The Postal Worker’s Christmas

Every year on Christmas Eve, my extended family gathers for a meal that can be served at the last minute, whenever we’re ready to eat. This tradition of cold salads, ham balls and cookies goes back to my mom’s childhood.

My mother’s father was a North Dakota postal employee, so on Christmas Eve, she never knew when he would get home. He was determined to keep working, my mom would tell us, “until every Christmas package that could be delivered would be delivered.” He started working for the Postal Service in 1911, and family lore has it that he sometimes had to trudge through the snow on horseback to deliver the mail.

As in my grandfather’s day, today’s postal workers have a mandate to provide universal service, delivering mail and packages to every American household at uniform rates, no matter where they live. That mandate has helped bind our vast nation.

This principle of affordable universal service is under threat. This year, the White House Office of Management and Budget recommendedselling the public Postal Service to a private, for-profit corporation.

On Dec. 4, a Trump task force on the postal system followed up with recommendations for partial privatization and other changes that would reduce services and raise delivery prices, particularly for rural communities.

Specifically, the task force urges the Postal Service to change its pricing system to maximize profits on commercial package deliveries. This would be a major blow to families who buy products online and live along high-cost delivery routes.

We’re not just talking about Hawaii and Alaska. Private carriers already impose surcharges, as high as $4.45 per item, for package deliveries to approximately 53 percent of the nation’s 42,000 ZIP codes. These surcharge areas are home to about 70 million people, according to our calculations, in rural areas, small towns and suburbs.

If the Trump task force has its way, customers in these areas would no longer be able to turn to the Postal Service for surcharge-free, lower-cost rates on most of these routes. Small businesses hoping to send mail or packages to these places would also suffer.

Rural communities would also be more likely to lose their local post offices. The task force wants to get rid of a law prohibiting the closing of rural post offices solely because they’re running a deficit. The Postal Service would also have the green light to reduce delivery days from six to five or even fewer days per week and expand the use of cluster mailboxes to replace door-to-door delivery.

These and other proposed service cuts would shrink the number of good postal jobs — jobs that have long supported this country’s middle class. My grandfather’s 47 years of steady Postal Service employment protected the family from the Great Depression and paid for my mom’s teacher training.

A generation earlier, my great-grandfather supported his family delivering the mail from Westerly to Newport, R.I., lugging his loads first onto a train and then a ferry. He got the position after the Civil War, when the government created jobs for Union Army vets like him by expanding free delivery service.

Today, military reservists and veterans make up more than 18 percentof the Postal Service’s 640,000 employees. Although these jobs sustain families and communities across the country, the Trump task force calls for eliminating postal workers’ right to collective bargaining, which would very likely lower their pay.

So what’s behind this cutthroat cost-cutting?

The Trump task force report claims that the Postal Service is a financial disaster. In fact, its operations are funded through postage, not tax dollars. Every day, the Postal Service delivers more than 400 million letters and packages at rates that are just a fraction of those in other rich countries — including the European nations that have privatized their postal operations.

The “losses” the Trump task force points to are a result of a congressional mandate to pay about $5.5 billion per year to fund future retiree health benefits 75 years in advance — a burden no other agency or company faces or could afford. Without this burden, as the task force itself makes clear, the Postal Service would have been in the black for the past six years.

While refusing to end this onerous mandate, the task force opposes the post office’s efforts to raise new revenue. The Postal Service has proposed expanding into check-cashing, bill payment and other financial services that could raise new revenue. These would be low-cost, reliable options for consumers without access to traditional banks, and they are services that post offices in other countries have provided for many years. But the task force opposes this move, arguing that the Postal Service can’t compete effectively with banks for this business.

This year, as my family gathers for our traditional Christmas Eve meal, we will remember our ancestors’ hard work — and hope that our country’s Postal Service will continue to thrive for many more generations.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.