Going Postal

When I was growing up in New England during the 1940’s, the symbol for reliability, punctuality, and efficiency was the United States Post Office. Indeed, people could almost tell the time of day by the postman’s twice a day delivery rounds.

Unfortunately, ever since President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission to reorganize the Post Office on “a business basis” in 1967, the postal system has been in a defensive posture, tied down by demands from such groups as major corporate mailers, competitive rivals, and partisan politicos. There has been no place for bold new ventures of the past, such as Rural Free Delivery, Parcel Post, Postal Savings, or Air Mail. If the Post Office Department had been responding to the profit-making demands of the market or to the political influence of large corporations none of these advances would have even been attempted. Parcel Post, lest we forget, was introduced in the face of corporate competitors’ opposition due to the fact that they were providing an entirely unsatisfactory, oftentimes price gouging, service to large parts of the nation.

President Ronald Reagan called government “the problem.” Was government the problem when the Post Office made open communications between the Continental Congress and George Washington’s army possible during the Revolutionary War? Was government the problem when the Post Office provided invaluable aid to the establishment of a vibrant national and local press by delivering periodicals throughout the land? How about when the Post Office Department constructed a national infrastructure for aviation? Is government the problem when letters and packages from home reach military personnel in distant parts of the world today? Or when citizen organizations are enabled or often made possible by a non-profit postage rate? When universal service–uniform service at uniform rates throughout the country–allows friends and families to exchange letters, cards, and packages? When semi-postals raise tens of millions of dollars for breast cancer research? When the National Association of Letter Carriers’ National Food Drive collects over 70 million pounds of food to help alleviate the nation’s shameful hunger crisis? Through the postal system, as Christopher Shaw describes in Preserving the People’s Post Office, the national government has long played a beneficial role in our lives. For that and other ideological reasons, corporatists with no regard for the value of universal postal service are waging a campaign to destroy the world’s finest postal system.

Absence of an understanding of the Postal Service as a public service has allowed corporatists to obscure our postal system’s defining mission: “to bind the nation together.” There are promoters of a corporate postal system who would ultimately like to steal the Postal Service from the American people by eliminating its public service function and “privatizing” (i.e. corporatizing) it. Operation of the postal system on “a business basis” has helped make their case for them.

Preserving the People’s Post Office demonstrates how a patronizing attitude toward the individual postal patron–“Aunt Minnie”–that accompanies a corporate mindset has caused service reductions for the general public, as the relentless pressure of corporate demands for receiving preferential services burdens the citizenry more and more. Instead of focusing on new ways for our government to serve its citizens through the Postal Service, service reductions–such as closing post offices, removing collection boxes, and ending door delivery–have shifted emphasis to business practices focusing on how much the traffic will bear, further diminishing the spirit of public service.

The recent push for postal “reform” legislation demonstrates the degree to which the public has been marginalized. Postal Service management, major mailers, corporate ideologues, business competitors, postmaster associations and the beleaguered postal unions have all been included in this legislative process, but there has been a noticeable absence–the consumer, who has been excluded from having a seat at the table. Instead of being discarded, as they largely should have been, the recommendations of the recent corporate dominated President’s Commission on the Postal Service, which were not public service oriented, are apparent in the legislation.

Postal unions and postmaster associations represent memberships committed to serving patrons, and these organizations do show a willingness to reach out to consumers. But the American Postal Workers Union has been the sole union voice consistently advocating the universal public service principle. Greater efforts on this front could reap even larger rewards for both postal employees and postal patrons, as united they could forge jointly a more robust and vital Postal Service. An annual “Postal Appreciation Day” held in towns throughout America, replete with a parade to the downtown post office, would provide an opportunity for postal workers and postal patrons to unite, interact, and demonstrate their shared esteem for this valuable public institution.

Fortunately there is a single solution that would go a long way toward solving this lack of organized and skilled consumer participation–the proposal for an independent non-profit Post Office Consumer Action Group (POCAG). Several million people would join. All that is required is a simple law directing the Postal Service to send residential postal patrons a letter twice-a-year giving them the opportunity to pay a small amount of dues in order to join POCAG. Postal officials have been putting off this proposal for decades, but their excuses for not delivering materials making consumers aware of POCAG become more and more indefensible: The Postal Service has now begun delivering postcards to all residences nationwide carrying postal promotional messages from cartoon characters. So why not send a notice for POCAG? Through this suggested action group, residential postal consumers can become organized, as Mr. Shaw describes, to shape consumer-friendly postal policies and create an expanding and vigorous American postal system that would make our first Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin proud.

For more information contact info@csrl.org or send an old fashioned letter to Mr. Christopher Shaw, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036.



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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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