Affordable, reliable, universal mail delivery could vanish as the United States Postal Service runs out of money this month, the American Postal Workers Union says.
That’s tragic at a time when the nation is divided and the U.S. Postal Service literally unites us.
“The humble Post Office is a community fixture, a civic inheritance, a rural lifeline, and one of the last vestiges of a shared civic culture in America,” wrote American Conservative editor Addison Del Mastro. “Tolerate it, treasure it, and don’t let the vicissitudes of global capitalism, contempt for government, or a viral outbreak take it away from us.”
Maybe we hadn’t realized it’s vulnerable to White House vengeance and government greed.
“I think there is a lack knowledge how much people rely on our job,” says Peoria mailman Vic Murrie, legislative liaison with the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). “It might seem we will always be there.”
Revenues have fallen due to increased use of email generally and the pandemic particularly, and Postal Service could lose $18 billion this year, and help is held up in the Oval Office.
During the COVID-19 spread this spring, USPS maintained operations, though thousands of Post Office employees were quarantined and dozens died.
“The pandemic has only added to an uncertain future,” Murrie says.
There was a potential lifeline in the CARES Act, which bailed out many businesses. Airlines got $50 billion; United Parcel and FedEx together got $4 billion.
USPS got nothing.
Both the House and the Senate favored financial relief for the USPS, but President Trump threatened to veto relief measures if the Post Office was included, calling USPS “a joke” and saying package rates should be raised to four times current levels.
Speculation on Trump’s motives include resentment of Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post as well as Amazon, relenting on corporate desires to privatize USPS, killing its unions, hurting possibilities for mail-in voting, and expanding his authority over USPS leadership and hiring.
Even some Republicans were startled. The Trump-appointed Postal Board of Governors backs a $25 billion request, and former Republican Congressman John McHugh, chair of the Package Coalition representing shippers, said, “Why anyone on the Republican side of the aisle would want to bring the Postal Service close to a financial shutdown six to eight weeks out from the election and thinks that’s a vote-getter is beyond me.”
It’s beyond the public, workers and customers, too.
A bipartisan poll jointly conducted by Republican firm North Star and Democratic firm Hart Research found 90% of the country wants to keep USPS alive – with money, not loans.
Writing to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, presidents of the postal unions – APWU, NALC, NPMH and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association – said, “The mission of the Postal Service, written in federal law, is ‘to bind the Nation together’ through ‘the correspondence of the people.’ It is our collective responsibility to preserve that bond.”
Employees feel that responsibility, Murrie says.
“Postal workers have a deep pride in providing dependable service everyone in the USA expects,” he says.
If Trump forces through his huge rate hike, big companies will just pass along new costs to consumers, so everyday people will pay – along with small businesses.
“It will kill business,” says Craig Moore, whose Younger Than Yesterday shop on University Street gets about 25% of its revenues from mail-order sales. “During the pandemic shutdown it was 95%.
“Small businesses could die by the thousands unless FedEx and UPS become more competitive,” he adds. “USPS is the cheapest.”
Besides additional shipping costs, quadrupling package rates could affect goods, too, according to Bob Gordon, who owns Acme Comics & Books on Glen, where about 20% of his business is mail order.
“The end result would be suppression of value of items sold,” he says. “Online sales would end [although buyers would] possibly return to brick and mortar [stores]. Think of all the next-day medical supplies getting slammed on quadruple shipping prices.”
For centuries, the Post Office was appreciated. Before it was in the Constitution, the Continental Congress in 1775 named Ben Franklin the colonies’ first Postmaster; in 1792 George Washington and James Madison expanded it to a national system of offices and post roads; in 1862 home delivery to towns was launched; and in 1896 rural delivery was established.
In the classic 1835 “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Here and there we encountered a cabin amid the woods: it was the Post Office. At the door of this isolated dwelling, the mailman threw an enormous packet of letters, and we resumed our course at a gallop, leaving to each inhabitant in the neighborhood the care of coming to find his part of the treasure.”
It was never run to make money any more than libraries or schools were expected to profit.
“The Postal Service is part of the critical infrastructure of this nation,” said Charles Manage of the National Postal Mail Handlers (NPMH) division of the Laborers. “Postal Service employees are providing an essential public service.”
Still, its revenues were healthy until 2006, when a lame-duck Congress enacted a law forcing USPS to pre-fund employee pension and retirement costs, including health care, for the next 75 years. That means it must fund retirement accounts for employees who haven’t yet been hired – or born.
The year that mandate passed, the Postal Service made $900 million in net income. Burdened with that $5 billion annual expense – which no other company must make – it’s lost money ever since.
“The housing crash and credit crunch lead to the Great Recession. The USPS still was mandated to put billions of dollars into this fund even though every other company was holding on to every cent they had,” Murrie says.
Oddly (or not), Trump’s claim that USPS loses money on delivering Amazon packages is false. First, USPS is prohibited by law from losing money in competitive services. Also, USPS makes money from Amazon’s business, according to its 10-K filing with the IRS last year. “As a percentage of operating revenue, shipping and packages generated approximately 32%, 30% and 28% for the years ended September 30, 2019, 2018 and 2017, respectively,” USPS said. “Prices for these competitive services increased an average of 7.4%, 4.1% and 3.9% in January 2019, January 2018 and January 2017, respectively.”
There are options to improve USPS – and its revenues – such as resuming its former banking services and providing public broadband. But Trump’s attacks jeopardize such forward thinking. Already, USPS is undergoing a management shakeup with the resignations of former vice-chairman of the Board of Governors David Williams and Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman, and the retirement of Postmaster General Megan Brennan (who Trump replaced with ex-Republican fund raiser Louis DeJoy).
Frustrations reach the rank and file.
“Five hundred billion dollars went to private corporations in the CARES Act,” APWU president Mark Dimondstein. “The Postal Service got nothing.”
Trump “didn’t tell Boeing they needed to increase of price of airplanes,” he continued. “It’s a sellout … putting it on the path to privatization.”
Still, backing from the public, Congress and USPS’ Board of Governors “should be strong enough to carry the day over those who would carry out an unpopular agenda to privatize the Postal Service and sell it off,” Dimondstein added.
In Peoria, Murrie looks back at times when USPS delivered despite Unabomber mail bombs and terrorists sending anthrax letters and feels disbelief.
“The USPS has served through our capital burned, a Civil War, the influenza pandemic, two World Wars, the telegraph, the telephone, countless depressions and recessions, fax machines, the Internet,” he says.
“I can’t believe this could be the end.”