A week before Christmas, Oregonians occupied post offices that were slated to close in 17 rural communities. Carrying Christmas cards, cookies, and gifts of appreciation for postal workers, the occupiers collected signatures on petitions to Congress to change the laws that caused the Postal Service’s $8.5 billion budget deficit.
Leslie Benscoter, a retired teacher from Deadwood, Oregon, told a local reporter, “Deadwood won’t exist in 10 years without a post office. That’s why I am an occupier. I occupy 97430.”
Back when I hired into the post office, it was a secure job. Wages and benefits were good, and you couldn’t be laid off. Now there is talk of closing 3,600 post offices, shutting 300 processing plants, eliminating Saturday delivery, and changing service standards so that mail that used to be delivered overnight will now take two to three days.
Management has requested at least 100,000 layoffs as well. So what happened?
In 2006 a lame-duck Republican-majority Congress passed a bill requiring the Postal Service to set aside more than $5 billion a year into a fund to guarantee health benefits for retirees up to 75 years from now. This money cannot be diverted to cover operating expenses.
But between 2007 and 2010, revenue taken in actually exceeded operating costs by $700 million, according to the USPS year-end 2010 report. It was the Congressional attack, not the Internet or other market forces, that caused the postal deficit.
Union efforts to get Congress to fix the problem have run into roadblocks. This battle takes place as public employees are blamed nationwide for government deficits. Plus, any legislation must go through a House committee chaired by the right-wing ideologue Darrell Issa of California.
When the Postal Workers (APWU) negotiated a contract in 2011 that preserved the no-layoff clause and no monetary concessions for current employees, Issa’s committee held hearings to demand that management attack postal workers more aggressively. (The contract did include a lower wage for new hires, much greater flexibility for management, and cost savings of $3.8 billion, but Issa and company wanted more.)
Just months after the APWU signed its contract, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe requested that Congress allow management to break the contract and lay off more than 100,000 workers. Management also advanced plans to close post offices and processing plants.
Many of the locations slated to close are in small rural communities like the ones being occupied in Oregon. Others are in poor urban neighborhoods. In my own neighborhood in Detroit, residents received a four-page letter announcing the closings that included a survey of postal usage. In small print it mentioned a meeting at a church to gather public input—but didn’t give the address. Nevertheless, dozens of people came to express their opposition.
Management’s plans to shutter post offices and relax service standards have provoked a backlash. Editorials in newspapers around the country criticized the move. Twenty-two senators requested a moratorium on the closures. Management agreed to a five-month pause, ending in May.
The postal unions joined together September 27 for a day of action, staging simultaneous rallies in every congressional district.
Still, in the months that followed, the most likely scenario appeared to be a compromise similar to so many that have occurred between the Obama administration and Republicans.
The Republicans would get the downsizing they want but without layoffs. Instead, the post office would get just enough financial relief to offer incentives for employees to retire (rumored to be $25,000).
Without significant pressure, Congress will probably accept a compromise that really is a defeat for the unions and the public. But there may be a glimmer of hope.
Reasons for Hope
Rallies and mobilizations have already taken place in large cities and remote areas throughout the country.
They demonstrate the potential to activate many people beyond “the usual suspects” to defend a service many rely on and appreciate. People in every city, town, and village will be adversely affected by the cutbacks. We need an army of activists to reach them.
Such a mobilizing force exists: There are postal workers everywhere, who could reach into our communities to find our natural allies (including Occupy folks).
A strong message from the heartland can tilt the balance of congressional compromises, especially in an election year.
The Labor Notes conference, May 4-6 in Chicago, is a mix of skills-building and big-picture sessions that attracts more than 1,000 labor activists. It's a great place to connect with in-the-trenches activists from all over the labor movement (from across the country and around the world), along with plenty of worker center folks as well. More info here: http://labornotes.org/conference