In The News
Turns out Congress is broken -- not the US Postal Service
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted October 13, 2011
Flawed media coverage, expensive political rhetoric, misunderstood social trends and partisan simplicities. Those can create a 2+2=5 economic math myth so pervasive that it fools average citizens, Tea Party mavens and liberals alike.
Here’s a big example of false conclusions. It’s based on how few of us write letters anymore, how literacy seems to be dying (and maybe the need for mail with it), how United Parcel Service in ads and actuality delivers big and small packages around the globe and how the planes of FedEx provide even faster and costlier delivery, as countless commercials inform us.
How modern it all seems, if you don’t look at the poor pay forced on many privatized van drivers, or other shortcuts that allow big-bucks companies to deliver to the door while snail mail carriers trudge the neighborhoods.
And how much we complain that postal rates, still much cheaper than the alternatives, have crept up in all categories; how so many post offices seem antiquated by today’s aluminum and glass standards and how daily mail delivery seems old-fashioned manual work, like needing 19 actors to perform “Hamlet.”
So, in a world where email has grown omnipresent and even recycled green-friendly paper sounds like just more archaic dead trees, most citizens believe these are the reasons the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is losing money.
They are amazed to learn that’s not so. In cost and delivery of services, the USPS has made money since the 1970s. Management and labor (despite conflicts) have often worked together on efficiencies, marketing, contracts and mechanization while quietly providing passports and other special services. And millions still check daily for the convenient arrival.
The public is further amazed to learn that USPS doesn’t cost the taxpayers, unless you stretch to include the few millions allocated for mail to the blind and mailed election ballots. In 1970 USPS was changed from Ben Franklin’s vision to a semi-independent federal agency, much like a private business but mandated to be revenue-neutral (supposed to break even, not make a profit).
And it did, except for an act of the GOP administration in 2006, which demanded something that UPS, FedEx – in fact no business nor government agency in the nation must do: Pay its pension costs for workers, even future workers, 75 years into the future! That’s not good business, that’s a killer. And that’s $80 billion, now an added $5.5 billion weight each year. That would cripple any business but, given the lack of public information in the face of technological change, it makes the USPS sound out of date when it’s not.
As a result of this goofy imposition by a pension-illiterate Congress, several things have happened. Fear of fiscal collapse has flooded the airwaves in every discussion of USPS. This media-generated fear of the future, without explaining the facts, has emerged as the crippling reality of our times.
The management and the unionized workforce, which always had some conflicts but harmoniously worked out contracts and adjustments, have now been put at loggerheads because management pushed by worried Congress wants to shut down post offices around the nation and seems to have settled in large measure on communities lacking electoral clout, such as rural and inner city (look for a ferocious battle to erupt in Milwaukee).
The modernizing routes that both labor and management have long worked on creating has become a concept turned ugly because of those dropped post offices, the removal of convenient as well as excess mailboxes around town -- and now the effort to drop Saturday mail delivery. (That idea prompted a hilarious New Yorker cartoon cover Sept. 19 of a government edifice sporting that famous historic motto about how neither snow nor gloom could stay these "couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" – but now amended to add “EXCEPT ON SATURDAYS.”)
Worse, plans now include laying off 120,000 workers, with no guarantee that this would change red to black, only mollify those slavish Wall Street goons who think fewer workers will provide bigger profits. Wait a minute! How about simply not asking USPS to prefund the health and pension costs of workers not yet born? That would make the financial woes disappear and keep employment strong.
Such a ready solution is in front of Congress. Not to say competitive pressures aren’t real and USPS will have to work hard to keep winning the battle and provide delivery options for all citizens. But Congress could wipe away that artificial mountain it created simply by passing H.R. 1351, introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) to restore financial stability by undoing what the GOP imposed in 2006.
Management insiders quietly agree with this bill though dare not say so aloud. Because the GOP is back in the saddle, however briefly, and the party powers sure seem to resist any idea the Democrats support. Nor do they balk at shutting down services or wiping away 120,000 jobs even as the nation screams for more jobs.
This is the background for the eruption September 27 by thousands of protesters at 492 locations around the US (at least one for every congressional district), including hundreds gathered Downtown on Milwaukee St. for the national “Save America’s Post Office” day of action. (And look for more action in the ensuing months.)
Four USPS employee unions — the postal workers (APWU), letter carriers (NALC), mail handlers affiliated with Laborers (LIUNA) and the rural letter carriers — would be damaged by staff cutbacks, but the protest drew far more than unions. Citizens concerned about loss of Saturday mail, closed post offices in their districts, erosion of a principle of American democracy and the outlandish anti-enterprise pension costs spoke up at these rallies, including representatives of rural communities that would be hit especially hard.
AFL-CIO itself in the form of Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker told Congress through an Oregon crowd of thousands: “Get off the dime and start fixing problems instead of making things worse. America has a jobs crisis. Cutting 120,000 jobs is nothing but another bad idea.”
She also reminded citizens how the postal service is “more than just a bunch of jobs. It’s one of the icons of American life!”
We are about to find out if the GOP majority in Congress cares about history and common sense. But this is also a valuable teaching moment for citizens who may assume they know what is wrong with America from what they hear on TV -- only to discover, as Pogo once said in a cartoon, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” Now a mixture of misguided observations and ideological fibs could keep the mail from going through.