I was a struggling single mom with three young children living in California. I wanted to continue working, but I couldn’t afford to pay the rent, live and take care of my kids on what I was earning from my job. Divorced, with no income from my children’s father, I was forced to quit that low-paying job and go on welfare.
After handling the bureaucracy of the state welfare system, I drew upon the values of personal responsibility and work I learned growing up in Maine. I hated not working, and I knew I needed a good job to support my children.
My aunt encouraged me to seek employment with the Postal Service, because it offered secure employment opportunities with good wages and benefits. I took the postal exams for every job offered at five separate facilities in southern California. I scored well, and I was offered a letter carrier position. I didn’t even know it was a union job, but after not being able to afford rent, and food and child care, I was grateful to be able to care for my children on my own. I still wasn’t rich, but my kids and I could survive.
After two years working for the Postal Service, I wanted to return to Maine. Because of the national contract, I was able to transfer back home, where I met and married my husband — also a letter carrier in Bangor. We were able to save for our twins to attend college for four years. They both worked while attending college, but my husband and I were able to pay their student loan payments for four years. Having them both in school at the same time was not easy, but we made it work. My husband and I would not have been able to do so without our jobs and the wages we secured through the union.
My husband and I have worked hard for the Postal Service for more than 30 years and 20 years, respectively. We remain grateful each day that we have good, secure jobs. Our family has weathered some rough times. My husband and our children have had several health issues over the years, but we have been very lucky to have excellent health coverage — coverage I am confident we would not have if we didn’t have union jobs.
As a woman, it is a relief not to worry about “glass ceilings” or being paid less than male co-workers. All letter carriers — male and female — collectively bargain for the same pay, opportunities for health care coverage and retirement benefits. We are all in this together.
I now serve as the president of the local letter carriers union in Bangor. I am not a “union boss” as advertised in commercials, but I am an advocate and resource for letter carriers. The union members I serve are not thugs, but the men and women that Bangor’s families and businesses rely on every day to deliver their mail and serve their community.
All postal employees have the choice whether they want to join a union, but all postal employees benefit from collective bargaining, whether they join or not. In Bangor, all but one of our career letter carriers belongs to the union. In Maine, 97 percent of letter carriers are members of the union. They belong because they see the value of membership, not because they are forced or intimidated to do so.
My story has a happy ending, but for too many working families the story is very different. We need to rebuild an economy that works for everyone. I strongly encourage our senators to support Mainers and women by voting for the Employee Free Choice Act. This common sense piece of legislation would give workers the freedom to join a union without intimidation and bargain collectively for better wages and benefits. I want every family to have the same opportunities mine has been blessed with having.
Renee Overlock is a letter carrier in Bangor and the president of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 391.