Uniting to defend postal jobs

September 27, 2011

September 27 is a day to Save America's Postal Service. Postal workers' unions have called a day of action in response to the worst-ever attack on their members' jobs. Congress is preparing to vote on legislation that could result in some 120,000 layoffs--in the name of dealing with a budget shortfall that the unions say is manufactured.

Frank Couget is an 11-year mail carrier in New York City and shop steward in Branch 36 of the National Association of Letter Carriers. He spoke with Danny Katch about the high stakes in this struggle.

CONGRESS AND the postmaster general claim that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) can't pay its pensions and needs to be dismantled. Is this accurate?

NO, ACTUALLY the opposite is the case. Due to supposed actuarial errors, the Postal Service has deposited over $70 billion in the U.S. Treasury that is surplus to its pension and health care obligations.

And as if that's not bad enough, in 2006, Bush Jr. and a Democratic-led Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). That law required USPS to pre-fund 75 years' worth of retiree health care obligations within 10 years. So the Postal Service has been dumping over $5 billion a year, every year since then, to fund the health benefits of postal workers who may not even be born yet.

IF THE USPS still handles 40 percent of the world's mail, how is it losing money?

USPS HAS had to borrow $15 billion from the U.S. Treasury simply to meet PAEA's poisonous pre-funding requirement. Otherwise, USPS made over $200 million in profits over the last four years, despite the decline in first class mail and the Great Recession.

Some 120,000 postal workers could face layoffs if Congress approves pending legislation
Some 120,000 postal workers could face layoffs if Congress approves pending legislation

However, in order to meet the PAEA obligation, it's maxed out its credit, and is defaulting on scheduled pension and workers' compensation payments while begging Congress for access to the "over-payments." It also loses money because it's been paying the military portion of its veteran employees' pensions, thus subsidizing the Department of Defense.

CAN YOU explain some of the services that the post office provides that private companies like FedEx and UPS don't?

THERE ARE constitutionally mandated ones like the first class mail monopoly, free matter for the blind, and money order and passport services. But the most important aspect of USPS's mandate is the Universal Service Obligation.

That means that every resident of the country--wherever they live, rich or poor, homeless or migrant--has a right to receive mail. And everyone is to have equal access to the same affordable services. It's the only truly universal communication system in the country. And for the most part, for over a century, it's worked astonishingly well.

What you can do

Postal unions will rally in congressional districts across the country on September 27 from 4-5:30 p.m. Visit Save America's Postal Service for a complete list of rally locations.

HOW HAS the job changed in the 11 years you've worked for USPS?

OVER THE last decade, the most obvious change has been the dramatic rise and fall in volume, turning on the economic slowdown in 2007. When I came in as a part-time flexible (PTF), I was almost driven to quit because of 60-hour weeks, bodily strain and chronic fatigue. They just worked you to death for about two years until you make regular. Now PTFs work six years before becoming regular, and hours can be hard to come by.

Also, there's been the dramatic increase in our use of automation and IT technology. Bar codes are on everything. Mail handlers have lost a tremendous amount of jobs to sorting machines. And clerks have been hit hard by the outsourcing of sales to retail outlets, self-serve kiosks and the Internet.

ARE THERE any misconceptions that people have about the post office and postal workers that you'd like to clarify?

I SUPPOSE the main misconception would be that the post office is some sort of inefficient, uncaring government monster. With almost no tax support, mail service in the U.S. is the lowest-priced in the world. And external tests regularly score us between 90 percent and 98 percent for accuracy and speed.

The vast majority of my coworkers care a lot about our customers and the job that we do. You see the same people on your route every single day, rain or shine, sometimes for decades, so of course you want to do a good job. Yes, I've had to wait on a long line at a post office to see an unhappy clerk for a parcel that wasn't there a time or two. But I really lay stuff like that at the feet of management.

My coworkers would love the service to be way better. Management has cut over 100,000 jobs over the last few years, and has lobbied Congress to cut 200,000 more by breaking a labor contract they just signed. We've increased productivity and created tens of billions of surplus dollars, and they're out for our blood anyway. That's really demoralizing.

They increase our workloads, push us to cut corners and work faster, and some people become really alienated from their jobs because of that. Seeing it from the inside, I'm continually amazed at how diligent and professional the overwhelming majority of us remain in the face of such treatment.

We're the reason the service remained good, despite the cuts. But they've got us down to the bone, and now they want the bone, too. We need to join forces with the communities we serve in order to turn that around.

WHAT IS the mood among your coworkers?

THERE'S ANGER that this crisis is either due to the incompetence of those in charge, or that they deliberately created it in order to attack us exactly when our new contracts are being negotiated. Some are afraid because they believe the oft-repeated lie that we are a dinosaur industry in danger of being replaced by the Internet. There's also some sense of resilience--that now is a unique moment for us to change things for the better again.

AFRICAN AMERICANS have been particularly slammed in this recession, first by the subprime mortgage predators and now by public-sector layoffs. To what extent do you and your coworkers see this attack on postal workers as an issue of racism as well as a labor issue?

THAT IS one of the most important, but least talked about, aspects about what's going on. Since Reconstruction, post office jobs were one of the few avenues of secure employment open to African Americans in this country. Phil Rubio, a former letter carrier and now a professor of history, has chronicled how Black postal workers built social justice struggles in his impressive book There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality.

USPS employs the second-largest civilian workforce in the country, and I think today's Postal Service expresses similar social struggle potential for women, Latinos, immigrants and the disabled. We're a pretty good cross-section of the U.S. working class as a whole.

The leading edge of the attack against us is the 3,700 scheduled post office closures. Although it's illegal to close a post office for being unprofitable, those are the very offices most under threat. And, of course, that affects communities of color, poor, disabled, migrant and working people the most. People who can't afford checking accounts are reliant on money orders. Those without computers, or in rural areas without the Internet, depend upon the mail, and so on.

Through struggle, we may awaken to the fact that we can count on these people as our natural allies, rather than politicians. We might also start envisioning a post office that expands needed services like check cashing or private e-mail accounts, and free periodical and political mail--and that stops subsidizing the advertising industry's junk mail.

WHAT IS the level of solidarity among the postal unions historically and right now?

OUR POSTAL unions have an uneven history of working together, and unfortunately, the divisions have widened along craft lines over time. The American Postal Workers Union just signed an awful concessionary contract, and my union leadership refused to comment on it, supposedly out of respect.

But we all rely on each other in the plant, and the clerk, custodial and mail handler cuts are felt on the floor every day. And service suffers. I think we need to start talking about forming an all-craft national Postal Workers Union, like our sisters and brothers in Canada.

We should do it now, while there are still 500,000 of us generating $60 billion in revenue each year at the heart of a $1.3 trillion industry. Recent local protests against post office closings around the city have been disjointed between unions. Hopefully, we're just out of practice.

WHAT IS the level of solidarity between the postal unions and other unions?

ALSO NOT so good, as far as I can see. We mobilized for the "We Are One" rallies in April, but my branch here in New York City has been very resistant to join the demonstrations of other public-sector unions, like the United Federation of Teachers or District Council 37. I hope that changes, and that solidarity in this struggle prompts my local branch to rejoin the New York City Central Labor Council.

I think it varies locally, but I believe there's a lot more we could be doing nationally and internationally. For instance, there was no action in support of our sisters and brothers in Canada when they were locked out this past June.

DID THE Wisconsin protest have an impact on the mood at your workplace?

A LITTLE. Although postal workers participated in the Wisconsin struggle, that experience wasn't generalized to where I work. My coworkers were inspired by people like themselves standing up for their rights, and angered by the severity of the attacks.

Some even understood that the attacks on basic democratic rights like collective bargaining were coming down the pike against us sooner or later. But I don't think we learned from the experience what we needed to confront our own situation. I think that was a failure of the AFL-CIO and my national union's leadership.

SEPTEMBER 27 is a national day of action to support the post office. Is this campaign involving rank-and-file workers?

YES. IT'S a very important event, and I'm really looking forward to demonstrating with my sisters and brothers and the communities we serve. However, the union materials emphasize that this is not a protest, but a rally to support the postal service, thank politicians who endorse the pension reform bill HR 1351 [a bill which is supposed to addresses the financial crisis facing the Postal Service without layoffs], and encourage those who don't.

In the face of USPS management openly lobbying Congress to cut services, cut 200,000 jobs, end our pension and health care programs, and break labor contracts, it's pretty timid. We should be protesting that. In fact, these politicians are the very same ones who voted for the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 that caused this crisis in the first place.

Our union leadership endorsed it, too, with a bunch of happy talk about how secure our retirement would be. So a top-down approach allowed this crisis to be manufactured, and we need to build a rank-and-file movement to hold such leadership accountable or replace them.

WHAT DO you think it's going to take to fight off these attacks?

MY UNION is focusing on the pension and overpayment reforms. That's important, but it misses the forest for the trees. Firstly, that's our money. The "overpayments"--or, as I call it, "theft"--should remain as part of employee compensation. Secondly, I wonder if they did it to prime the pump for selling USPS off to the private sector.

During a global crisis of profitability, it's a pretty sweet deal to capture a huge public-sector market with negative liabilities and surplus assets. As elsewhere, the public-sector unions are the main obstacles in their way. The people who did this are master accountants and lawyers. Overcharging USPS by tens of billions of dollars for decades, burdening it with an impossible and ridiculous obligation, and then blaming postal employees' wages, benefits and rights in order to destroy it was done deliberately.

So they need to smash us, like PATCO, or the unions in Wisconsin. The question we need to answer is whether USPS is a for-profit business subsidizing advertising or an important state-guaranteed universal communications system, as Christopher Shaw describes in his book Preserving the People's Post Office.

The people who own this world and their government representatives have been successful in privatizing postal services in Europe and elsewhere, but have been beaten back by postal workers and communities in Canada and the UK. I think it's going to take similar organization here, and will be part of the international movement demanding that people's social needs be put over those of private profit.

My coworkers are among the most brilliant and amazing people I've ever met. I think that by the time we figure out how to free the mail, we'll be on our way to freeing ourselves as well.

Further Reading

From the archives