"Pray for the Postal Service!" by Philip F. Rubio


December 28, 2011

BY PHILIP F. RUBIO

“Pray for the Postal Service!”  That was the last line that our letter carrier wrote on her holiday card to us, after we had left her a holiday card the day before thanking her for her service over the past year.  We do that every December like many other postal patrons in the United States.  I think my wife and I started doing that after I started carrying mail in 1980 in Colorado (I finished my career in North Carolina). 

December was actually my favorite month to deliver mail despite the stress and pressure of getting all the extra holiday mail out with less daylight in which to work.  The “up” side to that pre-Christmas rush was getting cards, cookies, and verbal expressions of appreciation from people on my mail route.  That gratitude was a vote of confidence for having tried hard all year to get it right every day: no misdeliveries, no forgotten “vacation holds,” no damage done to any mail. 

Even with 171 billion pieces of mail delivered in 2010 (about 37 billion fewer than the nearly 208 billion pieces in 2000, the year I left the U.S. Postal Service to go to graduate school, and 42 billion fewer than the high water mark of 213 billion pieces in 2006), the U.S. Postal Service still delivers 40% of the world’s mail, connecting Americans with each other and the rest of the world. And this year it delivered almost 17 billion letters and parcels between Thanksgiving and Christmas alone..

But in my twenty years of delivering mail I never thought that I or anyone else would feel moved to write something on a holiday card like “Pray for the Postal Service!”  Sure, there were calls by some even back then to privatize the USPS.  And it was always unnerving to hear.  But they had no firepower, so it was no major concern.  So what happened since then?

*   *   *   *   *   *

The U.S. Postal Service today is most definitely not a dying entity as some popular fables have it, but it is under attack like never before.  The source of the current crisis is the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which began imposing an unreasonable and unnecessary annual burden on the Postal Service that essentially says: “Come up with $5.5 billion a year for the next 10 years to cover 75 years worth of retirees' health benefits.” 

Even with the worst recession in 80 years and a significant drop in mail volume, the Postal Service has managed to earn a revenue surplus of $611 million dollars over the last four years.  Unfortunately, the prefund requirement turned those profits into deficits, forcing the Postal Service to look for drastic cuts in service to keep from going bankrupt.

Six months ago, you rarely saw or heard the above argument made in op-ed pieces, articles, or news reports in the mainstream media.  Now it’s not only common to see and hear those kinds of arguments, but many media outlets even express sympathy for that point of view.  What changed?  Thanks to relentless pushback from post office supporters, especially postal unionists, those who seek the dismantling of the post office have lost their absolute control of the “post office is obsolete” narrative. 

This momentum shift is encouraging.  What’s still dispiriting, though, is the fact that the law remains unchanged and as destructive as ever. 

That same 2006 law also made it more difficult for the Postal Service to expand its services to make up for losses in first class mail volume.  It's important to remember that throughout its 236-year history (including the first 196 as the U.S. Post Office) the Postal Service successfully anticipated and responded to consumer demand while still fulfilling its constitutional and congressional mandate to provide universal service. 

It’s also important to remember that in 1971 the Post Office became the U.S. Postal Service following an eight-day nationwide postal wildcat strike in 1970 against low pay, followed by the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act.  The new U.S. Postal Service remained a government agency providing universal service at uniform rates, but was also mandated to operate more like a business and become self-supporting with no taxpayer subsidies. 

This new government/corporate hybrid status was good in some ways, not so good in others.  Under the new law, postal employees — the vast majority of them unionized — enjoyed full, not just partial, collective bargaining rights over all issues, although the USPS is still subject to congressional oversight.  The Postal Service also became more efficient in mail processing thanks to higher worker productivity and capital investment in technology. 

The Postal Service still enjoys an exclusive right to handle first-class mail, with mailboxes only accessible to the Postal Service, but is disallowed from competing directly in certain areas with private sector delivery companies.  Yet while being mandated to provide universal service (that is still one of the cheapest and most efficient in the world), regardless of overhead, rising gas costs, etc., it must also depend entirely on revenue.  If not, it would go bankrupt. 

In that way, the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act set the Postal Service up to be more vulnerable should anything interfere with its ability to be self-supporting.  It has managed to remain self-supporting since then (no government subsidies since 1982).  But despite the USPS’s ability to grow, adapt, and innovate over two centuries, today many suddenly argue that because of the World Wide Web (by contrast only 17 years old) there is no more need for a government-run post office. 

Bizarrely, conservative pundit George Will, who regularly rails against progressives and progressive public policy, recently wrote: “The main culprit for the USPS’ woes is progress.  That includes email…the digital delivery of movies…and those pesky private-sector delivery companies.”  (“Deliver the Mail to New Hands,” Raleigh News and Observer, November 27, 2011, p. 25.)  Meanwhile, Christopher Shaw’s book Preserving the People’s Post Office has documented the diminished service/higher rates/job loss fiasco of privatizing public mail service in Argentina, Finland, Sweden, and New Zealand.  “Don’t it always seem to go,” Joni Mitchell once sang, “that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?” 

Thirty percent of Americans do not access the Internet, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report in February 2011.  (It's tempting to add that 70% of Americans are at one time or another still waiting for the Internet to load or come back up.)  But not only is the Postal Service used for important business and correspondence, it is actually picking up parcel business from Internet orders, including "last mile delivery" business from UPS and FedEx. 

Those two companies serve at most 20 million addresses, while the Postal Service serves 150 million American homes and businesses, with 2 million new addresses each year, handling 40 million address changes per year as well.

Furthermore, the Postal Service is currently exploring the use of expanded digital services such as "eMailbox" and digital currency operations for unbanked citizens — among other things — that will help it provide universal service on a secure digital platform in what is now a private and often chaotic medium.  Even a top Microsoft executive in 2008 acknowledged that the Postal Service (the public's most trusted government agency in polls taken year after year) could "meet the public need for trusted electronic communications in a way that no private sector organization could rival" (The Postal Service Role in the Digital Age,  p. 10).

Those new services and others, however, would likely have to be approved by Congress, which in the 2006 postal law imposed limitations on services that the Postal Service could provide that might compete with the private sector. 

*   *   *   *   *   *

The Postal Service, in short, needs no government bailout, unlike a number of major private sector corporations and banks that have survived in the last few decades only after being saved by taxpayer money. 

Instead, the Postal Service needs Congress to act quickly to prevent its unnecessary and potentially devastating collapse as a vital communications and commercial link, as well as the hub of a $1.3 trillion dollar and 8 million job mailing industry.   

How likely is that to happen?  H.R. 2309 (Ross-Issa) is on the floor of the House.  It would effectively dismantle the USPS with an unelected “solvency authority” empowered to cut wages and benefits as well as impose massive layoffs and closures of post offices and mail processing centers.  Meanwhile, H.R. 1351 (Lynch), which would use the USPS’s pension fund overpayments (about $50 billion) to relieve the prefund artificial debt burden, is still stuck in committee despite having 227 co-sponsors.  Over in the Senate, S. 1789 (Carper), with its positive features to allow the USPS more competitive opportunities, nevertheless would also allow cuts in Saturday delivery and not relieve that prefunding debt burden.  

If Congress won’t act, an executive order by President Obama may be necessary.  Executive orders have been used in postal matters in the past: In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt abolished the discriminatory Civil Service application photograph, and in 1962 President John F. Kennedy extended partial collective bargaining rights to government employee unions that did not discriminate or segregate.

With Congress in a logjam on this and many important budget and policy matters, this would be a good time for citizens to let Congress know that the U.S. Postal Service needs to be allowed to do its constitutionally and congressionally mandated job to, as it reads in Section 101(a) of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, Title 39, Part 1, Chapter 1: "bind the nation together” (about as poetic a phrasing as you will find in a federal law).

It isn't so much the Postal Service's "business model" that's broken as its congressionally-imposed prefunding mandate and restricted business mandate.  But in face of existential attacks by postal abolitionists like George Will, FedEx, Cato Institute, and H.R. 2309 author Darryl Issa (R-CA), the U.S. Postal Service in defending itself tends to tilt towards the business end and away from the service aspect.  They are whistling in the wind.  Nothing less than complete dismantlement will impress or satisfy the privatizers.

Section 101(b) of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act bears quoting here, especially now at a time when many post offices face closing: “The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.  No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities.” 

Those who have campaigned so hard to save the Postal Service must wonder at why it has often behaved so ambivalently about saving itself — occasionally protesting, but usually not actually confronting would-be privatizers.  It makes you wonder: if the prefunding requirement was eliminated, would the Postal Service still be making questionable proposals that put business over service, such as eliminating Saturday delivery, laying off needed employees, and closing post offices while opening retail outlets in shopping malls?  Defending itself by saying it (the Postal Service) needs to act like a business and calling for more cuts in service, large-scale layoffs, and cuts in employee benefits seems familiar to me.  It resembles the kind of dispute dance I used to see done daily on the shop floor or periodically at the national bargaining table between postal labor and postal management — united by service while divided over who controls the work process and how service will be implemented.

So the postal preservationist movement has become a somewhat awkward coalition — an interest convergence of postal unions, the U.S. Postal Service, public officials, and concerned citizens — versus postal abolitionists who possess the advantage of one common driving historical agenda of privatization.  But the postal abolitionist agenda was never able to accomplish its goals as long as the Postal Service was not crippled by onerous legal requirements or bankruptcy.  But now, thanks to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, postal abolitionists finally have the opportunity for which they’ve long been waiting.

*   *   *   *   *   *

Article 1, Section 8 of the 1787 U.S. Constitution lists 18 powers that “Congress shall have.”  Number seven of that section is “To establish post offices and post roads,” which Congress codified with the first Postal Act in 1792.  But besides helping to develop communications, commerce, finance, and advertising in this country, the post office also had to be challenged on such matters as authoritarian work culture as well as white-only hiring practices until 1865 followed by discriminatory practices that lasted approximately another century. 

The U.S. Postal Service today is the nation’s number two civilian employer (not counting the federal government as a whole).  It is also the number two civilian employer of both African Americans and veterans, who make up about 21 percent each, with approximately 120,000 employees for each group.   Additionally, the Postal Service’s fulltime workforce is 37 percent women, eight percent Hispanic, and eight percent Asian — also a product of struggle and change both inside and outside the post office.  This workforce of about 560,000 people is diverse, hard-working, and trained — as we were always told when I worked there — to preserve “the sanctity of the mail” and the privacy of your mailbox.

I join our neighborhood’s mail carrier in praying for the postal service.  Of course, we all know that it will take more than prayer to save it.  But I’m encouraged to see more people fighting to resist the abolition of the U.S. Postal Service.  We may even win this one.  We have to.  Consider the consequences if we don’t.

(Photo credit: top photo, Les Todd, Duke Photography)

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