By MARTY GOODMAN
Corporate raiders targeted the United States Postal Service (USPS) for privatization as far back as the Nixon administration, and they are about to gain ground today unless working people stop them. Some 100,000 postal jobs are thought to be at risk, jobs that are overwhelmingly union.
A sinister part of the privatization drive is the over 50 post offices nationally that are up for sale or already sold as of February of this year. Corporate hustlers are hoping to convert post offices into restaurants, malls, and condos. Many post offices up for sale have been designed National Landmarks for their architectural beauty and/or the works of art they contain.
The privatizers hope that remaining USPS jobs and services will fall into the greedy hands of Fed-X, UPS, and other corporate outfits hell-bent on profits. The current estimated value of USPS facilities nationwide is approximately $110 billion, a bonanza for corporate vultures. That inventory includes designated architectural and artistic landmarks from San Francisco to New York City, and Salem, Ore., to Stamford, Connecticut.
Behind the corporate privatization drive are forces like “The Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service,” created in 2004 as the stealthy name for the large mailer association whose industry is estimated at $1 trillion. Members include Time Warner (People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, CNN, etc.), Bank of America, American Express, Pitney Bowes, and AT&T. Another player is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of state lawmakers across the country, backed by donors like the Koch brothers—funders of the right-wing Cato Institute think tank—and big oil, pharmaceutical, and tobacco interests.
Benefiting from the corporate raid is CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate broker and sole manager of Postal Service property sales. CBRE’s chairman is Richard Blum, husband of California’s powerful U.S. Senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
The USPS employs over 500,000 workers; it is the second largest employer in the nation after Walmart, and represents a potential powerhouse of working-class resistance. Its two biggest unions are the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)—representing trucking, mail processing, and clerks—and the National Association of Letter Carriers. USPS workers are about 40% African American, Hispanic, and Asian. Women are about 36% of workers.
The corporate media have repeated the campaign of right-wing lies against the USPS. A so-called “White Paper” was released in January and paid for by the Fortune 500 Company Pitney Bowes, Inc., which is heavily involved in corporate packaging and mailing. The “White Paper” outlines a program of massive downsizing, privatization of all aspects of postal work, and half-pay for many workers.
The public hears only that the USPS is going broke because it is being replaced by the internet. While the internet has decreased first-class mail, internet-driven USPS parcel deliveries are way up because the postal service is less expensive than private carriers like UPS and Fed-X.
But the internet is only part of the story—the cover story. The real deal has been bipartisan legislation, which acts to make the USPS’s survival extremely difficult, if not impossible. Introduced by right-wing Congressman Darrel Issa of California, the Postal ACcountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA), mandates the USPS to fund health benefits 75 years into the future—for employees not yet born—an obligation that no other federal agency or private corporation has. (Can you imagine your boss being so concerned about your health benefits?)
USPS must make yearly contributions of $5.6 billion toward the fund and complete the funding by 2016. Without being saddled with this burden the USPS has had a surplus in the last several years. On top of that, says the USPS Inspector General, the USPS has overpaid $80 billion dollars to the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System, which the federal government refuses to return.
The USPS receives no tax funding and survives on the service it provides. Even so, the USPS heavily discounts large volume corporate bulk mail—that is, mostly junk mail.
General Postmaster Patrick Donahoe, in addition to selling and closing post offices, has tried to break the union by appealing to Congress to remove the no layoff clause. Donahoe has cut hours of operation, reduced thousands of employees by attrition, sub-contracted to private firms, threatened to end six-day delivery, and degraded service, in part by closing and consolidating processing centers, thus delaying mail. Such service cuts can be deadly for the elderly, especially in rural areas, where reliance on mail deliveries of medicine is critical. For the poor who cannot afford the internet, the U.S. mail is a lifeline.
Saving post offices and their art
In a number of cities, coalitions of community activists have joined hands with postal workers to save post offices, many of which are listed as National Landmarks for their architectural beauty and the artwork that they contain. In New York City, there is a renewed effort to save the Bronx General Post Office, up for sale since February of this year.
Socialist Action spoke with retired postal worker John Dennie, who is active in the movement to save the Bronx General Post Office, which went on sale in February. Said Dennie, “I believe that the people of the South Bronx deserve to have this building, which has been here since 1935 with these beautiful Ben Shahn murals in the lobby. There is no reason to sell off this building other than greed.
“This building has been landmarked, and more recently these paintings have been landmarked. We don’t want this to become a cornerstone of gentrification in the Bronx. The most likely use of this building (if sold) would be condos, they’ve already re-zoned this side of the Grand Concourse. We’ve got to stop them.”
Ben Shahn, a renowned artist and Jewish anarchist, completed the murals for the public Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, with his companion and later wife, Bernarda Bryson. Shahn also worked with Mexican artist Diego Rivera on a mural in New York’s Rockefeller Center, later removed because of its inclusion of an image of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
Dennie continued, “The reason this building is being sold is because only the lobby is being used for mail. This building used to be, until 2011, a processing center. They moved the processing to Manhattan. The post office is lying when they say that closing these processing centers doesn’t affect service.”
Jacquelyn McCornick, from the National Post Office Collaborate (www.Nationalpostofficecollaborate.com), told Socialist Action, “We were able to get a court appearance (Oct 24) on a preliminary injunction to stop the sale of the Stamford, Conn. Post Office. We expect the judge to rule on the case next week. If we are successful, that should stop the sale of the Stamford P.O., based on violation of National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process. We are hopeful that this is just the beginning, that this will set a precedent for other like cases throughout the country, including the Bronx, Berkeley, La Hoya, Glendale, Redlands, and others.”
McCornick explained, “The Post Office really hasn’t looked at the cumulative impact of closing these post offices around the country, what was promised us in the constitution concerning postal service, and we hope that this will elevate the discussion and the legacy of the WPA. The properties are part of the public domain and they should stay that way.”
The corporate buyers in Stamford were going to tear down the rear portion of the PO and build condos. In another case in Venice, California the real estate corporation that bought the post office, allows public viewing of its art works just six times a year by appointment—but only for one hour a week!
In Berkeley, Calif., activists set up a tent city from late July through August to save their post office. The Beaux-Arts building was constructed in 1914 and contains a WPA mural and sculpture. Unfortunately, while protesters had gone to another action, cops shut down the tent city, in line with the increased repression under the Obama administration, such as the cop attacks on Occupy Wall Street. For more news, go to http://www.savethepostoffice.com.
INSURGENTS TAKE OVER APWU
An insurgent caucus in the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), called the “Members First” slate, won union-wide leadership in a vote counted on Oct. 8. Workers were fed-up with inaction in the face of massive attacks on their 2010 contract. Seven of the slate’s nine candidates booted out the old guard. Mark Dimondstein of Members First was elected president, with 27,000 votes compared to incumbent Cliff Guffey’s 21,000. The APWU represents 196,000 postal workers.
The new leadership will take over on Nov. 7 and has pledged to organize resistance to privatization and plant closures.
In a heavily craft-divided workforce, the APWU represents maintenance workers, truck drivers, and clerks in functions like processing mail and selling stamps. The new leadership intends to mend fences with the National Alliance of Letter Carriers (NALC), a union of some 300,000 members. Both unions have shown disunity and an unwillingness to mobilize the ranks against attacks.
The Oct. 18 issue of Labor Notes magazine reported, “Dimondstein had been lead organizer for the union’s private sector organizing, an effort to unionize subcontracted trucking and private mail-sorting firms that was mandated by delegates at APWU conventions. That effort was shelved by the incumbents. Dimondstein also co-founded the Greensboro, North Carolina, Jobs with Justice chapter and helped initiate a local coalition, Postal Customers and Workers United to Save the Postal Service.”
“Two of the new officers were part of a 2012 hunger strike to save the post office, started by the grassroots network Communities and Postal Workers United (CPWU). Several have experienced firsthand the effects of plant shutdowns in their own locals. What they had in common was frustration with the national union’s failure to stem the attacks on postal jobs.”
Will the new APWU leadership usher in a new era of postal worker militancy? Will it break with the Democratic Party or remain bound to the 1%? Time will tell, but time is short. — M.G.
Photo: Berkeley, Calif., tent city and rally to save the central post office building, services, and jobs. From http://www.berkeleyside.org.