Review: Murder of a Post Office Manager

Murder of a Post Office Manager, by Paul Felton. Hardball Press, 2013. $15.

Years ago I had a run-in with the producer of an AM talk-radio station. He was soliciting proposals for new shows, and I pitched one that would focus on labor issues and working class stories. He dismissed my idea (and me), saying “You don’t know the difference between education and entertainment.”

Lucky for us, Paul Felton doesn’t know the difference either. He’s written an entertaining book which teaches its readers about postal work, the fabric of a unionized workplace, and the shop floor responsibilities of a union steward.

This is Paul’s first book. He’s recently retired after three decades of work in the U.S. Postal Service, mostly in suburban Detroit. He belonged to a local union made infamous by two fatal shootings (each in a different facility). While he worked as a rank-and-file mail sorter, Paul also spent many years as a dedicated shop steward and as editor (an elected position) of his local’s monthly newsletter.

Paul has drawn on the model of a murder mystery. Someone has killed the manager of a major postal facility, and there is no shortage of motives or suspects. Tidbits of the investigation, documentary evidence, and witness testimony get revealed along the way.

De-Skilling Postal Work

As a student of the organization and reorganization of postal work, I have been intrigued by the ways the Post Office has redesigned the heart and soul of postal work towards the goal of making it less skilled, so that management’s control could be enhanced. Murder of a Post Office Manager, through stories of workplace incidents, snafus, and disruptions, bears witness to these day-in/day-out struggles between workers and management.

And then there’s the issue of how it matters to have a union. Only about 10 percent of us work in unionized workplaces anymore, and I would estimate another 15 percent used to. That leaves about 75 percent of the public with scant understanding of grievances, grievance procedures, shop stewards, and arbitrations. For most of us, what the boss says is the law and that’s all there is to it. Paul immerses his readers in the fabric of a unionized workplace—not only the specific rights that the contract gives workers, but also the ever-present tug of war between managers and workers to restrict, respect, or even expand those rights.

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Given Paul’s own experiences, it’s not surprising that this book offers some of its richest insights into the work performed by shop stewards. The central protagonist of the book, Paul Farley, is a dedicated, even zealous, steward. He is dedicated to his fellow workers, more than to the letter of the contract, and he works hard—off the clock, as well as on—to understand them, their needs, and their foibles, and to represent them passionately, informally as well as formally. There are other stewards in this story too, and their own experiences suggest that there is no cookie-cutter version of a shop steward.

Postal facilities, as Paul reveals, are full of pressure and tension. Many workers are in vulnerable, complex positions. Some are seeking to move from the insecure position of a temp to the stable position of a full-time employee with defined rights, while others are seeking to climb from the bargaining unit into management. Other tensions come from conflicts among workers, instigated by racial or sexual energies and agendas, sometimes exacerbated by management’s subtle manipulations.

But on the whole, the workforce in Murder of a Post Office Manager, rich in diversity and under pressure, comes across as a big, sometimes messy, family, more functional than dysfunctional. Paul’s detailed descriptions of workplace job actions, both in the plant and in the parking lot, demonstrate the solidarity that continues to inform the work lives of postal workers.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has worked with the American Postal Workers Union and many of its locals over the past 30 years, teaching at summer schools and Postal Press Association conferences. He is the author of Moving the Mail: From a Manual Case to Outer Space (Morgantown, West Virginia: Work Environment Project, 1981).

Order Murder of a Post Office Manager from Hardball Press, which publishes other union-oriented mysteries as well.