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What Would Ben Franklin Say?

Saving the Postal Service (and Union Jobs)

by JACK A. SMITH

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s plan to reduce mail service to five days a week and shut 3,830 post offices is meeting opposition in Congress, from sectors of the public, and the several major postal unions. Some closings of mail processing plants could begin in late May, while layoffs at post offices are set to begin in the fall.

The unions claim that the closings are mainly a conservative move to privatize mail and package delivery. Evidently right wing political opposition to “big government” is a factor in the downsizing. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader thinks privatization advocates have exaggerated the money and other problems to create a “manufactured crisis.”

One way the USPS plans to compensate for some of the closed offices is to open about 2,500 so-called “village post offices” sometime next year. These are to be small private operations housed in local businesses — gas stations, groceries and the like — that would handle limited services such as stamp sales and flat-rate shipping and few extras. It is to be assumed other private ventures will spring up across the country to supplement the immediate and longer term shrinkage of postal services.

On Feb. 13, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), joined by 110 other House members, called on Donahoe to institute a moratorium on U.S. Postal Service closure plans. According to the Postal News, “In a letter signed by the bipartisan group, Hinchey cited a Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) report that points to deep flaws with the data used by the USPS to determine which postal facilities should be considered for closure.”

The Mid-Hudson Valley Congressman declared: “The data the USPS used to select which post offices it would consider for closure was incomplete, inaccurate and inappropriately targeted rural post offices. I’m calling on the Postmaster General to halt all discontinuance studies. Unless they start operating with better information, they could do more harm than good.”

In addition to the post offices, USPS announced Feb. 23 it seeks to close or consolidate more than 223 mail processing plants in the next 18 months, at a cost of 35,000 jobs. “This plan makes no sense at all and should be abandoned,” argued Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is from a state where a mail processing plant is slated to close. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Donahoe “should focus on common sense solutions that improve its fiscal solvency” instead of putting eight Ohio facilities out of business.

How did this all come about? The original Post Office agency was launched by Ben Franklin and the rebellious Second Continental Congress in 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, and Franklin was the first postmaster general. Postal delivery became a cabinet-level department after national independence when George Washington was president, and New Yorker Samuel Osgood was the first postmaster to serve under the Constitution in 1789.

The USPS was reorganized in 1970 to become a semi-independent business though it remained a government entity. It no longer receives funding from Washington but raises its own monies — one of only two governments in the world that does not fund its post office system (the other is dysfunctional Somalia with practically no government services whatever). Postal rates are set by the Postal Rate Commission according to the recommendations of the 11-member Postal Board of Governors, which also selects the postmaster general. Nine of the board’s members are chosen by the President and, with Senate approval, serve for nine years each (though if selected after 2006 new members serve for seven years).

President Obama and Congress have circumscribed authority, but are far from powerless. For instance, the Board of Governors may implement certain changes without government approval, but on important matters such as moving to five-day delivery or postage rates both the White House and Congress have a big say. On the delivery question, however, Obama sides with Postmaster Donahoe, not the over half million postal workers and their many unions.

Postal unions staged concerted  nationwide demonstrations a few months ago against the planned downsizing and privatizing of the USPS. Some unions have “been working to win support for amendments to the 21st Century Postal Service Act (S. 1789), which is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate soon,” says the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). On Feb. 14, 27 Senators signed a letter asking bill sponsors “to maintain current service standards, protect rural post offices, maintain six-day delivery, and establish a blue-ribbon panel to examine how the Postal Service can earn additional revenue by offering new services.”

The APWU and the National Postal Mail Handlers have collected over 300,000 signatures so far on a petition to Congress. Several other postal unions are also actively fighting the closures, including support for bills in the House.

Among the labor organizations leading the campaign for the postal workers are the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC, representing city letter carriers), the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union.

Obama has largely stayed in the background on some but not all Donahoe’s plans. The White House budget for FY 2013, released Feb. 13, includes authority for the USPS to end Saturday delivery next year. Of this Donahoe said: “The President continued to recognize the urgent need for postal reform.”

The unions didn’t see it that way. Responding to the budget proposal, NALC President Fredric V. Rolando declared: “Eliminating Saturday delivery is a counter-productive proposal that would degrade services to the public and to businesses, threaten the viability of the Postal Service itself, and begin to dismantle the universal network that has served the country well for 200 years….

“Among those who would be most affected are residents of rural communities, the elderly, those who need medicines or other goods on weekends, not to mention small businesses, which are open weekends and need to send and receive financial documents…. Eliminating Saturday delivery would pose additional costs on all who are compelled to contract with expensive carriers. Taxpayers wouldn’t save a penny, because they don’t fund the Postal Service; USPS earns its own money by selling stamps and services.”

The big postal unions point out that the 2006 postal “reform” law during the Bush Administration “requires the USPS to pre-fund 75 years’ worth of future retiree health benefits within just 10 years…. No other federal agency or private enterprise is forced to pre-fund similar benefits like this, especially on such an aggressive schedule. This postal-only mandate costs the USPS $5.5 billion per year. It accounts for 100% of the Postal Service’s $20 billion in losses over the past four or years. It also accounts for 100% of the rise in the Postal Service’s debt in recent years.”

Donahoe, who took office 13 months ago after 35 years in the Postal Service, pledges to make the USPS into a “profitable, market-responsive organization.” He claims that USPS has accumulated an $8.3 billion budget deficit for FY 2012. He supports ending the pre-funding measure, but also insists on the closings and other cutbacks.

According to the citizen-run website SaveThePostOffice.com on Feb. 21: “The Postal Service juggernaut keeps rolling on with its downsizing plans, and it seems prepared to crush whatever stands in its way — postal workers, post offices, communities, history.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone or anything that can stop it — not Congress, not the unions, not the Postal Regulatory Commission.  Perhaps it’s time for the people of the United States to take the U.S. Postal Service to court.”

The Washington Post reported Feb. 18 that post office closings may increase rural isolation and economic disparity: “Nearly 80% of the 3,830 post offices under consideration are in sparsely populated rural areas where poverty rates are higher than the national average.”

The great majority of the regions targeted for closing are where “UPS and FedEx charge more for delivery,” the Post continued. “Town mayors and chambers of commerce also worry about the broader economic impact of losing a post office. With small populations, remote locations and a lack of reliable Internet, many towns are already a tough sell to new businesses….

“Despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Postal Service declined to provide data on revenue for individual post offices. But it did provide expense data for all post offices. The statistics show that closing all the post offices under consideration would save about $295 million a year, about four-tenths of 1% of the Postal Service’s annual expenses of $70 billion.”

Former Clinton Administration Postmaster General William told the press “that’s not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won’t ripple.”

The Postal Service, which employs 575,000 workers at 32,000 facilities, says the growth of the Internet has cut volume way down, which is true in part, but many local people tell the Activist Newsletter that while they may e-mail most letters these days, their mail box seems as full as ever with bills, magazines, cards, packages and the like. “There are too many catalogs at Christmas, but we just recycle them,” said one local resident. “Otherwise, we count on our Monday-Saturday mail delivery.”

Dean Granholm, a USPS vice president, said in February that the personnel reductions could begin by October. At this stage, the jobs of some 3,000 postmasters, 500 station managers and up to 1,000 postal clerks are on the chopping block.

In addition to closing the post offices, Donahoe wants to (1) cut payrolls through attrition, (2) end the agency’s health plan for older employees, moving them to taxpayer-funded Medicare, and (3) eliminate Saturday mail delivery.

Ironically, one of the facilities scheduled for elimination and sale to an “appropriate retailer” is Philadelphia’s small but historically significant Ben Franklin post office on Market St. in the Independence Mall area attached next door to the U.S. Postal Service Museum. Tourist and news outlets report that it is on the location of Ben Franklin’s house and is the only post office that doesn’t fly a U.S. flag — because the colonial period facility pre-dates the existence of the national standard.

If the Franklin office closes, it might be fitting for the Postal Museum to dip its own flag in ceremonial regret — not just for the loss of an historic post office located in a pre-revolutionary three-story brick building that once housed the first postmaster general, but perhaps for the uncertain future of the USPS and its many workers as well.

Jack A. Smith is editor of the Activist Newsletter and is former editor of the
(U.S.) Guardian Newsweekly. He may be reached at jacdon@earthlink.net or
http://activistnewsletter.blogspot.com/