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The Last Postie – a false alarm?

interior-postiesPublished in the Sunday Herald on September 11, 2011.

The United States Postal Service creed is a classic of American marketing. First inscribed on the monumental James Farley postal depot, across the avenue from Pennsylvania Station in central Manhattan, it now hangs on the wall of every post office in the land, declaring a determination to deliver, no matter what: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, nor the winds of change, nor a nation challenged, will stay us from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Ever.”

Over the course of six years living in New York, including many hours waiting in line to pick up or send packages, I’ve had time to memorise it, and to consider the chasm between the proud rhetoric and hopeless, dysfunctional reality of an organisation that makes the Royal Mail look efficient. The queue to buy stamps moves at a glacial pace. At my local branch, it often continues through the door, down the street.

So it was not entirely surprising to hear, in congressional testimony this week, that the USPS is in crisis. The Postmaster General, Patrick Donahoe, told lawmakers that unless more than $5 billion is made available by the end of the month, the postal service will default on its debts. “We must act quickly to prevent a postal service collapse,” warned Senator Joe Lieberman. “The situation is dire,” said Senator Thomas Carper. “If we do nothing, if we don’t react in a smart, appropriate way, the postal service could literally close later this year.”

Donahoe was not requesting a handout, as such: the USPS has overpaid almost $7 billion into the Federal Employees Retirement System, more than enough to cover its immediate liabilities. What he wants is the authority to make deep cuts, breaking union contracts and significantly reducing services in the process. The postal service currently employs around 650,000 people. Donahoe proposes to cut this workforce by a third, shut 3,700 post offices, halve the number of mail depots and end Saturday delivery.

This medicine would be unpalatable at the best of times, and with an official unemployment rate of 9.1% and a true joblessness figure almost double that, the USA can ill afford massive layoffs at its second largest civilian employer. But according to management, there is no alternative in the digital era, when so much business is conducted online and letter writing is fast becoming a bygone art. “The problem is, the volume and revenues continue to go down,” said Donahoe. “We are losing first-class mail at the rate of 7.5% a year. That’s not going to change.”

At the National Association of Letter Carriers union hall, in the Brooklyn suburb of Bensonhurst, this argument got short shrift. To John Patrick Murphy, who pushed his delivery cart along the same streets each morning for 23 years, the drive for compulsory redundancies and reduced benefits is part of a broader assault on the working class, under cover of recession. “We don’t call it austerity here, but workers are being blamed for problems caused by the banks,” he said. “After so many years of teachers putting American workers on a pedestal for their value to the country and to their communities, suddenly we became the enemy.”

In the late early 1990s “going postal” became shorthand for the violent resolution of workplace grievances, following a series of killings at post offices. A government study concluded that this reputation was unfair – shop assistants are actually much more likely to shoot the boss – but the label stuck.

Murphy said: “Congress wanted to know ‘what’s wrong with the building at the end of the boulevard where everybody goes to mail a letter? Why are people going off their nut there?’ The General Accounting Office did a survey and one of the conclusions was there’s a dysfunctional corporate culture, and it hasn’t changed. It’s a lot of doom and gloom – that’s how the post office works.”

With revenues from first class mail in freefall, the USPS faces a series of knock on difficulties. Rising petrol prices make running the world’s largest fleet of vehicles (more than 200,000 trucks and vans) more expensive than ever. The obligation to be a universal service, delivering mail to almost 150 million addresses, however remote, becomes more costly as the number of letters dwindles. Contracts negotiated by the NALC and the American Postal Workers Union restrict layoffs and guarantee comparatively generous benefits. The USPS spends 78% of its outlay on labour, compared with 53% at UPS and 32% at FedEx – partly because its network is so extensive.

None of the veteran posties I talked to denied that the organisation has severe problems, but they insisted that modernisation and a new business model can resolve them. They pointed out that although people now pay their bills online, internet shopping has led to an increase in the number of packages being delivered. They suggested advertising on vans and prescriptions by post to make up the shortfall. They described the pay scale, rising from £28,000 to £34,000 for senior delivery workers, as no more than a middle-class wage.

Most of all, they drew attention to a clause in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, signed by George Bush in 2006, that requires the USPS to set aside enough money to cover 75 years worth of pensions and health care for its retired employees, within 10 years. When Donohoe spoke about the possibility of default, he was referring to a scheduled payment of $5.5 billion into this account. The White House has suggested postponing this for three months, so that a rescue package can be incorporated into a broader jobs bill, but this is no more than a temporary fix.

“No other federal agency or private enterprise is required to pre-fund benefits like this,” said NALC President Fredric Rolando. “The mandate accounts for all of the postal service’s $20 billion losses in the last four fiscal years. With the recession that we have been through, it still showed an operational profit of almost $700 million. The USPS is not going broke. Washington politics is killing it.” Independent auditors estimate that the postal service has also overpaid at least $50 billion into the Civil Service Retirement System.

A bill being presented in the House Of Representatives, HR 1351, proposes to apply that surplus to the pre-funding account, but the Office Of Personnel Management has rejected the option out of hand. “That money’s spent,” said Murphy. “It’s spent in Iraq or Afghanistan, or somewhere.” Conservatives are already portraying any transfer as a bailout, despite the fact that the USPS has not been taxpayer funded for three decades.

“We have a situation in this country right now, where there are politicians whose anti-government ideology makes them willing to allow the postal service to shut down,” said American Postal Workers Union Spokesperson Sally Davidow. “And it’s funny because there are plenty of people who may have a negative attitude to government, but don’t talk about shutting down their neighbourhood post office or they’ll throw a fit. People rely on us.” The unions and their supporters are hoping that forcing elderly voters to trek miles to the nearest post office is even more unpopular than adding to the deficit.

When Senator Claire McCaskill suggested that the postal service’s fortunes could be revived by a campaign extolling the virtues of letter writing, she was mocked for being out of touch, but one of the most frequently heard arguments for maintaining the USPS at its current size rests on another old-fashioned ideal: the postie as a lynchpin of the community. In Brooklyn, delivery workers shared stories of missing children being reunited with parents, pensioners rescued after falling at home, dead bodies discovered before they started to smell.

“I know their kids, their grandparents,” said Charles Drysdale, who has worked the same route since the mid-1990s. “I’ve been invited to graduations and weddings. The elderly people sit out and wait for you to come. And when you aren’t there, you hear about it: ‘how come you didn’t let me know you were going on vacation?’ It still exists today, almost a family thing.”

“We call ourselves the ambassadors of the street, but these days, it’s so much more regimented,” said Murphy. “If you’re on a delivery route now and a customer comes up to you with a question, management will tell you that you’re engaging in a time-wasting practice. The whole culture has changed, they talk down to you, treat you like an automaton.” Computerised sorting machines now do much of the old work, substantially improving productivity. When I asked whether the postal service could be profitable again without layoffs, the delivery workers didn’t have an answer.

Although they dismissed the USPS creed with a shrug, as so much corporate branding, they did look back with pride on days when it was a struggle to get through with the post. “I’ve delivered through two feet of snow, carrying the mail on my shoulders,” Drysdale said. “I’ve delivered in lightning and high winds, with signs flying by me, six inches of water in my boots. Even with the recent hurricane, they shut down train service, shut down the bridges, but they still had us going to work.”

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