The United States Postal Service (USPS) is in trouble. Long-standing efforts to dismantle the agency have seriously escalated amid the coronavirus crisis, with the Trump administration depriving the USPS of much-needed emergency funding in a bid to drive through a host of neoliberal reforms.
On May 6, President Trump appointed longtime GOP donor Louis DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman, as the new postmaster general. Curiously absent from DeJoy’s résumé is any experience working in the USPS — the first time in nearly two decades the postmaster general has not been selected from the postal service’s ranks. In a statement on DeJoy’s appointment, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) — one of four unions that represent postal employees — said that if DeJoy pursues an agenda of privatization, he “will be met with stiff resistance from postal workers and the people of this country.”
There’s plenty of reason to suspect DeJoy will do so, falling in line with the man who selected him. In recent months, Trump has called the postal service “a joke,” insisted that it raise shipping prices four to five times, and repeatedly obstructed emergency funds for the agency.
Facing revenue shortages of nearly 50 percent due to the COVID-19 crisis, USPS appealed to Congress for an $89 billion package to avoid running out of money by September. Instead, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered the agency $10 billion with numerous draconian strings attached, including demands to hike rates on shipping, grant the Treasury Department additional oversight to review and amend existing contracts, and reverse gains won over many years by postal workers and codified in collective bargaining agreements.
These attacks on the USPS are but the latest saga in a long-standing push by members of both parties to fundamentally alter and destroy this vital public service. In 2006, Congress passed the bipartisan Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring the USPS to pre-pay retiree health care benefits seventy-five years in advance — a mandate unheard of for either public agencies or private businesses. The onerous rule has been responsible for the vast majority of the USPS’s net losses in recent years. And sure enough, these losses have been used as talking point number one to justify selling off parts of the public agency or privatizing it entirely.
That would be an unmitigated disaster. The USPS is a national treasure, legally obligated to serve all US residents, no matter where they live, at uniform price and quality. No other program or service can say the same. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” goes the unofficial motto. And it’s true: postal workers get every person their mail — by truck, car, foot, bicycle, and even planes, snowmobiles, and donkeys. These workers connect everyone everywhere, for as low as 55 cents a letter.
The USPS has a post office in every zip code. No other federal agency can boast that kind of rootedness and presence virtually everywhere across the country’s vast expanse. From New York City to the depths of the Grand Canyon, postal workers serve everyone regardless of race, age, gender, or ability.
Then there are the employment benefits. The USPS is the second largest employer in the country — topped only by the federal government — with over 600,000 workers. A little more than one-third of postal employees are women; 18 percent are veterans. A source of well-paying, union jobs, the USPS is also an engine for racial justice. Nearly a quarter of all postal workers are black, and the postal service has long been a means for black Americans to access decent pay and stable working conditions. As early as 1861, federal employment in the postal service was open to African Americans, and since the end of the Civil War it has provided a home for black workers throughout the country. As William Burrus, the first black president of the American Postal Workers Union, has warned, a successful assault on the postal service would “put an end to the relationship between people of color and their opportunity to climb up the ladder of success in our country … The post office has permitted millions of African-Americans to better themselves.”
Finally, as the pandemic drags on and uncertainty about how — and if — there will be a return to anything approaching normalcy any time soon, it is quite possible that millions of Americans will cast their ballots by mail rather than in-person this fall. The question of defending the Post Office is also, then, a question of defending electoral democracy and the ability of millions of people to have their votes counted in November.
The Postal Service does all of this — moving mail all over the country, employing over half a million workers at relatively high wages — while maintaining a near-zero impact on the public purse. It’s a model public agency that has not only been the historic backbone of America’s communications and logistics sector, but could serve as the real brick-and-mortar foundation for other public utilities like postal-banking, or even care centers and journalism hubs.
And that’s probably why Republicans and corporate Democrats want to destroy the USPS office: it’s one of the best examples we have in US society of democratic values prevailing over private profits. Dismantling the post office would uproot the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of workers, strike a blow against racial equality, and lay waste to a vital universal service.
We can’t let that happen.