January 11, 2014
Yesterday the Postal Service published data showing what letter carriers have been complaining about for a long time: More and more of them are out on the street after dark. Since 2005, the percentage of carriers out after 5:00 p.m. has gone from less than 20 percent to over 40 percent.
The numbers were produced as part of the request filed by the Postal Service with the Postal Regulatory Commission concerning a proposed change in service standards on some Standard mail. The Postal Service wants to “load level” the mail and deliver on Tuesday mail that would have normally been delivered on Monday. That would help lighten the work of carriers on Monday, the busiest day of the week. (There's more on the request here.)
In order to justify the proposed change, the Postal Service included in its testimony the following chart. Its purpose is to show that the percentage of carriers out after 5:00 on Mondays is much greater than the rest of the week. The red line shows Monday; the blue line shows the average for all seven days of the week.
The PRC’s Public Representative asked the Postal Service to provide the data on which this chart was based, and that’s the data set published on Friday. We’ve put the spreadsheet on Google Docs here. (It’s USPS-LR-10 in Docket N2014-1, and it's on the PRC website here.)
The chart and the data do show that Monday is a long day for carriers, and many more of them are out after 5:00 on Monday than any other day of the week.
But the chart and data show something else as well. The percentage of carriers still on their routes after 5:00 has increased significantly over the past three years.
From September 2005 to September 2010, the average percent of carriers on the street who were out after 5:00 was about 18.5 percent. From September 2010 through September 2012, the average rose to 26.7 percent. Over the next twelve months, it rose to 37.5 percent. In September 2013, 43.5 percent of carriers were out after 5:00 p.m.
And those are the averages for the week. On Mondays in September 2013, 59.4 percent of letter carriers returned after 5:00. The Monday numbers have been over 50 percent since November 2012.
January 9, 2014
Back in November, the Postal Service quietly announced that it was setting up postal counters in a couple of Staples stores in San Jose and South San Francisco. The website Going Postal broke the Staples story a few days later with its report about a pilot program that included 82 Staples stores in areas around San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and west of Boston. (A list and larger map are here.)
The APWU was quick to challenge the program as an attack on postal workers, and earlier this week, the APWU announced what it planned to do about it. On January 18, the union will send delegations to Staples stores in their communities to meet with store managers and protest the postal counters. After the visits, the APWU plans to organize a day of action at Staples stores around the country, followed by sustained actions at a number of stores where postal retail units have opened.
The Postal Service hasn’t had much to say about the pilot program. The only press releases on the USPS.com website are the two from back in November about San Jose and South San Francisco. But putting postal counters in Staples represents a big step. As the San Jose press release says, “The first of its kind, the USPS/Staples program offers access to postal products and services inside select local Staples stores. Once inside, customers will find a familiar looking counter resembling a mini post office containing the most popular postal products and services.”
One wonders why the Postal Service hasn’t made a bigger deal out of the new pilot. In the past, the Postal Service has not been shy about its vast network of alternate retail access channels. In 2011, it ran an ad campaign called “USPS Everywhere” boasting about the 100,000 places you could do some postal business, and it constantly mentions all the alternatives to post offices.
Among these alternatives are over 65,000 places where one can buy stamps, and they include several big box retail chains like Walgreens and Wal-Marts. But the Staples arrangement is new and different.
As a Postal Service spokesperson explained yesterday, the postal counters are basically Contract Postal Units, which offer a much wider range of products and services than simply stamps. CPUs have long been a source of contention with the APWU, but there are only about 3,300 of them right now, the number goes down each year, and they are usually independent operations, not part of a big chain. The prospect of thousands of new CPUs being put in big box stores takes the CPU model to a whole new level.
That seems to be where this is headed. As a recent USPS OIG report on CPUs revealed, "According to management, initiatives to expand CPUs and increase retail alternatives at contractor operated locations are an ongoing effort. In January 2012, the Postal Service issued a request for information to 80 large national retailers regarding interest in establishing partnerships."
The Postal Service says the new Staples program will give customers an additional option and more access to postal services. But is putting postal counters inside of big box stores really a good idea? Here are a dozen reasons why it’s not.
The corporatization of the Postal Service: Post office closures, suspensions, relocations, and reductions in 2013
January 7, 2014
One of the most persistent refrains in the debate about the Postal Service is that it needs to act more like a business. That means different things to different people, but for many, the model for where the Postal Service needs to go is to be found in Europe. In the EU countries, where the process of liberalization has been going on for fifteen years, the government monopolies have come to an end and the marketplace has been opened to more competition. According to free-market doctrine, the competiton was supposed to lead to lower prices and better services, but things haven't quite worked out that way.
According to a new report on the recent history of postal systems in Europe, “liberalization has not improved services and reduced prices as promised by the European Commission and others.” Instead, in countries where the postal systems have been deregulated and privatized, large corporations have come out the winners and average citizens and postal workers have come out the losers.
Consumers see their post offices close and get replaced by postal counters in private businesses. The mail is delivered only two or three days a week and primarily in highly populated areas. For postal workers, liberalization has led to lower wages and more part-time and self-employed contract jobs with little security and few benefits.
While consumers and workers get the short end, large mailers get their mail picked up more frequently, and in many cases their rates have gone down thanks to lower labor costs, cutbacks in postal services for the general public, and the special deals mailers can negotiate with the carriers. The private shareholders in the former public monopolies and the executives of postal businesses are also coming out ahead. Even with declining volumes in letter mail, there are big profits to be had in the mail industry.
The corporatization of the Postal Service
The citizens of the United States have never voted to privatize the Postal Service, but the process of corporatization has been going on for a long time. With each passing year, the Postal Service acts less and less like a public service and more and more "like a business." The scenario that has played out in Europe is playing out in the U.S., just in its own way.
Since 2000, the total number of USPS employees has been reduced by a third, and part-time workers now comprise over 20 percent of the workforce. The Postal Service outsources wherever it can — over $12 billion of its $65 billion in annual expenses go to private contractors and suppliers. Over half of the Postal Service's processing plants have been consolidated, while the workshare system has led to the creation of a huge private-sector consolidation industry, with companies like Pitney Bowes and Quad/Graphics reaping huge profits.
Consumers aren't seeing post offices closing by the thousands, but the hours are being reduced, sometimes to two or four hours a day. A huge network of "alternate retail access points" has been developed to replace brick-and-mortar post offices. Collection boxes are being removed from city streets, the speed and reliability of mail delivery are going down, more customers are getting cluster boxes, postal properties paid for by taxpayers are being sold off, and the lines at post offices are as long as ever, maybe longer.
The Postal Service and Congressional leaders typically blame the service cutbacks and downsizing on the big drop in mail volumes, but the transition toward a corporatized postal system predates declining volumes by a long time. As Christopher Shaw tells it in Preserving the People’s Post Office, there’s nothing new about efforts to close post offices, reduce window hours, get rid of collection boxes, shift to cluster boxes, and everything else we’ve been seeing.
The first big step toward corporatization was the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, which turned the Department of the Post Office into the Postal Service. The process got a big boost in 2003, when President Bush appointed a Commission on the Postal Service. Its report, which seems to have served as a blueprint for Darrell Issa’s postal reform agenda, said that while the country wasn't ready for postal privatization the Postal Service should be run more like a private business. The Commission recommended expanding retail services to private stores, making it easier to close post offices, outsourcing more to the private sector, offering more workshare discounts, setting up a BRAC-like commission to consolidate processing plants, “rightsizing” the workforce, and disposing of postal real estate to “provide benefits to the public in the form of moderated rate increases.”
Many of these recommendations were implemented in the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. For example, PAEA directed the Postal Service to expand “alternate retail options” like vending machines, kiosks, the Internet, and “retail facilities in which overhead costs are shared with private businesses" (sec. 302). These alternatives were not intended simply to improve consumers’ access to postal services. They were about developing an infrastructure that would make it easier to close post offices.
Bush’s Commission came out with its report in 2003, when mail volumes were increasing. PAEA was enacted in 2006 — the year Shaw’s book was published — when mail volumes were at their peak. Declining mail volumes thus had little if anything to do with the rationale for cutting services and closing facilities.
The rationale then, as it is now, was about something else. As Shaw makes clear in his book, the goal has always been to commercialize, corporatize, and eventually privatize the Postal Service in order to enhance the profits and wealth of the corporate stakeholders of the mail industry.
Regarding the sale and preservation of historic post offices and their art: An open letter to the Inspector General
January 5, 2013
Last summer, the USPS Office of Inspector General announced that it was doing an audit investigation on the preservation and disposal of historic post offices. The audit was due out in October, but the release has been postponed until later this year. The audit announcement itself has been removed from the OIG’s website, but there’s an archived version with some of the comments that had been received here.
Gray Brechin, Project Scholar of The Living New Deal Project at U.C. Berkeley, has been lecturing, writing, and organizing to stop the sale of historic post offices, many of them built during the New Deal. He recently submitted comments to the OIG concerning the audit. Here’s Dr. Brechin’s letter to the IG.
Dear Inspector General Williams:
The USPS is, effectively, selling the public’s art collection along with the historic buildings for which it should be a responsible steward. Although these works of art that were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury and paid for by American taxpayers — including architecture — are theoretically protected by preservation covenants held by third parties, in many instances such as Venice, CA, Birmingham, MI, and Palm Beach, FL, they are no longer freely accessible to the public and have thus become the de facto possessions of those who have bought the buildings containing them.
Moreover, virtually no consideration has been given to the fact that these unique works of art were commissioned for specific places and spaces. Thus, to radically change the function of the building for which they were intended — to convert a public postal lobby into an office building, for example — diminishes their worth. This is especially the case if, as so many murals and sculptures do, the art commemorates the history of the postal service and the often heroic work of its employees.
The art works were also not designed to be portable, so moving them to other locations — as in Ukiah, CA, and Bethesda, MD — also diminishes their value, especially if they were designed to have a sequential narrative that may be scrambled once removed from the space for which they were intended. In a case such as “America Under the Palms” in the Princeton, NJ post office, the artist designed the mural to accommodate architectural features such as a postmaster’s door and/or a vaulted ceiling that will ill suit any other location to which the art might be moved.
Furthermore, although I believe that Dallan Wordekemper has been conscientious in his attempts to restore art works and locate those that have been lost, the parameters of his employment as both Real Estate Specialist and Federal Preservation Officer pose a conflict of interest in which the demands of the former may override those of the latter, especially when his superiors in the USPS are monetizing the public’s assets in order to sell them.
As Jill Korte has remarked in her comments on this audit: “The Federal Preservation Officer (FPO) appears to have sole discretion in deciding whether New Deal artwork in U.S. Post Offices may be removed, sold, lent, or otherwise disposed of. There is a total lack of transparency. USPS staff and the general public cannot possibly determine from [USPS] Handbook RE-1 the basis upon which the USPS FPO decides it is proper to remove, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of post office New Deal artwork.”
As with so much else in the current management of the USPS, these decisions that seriously affect the public’s interest and property are made in total opacity with no chance of appeal.
Finally, it has long been my worry that the USPS would — using the excuse of the fiscal exigencies imposed upon it by Congress — sell those artworks since its management claims to own them. The public must have access to the appraised value of the artworks apparently compiled by the USPS.
As to the question posed in the audit announcement, “Considering its financial constraints, what should the Postal Service’s role be in maintaining historic assets?” it should engage in long-term leases rather than sales of surplus space to insure a continual revenue stream while maintaining essential retail services in the buildings for which those services were intended. It should also offer more services — such as postal banking — rather than less and poorer in demeaning spaces.
The current contraction of services under PMG Donahoe is nothing less than an engineered death spiral that will result in the liquidation of the USPS, including the historic assets that it should hold in trust for those who paid for them.
Gray Brechin, Ph.D.
(Photo credit: Edward Biberman's "Story of Venice" mural, from the Venice, California post office, now under restoration by the new owner of the building, Joel Silver, and to be available for viewing "by appointment")