15 December 11
The unthinkable now threatens the US Postal Service: bankruptcy. With no relief forthcoming from Congress, the USPS hopes to save itself by planning the closing of about 3,700 post offices next year, along with 252 mail processing centers.
Around 120,000 postal workers will lose their jobs with another 100,000 positions going unfilled. Saturday delivery will be gone, and first-class letter delivery will be slowed. Some historic postal buildings, including those with New Deal-era murals, have already been sold off.
How could this venerable institution founded in 1775, which ran deficits for most of its existence as the "US Post Office Department", face a possible shutdown?
Don't blame the internet. Online communications and transactions have cut into first-class mail use, but have also helped generate mail volume, particularly parcels. The internet is not the source of USPS red ink, although it provides a popular narrative for those who have wanted to privatise the USPS for years and are using the current crisis to push that agenda. The USPS still delivers 40% of the world's mail, and has done so without any taxpayer subsidies for 40 years.
In fact, the USPS has consistently exceeded the mandate of the 1971 Postal Reorganisation Act (PRA) that it continue to provide universal service and be self-supporting in its new status as a quasi-corporate government agency. (The USPS and PRA are products of the 1970 great postal wildcat strike against low wages.)
So how did an organisation that actually earned a $6131m revenue surplus over the last four years – which included the worst recession since the 1930s – get so deep in debt, with a $10bn deficit this past fiscal year?
The USPS is the victim of an invented crisis. The 2006 Postal Enhancement and Accountability Act forced the postal service to unnecessarily prefund its retiree health benefits 75 years into the future at the rate of $5.5bn a year over a ten-year span.
Picture a homeowner whose bank suddenly demands its mortgage paid in full not in 30 but in three years, with the homeowner reduced to desperate but futile measures of selling off furniture and appliances to avoid foreclosure.
Don't blame the salaries of postal workers: their selection by high exam scores, training and accountability, plus good wages and benefits has produced high productivity and a low quit rate. The postal workforce has, in fact, shrunk from nearly 800,000 in 1999 to 560,000 today. Most of those job cuts had to do with increased automation, but many have come at the price of service – despite the post office's original constitutional mandate.
The post office has historically been key to American communications and commercial progress. The post office has also long been a job opportunity site; for African Americans, that opportunity only began in March 1865, with the overturning of white-only postal employment laws. For black America, postal work then became a destination, tradition and antidote to private-sector job discrimination. Jazz giants Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock once worked for the US Post Office. So, too, did comedian/activist Dick Gregory and actor Morgan Freeman. But many more were career employees, like Frasier Robinson Jr, the paternal grandfather of First Lady Michelle Obama. The rate of black postal employment compared to whites was two to one by 1970.
Since the 1960s, about 21% of the postal workforce has been African American, with black majorities in some cities. Their activism was pivotal to breaking down discrimination and segregation in the post office and its unions, making the USPS one of the most diverse workforces in the US today. It has been crucial to black community development and middle-class entry, and the loss of postal jobs now has been most devastating to blacks and veterans.
Since the American civil war, city and rural delivery of first-class letter mail, advertising and periodicals have been major examples of post office innovation. The "new" parcel post service in 1913 provided relief to customers previously gouged by inflated prices and limited service by the private sector. Today, the USPS is the hub of a $1.3tn mailing industry that employs almost 8 million workers.
Several competing bills are before Congress whose aim is to either save or essentially scrap the USPS. The bills to save it range from removing blocks to USPS competitiveness to allowing it to reclaim an estimated $50bn in pension funds that the Office of Personnel Management has overcharged it during the last few decades, and apply it to the retiree health benefit prefunding. The postal unions have joined national and local popular protests opposing the cuts. About 30% of Americans do not access the internet, and many rural areas also depend on their local post offices as community centers.
The post office has always been part of a nationwide and global network that is not just about communication, but also about creating jobs and nurturing communities. Who will provide universal service at reasonable rates if the USPS is gone?