Vermont protests postal cuts

January 11, 2012

Steve Ramey and Paul Fleckenstein report from Vermont on the outpouring of anger at proposed cuts to the U.S. Postal Service, including plans to slash thousands of jobs.

FIVE HUNDRED postal workers and supporters packed a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) hearing at a White River Junction (WRJ) mail center in Vermont January 4 to criticize plans to slash the post office workforce and services.

Based on a manufactured crisis, the USPS is pushing plans to slash 120,000 jobs, shut down many rural offices, eliminate standard overnight local mail delivery, and end Saturday mail delivery nationwide. The plans also include immediately closing over 250 mail processing centers. Closure of Vermont's WRJ mail center would eliminate over 200 union jobs.

Upper Connecticut Valley Occupy picketed outside the hearing, with placards reading "The 99% support postal workers." Activists handed out hundreds of informational fliers. Inside, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Vermont's congressional delegation and other politicians joined a defiant crowd.

Postal officials started the meeting by showing a slickly produced propaganda video explaining why changing first-class priority mail delivery from one day to two or three days, stopping Saturday delivery and closing 300 processing centers across the country is necessary to overcome a purported $5.5 billion budget gap. As the video droned on, annoyed shouts from the crowd grew louder.

Protesters pack a meeting in Vermont to discuss proposed cuts to the U.S. Postal Service
Protesters pack a meeting in Vermont to discuss proposed cuts to the U.S. Postal Service

The video clearly had the opposite of its intended effect. When a slide came up of the "Potential Final Network," showing a map of the U.S. with sparse dots indicating USPS mail processing centers, annoyance boiled over into anger, with booing and hissing interrupting the rest of the presentation.

Gov. Shumlin was the first to speak after the USPS officials, calling the plan "sheer idiocy" and telling the USPS to "Go somewhere else to find your pretend savings." Sen. Bernie Sanders called the proposed cuts in service and jobs the beginning of a death spiral for the USPS saying, "[I]n the midst of the worst recession in American history, it is patently insane to cut 100,000 jobs."

None of the assembled workers and supporters had any illusions about the proposed downsizing. Many of the 50 speakers cited privatizing the USPS as the real reason behind the cuts. "Why would the Postal Service, which is losing business to faster communication methods such as e-mail, make changes that would slow down its delivery service? Who put together this business plan, the postmaster general or the CEO of FedEx?" asked David Kreindler of the Vermont Workers Center.

Many other speakers detailed the negative effects of post office closures on rural communities, the impacts on seniors and others relying on mail delivery of prescription drugs, and the hardships posed by slowed delivery for low-income workers receiving payroll and benefit checks, or paying bills. Several small business owners, and even the Vermont Secretary of Commerce, condemned the changes as potentially crippling to small businesses.

IN RESPONSE to widespread opposition to the use of the manufactured $5.5 billion budget gap to attack the Postal Service and its unions, Sanders helped win a five-month delay in the planned cuts--and he has proposed the Postal Service Protection Act.

This measure would eliminate the requirement to pre-fund future retiree health benefits; return to the Postal Service federal pension overpayments to the Civil Service Retirement and Federal Employees Retirement System; mandate six-day delivery; allow the USPS to provide non-postal services; prevent the closure of rural post offices; protect the first-class mail time standard; and prevent the closure of processing centers.

The chances of the Postal Service Reform Act passing--in a Congress overrun by lobbyists for the for-profit delivery companies and advertising mailers, and dominated by a bipartisan commitment to budget-cutting and advancing privatization--depend very much on our ability to expand this struggle.

As Bill Creamer, a WRJ postal worker, put it after the hearing, "We still have a fight on our hands. We still need to get those letters rolling in opposition to the WRJ plant closing, we need more op-eds, we need to protest, and we still need to pursue new ideas to keep the pressure on those that would choose to destroy our Postal Service and its workers."

Beginning with a small core of union activists, WRJ workers have been organizing against the processing center closure for many months. Efforts included outreach to other unions through lists provided by the AFL-CIO; contacting every radio and TV station; buying newspaper ads; mobilizing postal workers and their families to flier and post to community bulletin boards in their home communities; utilizing social media and free event calendars; producing a stream of press releases, interviews, and mailings; contacting advertisers, and local businesses and trucking companies that depend on postal services; and networking with clergy and churches.

"This is organizing at its very core," says Creamer. "We tried to make this a community effort. We educated the local community...told how it will impact them."

The proposed near-term postal cuts will grease the skids toward eventual privatization of the USPS, with the loss of a half-million unionized public-sector jobs, and women, minorities and veterans disproportionately impacted. The service cuts will most harshly affect the 50 percent of the U.S. population that recent census figures show live in, or on the verge of, poverty. Those living on fixed incomes, in rural areas, without access to high-speed Internet and not able to shell out $20 to FedEx or UPS for timely mail delivery, will feel the impact the most.

Most people will be negatively affected by the cuts, and that is a basis for broadening our coalitions to a range of community organizations, service agencies, and public sector unions.

More successful large public hearings and protests around the country rejecting the cuts are needed. We can follow the lead of the rural Oregon movement to occupy the U.S. Postal Service. This may shape up to be the next big fight against the assaults of the 1 percent on our living standards and unions.

It is key to have postal workers, other public-sector workers and Occupy activists at the front lines combating the propaganda that postal cuts are unavoidable and working out strategies that can push back these attacks.

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