In the face of deficit-hawk politicians who imagine the US Postal Service as ripe for the cutting, and a punditry that portrays the USPS as a debt-ridden behemoth slouching toward oblivion, Americans are stepping up, from Seneca, Oregon (population 199), to New York City, to defend universal service, public investment and union jobs that pay a living wage and provide proper benefits. The mass mobilizations on September 27, organized by postal unions, labor allies and community groups in hundreds of locations nationwide, may not have gotten the attention that demonstrations earlier this year in state capitols received, but they were focused on the same issues and the same values. The fight to preserve the Postal Service—which was formally established in the first article of the Constitution and which for two centuries has connected a continent-spanning nation internally and with the world—is an essential struggle to maintain the commons. It is one that progressives ought to embrace with the same enthusiasm as battles to maintain public education, Social Security and Medicare.
The Postal Service is indeed in the cross-hairs. Forced by Congress to prefund seventy-five years’ worth of retiree health benefits in just ten years, hamstrung operationally by rules and restrictions that limit its flexibility and dull its competitive edge, and challenged by the growing popularity of e-mail and online commerce, the USPS is running deficits that have critics crying “Crisis!” When managers proposed to default on a $5.5 billion prefunding payment due September 30, the slash-and-burn crowd in Washington sharpened their machetes. Plans were outlined to close more than 10 percent of America’s 32,000 post offices, cut Saturday service, break union contracts and slash the workforce. “Compromise” proposals advanced by Representative Darrell Issa and Senator John McCain—with a supercommittee-style “advisory group” negotiating closures and cuts—are, in the words of American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey, “a brazen attempt to dismantle the United States Postal Service and render it ripe for privatization.”
The Postal Service does not have to die by slow cuts. The immediate fiscal “crisis” has, as Ralph Nader and other consumer advocates argue, been manufactured by antigovernment zealots and lobbyists for privatization who would diminish an essential public service that delivers not just first-class mail but a sense of community and connection, from remote small towns to the inner-city neighborhoods where post offices provide employment, stability and Main Street investment. It can be resolved by following the Postal Regulatory Commission’s advice that Congress should adjust the prepayment schedule for retiree health benefits to a level the service can manage and refund the massive overpayments into federal pension accounts—fixes Issa and McCain reject but that are addressed in an equitable manner in legislation proposed by Representative Stephen Lynch.
Making the adjustments that Lynch and other Democrats propose, and hiking the USPS’s borrowing limit so it has the flexibility to maintain and expand popular services, will ease the pressure. Lynch’s fix is preferable to those proposed by Senator Tom Carper and the White House, although Carper and President Obama deserve credit for recognizing that the USPS has to be given more freedom to modernize and expand services.
The Postal Service is too vital an asset for temporary triage. Progressives, postal unions and the community networks that have forged the Save the Post Office movement can promote a new vision of the USPS that recognizes it as something other than a carcass to be picked apart by privatization vultures—or, in the case of less profitable universal services, simply discarded. Its hybrid status as a constitutionally mandated service that must follow arcane rules but receives no subsidies should be rethought so that it can become more innovative and competitive. The USPS should, for instance, follow the lead of other countries’ postal services in developing digital mail services, as well as vote-by-mail and direct democracy initiatives. And as a pioneering digital innovator—more than 4,000 USPS facilities receive Internet service via satellite; it operates the world’s largest intranet system; and it’s the world’s leader in optical character recognition technology—the service should use its brick-and-mortar network to help close the digital divide by making all its facilities hot spots with high-speed broadband.
But the Postal Service’s future should not be thought of only in digital terms. Its facilities could provide a base from which to bring banking services to small towns and depressed urban areas, as the old US postal banking system did until 1967, and as Japan Post—which the Wall Street Journal describes as the world’s largest depository institution by assets, with $3 trillion on its balance sheet—still does. The National League of Postmasters has been talking up postal banking, and it’s right to do so. Instead of closing post offices, cutting services and laying off workers, we should be investing in the Postal Service and the communities where it provides the infrastructure for meeting twenty-first-century challenges.