Keeping Your Post Office Your Post Office

Today, I read an article about a proposal announced by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The Postmaster General has a business plan draft that will be asking Congress to help the Service balance the agency’s books by making significant cuts to employee benefits for its 500,000 workers.

The proposal would trim paid leave, raise workers’ share of pension contributions, and shift new employees into less secure 401(k)-style retirement plans. The changes would amount to a cut in take-home pay for hundreds of thousands of workers while saving an estimated $18 billion on employee compensation over ten-years. 

The proposal would also expand its “non-career workforce” — temporary workers who are not eligible for the same pay and benefits as permanent employees. This would mean a further reduction in job opportunities that have long been steppingstones to the middle class for many Americans. 

The article interested me for a couple of reason. First, I’ve used America’s postal service for a long time. I’ve appreciated their work since the days when I was mailing in cereal box tops for decoder rings and receiving envelopes filled with colorful foreign stamps, for my boyhood collection. I know I’m only speaking from my own experience, but postal workers have always come through for me. I think they earn what they’re paid. 

The other reason I was interested in today’s USPS news item dates back to 1971. That was the year I had the experience of working on an ad campaign introducing the public to the “new” United States Postal Service. Until ‘71, the U.S. Post Office Department had operated purely as a government branch with all the sclerotic bureaucracy you’d expect in a system that originated with Benjamin Franklin.  

The old Postal Department became the new USPS, to be organized and operated like a business. Management responsibilities were tighter. New profit center development was encouraged. Postmaster promotions would no longer be political. If you proved you skills as a postmaster in a small town, you could set your sights on eventually moving up to a larger post office with more responsibilities and higher pay. Your progress up the career ladder would be based on merit.  

Perhaps I was caught up in the hype, but as I visited a variety of postal operations, including Chicago’s gigantic post office spanning Congress Street, I felt I could sense a level of enthusiasm for the changes and modernization being introduced. My assignment lasted less than two years but I came away from it with a respect for how seriously postal workers take their jobs. — That “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow,” slogan rings true for me, much more so than any slogan General Electric or Chase Bank has ever thrown at us. 

Nearly 50 years have gone by since the new USPS was introduced. During that time we’ve seen the arrival of computers in every home, and the Internet, email, electronic documents, cell phones, texting — all alternatives to letter writing. We’ve also seen FedEx and UPS expand their services in profitable areas. Meanwhile, our nation’s Postal Service has been required to deliver your letters and packages for the same rate whether it’s to Kankakee, Illinois or Kaklovik, Alaska. None of this has made operating like a “profitable” business any easier. 

Bur here’s what has really made things tough. In 2006, under the Bush Administration, a new federal law forced the agency to set aside billions annually in advance funding for retirees’ health benefits, a federal agency requirement unique to the Postal Service. (Private sector companies generally fund retiree health care on a pay-as-you-go basis.) In fact, in 2015 the Obama Administration’s Postmaster, Megan Brennan, testified that the majority of the agency’s net losses over the previous years stem from that requirement.  

For 36 years (1970-2006), the USPS paid its current retiree health benefits out of pocket without incident. The 2006 crippling of the Service’s ability to steady their finances was greeted with approval by many Republicans in and beyond congress – especially those who never saw a government privatization plan they didn’t like.  

Today, in researching this subject, I quickly found several treatises saying the USPS was doomed with the only solution being privatization. Not surprisingly, the sources for those opinions included the Cato Institute and Forbes Magazine. Right now, Republicans like Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio are clamoring for a plan that would privatize our U.S. Mail.  

But such an outcome is far from a fait accompli. Even the proposal to slash USPS worker benefits is still being debated. Nevertheless, Republican eagerness to see our government’s Postal Service fade out of existence, replaced by a privatized for-profit postal system, has been around for years and will not go away. Will it ever happen? I hope not. But then, I never imagined we’d see so many American prisons privatized, and you can be sure Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wouldn’t mind a few thousand more privatized schools. – These folks will never give up on their vision for America. We must keep pushing back with ours.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973