By David Yao
A bill to address the financial crisis of the U.S. Postal Service has passed in the United States Senate. The House of Representatives, under Republican Party control, is considering another bill and agreement has to be reached by a May 15 deadline to avoid the shutdown of many postal facilities.
At stake are the quality and availability of postal services to the American public. At risk as well are the jobs and benefits of postal workers, blamed by some in the mailing industry and their ideological allies for the recent financial shortfalls.
To blame unionized workers for industry woes is an old trick. Up until 2006, the Postal Service was financially healthy, productivity had continued to increase, and mail volume hit its all-time peak. So what happened?
Three factors changed everything. First, the country began its slide into a long recession.. Second, online bill-paying cut sharply into the Postal Service’s most profitable product, first-class mail. But the most serious component of the postal crisis was created by Congress – the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). It put a cap on rate increases of no more than the rate of inflation for most categories of mail. This was done at the behest of the
its costs from rising too quickly. The cap on rate increases left no allowance for the huge increases in fuel prices – a huge cost component of the USPS.
Worse than the rate cap, roughly $5.5 billion per year was to be siphoned out of postal coffers in federal treasury accounts, ostensibly for future use to pay for retiree health care for the next 75 years. Such a bizarre financing scheme has not been laid on any other private or public entity.
This pre-funding burden has sucked over $22 billion from the Postal Service since 2007, into an already overfunded account. Since this money shows up on the plus side of the federal budget, Congress has been reluctant to reverse this flow of money.
On April 17, Tax Day, postal workers and mailhandlers throughout the country rallied to retain high levels of service and to save jobs. Our message: Congress took too much money, we want a refund. For the Postal Service, that is.
In Tacoma, postal workers lined the street by the mail processing plant, which also has a retail unit where we leafleted customers. Our signs said: “Phony Crisis Caused by Congress,” “We Say No to Cuts in Service,” and “Congress Bled the P.O. $22 Billion.” A few days earlier, the letter carriers union (NALC) held a rally where Rep. Dennis Kuchinich spoke on behalf of my local, saying that “your fight is our fight. Saving jobs and service is our common goal.”
The debate focus was on the Senate proposed amendments to S. 1789. The current bill would maintain overnight delivery standards for three years, and prevent most plants from closing. But it authorized an end to door-to-door delivery, and approved a reduction in delivery days (to five). It also contains a section that would sharply cut and degrade workers’ compensation benefits for ALL federal and postal workers.
Postal unions are being joined by federal worker unions in pushing an amendment by Senator Akaka that would substitute much better language on workers’ compensation, that has already passed in the House. Other good amendments would protect door-to-door and six-day delivery, and increase protections against closures of processing plants and post offices.
Of course, there were also negative amendments – even one to end collective bargaining rights of postal workers. Sixty votes were needed to pass any amendment, as well as the final package. Now the focus moved to a less favorable chamber and a much worse bill in the House.
There are so many important threads to this struggle – the preservation of public services, protection of workers’ rights, and the protection of decent jobs from the attacks of right-wing ideologues. We appreciate all the support extended by PSARA and by our other allies in the labor movement.
(David Yao is vice president of Seattle Area Local, American Postal Workers Union and a member of PSARA.)