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Mr. Burleson, Junker in Vain

HAVING discharged the President of the National Association of Letter Carriers and the President of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association and the President of the Railway Mail Association and the Secretary-Treasurer of the National Federation of Postal Employees, Mr. Burleson said he would be delighted to talk to any of these organization officials, provided only they were still on the Post Office payroll.

Three postal-service organizations had petitioned him for “official recognition,” such as is fully granted to similar organizations of postal-service employees in Britain, where, as Senator Reed so well knows, they have a King and a House of Lords. The monarchical British Postmaster General, in 1916, addressing a delegation from the servile British postal service, said:“It is important that the employees should have a strong organization, representing the employment as a whole. I want you to realize that the officials of the Post Office are prepared to listen to the representatives of the organizations; and whether you are actually employees or not will make no difference, so long as you are representatives of those for whom you speak.”Mr. Burleson, in 1918, said:“The Department is willing at all times to hear committees of employees, but the members of such committees must be persons actually employed in the postal service.” In other words:Having discharged the persons chosen by the employees to be their spokesmen, and having discharged them for reasons growing directly out of their speaking, Mr. Burleson invited the next victims to step up and speak. They refrained. The invitation was dangerous, and, besides, it was not meant. Mr. Burleson does not in fact invite the advice or assistant of postal-service organizations either regarding postal-service betterments or regarding postal-service grievances. He thinks that organizations are unnecessary.

While he was writing his 1917 report, for instance, he was still engaged in “readjusting” the railway-mail service. He was reducing the number of railway mail office cars, and he was also reducing the salaries of certain railway postal clerks.

Congress had forbidden him to reduce their salaries. Congress thought that when a clerk had worked his way up through years of long labor to a certain grade and to a certain salary, he ought not to be arbitrarily, through no fault of his own, reduced in grade and in salary. Congress said:

“When railway postal clerks are transferred from one assignment to another because of changes in the service, their salaries shall not be reduced by reason of such change.”

Mr. Burleson outwitted Congress. He would “readjust” a certain railway post office line and eliminate the old job of a certain clerk. This clerk might have a family, and he might have a house of his own, in a certain town. He might have lived there for many years. Mr. Burleson would offer him a new job at a distant point, say at New York, in the “terminal” at New York. Other Postmaster Generals used to provide transportation in such cases. Mr. Burleson provides no transportation. The clerk would consider the loss in selling his house and the expense of moving to New York and the almost certain prospect, during Mr. Burleson’s continuous “readjustment,” of being soon again transferred to some other distant point. He would decide to surrender. He would decide to ask for an assignment in a lower grade, on a run permitting him to remain in the town he was already in. His “request” would be “granted.” His grade would be lowered, and his salary would be reduced.

In this manner Mr. Burleson successfully reduced the salaries of several hundred railway postal clerks in the midst of a rapid rise of the cost of living. They thought therefore, more than ever, that it would be a good idea for them to have organizations. They were in error. In his 1917 report Mr. Burleson set them right. He said:

“The Department insists that all employees shall be treated in a fair, just and equitable manner; and to secure such treatment it is not necessary that they belong to any organization.”

Organizations are unnecessary because injustices simply do not exist. They are further unnecessary because the time of their conventions and the space in their journals “are devoted almost entirely to matters of selfish interest.” They are devoted, for instance, to protests against Mr. Burleson’s efficiency rating scheme.

This scheme is the final unfolded flower of Mr. Burleson’s whole efficiency system. It consists, in the railway mail service, of plus points for merit and of minus points for demerit. The minus points overwhelmingly carry the day.

If you accumulate 400 plus points, there is no reward stated. If you accumulate 400 minus points, you may lose your automatic promotion. If you accumulate 500 plus points, there is no reward stated. If you accumulate 500 minus points, you may be reduced in grade and salary. If you accumulate 700 plus points, you may congratulate yourself. If you accumulate 700 minus points, you may be discharged. It is not a system of reward. It is a system of terror.

It builds itself up on petty watching, on pedantic counting, on automatic mechanical fault-finding. Statistics of daily accomplishment in the handling of mail are collected. Standards of performance are calculated. The screws turn, and the standards rise. You observe the latest standard for your work. If you get on the wrong side of that standard, you acquire, per error in excess, one-half of one minus mark. If you get on the right side of the standard, you acquire, per error avoided, one-half of one plus mark. You appreciate one-half of one plus mark; and then you see, on page after page of the rating scheme, a score of entries promising you a chance at being minus to one entry promising you a chance at being plus. 

If you mis-send a letter, you will get minus 5. If you leave a light unnecessarily burning, you will get minus 10. If you are rude to a fellow-clerk, you will get minus 50. If you necessitate a transfer from one “crew” of clerks to another through being of an “irritable or contentious disposition,” you will get minus 60. If you leave a registered letter in a car, you will get minus 100. If you fail to report any “irregularity” you may have committed (such as mis-sending a letter), you will get minus 40. If you fail to report any “irregularity” committed by a fellow clerk, you will get minus 20. It sounds like the rule-book of a school for boys between six and ten temporarily in the care of a slightly insane mathematics master.

Some plus points, however, you can indeed get in the course of taking the numerous examinations which the postal service necessarily requires. In a “case” examination, for example (in which you throw test-cards into pigeonholes), you can get 25 plus points if you stand at perfect, if you score 100 per cent. But if you fall below 99, you can get only 5 plus points; and if you fall below 97.50, you are already down among the minuses; and the minuses come fast. If your mark is less than 92.50, you get minus 170. If your mark is less than 92, you get minus 300. If your mark is less than 91, you get minus 500, entitling you to lose $100 a year in salary.

William Shakespeare apparently knew more about efficiency than many efficiency experts. He simply and famously, having looked at a human being, possibly at himself, without an ergograph and without an electrical recording needle, said:

A merry heart goes all day long;
Your sad tires in a mile.

Under Mr. Burleson’s system the clerks are sad. Even the contrasts of plus and minus in the rating scheme do not rouse them to humor. For saving mail from destruction at the risk of your life, as in a railway hold-up, you can get 500 plus points. For losing a mail key you can get exactly that number in the other direction. Risking your life and losing a mail key are precisely balancing opposites.

The clerks in the terminal at Kansas City have gravely and openly protested against this system of stressing negatives and of slighting positives. But they have no grievances and they need no organizations, and Mr. Burleson can prove it. He proves it in his 1917 report. In private employment, he says, it may be that organization of employees may sometimes be necessary. In public employment, however, the case is entirely different. In public employment “the interests of the employees will always be protected by public sentiment.”

That is, the public, instructed and inspired by its earnest constant study of efficiency rating schemes and of other labor conditions on railway post office cars and in railway mail terminals, will rise in its might and demand a reform; and Congress will enact the reform; and then Mr. Burleson will enforce it, just as he enforced the reform enacted by Congress against the reduction of the salaries of railway postal clerks.

This argument did not convince the postal-service organizations. They saw the salaries actually being reduced, and they saw the efficiency rating scheme actually being operated, without any great national popular tumult following in the streets. They were not convinced. Mr. Burleson felt they would not be convinced. Therefore he asked Congress to coerce them. Therefore he came to the peak of his policy.

In the fall of 1917 he deliberately and specifically asked Congress to repeal the “anti-gag” provision of the act of August 24, 1912. That provision is the charter of the liberties of the employees of the United States. It permits them to form organizations and to present petitions to Congress on their own initiative. It does not permit them to strike. The present organizations do not wish to be permitted to strike. Their loyalty to the United States is in fact beyond the loyalty of most of the rest of us. They feel themselves peculiarly to be a part of the organized United States Government. They do not wish to secede, even for a day. Their affiliation with the American Federation of Labor is in perfect harmony with this spirit. No official of the Federation, under any rule of the Federation, has the slightest right to order them to strike. They want to confer with the authorities, with Congress, with the Department (if the Department would listen), through their chosen, specialized, experienced and expert representatives.

Mr. Burleson proposed to cut them off from initiating any approach to Congress, just as he has cut them off from effecting any official organized approach to the Department. His system would then be complete. The employees would be entirely dumb.

Mr. Burleson has consistency. Mr. Burleson has courage. Mr. Burleson has manhood in combat. The first Burleson in our public history chased the Cherokees out of Texas and was second in command under Austin in the revolt of the Texans against Mexico and was leader of the First Regiment of Volunteers at San Jacinto. The present Burleson inherited position, position among the arrived and among the landed of Texas. He has blood. He has religion. Nobody from East Prussia could face him down in those virtues. He proclaimed them defiantly to all his enemies in his speech of April 1st last. “God and a long chain of ancestors,” he said, “gave me a backbone that enables me to drive forward.”

The postal-service employees give this junkerism three answers. They defeat it in three ways.

First, they cannot stand up under it physically. The National Association of Letter Carriers has a Sick Benefit Fund. In the year 1913 the average number of cases of sickness in this fund, in proportion to membership, was at the figure .116. In each successive year thereafter, with more efficiency, and with the work and worry of more efficiency, it went up. In 1917 it stood at .154. The increase was enormous. It was 32 per cent in four years. It did not help the service. Efficiency is difficult under an efficiency system which produces a staff increasingly ailing.

In the second place, the postal-service employees do not and cannot now maintain their old ambition in performance. When a letter carrier knows that if in order to please his patrons on a special occasion he struggles through his work forty minutes early, the forty minutes will be counted as “under-time” and a special effort will be made to “readjust” and increase his load, he is not likely to struggle to meet any occasion for any purpose; and when a clerk in a railway post office car knows that any excess exertion on his part to dispatch his work and to get it all off on a rush day is likely to be used to screw up the standard of work to be down on the average day, he is not deeply moved to put forth any excess exertion on the rush day or any other day.

In a certain fortnight in 1917, according to a statement by ex-Division Superintendent Clyde M. Reed, there were seventy-five thousand letters that came into Kansas City on railway post office cars “unworked”––that is, undistributed, unsorted. In times gone by, if a clerk came in with any of his mail “unworked,” if he came in “stuck,” it was a personal disgrace. Now it tends to be a mere mathematical fact, to be visited by mathematical punishments, or else to be prevented by mathematical “readjustments” of the quantities of mail “worked” on cars.

Mr. Reed was clerk, clerk-in-charge, chief clerk, division superintendent, in many divisions, for many years. He was impressed in the end by the biggest fact in the present situation. “The old love of the service has disappeared,” he said, “and the boys have lost their ginger.” Efficiency is difficult with an efficiency system which gives you a staff standardized out of ambition and out of initiative and out of sacrifice.

Thirdly, to the ultimate utter destruction of junkerism, and therefore to the ultimate restoration of genuine efficiency, the postal service employees have been broadly awakened to a collective consciousness in their trade and in the relations between their trade and the public. In order to defeat Mr. Burleson’s system, in order to get any improvements whatsoever in their conditions of labor, the postal service employees have been obliged to exercise their rights of public citizenship in the halls of the Capitol. Mr. Burleson, besides being involuntarily the greatest unionizer that ever stepped into the Post Office Department, is also the greatest political democratizer. His employees, not getting justice by gift from him, have had to try to get it by elaborate proof from Congress. They have had to argue; they have had to study; they have had to analyze their work; they have had to present their analysis of it to the national legislature; and, little by little, they have moved toward developing a philosophy of government employment.

The need of it is well expressed by Mr. Gainor of the Letter Carriers. Government is extending itself. It is forever entering new fields. It is forever gaining new groups of employees. Mankind, more and more, directly or indirectly, is employed by government. But if government persists in being the kind of employer our greatest American government department under Mr. Burleson now is, why, mankind will be more enslaved than before. Employees can make some headway against private employers. Government, if it wishes to be, is irresistible. Therefore the task we face, above all other tasks, is the democratizing of government employment.

The first stirring toward that task in the minds of federal employees is now apparent. It shows, for instance, in a bill introduced for them last February by Congressman Kelly of Pennsylvania. This is a bill having nothing to do directly with hours or wages. It simply and much more importantly established a government agency which might well grow some day into a real democratic federal employment management office.

A United States Civil Service Board of Adjustments, appointed by the President, is set up. Disputes between employees and the departments, growing out of wage laws, growing out of hour laws, growing out of any misunderstanding, come finally to the Board. But, before they come to the Board, on their way up to the Board, they are handled through conferences between the Department officials and the officials of the voluntary organizations of employees. The organizations are, under the bill, officially recognized.

Recognized thus for disputes, they will in time be recognized for other things too. They will be recognized, as the postal service employees insist they ought to be, “for offering suggestions intended to promote service betterments.” The fund of knowledge, the fund of loyalty, lying locked in the voluntary collective thinking and feeling of the postal service, will be opened and used. Mr. Kelly’s bill, or its equivalent, will some day be passed. The steps beyond it will some day be taken. As an alternative to bureaucratic slavery, mankind will some day take governmental self-government. It will come. It will come anyway. But it has been immensely hastened at Washington by the public political energy Mr. Burleson has put into the postal service organizations.

When Mr. Burleson leaves office, it will have to be said of him that in the successful reactions he aroused he was the greatest liberal in the cabinet of a great liberal President.

This article appeared in the April 19, 1919 issue of the magazine.