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OP-ED: The United States Postal Service Delivers Much More Than Mail

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By Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer, UAW

America’s Postal service has been an essential institution that has connected every one of us as Americans even before we were a nation independent of Great Britain.

The most American of traditions
Benjamin Franklin was appointed our first Postmaster General in 1775. This democratic treasure, which has proven as reliable as it has self-sufficient, was a model for how government service should work. Its rich history is America’s history of adaptability, ingenuity and grit. Franklin used the system to get mail from Congress to our armies during the Revolution. In 1823, the service started using waterways to deliver mail, then began using railroads and in 1847 saw the first issued stamps. The famous Pony Express took up the task in 1860. By 1896, the service began delivering to some rural addresses, so people did not have to go to the town post office for their mail anymore. By 1923, all houses were required to have a mail slot. And in 1963, zip codes were introduced.

Also very American, a 1970 strike by organized labor led to an even more efficient operation and the Postal Reorganization Act that established the United States Postal Service as we know it today.

And true to its roots, the revitalized United States Postal Service (USPS) knew how to make a buck. The reorganization legislation called for the phasing out of the post office’s direct government subsidies by 1983. The post office has been operating without any taxpayer money since then. In fact, as recent as the start of this century, from 2003-2006, and despite the advent of email and stiff competition from companies like UPS and FedEx, the post office reported a 9.3 billion profit.

I would say that is a pretty decent business model.

But then HR 6407 came along in 2007. The act mandated that the post office calculate its retiree pension and healthcare costs for the next 75 years, including workers to come, and set aside enough over the next 10 years to cover them. An article appearing in Business Insider put the impact of the requirement this way: “To put this in perspective, that’d be like you only working from age 18 to 28 and then expecting to live on that income until you were 103 years old.”

What would Ben Franklin say?

Needless to say, the bill and its contents have proven devastating. The long and the short of it has meant that the USPS has had to contribute about $5.6 billion a year for people who had not yet retired, in addition to the amount for current retirees.

No business is forced to operate like this, and I dare to add that no business could operate like this.

Also, the new bill took away the ability for the post office to set prices. First-class mail, marketing mail, and other post office products have all been tied to the consumer price index, and therefore the post office could not increase rates for those products above the rate of inflation. All told, the post office has incurred a loss of $78 billion from 2007 through 2019 and owes $55 billion related to its future pension and health benefit obligations. Add in lost revenue related to COVID-19 and politically charged controversies over reductions in equipment and attendant slowdowns, the USPS is now in dire straits.

Shall we really allow this most American of institutions to fail ‒ through no fault of its own? It is unthinkable for it not to survive. It is unthinkable to rely solely on private companies for such critical services. It is truly a dagger in the heart of our American heritage.

Of immediate consequence, consider the impact to mail recipients during this pandemic. The USPS handles 1.2 billion prescription drug deliveries each year. The service also transports millions of lab tests and essential medical supply shipments. It ensures that checks and payments arrive to keep small businesses operating. It helps seniors receive household items, social security and Medicare checks. And communications from family and friends from far away have been delivered on time, through as they say “rain, sleet and snow.”

Since the emergence of COVID-19, USPS workers have been on the front lines, delivering millions of personal protective equipment and vital supplies to hospitals. They’ve made sure shelters, food banks, and businesses have the supplies they need. In addition, they’ve made deliveries to home-bound, highly susceptible individuals.

Needed now more than ever

The notion to privatize the USPS is a truly un-American idea and could not come at a worse time. The recession we are experiencing due to the coronavirus is hitting Black Americans much harder than white Americans, with Blacks nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19 and their unemployment rate at 14.6% compared with 9.2% for whites.

The Postal Service provides the only service that guarantees delivery to every American, which makes it especially crucial for rural areas and small towns that are too costly for private companies like FedEx or UPS to deliver to. Privatizing the service would add to the expense of crucial deliveries ‒ at a time when we are more and more relying on deliveries to receive our daily needs.

Then think about the importance of the post office in ensuring that the people’s will in our democracy will be accurately and duly noted. In November, the postal service will play a crucial role in allowing Americans across our land and in foreign countries to cast their vote in our upcoming Presidential election. So many of us will be turning to the USPS to deliver our ballots safely and securely.

And please also think of the USPS and those in its employ. The postal service has delivered a solid, secure, middle class lifestyle to a more than 600,000 workers and to an especially high number of Latino and African Americans.

In the case of African Americans, when Congress passed a law ‒ just after the Civil War ‒ that ended the whites only hiring practice for postal jobs, the postal service became a haven of good jobs offering secure wages, benefits, and civil service protections. Today, African Americans make up 27% of the Postal Service ‒ a rate more than double that of the national labor force. Coupled with our government’s anti-discrimination policies, the USPS has made the American Dream possible, even when racial discrimination put up walls in other areas of work.

And privatization, I would argue, is un-American for another reason. It is yet another attempt at union busting. Both the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), which represents primarily non-rural letter carriers employed by USPS as well as the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represents postal clerks, mail processors and sorters, building and equipment maintenance, custodial workers, truck drivers and others employed by USPS, would be in serious jeopardy.

We must secure this most American of all American institutions.

Demand that we save the USPS

Fortunately, there is a way forward. The Delivery for America Act (H.R. 8015) can help make this happen. This legislation will deliver urgently needed funds to the postal service and reverse detrimental policy changes that are currently restricting postal workers’ ability to deliver mail and packages on time.

The Act has passed the House of Representatives. The Senate must follow suit immediately. Across the nation, delivery of mail has slowed dramatically due to the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s recent decisions. Eliminating overtime and cutting down on late trips has created massive mail backlogs, leading to late deliveries of critical prescription medications and threatening the integrity of the upcoming November election.

This bill would help address the backlog by remedying the impact of these policies and prohibiting “any change that would have the effect of delaying, deferring, or curtailing mail, allowing for the non-delivery of mail to a delivery route, or increasing the volume of undelivered mail.”

The Delivery for America Act appropriates the $25 billion that the USPS requested to sustain the level of service all Americans depend on. Efforts to shrink the postal service would disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, women and veterans more than others. In addition, as of 2018, more than 100,000 military veterans are employed by the USPS.

We MUST protect postal workers’ jobs.

And we MUST ensure a safe and secure election. In the coming weeks, voters across the country will prepare to exercise their civic duty to elect their government, and Congress must do everything in its power to ensure that voters will be able to do so safely.

For our citizens, for our democracy, for our livelihoods… We must support the USPS in every way we can.