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Why America Cannot Afford to Let the U.S. Postal Service Go Bankrupt

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Bill Boone was a fresh-faced 23-year-old in 1952 when he cast his first ballot for U.S. president, while proudly serving aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Korea.

The U.S. Postal Service carried that vote untold miles to the election board in Boone’s hometown of Benton, Arkansas, and he’s considered “the mail” an essential part of life ever since.

Today, the 90-year-old retired Steelworker relies on the postal service to deliver his medicines, Social Security checks and letters from relatives. A dedicated letter carrier even walks the mail up the driveway—past the mailbox—to Boone’s front door.

“I told him, ‘You can’t retire until I die,’” Boone said.

The postal service delivers to every U.S. address, no matter how isolated, and charges consistent, reasonable rates to all customers. It’s a lifeline for military members and the elderly. It keeps commerce humming and the country connected.

Americans love the postal service. Yet Donald Trump wants to kill it.

The postal service lost billions of dollars as businesses scaled back operations or closed during the pandemic. The agency usually supports itself with sales of stamps and other products. But now, without as much as $75 billion in emergency federal aid, it will go bankrupt in months.

Americans under stay-at-home orders, with limited access to stores and restaurants, need the postal service more than ever. They overwhelmingly support saving it.

But Trump refuses to help unless the agency quadruples rates on packages it delivers for Amazon and other companies. Because Amazon, UPS, and FedEx won’t deliver to some addresses, such as those in rural areas, they often rely on the postal service to carry packages the so-called “last mile” to a recipient’s door.

If the postal service raised rates, these companies would merely pass along the higher costs to their customers. And many Americans, like the 30 million or so who just lost their jobs because of the pandemic, can’t afford that.

The death of the postal service would deprive Americans of a way to vote, pay bills, apply for passports, get prescriptions, send letters, receive tax refunds, collect Social Security and ship items ranging from gold bars to cremated remains.

It would threaten the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, a law-enforcement agency that investigates narcotics trafficking, identify theft and other crimes.

And if the postal service vanished, so would the army of letter carriers who keep tabs on elderly residents, call the fire department when they smell smoke on their routes and generally serve as unofficial neighborhood watchmen.

“I just can’t believe the government would think about shutting down the postal service,” said Boone, who worked at Reynolds Metals Company for nearly 30 years and at Alcoa for 10 more.

“It would be kind of like living without people picking up your trash. In fact, it’s just not an issue that Congress or anybody should have to discuss.”

If Trump kills the postal service, people in remote areas—such as the 272 customers along a 191-mile rural delivery route in Montana and other Americans whom letter carriers now reach by mule, snowmobile and boat—would face higher rates from private shipping companies.

If they could get service at all.

“If private enterprise took over, I think it would be a lot more expensive, and our rural delivery would probably just evaporate,” said Mike Harkin, a longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L in Des Moines, Iowa. “I’d probably have to drive to town every time to mail stuff.”

Harkin, a Firestone retiree and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), seldom sees FedEx and UPS trucks on his rural road miles from the small town of Woodward.

But the mail truck is another story. Harkin says his letter carrier will gladly drive packages up his quarter-mile-long driveway if they’re too big for the mailbox.

Although the postal service hemorrhaged money during the pandemic, it’s worked hard to keep America functioning through the crisis.

In addition to the regular mail, it delivers surveys for the critically important 2020 census. It brings masks, sanitizers, toilet paper and other pandemic staples that Americans order online. It accommodates small companies trying to stay afloat by conducting more mail-order business during the crisis.

In March, Trump signed a pandemic stimulus package with money for hospitals, aid for businesses and checks of up to $1,200 for individual taxpayers. The postal service delivers those checks, which Trump insisted bear his own signature.

Postal workers pay a heavy price for their dedication. Hundreds have been sickened by COVID-19. Dozens died.

By keeping post offices open and the mail flowing, the postal service provides a rare dose of normalcy during the pandemic.

And the agency’s importance is growing. Come November, American democracy may depend on it.

More and more Americans want the federal government to make mail-in balloting a universal option because they fear catching the coronavirus at polling places.

They worry about standing in lines when public health experts stress the need for social distancing. They don’t want to touch the door handles at polling places or push buttons on voting machines, knowing the coronavirus can live on surfaces.

Boone says nothing will stop him from voting on November 3. He’ll go to the polls if he must but would feel more comfortable casting his ballot by mail for the first time since his Navy days nearly seven decades ago.

It isn’t just voters who are concerned. Some states fear they’ll have a difficult time finding poll workers, who are predominately elderly.

Only if Americans have the option of voting by mail can the nation ensure a viable turnout in a critically important election. That means saving the postal service.

Right now, Trump is among a minority of Americans who fail to see the postal service for the bargain it is. “I’d be lost without it,” Harkin said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute on May 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).


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The Head of the Postal Workers Union Says the Postal Service Could Be Dead in Three Months

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Among the most prominent victims of the coronavirus financial crisis is the United States Postal Service, which could quite literally run out of money to operate if the federal government does not approve a rescue package for it soon. The Trump administration—which, like much of the GOP, has long advocated for cutbacks and privatization of the postal service—actively prevented the USPS from being bailed out in the CARES Act, even as Donald Trump has made a show of publicly thanking Fedex and UPS for their work. Not very subtle. 

Fifty years ago last month, U.S. postal workers staged an unprecedented and historic eight-day strike, backing down the Nixon administration and winning the right to collective bargaining. A half century later, Mark Dimondstein, the leader of the 200,000-strong American Postal Workers Union, says that Republicans are using today’s crisis as an opportunity to destroy the postal service as a public entity once and for all. In These Times spoke to Dimondstein about the existential peril facing postal workers, and what they plan to do about it. 

What specifically are you asking for from Congress right now? 

Mark Dimondstein: The pandemic is having a huge economic impact on mail. The Post Office is not taxpayer funded, so it normally runs on revenue from postage and services. And if 40 to 50% of that dries up in this pandemic—which is what looks like it’s happening, in a very quick and precipitous way—then that money has to be made up. So the Postal Board of Governors is asking for $25 billion for relief, and another $25 billion for modernization, which gives them money to modernize the fleet. This is a relief for every single person in the country. It’s not a relief for a private entity. 

We had bipartisan support for some real relief [in the CARES Act], and it was actually stopped by Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, representing this administration. 

What do you think is the source of the Republican hostility towards rescuing the Post Office?

Dimondstein: I think it’s pretty straightforward. In June of 2018, an Office of Management and Budget report—that’s the White House—openly called for an opportunity to sell off the Post Office to private corporations. Their agenda is to enrich a few of their private sector friends at the expense of the people of our country. 

What makes it even more shameful is, we have massive unemployment at a rate that’s never been seen, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And there are 600,000 good, living-wage jobs in the Post Office. That they would dare come after these jobs makes it much more shameful. 

The underlying thing is, they’re coming after a right of the people. If the Post Office is privatized and sold off to private corporations, then who gets mail will depend on who we are, where we live, and how much it would cost. 

How urgent is the situation at the Post Office right now? If the rescue package doesn’t happen, when could people start seeing an impact on their mail? 

Dimondstein: The Post Office has done some modeling, so there are estimates of what would happen. Some time between July and September, the Post Office will likely run out of money. And when they run out of money, their operations will cease. There isn’t any way to put fuel in the trucks, there isn’t any way to pay workers, there isn’t any way to keep the lights on. 

We had bipartisan support in the House and Senate [to fund the Post Office in the CARES Act]. And a Wall Street, Goldman Sachs Secretary of the Treasury said to both parties,”You will not have an incentive package that the Post Office is in.” Even though they gave $500 billion to the private sector. So we have to flip it. We now need Congress to tell Mnuchin, “There will be no incentive package that you want without the Post Office in it.” 

Are you afraid that they might try to come after your collective bargaining rights as some sort of tradeoff? 

Dimondstein: The presidential task force that Mnuchin headed up actually called for an end to our collective bargaining rights. So that’s on their agenda too. Since 2010, our workers made great sacrifices, and made huge concessions worth billions and billions of dollars a year to the Post Office. So we’ll vigorously oppose any effort to tie any strings to it—no strings should be tied to anything that happened Covid-related. 

You’ve got postal workers on the front lines, doing essential work. We’ve had over 30 postal workers die from the coronavirus. Thousands have been sick, thousands more have been quarantined. And they’re gonna talk about coming after our wages and benefits? No way. 

Your union has a fairly large membership. Since you find yourself in this borderline existential situation right now, are there any more militant actions you might take as a union, if it comes down to life or death for the Post Office? 

Dimondstein: We haven’t given a lot of thought to that right now. Right now we’re focused on worker health and safety primarily, and focused on getting Congress to do the right thing. In terms of how people will react if Congress doesn’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But I am sure that workers will be highly upset. Their families will be highly upset. Their communities will be highly upset. And I would think that certainly there would be escalating efforts on the part of the people of this country to make sure that the Post Office is saved.

I want to mention one other thing: The whole question of whether the ballot is going to be protected. Here you have a situation where people are unable to come vote physically. Poll workers are unable to come and be safe in their civic duties. Poll by mail is safe, there’s a paper trail, it’s working in states that do it by law, it’s working in states that do it voluntarily. It increases participation. And look, there are those in this country who would rather not have people coming to the ballot box. The work of the ballot box is largely going to become the mail. So again, the public Post Office is the civic life of this country. 

Your union endorsed Bernie. What are your thoughts on how the primary turned out?

Dimondstein: I think Senator Sanders did a terrific job over the last number of years, 2016 and 2020, boldy raising issues that needed to be raised. And that’s why people responded so well. Sanders has raised up single-payer healthcare, i.e. Medicare for All. It was a fringe issue. Now it’s not a fringe issue. Look at what this pandemic says to us: We live in a society. If we’re going to be healthy, everybody has to have health insurance. If you’re sick, guess what? You may give it to somebody else. 

I think what happened was, and Sanders put it this way himself: He lost the electability argument. That’s unfortunate, because I think Sanders was the most electable. I think this pandemic underscores that we have to have a more collective, take-care-of-each-other approach, whether it’s on paid sick leave, whether it’s on Medicare for All, whether it’s on child care, whether it’s on the ability of the federal government–I mean, the idea that this government couldn’t figure out in advance to have tests for people, and to be able to get it done quickly? That’s an absurdity. 

What do you think this crisis is going to mean for the labor movement going forward? Will it damage unions, or will it be a big opportunity? 

Dimondstein: If we’re really gonna be a movement, I think this is the time when workers are saying to each other, “We have to have a true voice at work.” Workers all over this country are absolutely vulnerable in this pandemic. I think it’s a valuable lesson for workers of this country that we need stronger unions, and we need stronger societal and collective benefits. 

I would hope—and there’s certainly some sentiment out there, in the articles I’ve been reading, from the Instacart workers, to the Walmart workers, the Amazon workers, all sorts of warehouse workers and so on—that they have felt much more vulnerable without having an organization to defend themselves. 

The labor movement has to act like a movement. The labor movement needs to be much more clearly, in my view, fighting for all workers, whether they’re in unions or not. That means fighting for societal-based health insurance, not employer-based health insurance. Societal-based sick leave, not employer-based sick leave. The AFL-CIO and the other unions have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of the entire working class in those negotiations.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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Postal Service Drops Staples Privatization Effort

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The Postal Service’s experimental “pilot program” in privatizing the retail end of the USPS using Staples outlets has failed and ended. The “Grand Alliance to Save Our Postal Service” has forced the USPS to back off from partnering with Staples in their effort to privatize and undermine the wages and jobs of USPS employees.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) reports that the “Approved Shipper” program will end operations in Staples stores by the end of February,

Postal management informed the APWU in writing that the “Approved Shipper” program in Staples stores will be shut down by the end of February 2017. This victory concludes the APWU’s three-year struggle. The boycott against Staples is over!

“I salute and commend every member and supporter who made this victory possible,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “I never doubted that if we stayed the course, stuck together and kept the activist pressure on, we would win this fight.”

Bloomberg has the story, in U.S. Postal Service Drops Service at Staples Amid Union Pressure,

Following union-backed boycotts and an adverse labor board ruling, the United States Postal Service has agreed to curb a controversial arrangement allowing private employees to provide its services at Staples Inc. stores.

USPS spokeswoman Darlene Casey told Bloomberg that the Postal Service would end its relationship with Staples in order to comply with a National Labor Relations Board judge’s ruling.

NLRB Ruling Came On Top Of Labor And Public Opposition And Boycott

The immediate cause of the USPS decision was an order from the National Labor Relations Board, but the bigger picture was labor and public opposition to privatization, including a “Stop Staples” Staples boycott. The Washington Post explains, in U.S. Postal Service to halt retail sales at Staples stores after union complaints,

The move resulted from a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) order issued on Wednesday. The board adopted an administrative law judge’s ruling from November. It “requires the Postal Service to discontinue its retail relationship with Staples,” said Darlene Casey, a Postal Service spokeswoman. “The Postal Service intends to comply with that order.” USPS could have appealed, but decided not to fight.

APWU initiated the NLRB complaint against the Postal Service for improperly subcontracting work to Staples that could have been done by postal employees. But while the NLRB order was the direct link to the program’s downfall, APWU President Mark Dimondstein said that legal tactic was just one part of a larger strategy that included demonstrations, educating customers and attending company stockholder meetings.

A Big Win

The Washington Post story quotes APWU President Mark Diamond stein, explaining that this is a “big win”,

“This is a big win,” Dimondstein said. “Staples is out of the mail business which they should never have gotten into. Our members take great pride in their training and their responsibilities; they swear an oath; they perform a public service. The quality of service at a Staples store isn’t comparable. The public should have confidence in the mail. Important letters, packages and business correspondences shouldn’t be handled like a ream of blank paper.”

“This is also a win for those who care about the neighborhood post office,” his statement continued, “and for all those in our society who think that workers should earn a fair living wage with decent health care and a pension, rather than the Staples model of minimum wage, part-time hours and no benefits.”

Postal Professionals vs Low-Age Retail Employees

One of the objections to Staples stores handling mail was the need for well-trained professionals to handle mail services. An Inspector General conducted an audit of the “Approved Shipper Program” and as the Bloomberg report put it,

The audit found that the Postal Service lost revenue due to participants incorrectly accepting boxes with insufficient postage, that clerks at the private retailers often didn’t complete certified mail forms correctly, and that “shippers are still not complying with mail security requirements.”

It Takes A Coalition

This victory for postal workers shows how coalitions like the “Grand Alliance to Save Our Postal Service” can achieve things for working people. According to APWU,

Many national unions endorsed the boycott including large teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). The other postal unions enthusiastically supported the campaign. The 12 million worker-strong AFL-CIO added Staples to their official boycott list. UNI the Global Union, an international union association, endorsed the Staples boycott urging all of the affiliated unions throughout the world to put pressure on Staples, since the company does business in 26 countries. Dozens of state AFL-CIO federations, local unions, Central Labor Councils, community allies and city councils passed resolutions endorsing the boycott.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on January 9, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

 


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Postal Workers to USPS: Don’t Shred Our Contract

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The U.S. Postal Service’s plans to cut more than 220,000 jobs—that’s right, nearly a quarter million—and break a collective bargaining agreement has its employee unions up in arms.

The financially-strapped U.S. Postal Service revealed last week that by 2015 it plans to trim its workforce by nearly one-third, close 300 processing facilities and institute its own health and retirement system to replace existing federal programs, according to several reports. About 100,000 of the jobs are expected to be eliminated through attrition.

The proposal, which requires congressional approval, has drawn concern from unions and labor observers for its potential to further erode the middle class. And it’s renewed fears that other employers will soon follow with their own cost-cutting measures.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat—nor collective bargaining contracts?—will stay the USPS from the swift completion of its appointed rounds. (William Thomas Cain/GETTY IMAGES)

The decision comes after the USPS has suffered continuous declines in recent years due to drops in mail volume, advertising, an increase toward online communication and private competitors like FedEx and UPS. The postal service makes most of its revenue through postage fees and receives little support from taxpayers.

As a result, the agency posted $8 billion in losses last year and $20 billion in the past four. Moreover, the postal service expects to be insolvent by next month when the fiscal year ends.

The USPS has already implemented a number of cost-cutting moves, including plans to reduce their current career workforce of 583,908. More than 110,000 jobs have been eliminated in the last four years and the AP reports that currently 7,500 administrative staff jobs are also in the process of being removed. In June, the agency stopped funding pension contributions, which it says are over-funded. Almost 3,700 post offices across the country, mostly in rural areas, could be eliminated. Saturday service may also cease.

The agency also plans to reduce labor expenses. Last week, the Washington Post obtained “white papers” (PDF link) written by the USPS that seek to withdraw its employees from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, essentially because they view as it as too costly and want greater employee contributions.

The postal service also wants legislative changes that would allow collective bargaining agreements to be broken in order to implement layoffs. USPS workers represented by the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) with more than six years experience are protected. The National Association of Letter Carriers‘s (NALC) contract also has a clause restricting layoffs.

There’s plenty of disagreement about whether Congress’ decision to nullify a labor contract would be unprecedented, and whether it’s merely a reflection of the current employment climate or a ploy to get an anemic legislature to find a solution. A USPS  spokesman has said that “everything is on the table.”

Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees union tells the Washington Post: “When you break a contract, basically what you’re saying is that we have left the era of good-faith bargaining and negotiation and entered into employer unilateralism.”

University of California at Berkeley labor professor Harley Shaiken told Bloomberg News that the job cuts would be “politically damaging” to the Obama administration. He adds: “It would make the federal government the largest contract breaker in the country.”

The APWU, the NALC and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association have opposed the post office proposals and viewed it as an attack on their bargaining rights. The unions say that labor costs aren’t the source of the USPS’s budget crisis.

The labor groups instead point to a congressional mandate from 2006 known as the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. The measure requires the postal service to pay for the healthcare benefits of future retirees for the next 75 years, all within a 10-year period at the rate of $5.5 billion annually. It is the only federal agency with such a requirement. The payments started in 2007 and unions cite the pre-funding plan as the reason why the postal office has declared its inability to pay the future healthcare costs by September.

NALC President Fredric V. Roland wrote in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun that the postal service would have been profitable during the downturn and losses would have been minimized if it weren’t for the pre-funding mandate.

The unions, however, are not asking to remove the legislative requirement but are instead pressing legislators to support a bill that would allow payments to be made using funds from a pension surplus. H.R. 1351, introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), would address the budget crisis, maintain bargaining rights and avoid further cuts, the APWU and NCLA said.

“This responsible business move, with zero taxpayer involvement, would leave pensions and retiree health benefits fully funded well into the future while putting the USPS budget back on sound financial footing,” Roland said.

Meanwhile, a job that had been a staple for the middle-class mobility is being threatened, echoing similar reverberations in the private sector where Verizon workers are currently on strike. The USPS is scheduled to begin negotiations with the letter carriers union this week and the smaller National Postal Mail Handlers Union next week.

*This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on August 17, 2001.

About the Author: Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer and reporter for Kyodo News. He regularly contributes to the In These Times blog covering labor and workplace issues. He lives in New York City.


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