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How We Can Push Back the Privatization Assault That's Destroying the Postal System

A successful boycott to stop the further privatization of the post office could lead to the restoration of the USPS' former glory.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) management just ran into a possible game-changing obstacle to its shameful pursuit of a fully privatized post office: labor solidarity.

Here’s the background. For a decade the USPS has been aggressively shrinking, consolidating, and outsourcing the nation’s postal system. In July 2011 management upped the ante by announcing the rapid closure of 3600 local post offices, a step toward the eventual closing of as many as 15,000, half of all post offices in the nation. 

A groundswell of opposition erupted. Citizens in hundreds of towns mobilized to save a treasured institution that plays a key and sometimes defining role in their communities.  In December 2011, after Congress appeared ready to impose a six-month moratorium on closures USPS management voluntarily adopted a freeze of the same length. 

In May 2012, the moratorium ended but management, possibly concerned about reviving a national backlash, embraced an ingenious stealth strategy. Rather than closures, management moved to slash hours at 13,000 post offices.   That could be accomplished quickly. Reduction in hours, unlike outright closures, requires little justification. Appeals are limited. Moreover a reduction in hours doesn’t generate the same level of outrage as a closure. The building remains open even though its value to the community is dramatically diminished.  

By the end of this year management may achieve its goal. Already 9,000 post offices have had their hours cut drastically. Part time inexperienced non-career employees have replaced full time experienced career postmasters. Management duly held meetings in every affected community but refused to heed or even respond to the counsel of local residents and businesses or provide them the data used to justify its decision

Postal clerks and letter carriers are the personal face of the most ubiquitous, trusted and respected of all public institutions. By gradually replacing to-the-door service with delivery to more remote cluster mailboxes management has already reduced our personal interaction with letter carriers.

Last fall USPS management proceeded with the second phase in its campaign to sever our personal links to the postal clerks by quietly launching a pilot project in 82 Staples stores. After the news became public management ingenuously announced that nothing had changed. “Staples joins with more than 65,000 retailers . . . who currently provide expanded access to postal products and services.”  Management conveniently forgot to mention that these 65,000 locations just sell stamps or flat boxes. None hosts a postal counter staffed by a retail employee that sells services.

The arrangement with Staples is different.  As management conceded, Staples “is the first retailer to take part in a USPS pilot program dubbed the Retail Partner Expansion Program.” The Retail Partner Expansion Program creates mini post offices into big box stores.

If the pilot proves successful the USPS expects to expand it to all 1,500 Staples. And then to all big box retail outlets. Steve Hutkins, creator of the inestimable runs the numbers. We can now buy stamps at 7,450 Walgreens; 3,830 Wal-Marts; 1,632 Staples; 1,200 Office Depots; 847 Safeways; 609 Sam’s Clubs; and 426 Costcos. That adds up to over 14,000 locations.  “If all of those arrangements were converted from selling stamps on consignment to setting up postal counters, the Postal Service would have an instant infrastructure of “mini post offices” to replace real post offices…”

A bill introduced by Rep. Darrell’s Issa (R-CA) would make this replacement much easier. According to Section 103 of the Postal Reform Act of 2013 the right to appeal a post office closing to the Postal Regulatory Commission “shall not apply to a determination of the Postal Service to close a post office if there is located, within 2 miles of such post office, a qualified contract postal unit.” There are 1,200 post offices within two miles of just the Staples retail network.