My local post office is in crisis. Claiming that the U.S. Postal Service is in danger of financial collapse, the Postmaster General is proposing to close thousands of post offices and postal facilities, reduce services like Saturday delivery, lay off more workers, change benefit programs, and end protection against layoffs. In addition, current legislation in the House of Representatives (H.R. 2309) would create a "solvency authority" with power to unilaterally cut wages, change benefits, and end layoff protections. At the same time, it would create a board charged with delivering $2 billion worth of post office and facility closures in two years. Both efforts seriously erode the collective bargaining process that gives workers a voice on the job.
Maybe you agree with these measures. Have you grumbled that you had to stand in line at the post office -- inefficient? The wrong mail got delivered to your house -- incompetent? You're not protected from lay-offs, so why should government workers be protected -- wasted tax dollars? You don't need Saturday delivery -- money saved?
But have you looked at how the entire system actually works?
In 1943, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt told the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) convention delegates that union members need to tell their stories and educate the public about their problems. Well, I recently went to the convention of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and heard Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union, and Jane Broendel, secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Letter Carriers, explain clearly and succinctly why the Postal Service is not failing, why we should respect the people who go to work there every day, and how we can help make all of them more successful, contributing to a stronger economy. Here is what I learned.
The United States Postal Service:
1. Receives no taxpayer dollars
2. Is funded by the products and services it sells
3. Working with its unions, has already reduced its workforce by 110,000 employees, improved efficiency, and introduced new products and services
4. Handles more than 40 percent of the world's mail more efficiently and at lower cost than other services
5. Despite the growth of the digital world, continues to support a $1 trillion mailing industry with more than 8 million jobs
6. Has a workforce that is made up of 40 percent women, 40 percent minorities, and 22 percent veterans, many disabled
There is a crisis, but it is not because the Postal Service is inefficient and its workers overpaid. It is because the Postal Service:
7. Is the only federal agency or private company required to pre-fund retiree health benefits for 75 years
8. Is therefore required to pay $5.5 billion annually to the Treasury, an amount not required of any other agency or company
Without these unique requirements, it would have earned a surplus of over $600 million during the last four years. In addition, the USPS:
9. Has over-paid its obligations to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) by an estimated $50 billion (and this money should be returned)
10. Has overfunded the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) by approximately $6.9 billion (and would be profitable if these funds were returned)
H.R. 1351, the "United States Postal Service Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act of 2011," would begin to solve part of the problem by requiring the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to transfer the billions of dollars in overpayments to the retirement funds to the retiree health benefits account.
Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union and a Vietnam veteran, told Congress, "As postal workers, we have been able to fulfill the American dream of holding a job that pays a living wage and provides health insurance for families with a dignified retirement when we can no longer work."
My sister-in-law is a letter carrier in southern California. With over 20 years service on her route, in addition to delivering the mail she knows the elderly and the sick and checks when mail is left in the box. She asks about birthdays and anniversaries. For some, hers is the only friendly face they see all week, a link to the wider world. In my small community of Moss Beach, many people gather at the post office to pick up their mail, meet neighbors, and learn what is going on in the neighborhood. The postal service is more than a job and more than products and services. It has been part of our history and our communities for over 200 years.
If you want more information about what is happening today, ask your letter carrier when he or she delivers your mail or stop and see your post master when you go into town. You can join the Save America's Postal Service Rallies on September 27. As Eleanor Roosevelt told the union delegates, "We can't just talk. We have got to act."
Brigid O'Farrell's most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. She is an Independent Scholar living in Moss Beach, CA.