Turning up the heat: The DC Hunger Strike



On June 25th, a band of protestors will travel to Washington DC to stage a four-day hunger strike calling attention to the Postal Service’s plans to reduce service and cut jobs.  That’s just days before the Postal Service implements the change in service standards that will end overnight delivery for about 20 percent of First Class mail, a prelude to further service reductions next year and in 2014.

“Save the Post Office” joins over 400 community groups, clergy, citizens, and postal workers endorsing the strike.  You can see the endorsement list here, and you can add your name here.  (By the way, the form asks for your phone number and street address, but those details won't appear in the endorsement list.)

The main theme of the Hunger Strike is that cuts to service will succeed only in driving business away from the Postal Service and sending it into a death spiral.  Slowing down the mail, closing plants, closing post offices and reducing window hours, and putting tens of thousands of postal employees out of work is not the way to solve the Postal Service’s financial problem. 

That problem can be addressed with a simple act of Congress:  Repeal the 2006 Congressional mandate that requires the Postal Service to pay $5.6 billion a year into its Retiree Health Benefit Fund (RHBF) — to cover health benefits decades in advance.  That mandate is the main cause of the postal deficit, and it’s completely unnecessary.

As the USPS Office of Inspector General has observed in a letter to Senator Bernie Sanders, “Prefunding retiree health care is rare in the public and private sectors.  We have been unable to locate any organization, either public or private, that has anything similar to the Postal Service’s required level of prefunding heath care benefits.”

If it’s so rare, why did Congress create such a fund in the first place?  Back in 2002, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) determined that the Postal Service was on course to overfund the CSRS pension fund by over $70 billion.  The Government Accountability Office said the overfunding could top $100 billion.  But reducing the Postal Service’s payments into the pension fund would have added to the federal deficit by $4.5 billion a year.  One of the main reasons Congress decided to have the Postal Service prefund retiree health care was to keep those billions flowing into the Treasury. 

If Congress had been concerned simply with having enough money to pay for retiree health care, it could have decided on a 40-year payment schedule, as the OPM recommended.  But the health care payments would have been too small to balance out the $4.5 billion reduction in payments to the pension fund.  So Congress came up with a ten-year payment schedule — hence the $5.6 billion the Postal Service is now required to pay into the RHBF.

An endless stream of news reports repeats the message coming from Congress and postal headquarters:  The Postal Service has lost $25 billion over the past five years, and If nothing is done, the Postal Service will go broke.  And it's all because of the Internet.

But as the Postal Regulatory Commission stated in its most recent Annual Compliance Determination, “The primary reason for the losses is the overly optimistic RHBF prefunding requirement.  If there had been no prefunding requirement, the cumulative 5-year loss would have been reduced to $4.4 billion.”

So over 80 percent of the $25 billion deficit was caused by the prefunding mandate.  As for the remaining $4.4 billion, about a third of that loss occurred in 2009 and 2010 and can be attributed directly to the recession.  The big loss in 2011 was due partly to the continued weakness in the economy, but it has another cause — and it's not the Internet.  Postal management deserves a good deal of the blame for recent revenue losses.  Whether by accident or design, it has helped to undermine the relevancy and viability of the Postal Service by constantly invoking insolvency and “Greece,” by announcing one cost-cutting plan after another, by reducing service and by promising to reduce it more. 

In the end, however, Congress must take responsibility for the crisis.  “Not the Internet, not private competition, not the recession — Congress is responsible for the postal debt,” explains Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier traveling from Portland, Oregon, for the Hunger Strike.    “Corporate interests, working through their friends in Congress, want to undermine the USPS, bust the unions, then privatize it.”

“We will not stand by as our beloved Postal Service is destroyed,” says Tom Dodge, a postal worker from Baltimore who will be joining the Hunger Strike.  “We will shame Congress and denounce the Postmaster General.  We will engage in dramatic actions on Capitol Hill and at the USPS Headquarters to turn up the heat on decision makers.”

For more about the Hunger Strike, visit the website of Communities and Postal Workers United, a national grassroots network that’s working to share information and expertise in order to preserve customer service and fight the privatization of the Postal Service.