Post Office Workers Can Be Defenders of Key Public Goods

Melissa Rakestraw, a postal worker in Schaumburg, Illinois, grew up in a tiny rural town and didn’t plan on becoming a radical. But “I guess the short version," she says, "is, 'I got a job at the post office and became a socialist.'”

An activist holds a USPS envelope while protesting in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images)

Last month, Jacobin spoke with fifty-one-year-old Melissa Rakestraw, a letter carrier and shop steward with the National Association of Letter Carriers. Rakestraw, who delivers mail in Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, has been organizing her fellow postal workers around the country through the Labor Notes network of trade union militants. It’s been a busy time for her.

Although the post office has been persistently threatened with privatization and austerity (a bipartisan agenda) throughout the past decade, President Trump’s appointment of Louis DeJoy has brought the visibility of a Dickensian villain to the struggle — a vicious, greedy worm of a fellow.

DeJoy, a Republican mega-donor, is not only the first postmaster general in decades without experience as a letter carrier, recent Congressional testimony showed that he doesn’t even know how much a postcard stamp costs. (For historical context, the first person to hold this job was Ben Franklin.)

Worse, DeJoy is the kind of Trump appointee who has relegated the phrase “conflict of interest” to anodyne obsolescence: owning more than $30 million in assets of US Postal Service (USPS) competitors at the time of his appointment, DeJoy and his wife appear to have a significant stake in the destruction of the postal service.

Not surprisingly, DeJoy has made changes that have caused massive delays in mail: he has cut overtime, and removed sorting machines and mailboxes, leaving many Americans without lifesaving medication and paychecks. (One poignant news report revealed that in remote areas where farmers even depend on the postal service for some livestock, baby chicks were dying due to mail taking too long in transit).

Trump has openly admitted that his own efforts to underfund the post office could complicate mail-in voting. It’s clear that Trump understands that it’s in his interest to make voting as hard as possible, and his attacks on the post office are part of that agenda. And both conservative and neoliberal governments always want to undermine unionized workers and public goods.

Trump’s attacks on the post office have provoked a public outcry, pressuring the Democrats to act. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Congress back from recess to hold hearings on the issue and Rep. Carolyn Maloney is serving DeJoy with a subpoena. Demonstrations across the country have called on the federal government to #SavethePostOffice by providing the funding it needs ($25 billion in emergency COVID-19 relief) and to reverse the changes that DeJoy has made that are causing delays.

MoveOn held protests in at least eight hundred locations on Saturday August 22, the largest mass demonstration in support of the US post office in its 245-year history. The American Postal Workers Union also held rallies Tuesday, August 25 in at least three hundred locations. A few months ago liberal advocacy groups were simply exhorting us to help the post office out by buying stamps, but these protests have brought postal workers and community members together in defense of a vital public good.

Normally, with a workforce as beleaguered as postal workers, rank-and-file organizers would be talking about striking. But the struggle is almost the reverse right now, says Rakestraw. DeJoy is trying to stop postal workers from doing their jobs. Many are resisting his interference by boldly asserting their commitment to their work: reconnecting disabled machines and declaring that even without overtime they will deliver the mail.

“When we put ourselves forward as the defenders of the service this way,” she says, “we get more community support.”

Like most people in such situations, Rakestraw didn’t plan on becoming a leader in a rank-and-file movement against fascism and in defense of the public sector. Actually, she didn’t plan on delivering mail.

After her sophomore year of college, she left college briefly. “I was planning to go back,” she explains, but that particular school “wasn’t the right place for me.” She went home to Mineral, Illinois, the rural town of five hundred people where she’d grown up on a third-generation family farm.

Though it was clear by the 1980s that family farming would no longer be economically viable for her generation, her father continued to farm — livestock and soybeans, on about five hundred acres — but also took a United Auto Workers (UAW) job with KCH Transportation, a company that produces agricultural vehicles like combines and tractors, in order to provide health insurance for the family.

He went on strike in 1979, and still saw his plant, in East Moline, Illinois, dramatically shrink its workforce in the eighties, but he had enough seniority to hang on. A thirty-year UAW veteran, he is now retired with a pension.

Out of school, Rakestraw was working for her brother and taking some community college classes. Her mother encouraged her to take the postal service exam. Rakestraw didn’t want to work for a post office or live in her small town. “I was planning to move away. But to placate my mother I went and took the test.”

At the time, taking the postal exam and getting a good score would put the test taker on a wait list, allowing her to apply when a position opened up. A couple years after taking the test, Rakestraw got a call, and got the job. She thought she’d work at the post office for a couple years and save money to go to law school.

“And then life happened and twenty-five years later, here I am delivering mail,” she laughs. “In the whole grand scheme of things, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

Hearing Rakestraw talk about her commitment to the necessary work of delivering mail, it’s hard to imagine she’d have been as fulfilled sitting indoors in a sterile law office. Rakestraw’s job has turned her into a political activist.

Around 2011, the Obama Administration began peddling right-wing rhetoric about how the post office was bankrupt and inefficient, to justify policies of increasing privatization and austerity. (These two nearly always go hand in hand: if you starve public goods of resources, they don’t work as well, which can then breed public support for private sector “solutions.”)

The canard at that time was that e-mail had destroyed the post office. Rakestraw knew this wasn’t true: online retail had greatly expanded postal business. She got into a confrontation on postal matters with her local Tea Party congressman Joe Walsh, and when he boorishly and rudely got in her face, the video went viral — along with Rakestraw’s own corrections of fact about the postal service.

“It helped change the narrative that the post office was going bankrupt, which at that time was just accepted in the mainstream media,” she says.

Rakestraw says she was inspired by “the uprising in Wisconsin” of public-sector workers opposing austerity, and also by Occupy Wall Street. “I thought, I’m gonna fight for my job and fight for what’s right.” She got involved with Labor Notes, along with socialist activists in Chicago. “I guess, the short version is, ‘I got a job at the post office and became a socialist,’ right?” she laughs.

She’s now hoping the postal workers can do more to unite and coordinate — postal workers are represented by four different unions — and keep building on the support in their communities. Rakestraw also hopes after they win the current demands they can shift to “not just ‘don’t cut us,’ but to expand what we can do.”

Looking at massive unemployment, and how short-staffed the post office is now — and was before the pandemic — why not hire more people? Rakestraw envisions new ways that post office can serve the community, like providing postal banking, and producing green jobs, by converting the USPS’s fleet of mail trucks to energy-efficient vehicles.

As well, Rakestraw observes, the current civil rights uprising should intensify postal worker organizing and shape the kind of actions they need to take. “I’m a big sports fan,” she says, “and I would never have dreamed that the NBA was going to say, we’re not going to play tonight. Having someone like Lebron James, who — I mean of course I’m a Michael Jordan person but — is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. To have him step forward and say enough is enough and be willing to lead is huge.”

About 25 percent of US postal workers are black. Rakestraw notes that the kettling of black neighborhoods in Chicago has resulted in a totalitarian situation: many postal workers from those neighborhoods must show an ID to police officers in order to get out and deliver mail.

Of the uprising, Rakestraw asks, “How will this affect the consciousness of black workers, and as coworkers, are we going to be willing to take job actions if necessary?”