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You’ve Got No Mail

On the long crisis of the United States Postal Service

When I first heard Bob Dylan sing “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in 1966, I was struck by the fantastic yet funny image of a young man unable to mail a letter because “the post office has been stolen / and the mailbox is locked.” Now those words seem dismally prescient. As reports pour in of imminent austerity measures and widespread delays with less than one hundred days until a presidential election that may be conducted largely by mail, the outlook for the chronically besieged U.S. Postal Service seems grim. But as with every crisis, this one has its own long history. Conflicts don’t inevitably end with powerful forces successfully denying rights and services to the people. In fact, that’s usually where conflict starts.

Let’s begin with the present. On June 15, 2020, a new postmaster general took office: Louis DeJoy, a major donor to the Republican Party and President Donald Trump. DeJoy, who has helmed corporations with USPS contracts, made news a month later when leaked, unsigned USPS internal documents (verified by the American Postal Workers Union) announced the agency would pursue profitability by cutting service and eliminating overtime—even if it meant delaying mail. Otherwise, according to the documents, the USPS would be “gone” like U.S. Steel (in fact, today’s second-largest domestic steel producer). The USPS on July 22 denied the documents were “official,” but acknowledged that they originated with regional leadership. A July 28 DeJoy statement on “operational excellence and financial stability” blamed a “broken business model” for the USPS crisis; he declined to mention the pandemic or its crippling debt. Complaints meanwhile have quickly emerged from around the country of households not getting their mail for days or even weeks at a time. Alarm over a potential mail-in ballot disaster in November prompted the House Oversight and Reform Committee to call DeJoy to testify next month.

“Postal Crisis 2020” could become a remake of the 1940 film noir classic Gaslight when you consider the evidence.

The USPS July documents and curtailments were preceded in April by another of Trump’s verbal attacks on the USPS—then headed by Megan Brennan—as “mismanaged” and “a joke.” After Secretary Treasurer Steven Mnuchin rejected a bipartisan Senate proposal to bail out the Postal Service, Trump threatened to refuse approving a $10 billion USPS loan in the 2020 CARES Act to help offset revenue losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic, unless the USPS met administration demands for labor contract changes, a quadrupling of parcel rates, and executive branch intervention in senior management appointments. Analysts judged those demands as counter-productive, unreasonable, and undermining federal statutes. (The loan was eventually approved on July 29 without labor contract changes or parcel rate increases, and Postmaster General DeJoy’s appointment rendered the appointment condition moot—but the loan agreement did obligate the USPS to provide proprietary information about their largest private-sector contracts to the Treasury Department in addition to regular financial and volume reports.)

“Postal Crisis 2020” could become a remake of the 1940 film noir classic Gaslight when you consider the evidence. The USPS carries a multi-billion-dollar debt to the U.S. Treasury because of a 2006 law initiated by President George W. Bush that attempted to remedy a huge USPS pension overpayment discovered in 2002 which threatened to unbalance the unified federal budget. Besides limiting what products the USPS can sell and capping rates for “market-dominant” products like first-class and priority mail, the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) also required a $5.5 billion annual payment for ten years to a new Retiree Health Benefits Fund (RHBF) in place of “pay-as-you-go” typical for government agencies. But the USPS overall has performed well financially since at least 1995, and in FY 2006 it earned almost half a billion in surplus revenue. For most years since then, its operations have earned a surplus—except for the debt, which induced a crisis in 2009, the year after the Great Recession caused a massive volume loss as businesses cut back on mailings.

For nearly two centuries, postal employees worked for two bosses—the U.S. Post Office Department (USPOD) and Congress. Since the turn of the twentieth century, unions with only lobbying powers represented postal workers: Congress and the president controlled their raises and benefits, just as they dispensed subsidies to the USPOD. While President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order 10988 introduced partial collective bargaining rights for working conditions, postal wages still lagged badly behind the cost of living. For postal workers, the contradiction between their rising expectations versus their miserable wages and cruel working conditions was too much. So was President Richard Nixon’s refusal to sign legislation granting them long overdue raises unless their unions backed his plan for a government corporation to replace the USPOD. Starting with New York letter carriers, workers called for a “wildcat” strike, which was illegal and could have resulted in fines, jail terms, terminations, and union decertification.

Since 1968, postal union leaders had warned a walkout was coming, but the post office contingency plan developed in response assumed a strike would be confined to New York. In March 1970, however, nearly two hundred ten thousand workers across the country walked out of their “open shop” workplace that was 87.5 percent unionized. The strike, inspired by other public employee strikes and civil rights demonstrations, and sparked in part by large numbers of recently hired young people, African Americans, veterans, and women, lasted for eight days. For eight days, the mail stopped; not even the sixteen thousand federal troops that Nixon dispatched to New York post offices could move it. Strikers forced Nixon to negotiate with their union heads and won a 14 percent raise. Nixon was also compelled to compromise on his Tennessee Valley Authority-style postal “corporation,” which would instead be called an “independent establishment of the executive branch” and provide more worker rights. The resulting USPS, launched on July 1, 1971, became America’s largest collective bargaining unit. Completely self-supporting by 1983, it would continue to be under congressional oversight but with more autonomy.

Nixon’s praise for postal unionists at the signing ceremony of the Postal Reorganization Act (also known as Title 39) in August 1970 contrasts sharply with the words of the current Republican president. Nixon’s postmaster general Winton Blount, like DeJoy, was no career employee. Yet both Nixon and Blount acknowledged the power of unionized postal workers to demand adequate compensation and collective bargaining rights, with the USPS now a hybrid government agency/corporation—an idea originally born in the 1968 report by President Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential Commission on Postal Organization. The PRA says nothing about the USPS operating like a “business,” although that did not stop Nixon from promoting this narrative. As a service, the old USPOD also operated like a business by selling postage, extracting savings from labor, and disciplining workers, but its explicit raison d’être was never to turn a profit. While the same may be true of the USPS, the service/business conundrum persists.

In 2010, the Office of the Inspector General argued that the PRA’s binding arbitration clause “meant that the Postal Service has never been able to exert control over its labor costs.” For postal workers, however, being well-paid with full collective bargaining rights (except the right to strike) served as an incentive to complete the minimum thirty years required for full retirement benefits—with top pay earned after eight, not twenty-one years. It showed: from 1969 to 2002, turnover plummeted from 26 percent to less than 1.5 percent. The post office was still a regimented workplace when I began working there in 1980, but the pay and benefits were worth it, combined with the sense of public service and camaraderie.

Throughout my twenty-year postal career, the threat of privatization always loomed over us, but we dismissed it as an absurdist claim based on ideology and greed. Nevertheless, privatization advocates like the Cato Institute kept up their attacks. They finally gained traction in the early 2000s during the Bush administration. The RHBF pension payments that financially shipwrecked the USPS were a gift to postal privatization advocates that declared USPS indebtedness was proof of gross mismanagement and justified their calls to further hamstring the service.

The USPS remains the backbone of America’s $1.6 trillion mailing industry; it is still the only delivery service that goes everywhere regardless of cost.

When postal workers struck in 1970, they asserted their rights to workplace dignity, not just better pay. For years, a post office job granted African Americans, European immigrants, veterans, and others entrance into the middle class. Despite the inconvenience the strike caused, fully 61 percent of Americans supported it, many of them no doubt shocked that ten percent of New York’s postal employees were drawing food stamps and welfare, while another 20 percent worked at least one other job to make ends meet, according to USPS historian Tom Germano.

The 1971 reorganization of the post office made the USPS the direct employer of postal workers. There is no reason the USPS could not have remained the USPOD, improved service and productivity, and provided the same collective bargaining rights postal workers now enjoy, but political realities required a compromise. Prior labor-management conflicts became institutionalized, and since the 1970s, postal unions have pushed back against “piecemeal privatization.” The debt that the PAEA shackled to the USPS led to a series of self-defeating service cuts that have produced scant savings. DeJoy’s policies represent the latest and most aggressive cuts in what has been a disturbing trend since 2011. First-class mail is now being curtailed at mail processing centers and post offices, in violation of both labor agreements and Title 39. Postal workers have accused the USPS of getting Americans used to slowing service and accepting privatization. Before these “operational changes,” April 2020 poll results noted a steady 91 percent public approval rating for the USPS despite prior cuts, as more people apparently realize the USPS’s importance and object to its degradation.

The effects of years of neglect and malfeasance are increasingly apparent, but the USPS remains the backbone of America’s $1.6 trillion mailing industry; it is still the only delivery service that goes everywhere (delivering nearly 142.6 billion pieces last year, versus 5.5 billion each for FedEx and UPS), regardless of cost. But recent events give cause for concern that the system may buckle under the weight of a mail-in election: in April, lack of coordination between local governments in Wisconsin and the USPS hampered the timely delivery and pickup of mail-in ballots: 2,659 ballots were rejected for arriving late. Across the country, an estimated sixty-five thousand mail-in ballots have been rejected in primary elections so far this year for arriving past the deadline.

With postal workers now especially worried about mail-in ballots being delayed this November, how will they react to being ordered not to use overtime to transport those ballots—or coronavirus test kits and vaccines? At the end of Dylan’s song, he wonders, “what price / you have to pay to get out of / going through all these things twice.” Americans should not have to keep worrying about the attempted theft of our nation’s postal service.