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You've Got Mail -- Or Not: Why a Job-Killing Congressional Attack May Close Your Local Post Office

If Congress is allowed to destroy a trusted institution's chances of success, millions of good American jobs will be lost.
 
 
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The U.S. Postal Service is a 200-year-old institution that directly provides jobs for half a million people and many times that number in industries that depend upon it. The Postal Service receives not a penny of taxpayer money, and even made a tidy profit in the first quarter of this year. Yet this trusted federal agency is under siege from a phony "fiscal crisis" created by Congress in an unjustified attack on workers and much-need services. It's no surprise that those seeking to further privatize universal public services and weaken labor unions are leading the charge.

It's time to set the record straight.

On August 1, for the first time in its history, the Postal Service defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment to a health benefit trust fund. In two recent articles ("Postal Service Set to Default on Billions in Health Fund Payments" and "As Default Looms, Postal Service Sees Deeper Woes"), Ron Nixon of the New York Times has suggested that this failure was because of continuing financial losses due to declining mail volume. Proposed solutions to the so-called "fiscal crisis" include closing post offices (maybe yours), ending Saturday delivery (maybe yours), and laying off more workers (maybe your sister, cousin or neighbor).

You have to get pretty far into the New York Times articles before you learn that the loss might not actualy be a result of declining mail volume, but because of a special cost imposed by Congress: a $5.5 billion annual payment over 10 years required to pre-fund future retiree health benefits for 75 years. Fact: No other government agency or private company in the country is required to make such a payment. Clearly, something funny is going on.

You could certainly argue that the U.S. Postal Service faces great challenges for the future. But Congress seems to have made the situation considerably worse. Furthermore, the Postal Service is due an $11 billion refund for overpaying one of the pension funds. And there is another estimated $50 billion overpaid to the Civil Service Retirement Service. Without these special costs and overpayments the postal service might well be making a surplus.

A bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in April, while not fixing the problem, would at least make a start by reducing the payments to $2.5 billion per year over 40 years and repaying the $11 billion overpayment. It appears that Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, however, are prepared to take no action at all. 

Stopgap measures in both chambers attach language to spending bills to keep the Postal Service from closing post offices or processing centers. They kick the can down the road, while keeping these so-called “losses” on the books. Meanwhile, customers, large and small, see the headlines and continue to lose confidence in the U.S. Postal Service after over 200 years of service.

The crisis is artificial, created by an act of Congress in 2006 requiring this unique health fund payment. But the end results are very real. Inaction is not neutral. In this case it will directly contribute to the decline of the U.S. Postal Service at the cost of lost services, lost jobs and lost community.

Did you know that the Postal Service doesn’t receive any taxpayer money? The workforce has already been cut and new efficiencies and products introduced. The Postal Service workforce is 40 percent women, 40 percent minorities, and 22 percent veterans. They are an important part of a $1 trillion industry providing over 8 million jobs.

These are real people with real jobs coming out of this devastating recession.

Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union and a Vietnam veteran, told Congress “As postal workers, we have been able to fulfill the American dream of holding a job that pays a living wage and provides health insurance for families with a dignified retirement when we can no longer work.”

My little community in Northern California could lose its post office, a hub of local activity. My sister-in-law, a letter carrier in Southern California, could lose her job.

In 1943, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told the CIO convention delegates that union members need to tell their stories and educate the public about their problems. It’s time for postal workers to tell their stories to their customers. 

It’s also time for all of us to stop and ask the men and women who deliver our mail, sell our stamps and ship our packages what is going on? Then it’s time to tell our members of Congress what we have learned. I would begin by asking representatives in Congress about repealing the 2006 law that set this unprecedented retirement burden on the postal service. As Eleanor Roosevelt told the union delegates, “We can’t just talk. We have got to act.”

Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with Mills College and the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. This article is based on her most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker, Cornell University Press, now available in paperback.