BOSTON'S cavernous General Mail Facility, tucked between the faded majesty of old South Station and the murky Fort Point Canal, represents what the United States Postal Service has been and what it aspires to be.
It's an industrial setting, parts of it as clanky and noisy as any factory production line. But the automated future of mail sorting and delivery - heralded by optical character readers and bar code sorters - is here, too.
After recently trimming its work force through layoffs and early retirements, the facility still vibrates with the labor of about 3,200 people. Mail handlers move cartloads and bundles of letters and ``flats'' - larger envelopes and magazines. Clerks at letter-sorting machines punch in the first three digits of a letter's ZIP code at the rate of one envelope per second. The postal system's three main unions are sharply aware of their ``turf'' here and quick to file grievances.
US Postmaster General Marvin Runyon has pledged to improve communication between management and workers in his 720,000-strong organization, the largest civilian employer in the country. The most recent violence by US Postal Service (USPS) employees - the early May shootings in Dearborn, Mich., and Dana Point, Calif. - gave added impetus to such workplace reforms. Those shootings brought to 11 the number of Postal Service incidents in which people were killed or wounded since 1983.
The Postal Service announced Sept. 10 that it had signed a $3.75 million contract with Policy Management Systems of Blythewood, S.C., to check the criminal histories and driving records of prospective employees. Postmaster General Runyon says the purpose of such steps is to identify patterns of behavior that could signal later trouble.
The Postal Service has frequently been criticized for overbearing, authoritarian management. To get at this problem, Runyon wants employees to rate their supervisors in such areas as communication and general treatment of workers. Postal Service spokesman Lou Eberhardt says managers will be given a 1 to 5 rating, and if someone gets a 1, 2, or 3, ``he's going to be looked at very, very carefully and given some help.''
Congress is keeping a close eye on changes in the Postal Service in the wake of the latest violence. Legislators are concerned about sagging morale as a result of restructuring and automation. They are also looking into the Postal Inspection Service, according to House subcommittee staff sources. New hearings on postal matters are currently under way.
Runyon's reform program, which also includes organizing focus groups to get employees' perspectives and setting up a hot line to report threatening situations, does not impress Moe Biller, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). ``I've lived through 18 postmasters general,'' says Mr. Biller, ``and every one of them spoke of the authoritarian type of management and how they were going to correct it. I've seen nothing.''
Many union complaints center around the inspection service, the arm of the Postal Service charged with making sure the mail is protected from in-house tampering and outside fraud. Striking features of large postal facilities, like Boston's, are the enclosed catwalks overhead, where inspectors peer through slit-like windows. Their purpose is to discourage theft by workers. But they may also undercut morale.
``In my personal opinion, it's kind of archaic in today's environment,'' says Ken Vlietstra, executive director of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States. He refers to the ``big brother'' aspect of catwalk surveillance. ``You could do it now with electronics,'' suggests Mr. Vlietstra, noting that strategically placed cameras might have the same effect and generate less resentment. Technology adds tension
But more important than the inspectors' presence is the day-to-day chemistry between workers and supervisors. In an organization that used to virtually guarantee lifetime employment, recent changes in postal technology have made many workers redundant, adding to the tensions in the fast-paced deadline work.
William Joyce, an operations support specialist, started at the Boston facility 20 years ago as a mail handler. The repetitive, ``mundane'' nature of that work eventually ``drove me to become a manager,'' he says. Now ``everything I know that got me here is obsolete. The onus is on us. We have to stay up to date.'' One reason is competition from services like Federal Express and United Parcel Service, though some officials say that if it weren't for them, the USPS would be overwhelmed with mail.
Mr. Joyce points to a delivery unit bar coder, one of the newer pieces of machinery on the floor, and comments, ``This is already obsolete.'' In the near future, he explains, such machines will be smaller and situated where letter carriers pick up the fully sorted mail and leave the building.
If rapid automation is tough on experienced managers like Joyce, it may be doubly difficult for line workers, who see their jobs threatened.
Postal employees represent a wide cross-section of Americans.
``You have everything here - people with GEDs [General Educational Development certificates], or no education, all the way up to people with master's degrees who are out of work - all working together through the night,'' Joyce says. On top of that are the various hiring mandates from the federal government regarding veterans, disabled workers, and minorities.
The veterans' preference generated debate in the wake of the California and Michigan shootings. One of the men involved had a questionable military record and was known to be a gun enthusiast. Federal privacy rules keep the Postal Service from full access to a veteran's service record. Postmaster General Runyon has supported the veterans-preference policy, though he has also instituted stricter screening of job applicants.
While the Postal Service's relatively large number of veterans (all of whom have had some weapons training) may contribute to outbreaks of violence, this is only one part of a complex picture, Vlietstra says. He lists a high level of violence in society and a general feeling of frustration among workers as other factors.
A major source of frustration, says the APWU's Biller, is the military-style management traditions of the Postal Service. The union chief briskly ticks off accounts of workers whose requests were squelched by autocratic postmasters or whose grievances drew retribution from angry supervisors. Runyon has himself acknowledged the need to change management styles in the system.
Greta Cofield, postmaster in Framingham, Mass., a large suburb about 20 miles west of Boston, says ``That was the style in the post office because that's who was running it - men from the military.'' Because of the pressures of deadlines and mandates, she says, ``you have a tendency to go to that extreme, but you find you don't get anything done that way.'' Mrs. Cofield has 33 years' experience, having started as a postal clerk in Boston's Back Bay. Her own approach, she says, is to sit down with workers when problems arise and figure out a better way to do things.
But the hurdles of distrust can be high, Cofield says. She recalls assigning a new vehicle to one mail carrier whose old truck regularly broke down. Later she found he had filed a grievance against her for harassment - because, she assumes, she had reminded him of the frequent breakdowns.
Such accounts have some resonance for Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who worked in a large post office during his student years. He vividly recalls the inspectors' catwalks and the bathroom stalls with doors removed. Until the overall atmosphere of distrust is lessened, he says, steps to involve employees in reform efforts may simply reinforce worker suspicion that change is an excuse for more cutbacks. ``If you put in a program of grading supervisors, it could make the system even more punitive.''
On the positive side, says Professor Weintraub, he knows of promising Postal Service managers who have taken courses at Babson and elsewhere. Any training that offers them perspectives other than the traditional top-down Postal Service ``culture'' is useful, in his view.
But more sympathetic management may not solve everything. ``It's not just the military structure per se; it's the fear of unemployment that in most cases triggers the violent outbursts,'' says Jack Levin, who teaches sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. He points out that most postal workers have specialized skills that aren't readily transferred to other workplaces. So when they are fired or let go, the outlook is particularly bleak.
Mr. Levin recommends a greater commitment by management to helping relocate former postal employees. His guideline: Companies, including the Postal Service, ``should spend as much time firing as they did hiring.'' Challenges unique to USPS
But those who toil to get the mails through will face some unique challenges no matter how the Postal Service reforms proceed. ``You never see the finished product,'' says Joyce. ``You don't know if you've had a good day or a bad one. It's hard to get individual credit.''
Still, it would not be accurate to portray Postal Service workers as generally soured on their jobs. Postmaster Cofield in Framingham, for example, says she has enjoyed witnessing the many changes in the Postal Service during her three decades in its employ. One of her supervisory staff, John Cicchese, a former letter carrier, talks of the rewards of that job: working outdoors and spending more than half your time with no supervisor, as your own boss.
Even in the depths of the General Mail Facility in Boston there are some for whom the Postal Service is more a calling than a grind. Take Herbert Baron, one of the clerks who deals with the 15 percent of the 7 million pieces of mail handled here daily that for one reason or another defy high-tech scanners and other modern gear. This mail reverts to ``Ben Franklin's day,'' as Joyce puts it.
Mr. Baron sits at a ``case,'' facing dozens of cubbyholes into which he ``throws'' letters that were wrongly addressed, not ZIP-coded, or illegibly penned. He explains that when he began at the post office you had to memorize the city's ``schemes,'' its pattern of streets and addresses. That detailed familiarity with the urban grid now helps him take what hints a letter offers and decipher the nearly indecipherable. ``Because we have knowledge of the streets, 99 percent of the time we can `throw' it,'' this experienced worker says.
Ironically, the post office of the future may have little room for employees with Baron's skills, as more and more mail is converted to the bar-code system that makes fully automated sorting possible. On the other hand, it will probably be a very long time before all Christmas cards and other personal letters are addressed by computer.
In the interim, thousands of human beings will be needed in the Postal Service, and their morale and safety will continue to be a matter of public concern.