In These Times. April 26, 2012
“Congress created this manufactured crisis…, and Congress must solve this,” declared Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which has resisted congressional efforts to curtail USPS service and eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs.
This week, Congress took a step toward solving the USPS’ problems—but postal workers’ unions aren’t too happy. On Wednesday, with a 62-37 vote, the Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan effort sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The bill shores up USPS finances and halts closure of thousands of post offices and mail processing centers, unlike the House alternative—more on that below—and reduces retirement payments to $2 billion a year. It also provides early retirement incentives for nearly 100,000 workers. But contrary to what the postmaster general wants, it prevents the USPS from ending Saturday service for two years. (Kevin Drum has more details over at Mother Jones.)
Labor unions were displeased with the outcome, particularly the inclusion of a workers compensation provision union leaders vehemently opposed. The measure, introduced by Sen. Collins, would give workers injured on the job 50 percent of their pre-disability pay upon reaching retirement age, compared to 75 percent under current law. (About half the federal employees who currently receive workers’ comp are postal workers.) An amendment from Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) would have eliminated the change, but the amendment failed 46-53, much to the dismay of union organizers.
“The Senate has missed an opportunity to make real and positive changes in a program designed to assist dedicated federal workers injured in their duties,” National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley said in a statement. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association released a similar statement on the workers’ compensation changes.
APWU President Cliff Guffey was less harsh. “Although the bill is flawed, the amended version is far better than the original,” he said.
The bill now moves to the GOP-controlled House, where far more severe USPS cutbacks have been proposed. “We are very disappointed that the Senate approved such a flawed bill, but we are determined to continue the fight for legislation that will provide a path to long-term viability for the Postal Service,” Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said.
The USPS’ current troubles are largely a result of legislation in 2006 that required it—unlike any other government agency or private business—to pay its anticipated healthcare costs for the next 75 years within just 10 years. This peculiar requirement has resulted in USPS’ accounts reflecting a $20 billion shortfall instead of a what the APWU says would have been a $611 million surplus over the last four years.
The shortfall has created a sense of urgency that supplies a pretext for politicians to demand closings of post offices, massive permanent layoffs and the onset of dismantling a crucial public institution that has existed since 1792.
Leading the crusade for cutbacks is Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee. Issa, the wealthiest member of the House of Representatives, has refused to allow a hearing on a bipartisan bill designed to remove the USPS’ exceptional financial burden. He has proposed a bill that would cut 200,000 USPS jobs.
Rep. Issa will likely lead a Republican fight against many of the moderate proposals approved by the Senate. The White House hasn’t weighed in specifically on the legislation, but President Obama’s budget proposal supports allowing the USPS to end Saturday mail delivery and recalculate how it plans to pay the future retirements of postal workers.
Reform legislation in the House sponsored by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) would allow the USPS to avoid a wave of post-office closings, layoffs and termination of Saturday service. Supporters of the Lynch bill include more than half of the members of the House. “Both Republicans and Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors, but Chairman Issa has never brought it up for hearing,” said the APWU’s Davidow. ”Issa isn’t yielding.”
Instead, Issa has promoted his own bill HR 2309, which calls for the Post Office to make $3 billion in cuts and includes a number of provisions to slash worker pay and benefits. The bill has passed Issa’s committee, but won’t pass the House, Davidow predicted. “Darrel Issa is one of the people who want to take advantage of the present situation and use it to foster privatization,” she said.
The management of the Postal Service has been “very erratic” in responding to the efforts to radically weaken the USPS,” said Davidow. “A few months back, the management was working alongside the big mailers who depend on the Postal Service and all the postal unions. But now management has proposed gutting the postal network of processing centers and offices, and cutting services. Their plan would just hasten the demise of the Postal Service.”
The driving mentality behind the Postal Service cuts holds that for-profit corporations are inherently more efficient than government agencies seeing to meet the public interest. But the Postal Service is founded on an entirely different principle than profit-maximizing firms like FedEx and UPS, with the Post Office dedicated to serving every single American regardless of the distances and costs involved.
And in reality, Davidow pointed out, “FedEx and UPS are very big customers of the Postal Service. For any place that doesn’t produce profits for them, they have the USPS to make the deliveries.”
Despite the Postal Service’s history of providing inexpensive, universal mail delivery, USPS management and pro-privatization advocates aren’t considering the social costs that cutbacks will create, argued David Morris, founder of the Institute for Self-Reliance.
“Postal Service management is deciding which post offices live or die using a cost-benefit methodology almost identical to that used by private retailers,” Morris says. “Only half the equation is included: the savings to the USPS. The other half, the costs to the community, is ignored.”
Here’s an example of a social cost to closing post offices that cannot be reduced to a number. After the Prairie City, S.D., post office closed, Daniel Beckman, a recently widowed farmer, told the Wall Street Journal, “That was the gathering place for people to come in the mornings, have a cup of coffee or a can of pop, and visit, but we don’t have that no more. All that’s left in the town now is just a church; it’s totally depressing.”
The APWU is now pursuing a multi-faceted strategy to stop massive lay-offs and cuts to service, including a major TV advertising campaign and coalition building. The union is reaching out to wide sectors of the population, including senior citizens, people in rural areas (“Where the post office is big in community life,” said Davidow), small businesses, and civil rights and veterans groups. People of color and veterans are a significant share of the USPS workforce.
Morris notes that the fight by the APWU and its allies to preserve the viability of the USPS is part of a larger struggle to save and extend “the commons,” shared public resources that represent an alternative to a society increasingly shaped by profit maximization in every corner of life. “They are fighting to save a government institution that fundamentally contributes to a sense of community, of social cohesion, of well-being,” he says.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article stated that the Senate bill ends Saturday service and “eliminates” about 100,000 jobs. In fact, it protects Saturday service and trims the USPS workforce through early retirement incentives, rather than lay-offs.