The United States Postal Service (USPS) came into being in 1970. I know what you are thinking, and yes, there was a Post Office and mail delivery system long before then, but it all operated under a different name. What’s in a name, you say? Well, it’s not just the name, but the manner in which it came to be. Prior to 1970 letter carriers and other postal employees earned such dismal wages that they needed second jobs to feed their families. Pretty sad for people that we expect to perform their duties in ALL kinds of weather, ALL conditions without regard. And, they had no collective bargaining rights.
In March, 1970, beginning in New York City and eventually spreading to involve some 220,000 postal employees, letter carriers began a wildcat strike. Determined not to be manhandled by these “workers”, President Nixon sent in the troops to do the work. In less than 2 days, they discovered that was fruitless. The Army was built for fighting, not for carrying mail ! Since it was a “wildcat” strike, and hence illegal, they jailed several of the leaders. Wouldn’t you know it, that didn’t get the mail delivered either. In order to resolve the situation, the government was actually forced to bargain with the people who actually did the work. From this resolution came the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 and the USPS.
This new law led to a restructuring which granted collective bargaining rights to postal unions while banning strikes and implementing a binding arbitration process to resolve future negotiating impasses. It also reorganized postal management, removed the Department of the Post Office from its cabinet level status and put the new USPS on an operational basis where it would receive NO tax dollars. Over the next three decades, all went reasonably well for all parties. Postal employees worked, bargained, and built a respectable wage and living standard for themselves and their families. The 2000 election saw GW Bush ride into power, and like all staunch Republicans, he arrived in Washington with the intention of “privatizing” any government operation that might hold the possibility of profit for their “private sector” friends.
Efforts to privatize the USPS, like efforts to privatize Social Security, proved to be harder in reality than in their rhetoric. However, this didn’t change the fact that the 1970 law which established and structured the current operation needed a 21st century tune-up. With that as a goal and with conflicting ideologies Congress passed the Postal Reform Act of 2006. On its face it seemed like a good deal. The letter carriers’ union was so happy to have staved off one more privatization effort that they overlooked some of the finer points in the new law. Among these finer points was a requirement that the USPS “pre-fund” retiree health benefits for the next 75 years by 2015. That’s right, seventy five years. Suddenly, the USPS was forced to pay the future health insurance benefits of people who were not even born yet, much less employed by the USPS.
Still they marched on. Even in the face of declining mail volume and ever-increasing and sensitive fuel costs, the USPS moved forward. Letter carriers and other postal unions made workplace and job duty concessions. First class stamp costs rose slightly, but all in all the service provided was (and still is) the finest in the world. Then came the calamity that was 2008. The “Great Fall”, the recession unlike any in our lifetime. As with all businesses, the USPS found themselves struggling and the burden of that pre-funding became unbearable. Now with the light of difficult times shown upon them, those few fine points became a death knell. In 2010, Congress granted the USPS a one year reprieve from the burden of pre-funding, but refused to re-think the entire situation.
Stop right there. All of my life I have heard that the government should operate more like a private business. What businessman ever put himself in the position of needing to pay bills 75 years ahead? And when open discussion and honest examination show that changing this ridiculous requirement to something more in line with how a private business might actually operate could fix the USPS fiscal situation, serious people should take advantage of the opportunity. Not so this time. Even worse, the USPS Board of Governors has actually submitted a plan to Congress to remedy the problem by breaking legitimately negotiated labor agreements, changing employee health benefit plans, and altering employee retirement plans.
What might cause politicians to insert such requirements into their legislation? Simply put, the desire to privatize an agency which has the potential to be profitable. The unionized employees actually earn a “Living Wage’, meaning they can nearly afford to pay their bills, as opposed to the Walmart employees who have no chance of building the kind of future that we once thought of as the American dream. If they could break up the Postal Service, they could sell it off to their corporate friends, get rid of those jobs – in other words, union-busting – and replace them with folks making far less, allowing the corporate friends to take home the money that they won’t have to pay for “Living Wages”.
The reality is, the USPS is not broke. It has enough cash to pay its bills, if those bills are structured in a reasonable and realistic manner. We can save the USPS (our mail system pre-dates our Constitution, and is mandated therein) by re-structuring the law to allow the USPS to use the funds it has overpaid into the FERS and by eliminating the ridiculous retiree healthcare pre-payment requirement. We can save jobs, living wage jobs. According to the Postmaster General we can save 120,000 – 220,000 jobs. It will not cost us a cent. Not one penny. In this economy, why would we not do that? Is the union-busting that important?
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