers. Our well-paying jobs did enable many of us to live comfortably, buy homes, and send our kids to college. And we enjoyed a certain amount of prestige by being government workers who had to score high on a civil service exam to be able to earn those relatively high wages and benefits. That much we had in common. But I also had received exclusive social and economic privileges (as had my ancestors), while they had received discrimination (as had their ancestors), all based on skin color. Often entering the post office with college degrees–or else working on them in their spare time–African Americans historically depended on that workplace which, despite its own history of discrimination, was often more open to their entry compared to the private sector where white employers, workers, and unions frequently barred their way.
From Mississippi to Manhattan, I learned that African American postal workers’ decades-long challenge to the post office and postal union status quo–that for years included segregation and discrimination–was a key factor in transforming the post office, especially through the vehicle of the eight-day Great Postal Wildcat Strike that began in New York on March 18, 1970 and spread throughout the country. It was a strike that was both illegal (federal employees by law cannot strike) and a “wildcat” (unauthorized by the unions). But that did not stop over 200,000 postal workers–mostly in big cities and many if not most of them African American–from demanding a living wage and better working conditions.
The strike caught the Post Office off-guard. Tax Day was less than a month away. Millions of tax returns had yet to be mailed. The strikers prevailed, returning to work with their jobs intact while winning better wages, benefits, collective bargaining rights, and the establishment of the U.S. Postal Service as a quasi-governmental agency charged with the task of turning profits while providing universal service.
Delivering mail in the predominantly black Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina–where I finished my career in 2000 to enter the Duke University history doctoral program—Tax Day was just one day among many where older African Americans on my route would often jokingly call out “Here comes Uncle Sam!” when they saw me coming in my blue-gray letter carrier uniform. Years later I would put that memory together with my research to realize the symbolic significance of black Union Army troops and later black letter carriers. Postal jobs, exclusively white due to Southern white slaveholder paranoia, were first made legally available to African Americans only a month before the end of the Civil War with Radical Republican Reconstruction legislation, as black and white Union Army troops finally crushed the Confederacy in April 1865. Postal jobs provided a federal imprimatur along with middle-class status and opportunities for blacks who were often also civic and labor activists. Time has still not erased the significance of postal work and worker activism in the black community.
Even with today’s widespread ambivalence accompanying how our taxes are used, the annual Tax Day ritual rush appeared to me as more than a legal obligation–but also a mass civic duty exercise. I felt lucky to have a secure government job that was a product of decades of postal worker struggles culminating in the 1970 strike and postal reform. But what I enjoyed also owed much to black postal worker activism—a story I felt I needed to spread.
–Philip F. Rubio
North Carolina A&T State University
author of There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality