The Postal Service Under Siege

By Chuck Zlatkin

You can’t blame the average citizen if they believe that the Postal Service is on its last legs. It is not just Fox News that is spreading the hysteria. In the May 18, 2012 edition of the New York Times, Ron Dixon wrote a column on the Postal Service’s desire to close 48 mail-processing centers beginning in July, but neglected to mention that the Postal Service’s problems were directly related to Congressional mandates that had turned the Postal Service into a cash cow. Dixon didn’t mention the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which required the Postal Service to fully prefund future retiree health benefits for the next 75 years, and to do it within a 10-year window. This meant that the Postal Service was required to write a check to the U.S. Treasury in the amount of $5.5 billion every September 30 before they sold one stamp or money order. No other government agency, corporation or organization is required to do so. Because of this legislation, the agency was required to fully prefund the retirement health benefits of people who hadn’t even been born yet, let alone worked for the Postal Service.

What Fox News and the New York Times both choose to ignore is the fact that the Postal Service has over-funded the Civil Service Retirement System by billions. In 2009, the Office of Inspector General of the Postal Service commissioned a study done by the Hay Company, which concluded that the Postal Service has overpaid into the pension funds by $75 billion since 1971.

In 2010, the independent Postal Regulatory Commission contracted its own study conducted by Segal and Company, which concluded that the Postal Service had overpaid by only $50-60 billion. The study recommended that the agency immediately get credited with the overpayment. Such an action would mean that the Postal Service could meet all its obligations, pay off its debt, and not have to close post offices and postal processing centers or reduce its workforce by 100,000 workers in the middle of a recession.

The argument that the Postal Service has become irrelevant because of email and the Internet is not born out by the facts. The three years with the largest volume in its 236-year history were 2006, followed closely by 2005 and 2007, well into the Internet era.

What hurt the Postal Service was the economic collapse of 2008 and slowness of the recovery since. Without the Congressional mandates, the Postal Service would have been fine, even with the problems with economy and the advent of email.

The rush to shrink the Postal Service and eliminate 100,000 living-wage union jobs is unnecessary. Congress could have corrected the problems facing the agency without costing the taxpayers anything. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) introduced such legislation last year, H.R 1351, which had 226 co-sponsors, including 30 Republicans. Even though the bill was supported by a majority of Congress it never got to the floor for a vote. Instead, the rightwing chair of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, Darrell Issa (R-CA), and his one co-sponsor, Tea Party-backed Dennis Ross (R-FL), put forth H.R. 2309, which would destroy the Postal Service as we know it, and it passed the committee.

This year in the Senate a bipartisan bill, S. 1789, introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Tom Carper (D-DE), and Scott Brown (R-MA) passed the Senate. While the legislation gives temporary relief to the Postal Service by extending the period for payment of the retiree prefunding to 40 years, it ignores the massive overpayments of $50-75 billion into the pension fund.

The prospect of the House and Senate coming to an agreement that will save the Postal Service long term is severely diminished by the deeply flawed S. 1789 and the destructive H.R. 2309 as the starting points. The manufactured financial crisis that has plagued the Postal Service was not an accident. The Postal Service routinely does over $60 billion in business each year and that is very appealing to those who want to privatize it. Some of the earliest “studies” of the financial crisis of the Postal Service were commissioned by think-tanks financed by the billionaire Koch brothers. The Koch brothers also supported the election campaigns of 11 members of Issa’s committee.

The media rarely mentions that the Postal Service is the second largest employer in the United States, second only to Wal-Mart. What is the biggest difference for working people between the Postal Service and Wal-Mart? The Postal Service is unionized and Wal-Mart isn’t.

As damaging as all of this is to postal workers, the media virtually ignores the people who would be damaged most by any cutbacks in the Postal Service. Elderly people, disabled people, poor people and small-business owners are totally dependent upon the Postal Service. They simply can’t afford the alternatives.

Before the moratorium on post office closings, the Postal Service was holding a series of “hearings” to determine which post offices to close. These “hearings” were poorly publicized and held in remote locations, as inconvenient as possible for people to attend.

But no matter how difficult the Postal Service made it for people to attend, the people attended. Even if was pouring rain, the people turned out. Seeing senior citizens with walkers and breathing tubes up their noses struggling to get to the hearings despite the weather made it clear how important keeping their post offices was to them. And when they got up to speak with fear in their voices, dreading the possibility of their post office closing, it was evident that they were the collateral damage in this war on working people.

Chuck Zlatkin is the Legislative and Political Director of the New York Metro branch of the American Postal Workers Union