CHICAGO—Thousands of postal workers and their allies held rallies outside 492 post offices across the United States on Sept. 27 to protest the recent announcement by Postmaster General Patrick Donahue that he would seek massive layoffs, union concessions, post office closings, and outsourcing. Postal Service management claims they need to make the massive cuts due to operating losses cause by mail volume declines.
Management wants to eliminate 120,000 jobs, end Saturday deliveries, and close 2500 post offices and 200 processing plants—creating “village post offices,” privatized postal centers that would be located and run by retailers like WalMart.
The corporate-owned media has repeated the mantra that the Postal Service is dying a natural death due to the grown of electronic communication. In reality, the Postal Service had its highest volume in history in 2006. Since then volume has declined, but still remains historically high.
The real source of the Postal Service’s financial problems is the result of a 2006 law passed by Congress that requires it, within a 10-year period, to pre-fund retiree health care for the next 75 years. No other governmental agency has this requirement. This requirement, which costs the Postal Service $5.5 billion a year, was intended to trigger the postal financial crisis and justify busting the postal unions. Additionally, the same law restricted the Post Office from raising postage rates above the rate of inflation, including rates for high-volume customers, such as magazine publishers, who receive deep discounts. Postal unions have called for the passage of HR 1351, which they say would allow the Postal Service to delay payments to the retiree health-care fund.
In Chicago some 500 workers rallied at the Thompson Center, demanding an end to attacks on postal workers and for passage of HR 1351. The spirited crowd was largely African American, and many of the rally speakers noted the historical importance of postal employment in that community. Additionally, they denounced the fact that most of the proposed post office closings in Chicago are in the Black neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city.
Many at the rally pointed out that this attack against postal workers is not just about the financial situation of the Postal Service, but part of a larger attack against workers. Conservatives in Congress and in the media speak of the Postal Service as yet another example of government waste and of public-sector unions with rich unaffordable contracts and pensions. The reality, of course, is that the Postal Service does not receive any subsidy from the federal government. If it were not for the retiree health-care funding obligations. the Postal Service would have run a surplus of $200 million over the past four years.
Despite not receiving any federal subsidies, the Postal Service must operate under Congressional mandates that its competitors such as UPS and FedEx don’t have. These include free service for the blind, passport services, and money-order services.
The most significant mandate is the Universal Service Obligation, which requires the Postal Service to deliver to all addresses in the United States, even in the most remote rural areas, for the same price. Competitors UPS and FedEx don’t service the most remote areas, and charge much higher prices when they do. This is the mission of the postal service, to provide communication services for everyone in the United States regardless of location or income.
Talking heads in the media, in an attempt to build public support for busting the postal workers’ unions, have used the typical story of waiting in long lines at the post office as an example of the inefficiencies of a governmental agency. Postal workers point out, however, that longer lines and other service problems are caused not by lazy workers, but by management, which has reduced the number of postal workers by 130,000 over the past four years, largely through attrition. The number of postal clerks has been reduced, causing longer lines. Letter carriers must work longer routes, causing service delays. The cuts proposed by management would further reduce service.
The four major postal workers’ unions have launched a national campaign to lobby Congress for the passage of HR 1351. While this bill, if passed, may temporarily hold back the squeeze management is putting on postal workers, it does not address the fundamental conflict between them. That is, whether the Postal Service will continue as a low-cost communication service for all, or a privatized for-profit agency.
The idea of the so called “village post offices” are one example of how management envisions the future of the Postal Service. The postal kiosks would be operated by private retailers, who are salivating at the prospect of massive profits. Companies like WalMart would be contracted to staff the kiosks, paying the company to do postal work and using near minimum-wage labor. The Postal Service already has multi-million and billion-dollar contracts with private companies, including the main competitors, UPS and FedEx, to handle some sorting work. Postal management envisions expanding this sub-contracting; it is seeking to bust the postal unions to carry out this privatization scheme—which would be a windfall for corporations.
The postal unions must be prepared for a major showdown as management advances its union-busting policies. Unfortunately, the postal unions’ recent history in bargaining with management has undermined preparation for such a battle.
The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents mail sorters in much of the country, signed a major concessionary contract last April. The contract set up a second tier of workers at lower pay and allows for the expansion of casual, “non-career” workers in exchange for returning some outsourced sorting work and a no-layoff provision. Now, while the ink is barely dry on that agreement, postal management is asking Congress to pass a law overriding it, to allow laying off tens of thousands of workers covered by the contract.
Postal workers need to organize a campaign in defense of their jobs and the future of the Postal Service itself. As the political hacks in Washington talk about the jobs crisis, what sense does it make to lay off 120,000 unionized workers at one of the country’s largest employers? As Obama talks about the need for his “jobs bill” to be passed to create jobs, he has at the same time endorsed, along with many other congressional Democrats, the elimination of Saturday mail service.
The postal unions can’t count on “friends” in Congress to defend their jobs. Instead, they must carry forward the protest by any means necessary against union busting, including making preparations for a nationwide postal strike if Congress passes the proposed Postal Service cuts.
> The article above was written by David Bernt and first appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.