The existence of the US Postal Service is anathema to capitalist and free market ideologists in the US. Here stands a colossal, unionized organization of workers—once nearly a million strong—working in what essentially is a nationalized industry, bringing universal service at the lowest price possible, without trying to make a profit or paying shareholder dividends. At the time of its revolutionary beginnings—it was created by the 2nd Continental Congress in 1775—there was no real concept of socialism other than primitive communism. And yet, it seemed perfectly natural—even to the rising bourgeois class of the time—to implement a communication system for all people, long before the advent of the telephone, and two full centuries before the internet. It was especially important to create a system in which all first-class mail—especially political propaganda—was protected by law from search by agents of the government.
Bringing in $67 billion in 2013, the USPS is the largest revenue-generating “independent” agency of the executive branch that acts as a government regulated monopoly—all while operating without a penny of taxpayer funding. With 82% of these enormous revenues going toward salaries and benefits, including pensions, the capitalists salivate at the prospects for fat profits through privatization. For comparison, in 2011, at United Parcel Service, which is unionized, about 66% of their total operating costs go towards labor. At FedEx, which is nonunion, about 45% of their total operating costs are labor. By slashing jobs, wages, pensions, services, and the unions at USPS, the capitalists stand to make a lot of money—if they can manage to get their hands on this important piece of public property.
Contrary to popular belief, the Postal Service is no longer subsidized by the US Treasury Department, and covers all of its own expenses, due to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. Instead of taxpayer funding, the USPS operates on the postage model of revenue generation, which is similar to toll-based or use-based models. This reform came as a compromise between the strong postal unions of the time and the Nixon administration, when discontent among the rank and file led to a series of wildcat strikes without the endorsement of the union leadership. These job actions led to the right to collective bargaining, higher wages and benefits, and worker protections in the workplace.
This goes to show that although the laws are written and enforced for the benefit of the capitalist class, with a bold and defiant movement of the workers, no such laws can be enforced. This is the strength of organization and exactly why, throughout history, workers collectively organize themselves into unions against capitalist exploitation. But what we can also learn from this period is that without overthrowing the capitalist system as a whole, all reforms can and will eventually be rolled back by counterreforms when the movement ebbs. This has been the case over the last 40 years.
Plans to “save the Post Office” include eliminating 220,000 postal jobs through cuts and attrition by 2015, after already eliminating 212,000 jobs over the last ten years. There is also a proposal to withdraw postal employees and retirees from the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and instead create a new program with weaker benefits.
The latest in the relentless assault against these hard-won gains are various “pilot programs” being pushed by USPS management. In reality, these are all efforts to privatize postal jobs and undermine the unions’ power. Their plan is to use private companies like Staples and CVS to set up “retail post offices” worked by non–Postal Service, nonunion, poorly trained, underpaid staff. This represents a flagrant attack on the workers of the USPS and the labor movement as a whole. Discontent with the direction of the USPS and with the union leadership has led to the formation of various opposition currents within the unions. Recently, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)—the largest of the four main postal workers’ unions—elected an opposition activist slate of national officers. The new president, Mark Dimondstein, is taking seriously the threat posed by the Staples campaign.
Since his swearing-in, Dimondstein has called for a “grand alliance” to save the USPS as a public service and to protect postal jobs. He used the example of the sit-down strikers in Flint shutting down General Motors in the 1930s to illustrate his point that “lobbying for legislation is important, but it is not enough—to win, postal workers must build a movement.” Since then, the presidents of all four major postal unions have signed a document signifying this alliance. A day of action was held on April 24, with rallies at dozens of Staples stores nationwide. The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) pledged solidarity and attendance with the APWU at this year’s day of action. The turnout at these rallies was energized and full of cross-union and cross-generation solidarity and fighting spirit, with chants such as, “Whose Post Office? Our Post Office!”
This is a vast improvement from the recent past, as the unions had been divided on congressional legislation as well as lacking in solidarity at protests organized by the other unions. The unions must fight for all temp workers to be given full union rights and must fight against the implementation of multiple-tier wage structures. There must be steps taken towards concretely formalizing the solidarity of the unions at USPS with the aim of reaching out to other unions and workers involved in the shipping of packages. In fact, uniting all the unions into a single industrial postal union should be placed firmly on the agenda. In unity there is strength!
Furthermore, instead of seeing Staples’ nonunion workers as a threat, USPS workers should reach out to them and fight for them to join the ranks of union workers. In fact, instead of outsourcing Postal Service jobs to struggling companies like Staples, the argument should be flipped on its head: Staples and the entire office supply industry should be nationalized and integrated into the USPS, with union wages and benefits for all. Far from accepting that the USPS needs to be pared down, we should boldly propose the expansion of the USPS. Its extensive transportation and delivery infrastructure connects even the smallest communities to the rest of the country, and should offer even more services and provide more quality union jobs than at present.
The media goes on and on about how the Postal Service is losing billions of dollars a year. But this is entirely artificial. The bipartisan-sponsored Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 mandates the USPS to pay into an unfunded retirement benefits fund 75 years into the future. This amounts to roughly $5 billion each year. No other public or private entity is required to do this. This represents a blatant legislative trap intended to grind down the Postal Service in order to justify privatizing it.
In fact, the numbers are far healthier once this is taken into account. From 1983–2006, the USPS made a total profit of $30.5 billion. However, by law, all of this money went to the US Treasury, and was not set aside to offset future losses. Between 2007 and 2013, the USPS “lost” $45.7 billion. However, $38.5 billion of this was due to the unfunded mandate. That leaves $7.2 billion of actual operating losses. Over the same period of 2007–13, the USPS processed a total of 1.25 trillion pieces of mail. The entire (real) loss could have been averted with an increased cost per piece of mail of only $0.00576—well within the rubric of reasonable price increases. Alternatively, the $30.5 billion surplus from the earlier period could have easily covered the loss.
From the numbers above, it is clear that the USPS is the victim of an entirely manufactured crisis—a favorite method of the capitalists to destabilize the public sector all over the world. This situation also raises the following question: how can a government agency be “losing money?” By definition, the USPS is not a for-profit enterprise—it is a service to the people. Notice that the media never says that the Pentagon is “losing money,” even though it represents an enormous, unproductive drain on the public treasury! In addition, we must be clear that the attacks on the USPS come from both Democrats and Republicans. This is why all four postal workers unions must get behind the idea of a labor party. It makes no sense to continue lobbying for pro-worker legislation from anti-worker parties. The “lesser evil” strategy has led the labor movement nowhere and is a major reason for the setbacks of the last few decades.
To address the problems of waste, corruption, and inefficiency that do in fact exist within the existing management structure at the USPS, it must be brought under democratic workers’ control and planning. To begin with, we could eliminate the wasteful spending on management and administration (1 in 10 USPS employees is a manager!). New technology and methods could be introduced to increase efficiency while reducing the workweek with no loss in pay. A USPS under workers’ control would be in a perfect position to absorb and consolidate the infrastructure of the entire package delivery infrastructure, including UPS, DHL, FedEx, ConRAIL, and others. This would enable the workers of a robust and dynamic USPS to deliver goods directly to every part of the country in a manner that would bring previously unimaginable order and efficiency to the chaos that is our current “free market.”
Unite the labor movement to defend the USPS—An injury to one is an injury to all!
Union wages, rights, benefits, and protections for every worker who handles the mail or delivers a package!
Nationalize the entire package delivery industry under democratic workers’ control!