I am at the post office where there is a big, long line. It moves slowly and, mixed in with the occasional ring tone ditty, there are heavy sighs and breathy whispers of exasperation from unsatisfied customers.
I have spent 30 minutes in a line of about 15 people that is being served by 6 attendants all of whom, I suspect, are drawing $25-30 in hourly wages as well as receiving a generous benefits package.
In contrast, at a nearby Starbucks, I spent approximately 2 minutes in a 10 person line which was being served by 2 attendants both making roughly $5 hourly and whose benefits include free drinks (while on duty) and discount prices on whole bean coffee.
Of course it is appropriate to consider the austere duties placed upon the postal worker and the demanding complexities of rendering expeditious and efficient service in an archaic, Byzantine system sinking in a swamp of union politics. Furthermore, maintaining the sovereignty of the US Mail is in no way comparable to pouring a cup of coffee and serving slices of banana nut loaf.
However, as anyone who has ever visited the Starbucks located on their corner knows, only rare occasions find a customer ordering "a cup of coffee". In most cases, the drinks prepared by a harried barista are odd espresso based recipes with proprietary names like "Iced Tall Hazelnut Latte" and "Caramel Mocha Frappuccino". And, invariably, these come in an assortment of variations -- skimmed milk, half-decaf, sprinkles and shavings and other embellishments.
The intricacies of taking the order and operating the cash register are no less demanding. A Starbucks server is faced with a system of touch screens used for entering an order into the abyss of Starbucks accounting database all the while maintaining the meticulous details of the last caffeinated monstrosity mumbled to them by a customer who is preoccupied with their cell phone conversation.
Adding to this hysterical equation is the dumbfounding phenomenon of paying for coffee with a credit card. Granted, the largest version of a specialty concoction can cost as much as a top shelf martini. Still, replacing the image of a few coins left on the counter of greasy spoon for the image of signing an American Express printout requires a shift in one’s traditional view of cultural iconography.
Yet despite the hardships, the drinks are dispensed with efficiency and a cheerful smile and the line keeps moving in the manner appropriate for a line serving up espresso.
Back at the post office, meanwhile, the long line with its long sighs to match just started moving a little slower. Apparently window 5 just closed allowing a postal employee to take one of several daily breaks guaranteed by union law. As a frustrated postal customer, I like to think that the worker is headed to Starbucks for a mid-afternoon jolt and to study up on customer service. And maybe that thought will keep me amused for the next twenty minutes.
Even though I coined the phrase "The service was lousy but the food sucked" I am, by nature, an optimist who keeps his writing skills honed just in case the music career doesn't work out.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
4.8.05 @ 3:17a
Maybe I should just go to bed before commenting on this one - which I REALLY liked, by the way!
My corner Starbucks folks make a bit more than $5 (although not much better I guess to make about $8/hour, eh?), but they enjoy their jobs. And the customers (I being one frequent consumer) seem to feel the product is worth the price, thus they are usually in agreeable moods.
Meanwhile, back at the post office...Joe-schmo (age 57), living in Davenport, Iowa seems to have never realized that mailing a firearm - LOADED - violates...well, the LAW. Behind Joe is a high school girl (probably a friend of my niece) who has no idea that the 12 cent stamp she found in her mom's kitchen was no longer good enough for mailing in her ACT forms despite the fact that her ACT envelope clearly states "Afix 2 first class stamps." Behind her are a couple of folks, mixed ages, who simply didn't think it would be a problem to mail CASH to the phone company . The cash only seemed to bother the postal worker who noticed that the return address window of their bills were blocked by, well, CASH!
I have the greatest empathy for both workers (without having a desire to do either job), but my heart goes out to the US Postal Service for continuing to do an incredibly good job when confronted every day with really stupid people!
Kudos on a fun essay!
4.8.05 @ 8:34a
The post office managed to lose my IRA contribution this year. Just found that out yesterday. Now I have to send it again. Hello, FedEx.
4.8.05 @ 9:38a
Hey! Joel! Careful when you mock Iowa, mister!
an archaic, Byzantine system sinking in a swamp of union politics.
That's a great line.
I think the post office does a great job - in fact, I tipped my carrier for the first time this year with a local restaurant gift card, because it is always SO OBVIOUS when he isn't on our route. And I found out his name is Todd, because he sent me a thank you note for the gift. Nice guy.
But I do hate waiting in line at the post office. Dreadful.
4.8.05 @ 11:16a
an archaic, Byzantine system sinking in a swamp of union politics.
Good column and that is a great line. Recently, via work, it's become apparant to me that most of the federal and state gov's are unionized. I was a tad shocked. So the BMV, that guy standin' around watchin' the other guy supervise the guy puttin' the orange cones out on the road, various large depts. in D.C., all are unionized. Remarkable and little disturbing to me.
4.8.05 @ 1:08p
Spot on. No matter what time of day I go to the Post Office, there is always a looooong, slow-moving line. I've seen people lose it while waiting in line as yet another postal worker goes on break. And while I hate the fact that Starbucks has taken over every corner in America, their employees are damn efficient and generally very cheerful.
4.8.05 @ 2:17p
Sorry Tracey - I only mock Iowa because I will always be "an Iowan" no matter where I live...
Like Tracey, I know my mail carrier (Jon) and he takes my packages/letters that I leave out for him (with correct postage, of course!). And at Starbucks, despite the ire of an international chain, they know my name and that I'll always leave at LEAST a buck, the loose change goes in my pocket. :)
4.8.05 @ 11:29p
You mentioned the fact that the Starbucks folks have a dizzying array of products to sell, but so does the USPS. Express Mail, Priority Mail, first class, media mail, bulk mail, certified, registered, signature confirmation, among many others. Oh and let's not forget stamps. It's not enough to have one stamp for all normal mail and have done with it - no, we have to have pictures of presidents and entertainers and historical figures and wildlife of all types.
No lie, I heard this exchange the other day when I was at the PO:
Lady: I need to send this certified mail.
Clerk: (explains the different variations and helps her select the right one) Is there anything else today?
Lady: Yes, I need a book of stamps.
Clerk: (hands her a book of stamps, the regular American flag kind)
Lady: Do you have any pretty ones? (I'm thinkin' WTF?)
Clerk: We sure do. (opens drawer to retrieve more stamps)
Lady: Do you have any with birds?
Clerk: Sure. (selects a couple-three books from his drawer and displays them for her)
Lady: (stands there and gawks at the stamps for nearly a full minute like she's about to select a diamond wedding ring while the line backs up behind her) Eh, never mind. Just give me the American flag ones.
You can blame the unions all you want, but I guarantee there are days when having a union job is the only thing that makes it tolerable.
4.10.05 @ 12:51p
there are days when having a union job is the only thing that makes it tolerable.
There's no doubt unions help workers. Even in the early days, when they were little more than organized crime protection scams, various unions helped combat labor abuse, child labor practices, and other unsavory practices of ruthless businesses. So they're good for workers and ag great racket for the union reps who draw their salaries from it. But they seem be horrible for business, as far as I've seen and including the 3 that I've had the misfortune of being a part of. This is because they are an obvious Marxist mechanism. Each according to his needs, not his abilities. Productivity slumps to the lowest common denominator, promotion based on seniority and not ability, and thus weakens the organization.
Not to say that every union is necessarily bad, but every unionized industry is totally screwed up, or gone: Steel is gone, electronics gone, the NHL is gone, MLB, Florsheim shoes are made in the Phillipines. Everywhere there is rampant workman's comp fraud, there is a union. And the Post Office, sorry, stamps are going up by 2 more cents to pay for the cushy pensions those workers get via collective bargaining. We have to pay for that, despite the fact that their unions' chosen party, the Dems, are sentencing the rest of us to the broken Social Security system. The NEA - and its various union affiliates - are in the process of flushing public education right there with those shoes we can't even make in this country anymore.
It might be different if you could hold a union accountable for anything, but they are unelected and no one has the ability to give them the boot.
4.10.05 @ 5:52p
Dan, on some things you have good points. Unions did, and do, continue to help workers, who desperately need it now more than ever. However, there are some fallacies in what you said above that need to be addressed.
Unions are not horrible for business; businesses that try to maintain adversarial relationships with unions, and vice versa, are horrible to themselves and each other. There is this mindset, probably brought about both by the effort it takes to get a shop to unionize, and by the unsavory history of which you speak, that the other guy is the bad guy out to "rip us off". There is also the observation that if management had ever been interested in bargaining in good faith, there would have been no hue and cry for a union in the shop in the first place.
Nevertheless, when unions and management make an honest effort to work together as equals, it can be good for both. After all, someone who is appropriately compensated for their efforts has more money to pour into the economy today to buy the very product they made with their own hands yesterday.
As to unions being somehow "Marxist", I've heard that one before and it is just the opposite. Unions are as all-American as Mom and apple pie. The whole definition of success in business is to corner your market, whether it be shoes or apples or software. That's exactly what unions want to do - corner the labor market. Workers have a product to sell - their labor - and in order to get the best price for their product, they want to come to the bargaining table as equals with the representatives of the company and work out a trade. We will do X work if you will pay us Y dollars in wages and benefits.
Do unions engage in favoritism and cushy favors for certain people? Sure they do; so do non-unionized companies - it happens all the time. That's one of those things that depends more on the integrity of the people in positions of power, rather than the presence or absence of a union.
As to unions somehow being 1) unaccountable, 2) unelected, and 3) unremovable, nothing could be further from the truth, at least in the union I'm involved in. And as far as I'm aware, it's the same in all unions. Union officers are elected by the entire membership, not by a handful of guys in a boardroom somewhere. They are therefore accountable to their membership, who can vote someone else to take their place. And a union can be decertified in a shop by majority vote of the represented workers; either by electing new representation from a different union, or by voting against a union entirely.
4.10.05 @ 7:25p
I'm not singling out any union, or saying they're all corrupt. I'm just saying, they are what they are. The last line of the Communist Manifesto is Working Men of All Countries, Unite! and there's no question that unions, along with income tax and estate tax, were recommended to undermine capitalism. And if the steel, electronics, and lately the car industry are any indication, it works.
I'm only suggesting that if we're gonna take an honest swipe at problems in the US, nobody is off limits. Having an entity that is compensated from workers' a salaries negotiate those same compensation packages seems like a flat-out conflict of interest to me. And I have an issue with them wedged in between our tax money and our public servants because they only endorse democrats. Not only is that totally unethical, it doesn't appear to working all that well.
4.11.05 @ 8:44a
My husband is a window clerk for the post office. He and I do not agree with many of the things that the post office does or doesn't do. This leads me to telling him that he is brainwashed, and he telling me I have my head up my butt when it comes to business.
Regardless, not all postal employees are part of the union as they don't have to be. The B.S. they feed people is that an employee is better protected when joining the union is is total bullshit as all the the things that a union supposedly covers were made into law for American workers a very long time ago.
I forget who mentioned Fed Ex, but if you think they are better, you must also know that they have a contract with USPS. LOL
Postal employees are also told that it basically takes an act of God to get them fired, so once again we get into the sticky web of work ethics. Some take their sweet old time and f-off all day, while others don't. As for all the questions you may be asked at the window even if it is just for a stamp, they have to do that. It's part of the job.
Once again, I'm not defending what goes on in post offices around the country, but some of what was said here was based on opinion rather than fact.
Starbucks is another Walmart in my opinion and I hate coffee so they'll never see me walking through their doors and spending 5.00 for a cup of coffee.
michelle von euw
4.11.05 @ 9:25a
The reason Starbucks prices are so high is because they *aren't* a Wal-mart: i.e., they actually treat their employees with respect and care, and pay their providers real wages instead of relying on slave labor to pick the beans. But they have become big-business, so I see people's point. (Which is fine -- fewer people in line in front of me!)
Went to my post office Saturday & encountered the longest, most annoying line ever -- however, there was an employee standing at the end who directed people to their new self-service postage machine. Shockingly, most people chose to remain in line and talk to a "real" person, while I was out of there in 30 seconds. Yay, technology!
4.11.05 @ 10:15a
Seeing how I've never been in a Starbucks, I cannot say how they treat people and such.
But, they are still a corporate franchise. There is some guy or woman laughing all the way to the bank everyday for taking advantage of people's caffiene addictions. No?
While Walmart doesn't charge 5.00 for a cup of coffee, they like to make people think they are getting something really good.
Target and Starbucks have joined hands in some places. Now there is an interesting scene. Target shoppers wired on caffiene. It will be interesting to see which direction profit shares go in should they opt to make this plan nationwide.