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Starving the Postal Service

by BEN TERRALL

On March 18, U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe spoke at a National Postal Forum in San Francisco, prompting picketing by rank and file postal employees and their supporters. Protestors opposed Donahoe’s support for  post office closures and layoffs of USPS workers. The demonstration  was part of a week of actions called for by Communities and Postal Workers United (CPWU) to commemorate the anniversary of the 1970 wildcat postal strike which effectively took on the U.S. government over wage issues and won. The March 18 picket was directly organized by Bay Area group Save the People’s Post Office, in coalition with the SF Labor Council, SF Gray Panthers, and other local organizations.

Protestor Anna Villalobos of Oakland told me that Donahoe is “like a puppet, he has to do what the Board of Governors says.” Villalobos noted that the USPS Board of Governors are all pro-privatization, and continued, “he [Donahoe] came up the ranks but he’s underqualified, and way over his head. He has aged drastically in the past few years. Physically he looks horrible.”

Advocates for continuing six day postal service, as opposed to cutbacks on Saturday service, argue that the alleged fiscal crisis facing the postal service is a bogus invention of corporate interests salivating over the prospect of privatization-related profiteering. As the excellent site www.savethepostoffice.com reported recently on just one of those businesses, “Pitney Bowes stands to make millions if not billions off of the privatization of the mail processing system.”

An excellent article by Jack A. Smith on this site describes a 2006 postal “reform” law which requires pre-funding of 75 years’ worth of future USPS retiree health benefits. No other federal agency or private enterprise is forced to pre-fund similar benefits. This economic requirement is exacerbated by the stipulation that the Postal Service meet this goal in 10 years.

Speaking before local news cameras at the March 18 demonstration, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council Tim Paulson noted that in a time of massive unemployment, “to propose layoffs is unconscionable… we need jobs.” Paulson argued that what Donahoe “is proposing is the exact opposite” of what workers need.

As a protestor held a sign to mostly supportive passing cars reading “Mr. Donahoe, Follow the Pope’s Example and Step Down,” Chuck Locke of the American Postal Workers Union said “We stand for workers, we stand for family,” and criticized Donahoe for supporting cutbacks while speaking at a seminar which cost around $500,000.

Veteran left-wing activist Richard Becker stressed the need to prioritize job programs in a time of mass unemployment. Becker pointed out that alleged USPS budget shortfalls pale in comparison to money spent on the Iraq war, which cost $3 trillion. Becker argued that the rollbacks to postal service and selling of post offices were “for the benefit of the superrich, that’s what privatization is about.”

Activist Margot Smith took the microphone and said “the post office is not bankrupt, they’re being starved so they can be privatized. It doesn’t make financial sense.” She continued, “it is the only way people have contact with the outside world in some of our remote areas.”

Indeed, broadband internet does not reach 50 percent of rural residents and 35 percent of all Americans.

Perhaps the final word on the allegedly dire financial challenges facing the USPS comes from ace agitator Jim Hightower, who in his newsletter commented on the cries about “unprofitability”: “So what? When has the Pentagon ever made a profit? Neither has the FBI, Centers for Disease Control, FDA, State Department, FEMA, Park Service, etc. Producing a profit is not the purpose of government – its purpose is service.”

The Postal Service is the largest employer in the U.S. after Walmart, and has the country’s largest unionized workforce. The USPS is also one of the leading employers of minorities and women. As of 2010, minorities comprised 39 percent and women comprised 40 percent of the workforce. African-Americans made up 21 percent of the USPS workforce, with 8% Latino and 8% Asian-American/Pacific Islander.

Six days after the San Francisco Donohue picket several hundred members of the National Association of Letter Carriers sponsored a National Day of Action to Keep Saturday Delivery and Save the Post Office. Held in cities throughout the United States, the Bay Area gathering took place on a gorgeous day in Washington Square Park near San Francisco’s North Beach post office.

One attendee I chatted with was recently retired postal worker Joe McHale, who has been following legislation regarding the Postal Service for years. He told me that at the policy-making level, reducing service to five days has been “in the mix for 2-3 years” but that postal workers didn’t expect it to come up so quickly. McHale said “the U.S. Postmaster’s legal staff seems to think they can do whatever they want,” and described the Saturday closing campaign as very “top down.”

He continued, “it’s as if they said ‘we don’t care if we’re exactly right, we’re going to do what we want, now you do what you have to do.” McHale said the National Day of Action was a rank and file “answer in the PR arena.”

California State President of the National Association of Letter Carriers John Beaumont told me that any progressive legislation in support of postal workers was inevitably blocked by privatization fans in Congress, especially House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA). Beaumont answered charges that competition from internet commerce would inevitably drive the USPS out of business by pointing out that e-commerce had actually helped the post office by providing more such orders, with parcel deliveries up 20% since last year. He said that though in the short term closing Saturday service could save around $2 billion, in the long run this cut would inevitably cost the USPS big bucks through lost service.

Also milling around the upbeat crowd was retired letter carrier and full-time activist Dave Welsh. I spoke with Welsh on a bench alongside several still-working letter carriers. Welsh began by singing the praises of the CPWU, a rank and file outfit that does direct action and solidarity work outside the legislative arena, and whose website states, “they say cut back, we say strike back.”

Welsh noted, “With a lot of the private pension plans, a company goes out of business and suddenly there’s no pension for the worker. Now they want to do the same thing with the public sector.” Welsh said, “I think we can build a strong movement once we unite public and private sector workers and our communities.”

Welsh argued that the now-legendary 1970 wildcat postal strike “showed the power of the working class to shut something down.” He described the current situation as involving a “tremendous power we have untapped… if postal workers and their customers unite we can change all kinds of things. People think the rollbacks are inevitable. They’re not inevitable. If we unite, we can stop them.”

Stay in touch with legislative and grassroots solidarity campaigns on behalf of postal workers at www.savethepostoffice.com and www.cpwunited.com.

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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