In defense of the US Postal Service

June 22, 2020, Philadelphia. PHOTO: APWU
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Representatives from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) carried a Priority Mail package to Washington D.C. on June 23. It was filled with two million signatures from customers demanding that Congress approve emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

Defense of the postal service, its multiracial workforce and large public unions is high priority. This signature gathering was a response to the Trump administration blocking any pandemic bailout funds to USPS.

David Yao of the APWU protested in the Seattle Times, “As Congress bails out airlines, hotels and cruise lines, it’s disgraceful that a critical public service like the Postal Service would be left out to die.”

During these times of record unemployment, Covid-19 vulnerability of essential workers, and suppression of voting rights in an election year, inclusive mail service is vital.

A telling history. Why are USPS and Social Security the most popular government programs in the nation’s history? Because their purpose is to serve the entire population, not enrich a very few. The mandate of the U.S. Postal Department, as originally named, was to deliver mail to every resident in the nation, regardless of income or location, at a uniform and affordable price. It is not a business but a civic institution, designed to deliver political information as well as life-saving medication, food, ballots, news and much more. Today, it delivers 48 percent of the world’s mail to 160 million U.S. households and employs over 600,000 workers.

The U.S. Postal Department was established before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. African American men and women worked as postal employees almost from the start.

But that ended due to the Haitian revolution (1791-1804). The U.S. government feared that American slaves carrying mail would, like the Haitians, use the service to organize rebellion in the States.

After the Civil War, however, postal jobs made it possible for Black workers to reach toward a living wage. Hundreds took jobs as mail carriers, postal clerks and postmasters.

Women have been employed from the start, since 1775. And after the Civil War many postmasters in the South were women, because the job required them to swear that they had not aided the Confederacy, an oath few men could make.

During World War II, the number of women workers increased dramatically. In the 1940s, the Postal Department had a larger percentage of women in management positions than any other business or government agency of comparable size.

Today, women represent 40 percent of its workforce, Blacks 21 percent, Latinx 8 percent, Asians and Pacific Islanders 8 percent, and Native Americans and Alaska Natives .67 percent.

Historic strike. By early 1970, starting pay for postal workers was so low that many employees qualified for food stamps. When Congress raised its own salaries by 47 percent and postal workers’ a mere 5 percent, less than the rate of inflation, rank-and-file workers were outraged.

They called an illegal national wildcat strike that was to become the largest such walkout in U.S. history. Strikers solidified across racial lines and jobs and gained wide support from the public. Their militant 8-day strike was a product of the times — the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, labor union militancy, and anti-Vietnam war defiance. Black workers played a key role — in major cities, 50 to 70 percent of the strikers were African Americans, many of them vets.

The strike posed such a threat to Wall Street that President Nixon called a state of emergency and ordered 23,000 National Guard troops to New York. Strikers won a 14 percent wage increase, full collective bargaining rights, merged several unions into the stronger American Postal Workers Union, and changed the department’s name to U.S. Postal Service.

But Congress forced a serious compromise. USPS would henceforth be a hybrid government agency and corporation, that is, financially self-supporting. This service, mandated by the Constitution, gets no federal funds to operate.

Undermining the USPS. In 2006, with full bipartisan approval, Congress passed the infamous Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. It requires USPS to put aside (“pre-fund”) annual payments of $5.5 billion to cover medical benefits for all employees who would retire over the next 75 years — including workers not yet born! No other public agency has such a bizarre requirement.

This financial burden quickly became insurmountable. And led to calls that the USPS should be privatized or just done away with.

If the post office goes under, corporations like FedEx and UPS could gouge the public even more than they currently do. And many areas — both rural and low-income urban — would undoubtedly be heavily under-serviced.

Reduced mail use due to the rise of the internet and economic recession has added to the post office’s economic woes. While an increase in package delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic could postpone insolvency several months, the decrease in First-Class mail, a chief income source, remains severe. USPS is in deep debt and will run out of operational funding by September 2021. Ironically, although the post office wasn’t designed to make a profit, it did often manage to do so until the so-called pre-fund “enhancement” went into effect.

In 2018, a Trump task force report called for drastic service cuts, more outsourcing and cancellation of the unions’ hard-won collective bargaining rights.

Today, the elimination of polling locations, long lines at those remaining, and the risk to public health during pandemics make the call for vote by mail more urgent and democratic.

Voting by mail exclusively, however, is not a perfect solution. The Navajo reservation, for example, houses over 50,000 homes without traditional addresses. Thousands who live in these homes would not receive a ballot.

Call to action. U.S. Mail Not for Sale (usmailnotforsale.org) is a worker-led campaign organizing to save the USPS. It is pressing Congress to reject any stimulus bill that doesn’t include the USPS, and to repeal the horrific 2006 Enhancement Act. Solidarity among unionists and the public in defense of the USPS is a must.

Send comments to johnnytownsendauthor@yahoo.com.

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