Postal management's handling of anthrax shows callous disregard for workers

By a Detroit postal worker
(from Communist Voice #28, January 2002)


. In order to get support for its "War on Terrorism," the U.S. government tells the working class that it is "our government" and is defending "us" against terrorism. This is a Big Lie. In reality, the government is a military and bureaucratic apparatus which defends only the profits of the rich owners of the big corporations. To do this it commits monstrous acts of war and terror throughout the world, inviting terror in return. Even as it pursues bin Laden, the Bush government is taking down many innocent civilians and encouraging, allowing and committing the killing of hundreds of surrendered combatants. But the government's callous disregard for working people is not restricted to its foreign policy; it can also be seen plainly at home, in the unfolding anthrax crisis. In order to preserve its profits, the U.S. Postal Service, a quasi-government agency, has disregarded the health of the over 700,000 postal workers in the face of the recent anthrax terrorist attacks, resulting in the preventable deaths of two postal workers so far, and is continuing to leave the postal workers at risk. At the same time, in the recent arbitration for the APWU contract, management demanded outrageous concessions from the workers. So, while the media nauseatingly praises postal workers as "heroes on the front lines," the workers continue to labor under threat of deadly disease and management attacks. The "masters of war" in Washington care no more for American workers than did the hijackers of September 11.

. Postal management's anti-worker behavior was evident in its delayed response to the anthrax-laden letter which was opened at Sen. Daschle's office October 15. This letter had obviously passed through the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, DC. As soon as anthrax was discovered in the letter, all personnel and even the dogs at the Capitol building were tested and the people put on preventative antibiotics, but work continued at Brentwood and no testing or treatment was conducted. Postmaster General John Potter even gave a press conference at Brentwood October 18 to say that the Daschle letter posed no threat to the postal workers there. Three days later, on October 21, Thomas Morris, Jr. , an African-American Brentwood worker, died, followed the next day by Joseph Curseen, Jr. , another black Brentwood worker. Anthrax was not known as the cause of death until after they were dead. Only then did management close and test the facility, finding it contaminated. A few days before his death, Morris had gone to a clinic and expressed fear that he had anthrax; he was given Tylenol and sent home. On the morning of his death, he again diagnosed himself as having anthrax in a conversation with a 911 operator. He also related having seen a powder-laden letter that was broken open at work some days before he became sick and had reported it to management, but had heard nothing in return.

. How does postal management justify this outrageous neglect? In a bulletin which appears on monitors in the break areas of postal facilities nationwide, management states that they were following advice from public health experts. These experts were the bureaucrats of the government agency, the Center for Disease Control. Since the Daschle letter had arrived at the Capitol building still closed, it was the opinion of the CDC that anthrax could not pass out of a closed envelope. But the CDC is expert only on the nature of the disease and the organism that carries it, not on what happens to letters in postal sorting machines. It is postal management (still more the workers) which is expert of the effect of machinery on letters. Postal management is passing the buck to evade its responsibility for the health of the workers.

. Management is well aware that postal sorting machines process up to 30,000-40,000 letters per hour and that every so often one is torn up in the machine. A small tray is even kept at the end of each machine, where the workers place the torn-up letters, which are collected at the end of each shift and sent to repair. There may have been another contaminated letter that got torn up in a machine, releasing its contents. Or ­ since the corners of the flaps of most letters have no glue, the Daschle letter itself may have expelled tiny amounts of air laden with anthrax as it was squeezed by the machine's many wheels and belts. Any postal official or worker familiar with these machines would have come to these conclusions instantly. Management deferred to the CDC's advice because it wanted to keep the mail -- and its profits ­ flowing. Doing so, it committed murder.

. Management continued to display its disregard for the postal workers after the deaths of Morris and Curseen. On October 24, an agreement was announced between William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, and management that any facility found contaminated with anthrax would be closed. But shortly after that, the massive Morgan facility in Manhattan, nine stories tall and processing 20 million mail pieces per day, was found to be seriously contaminated. It was not closed. Only the third floor, where the worst contamination existed, was closed for decontamination while work went on in the rest of the facility. Clips were even shown on national television of workers operating sorting machines right next to contaminated areas closed off with yellow tape.

. As a sop to the workers, postal management reached an agreement with Burrus to allow workers who did not wish to work in a contaminated facility to work elsewhere. But this choice was left up to the individual worker. Here, in fact, was the very question that the "expert" Center for Disease Control should have ruled on, but it was not heard from. Management's desire to continue the flow of profit, especially from one of its largest facilities, was allowed to rule. To hell with the health of the postal workers!

. The new agreement between Burrus and management not to close contaminated facilities was revealed in a teleconference which Burrus held with APWU officials nationwide on October 26. Burrus' summary of the teleconference, in which he enthusiastically promoted the results of his new stand, was posted on the union's web site. His summary showed not only that management had changed its stance from October 24, when it agreed to close any contaminated facility, but that Burrus and the APWU leadership had fully gone along with this change of stance and were enthusiastic about it. Thus, both management and the union had agreed to allow the workers to work in contaminated facilities.

. The October 26 teleconference summary also showed that management and the union leadership had abdicated responsibility in another, related matter. This was the question of the danger of so-called "trace" amounts of anthrax. After serious contamination was found in certain facilities, some of which saw workers get infected, anthrax spores began showing up on tests in many other places but in smaller amounts. These smaller quantities were called "trace" amounts and were considered not to be concentrated enough to cause the disease in people who contact them. This may or may not be true. Apparently the recent deaths of two non-postal workers in New York and Connecticut were caused by tiny amounts of anthrax which rubbed off from more-contaminated letters. So the exact level at which an anthrax contamination changes from a "trace" amount to a dangerous amount is hard to pin down. Some estimate that 8,000 to 10,000 spores in a person's lungs are required to cause the disease. The amount might be less for people whose immune systems are weakened by age or other factors. Whether a contamination is found to be "trace" or dangerous may also depend on how the anthrax tests were conducted. Someone using swabs to take dust samples from different parts of a machine might inadvertently miss the main concentration of anthrax in a machine, maybe where a letter broke open, resulting in a finding of "trace," not dangerous, amounts of the spores. Some uncertainty here is unavoidable. But what is incredible is that, according to the Burrus teleconference, management and the union leadership left it up to the individual worker to decide whether or not the level of contamination is "trace" or dangerous and to decide whether or not to work in that area or facility. Are the workers expected to suddenly get degrees in microbiology and purchase thousands of dollars worth of testing equipment? This is another essentially criminal abdication of responsibility by postal management and the Center for Disease Control, with the union leadership again tagging obediently along behind.

. At the end of November, Burrus changed his tune again. He began stating once more that postal workers would not work in contaminated sites. But this amounted to closing the barn door after the horse got out. For the time being at least, the wave of anthrax-laden letters has passed. No further cases of anthrax disease have appeared among postal workers for many weeks now. The two non-postal workers who died are apparently linked to the first wave of anthrax letters. Some sort of decontamination has been performed at the facilities through which the contaminated letters passed. Unless more are sent, or Burrus has evidence that the decontamination has not been performed properly, his call not to work in contaminated facilities sounds like belated bluster. In fact, the lungs of the postal workers have been callously used by postal management and the government to test all the facilities that stayed open. One worker compared the fate of the postal workers to that of the canaries that miners used to carry into the coal mines with them. If the canary died, then dangerous gas was present and the miners got the hell out of there. So, too, with the postal workers.  .  .  .

. Postal management pats itself on the back for purchasing millions of protective gloves and masks for the workers, but once again responsibility is abdicated. No one is required to wear them and no advice is given. For example, it would seem that masks should have been mandated at Morgan and at East Coast facilities near where infected letters actually passed. But no -- in this era of laissez-faire, no one was required to wear them. In fact, management, with the help of the unions, even discouraged the wearing of gloves and masks by those postal workers, such as letter carriers and window clerks, who are seen by the public, out of fear of losing business (and profits). Wearing masks to handle letters out in the open air in most parts of the country might be a bit over-careful, but who is to say that it would have been over-careful to require wearing them in October and November while sorting and delivering mail in the New York area, New Jersey, DC and Maryland? Actually all these East Coast facilities should have been immediately tested, closed if contaminated and the workers treated. But again, getting the mail out took precedence over workers' health.

. Postmaster General Potter stated in a video being shown to workers nationwide that postal management is "educating" postal workers about anthrax through "stand-up" talks and that it is "sharing procedures" and "medical information. " Here are more Big Lies aimed at keeping the mail flowing at all costs. Take the "stand-up" talks. In one department at Detroit's main processing facility, as of October 26 only two such talks had been held. The material given at the first one was already many days out of date while the written talk provided for the second had two pages missing. At both talks the supervisors were misinformed and it fell to the most politically aware workers to inform the others about the situation.

. Or take the question of "sharing procedures. " In one department in the Detroit facility there have been at least three white powder scares. Yet technicians report that no standards had been given to them for handling such situations. On October 25, for example, in one department a small pile of white powder was spotted on the floor. Safety personnel were called, but when they arrived they did not block off the area ­ the workers did. Neither the safety personnel nor the department supervisors gave the workers in the area any instructions. One safety officer, wearing a mask and gloves, stood over the powder pile for 15-20 minutes until another arrived with a plastic bag and a spoon. They then scooped the powder into the bag and threw the spoon into a nearby trash can. When one worker confronted them about leaving the spoon, they retrieved it from the can and took it. One safety officer remained standing over the smear on the floor where the powder had been. He wore no mask and held a long discussion with a postal inspector, who also wore no mask. Eventually someone else arrived with a spray jar of liquid. Then the safety officer, wearing no mask, squirted the powder area heavily with the liquid, and left. All this took 45 minutes, during and after which no one gave the workers of the area any instructions. On their own the workers prevented others from entering the area. Finally an official in a white uniform arrived and said that the spray would kill whatever was there and that the workers should resume using the area in an hour. No one ever reported back to the workers about the nature of the powder.

. Even crucial medical information was not provided to the workers. Not until well into November were any statements made claiming that the masks provided had fine enough mesh to stop anthrax spores measuring as little as 1-3 microns in diameter. The workers were never urged to immediately seek medical attention if they experienced symptoms of the flu or a severe cold. And to date there has been no discussion of the possible health risks of the planned electron-beam radiation zapping of the mail. Presumably the workers will be guinea pigs again.

. Instead of defending the workers' health, the government, management and the union continue to allow the workers to be at risk. 200 facilities across the country are being tested for anthrax contamination. However, if the tests are conducted like they were in Detroit on November 11, the workers cannot rest easy. In Detroit, the testers breezed rapidly through the facility. They gathered samples from the first floor, where many of the letters from out of town come in, in about 15 minutes, swabbing only one of each of three types of machines. And they never opened the machines to swab along the 100 or so-foot route the mail takes; they only took samples from the outside of the feeders. The Interim Guidelines for Sampling, Analysis, Decontamination, and Disposal of Anthrax for U.S. Postal Service Facilities -- Draft, a new document dated November 16, 2001, leaves it optional for the tester to open the machines and swab along the route the mail takes. It looks like postal management is only willing to pay for superficial tests. And why not? Postal workers' lungs had already done the job!

. In his internal video, PMG Potter calls upon postal workers to point their fingers "only at the terrorists. " The workers know that neither the World Trade hijackers, nor the anthrax mailers give a damn about them, but Potter is afraid that the workers will see that management and the government are their enemies too. After all, Bush's bipartisan "War against Terrorism" is supposed to be to protect "civilization" and "democracy". What kind of civilization and democracy is it that treats its workers worse than dogs, allows them to be murdered and refuses to protect them ­ all in the interests of bigger profits for the rich? <>

Back to main page, write us!

Last changed on January 19, 2002.
http://www. communistvoice. org
e-mail: mail@communistvoice. org