A New Year’s Resolution: Support the People’s Post Office

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BY MARK JAMISON

Here’s a resolution for the New Year: Support the people’s post office.

That means working to preserve an essential national infrastructure and rejecting initiatives to dismantle it, like closing post offices and cutting window hours, delivering the mail fewer days of the week, and converting customers to cluster boxes.

It means working to ensure that the post office continues to be a good place to work — with job security, decent wages, and good benefits — and remembering that the post office provides jobs to thousands of veterans, minorities, the disabled, and women.

It means doing your postal business at your local post office, not some Village Post Office or the postal counter in Staples, and it means challenging workshare discounts, outsourcing, and all the other forms of piecemeal privatization.

It means demanding more transparency in how the Postal Service conducts its business, questioning secret negotiated service agreements, and taking the universal service obligation seriously.

Supporting the people’s post office means fighting back against those who want to plunder and corporatize the Postal Service for their own self-interest and use it as a tool for enhancing their wealth at the public expense.  And it means calling out those who care more about the postage rates they pay than the health of the postal system and the good of the country.

 

The rate increase

Later this month postal rates are going up by 6 percent.  That may make things hard on some mailers, like community newspapers, news magazines, and non-profits.  But the Great Recession has taken a huge toll on the Postal Service, and the rate system is set up to permit such increases when “exceptional circumstances” require it.  The Postal Regulatory Commission therefore determined in 2011 that an exigent rate increase was justified.  It was just a matter of how big or small it would be.  It turned out to be very small indeed.

The Postal Service presented convincing evidence showing that from 2008 through 2014 the recession had cost it nearly $40 billion in profits, which easily justified the 4.3 percent increase it was seeking.  (Another 1.7 percent increase was already permitted under the price cap.) That increase would have generated about $1.8 billion a year, money that could have been used to maintain and improve the postal infrastructure.

The mailers argued that the recession had cost the Postal Service more like $1 billion, not $40 billion, and they thought a one percent increase for just two years would be sufficient.  That would have generated only about $700 million and done almost nothing to help the Postal Service’s financial situation.

In the end, the Commission granted a 4.3 percent increase for about 18 months, or until the increase has generated $2.8 billion.  That may help address the liquidity problem, but it won’t do much to help maintain the postal system.

The ruling was obviously much closer to what the mailers were willing to give than what the Postal Service was asking for, so the mailers came out fine.  They weren’t satisfied, though, and they immediately started complaining.

 

One pissed-off lady

One of the first of the complainers to be quoted in media reports was Mary Berner, the President of the Association for Magazine Media (MPA).  In an e-mail released by MPA (reported here), she characterized the PRC’s decision as counterproductive and harmful to the postal service’s long-term prospects, and she said her association was thinking about taking the PRC to court.

Ms. Berner is, to say the least, outspoken, and she likes to come across as a feisty fighter.  In this article she writes about all the things that “piss me off,” like the security desk in MPA’s building lobby, where they always want to see her ID, and like “raising prices on your best customers.”  She has been one of the loudest opponents of the Postal Service’s exigent rate case, and she’s written several op-eds (a couple are here and here) claiming the price increases are totally unwarranted and not even “remotely sane.”

Ms. Berner is the former CEO of RDA, the company that publishes Reader’s Digest and a host of other magazines.  At RDA, she earned a base salary of $600,000, plus bonuses and stock options many times that amount.  Ms. Berner helped take RDA through bankruptcy, and while she was cutting other staff at the company to the bone, she received a salary of $3.3 million.  Ms. Berner then landed on her feet as president of MPA, where she undoubtedly continues to earn a nice salary while she advocates policies that would eliminate thousands of postal jobs and reduce postal services for average consumers.

 

Too many workers

The MPA is just one of the many mailers’ associations that fought the exigent rate increase.  The list of those who submitted comments on the case reads like a who’s who of the mailing industry: Quad/Graphics, RR Donnelley, Pitney Bowes, Greeting Card Association, Valpak, Time Inc., American Bankers Association, American Catalog Mailers Association, Direct Marketing Association, Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, National Newspaper Association, Saturation Mailers Coalition, PostCom, to name a few.

While there may be some exceptions, most of these organizations have the same message: A rate increase is the worst option, and the Postal Service should do everything to avoid it.  As Mary Berner puts it, what’s wrong with the Postal Service is “its refusal to make the hard choices that every other business in this country has made.”

That’s code, of course.  The way the mailing industry looks at it, the problem is simple — too many postal workers making too much money — and the solution is just as simple: Cut more career postal employees, make more postal workers part-time, give workers minimal or no benefits, and reduce postal services for the “non-paying customers,” as Valpak described average citizens in its comments to the Commission.

One hears this message all the time.  PostCom’s Gene del Polito regularly argues the point.  In a recent commentary, for example, he urged Congress to give postal management “more flexibility to right-size the Postal Service’s human and physical infrastructure.”  That’s a euphemism for cut more jobs and services.  If you disagree, says Mr. del Polito, you’re a “knothead” and a “socialist.”

Rafe Morrissey of the Greeting Card Association (GCA) is another advocate of eliminating jobs to avoid a rate increase.  His group is a big supporter of switching over tens of millions of residences to cluster box delivery, which he says could save $9 billion a year.  He doesn’t mention that the savings would require cutting about 90,000 jobs.

 

It is but equity

This kind of thinking seems to be the model for American businesses these days, and in a very real sense it’s the kind of thinking that has led to the economic stagnation that affects the vast majority of American workers.  We have millions of unemployed citizens, millions who have seen little gains in salary or benefits, and millions who work for wages that are below even the minimum necessary to survive, let alone thrive on.

Any effort to improve the situation, like increasing the minimum wage, is met with vehement opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, the usual suspects at right-wing think tanks, and big corporations.  These are some of the same “very serious people” who claim we must cut Social Security and Medicare — programs that sustain the middle class — because we can’t afford them.

And all this goes on at a time when corporate profits are at their highest level in generations.   Since the 1970s, the income of the top 1 percent has grown by 275 percent,  while the average household income has grown by only 62 percent.  For the bottom fifth of American households, income has grown by only 18 percent.  The rich get richer, and the rest are happy if they can even get by.

Even Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, recognized that this was not a sustainable situation.  “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable,” wrote Smith in the Wealth of Nations (Bk. 1, ch. 8).  “It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”

 

Killing jobs for a living

The opponents of the exigent rate increase argued that raising rates would hurt the mailing industry and lead to layoffs.  They seem to forget that we have lost 160,000 career USPS jobs since 2009.  They neglect to mention that the cost-saving measures they advocate include eliminating another 100,000 full-time jobs.

It’s hard hearing from the mailing industry how concerned they are about layoffs.  Many of these businesses have been built on buying out competitors, closing facilities, and laying people off.  Take Quad/Graphics, for example, the Wisconsin company that’s the second largest printer in the country and one of the nation’s largest mail consolidators.

In an article about a rally for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at a Quad/Graphics plant, Rolling Stone points out that the company is “relentlessly anti-union.” As Rick Perlstein writes, “Quad/Graphics’s contribution to America’s industrial economy in the last several years has been to buy up printing factories around the country to close them – in order, as the company has explained, to ‘maximize profitability, improve credit profiles, and adapt to an increasingly dynamic and challenging endmarket environment.’ In other words, they kill jobs for a living.”

So when Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin does a site visit to a Quad/Graphics plant and talks about her opposition to a rate increase and then confronts the Postmaster General Donahoe during a Senate hearing to tell him how worried she is that a postal rate increase will hurt the paper industry and cost jobs, it’s a little tough to take.

 

Doomed to fail

There’s obviously no reason for the mailers not to join together into associations and organizations that lobby on behalf their interests.  It only makes sense to join forces like that.  Of course, when workers form unions and advocate for job security, good wages, and retirement benefits, it’s “socialism.”  When businesses do it, though, it’s just good old fashioned free-market laissez-faire capitalism.

Capital has always found ways to advance its interests, and it knows how to use the political system to its advantage. That was the point of the Powell Memo, the 1971 manifesto by the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell that inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and other powerful conservative organizations.  Powell argued American business should make greater efforts to “educate” the masses and influence politicians and politics for the purpose of assuring corporate ascendancy over workers and consumers.

That’s exactly what the mailing industry has been doing.  Its representatives have put out countless press releases and op-ed pieces attacking the rate increase and supporting the Postal Service’s cost-cutting, downsizing initiatives.  They have supported books, articles, and reports that advocate public-private hybrid models and more privatization.  They have lobbied politicians and used their influence with the PRC.

Perhaps the industry would have more credibility if it proffered solutions that weren’t so singularly self-interested. The Postal Service has done best when it was viewed and acted as a piece of public service infrastructure delivering both broad effective universal service and low rates.  The problems arise when the Postal Service becomes captured by the interests of a select few.  It is then doomed to fail.

The crisis facing the Postal Service has been created largely by design.  It’s the result of trying to make a public service infrastructure fit the expectations of a corporate model.  It doesn’t help that we live in a time when policy makers, legislators, and “thought leaders” think that more austerity measures are the answer to everything.

The dismantling of the postal network, the elimination of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the degradation of hundreds of thousands more, all this is not the result of a bad business model or technological changes.  What is happening to the Postal Service is part and parcel of a concerted effort by the 1 percent to remake our society in an image that redistributes the productive efforts of the many into the hands of the few.  The cries of despair voiced by the mailing industry in response to the PRC’s decision in the exigent rate case speak to the industry’s sense of entitlement and lack of a broader perspective.

 

Where’s a progressive when you need one?

The request for an exigent rate increase probably wasn’t the best way to handle the problems with the rate system.  As discussed previously in this post, the rate system has egregiously failed to recognize the value of the postal network as a public service and an essential part of our nation’s infrastructure.  With its artificial caps on rates, workshare discounts, secret NSA agreements, and classification scheme, the rate system seems intentionally designed to give primary consideration to commercial mailers.  American workers, consumers, and communities are pretty much left to fend for themselves.

That’s why it’s so troubling that some of the organizations and institutions claiming to speak for workers, consumers, and communities turn out to be members of mailers’ associations that have a completely different agenda.

Take the American Association of Retired Persons, for example, which appears at the top of the list of the MPA membership list (AARP puts out a magazine).  AARP claims to be committed to enhancing “the quality of life for all as we age and leading positive social change.”  Shouldn’t that agenda include advocating for good wages for all workers, including postal works, and fighting for postal services that are good for seniors, like keeping post offices open and minimizing the use of cluster boxes?

And what about progressive publications like The Nation, The American Prospect, and Harper’s Magazine?  In their pages, they speak up for workers’ rights, decent wages, and good health care and retirement programs.  But how can they reconcile those positions with what the mailers’ associations are saying?  Can’t they find ways to advocate for their economic interests that are consistent with their progressive values?  Do they really need the help of industry lobbyists who hold views 180 degrees in opposition to the principles these publications espouse?

In a fund-raising email sent to subscribers back in October, Nation wrote, ““Tea Party –backed conservatives helped force the U.S. Postal Service into requesting an emergency rate hike — one that will cost The Nation an additional $120,272 every year,” the letter says. “While corporate media can handle this kind of a bill, The Nation can’t foot it alone.”

That’s not quite right.  Most conservatives want to cut the unionized postal workforce, but they’re of two minds about a rate hike.  Some are against it since their business constituents are strongly opposed, but others believe that regulatory restraints on rates should be lifted so the Postal Service can act more like a business.  These two views are held not only by conservatives, though.  You can’t really blame the Tea Party for the rate increase.

It’s important to support reduced rates for periodicals, newspapers, and non-profits — they’re one of the main reasons we need a vibrant postal system — but we need to find ways to support them that are grounded in principle and reason, not just low rates for their own sake.  Rather than using the rate issue for fundraising, progressive publications like Nation and Harper’s should participate more in discussions about the future of the Postal Service and run more articles about what’s going on.

They should be thinking less about what they can afford and more about what will help sustain postal services for the average citizen and contribute to the public good.  And maybe they should be asking themselves what interests are being served by the mailing associations they belong to.  As our first postmaster Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.”

 

Which side are you on?

It seems to me that it’s past time to realize that we are truly facing a war on workers in this country.  We’re also facing a war on our communities and on the fundamental ideals of fairness and basic equality of opportunity that built this country.  We’re fighting the same battles we fought during the Guilded Age.  We’re being asked to give back the gains that arose from the Depression and return to a time when the folks at the top of the pyramid used race, religion, or ethnic origin to divide average folks.

I don’t expect that the businesses and organizations that attack postal workers and seek to turn a national institution into a lapdog for corporate interests are going to suddenly become enlightened.  On the other hand, I don’t see why I should support businesses that attack people like me.  I’m not going to help folks that value a little more profit over the social importance of the local post office and the cohesiveness that it brings to rural communities.  I’m not going to support those who make millions of dollars while laying off workers, who believe that it’s the natural order of things for working folks simply to accept whatever trickles down to them.

Corporate America is not going to change its attitudes toward the American worker voluntarily.  That kind of change is going to require a concerted effort by workers, consumers, and those voices that speak for progressive ideals.  The lines are fairly clearly drawn at this point, and progressives are not on same side as the big commercial mailers.

There are other, better solutions than those offered by industry groups that would beggar postal workers and dismantle an institution that is critical to Americans.  Perhaps the question to ask is one that Pete Seeger once posed so eloquently: “Which Side Are You On?

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to give your money, your business, and your support to companies, groups, and organizations that have agendas designed to harm you.  So it’s worth taking a moment to look over the membership lists of some of the mailers’ associations that advocate for policies that hurt postal workers, workers in general, consumers, and communities that rely on their post office.  You could start with MPA, PostCom, and GCA.


Thanks to STPO’s editor Steve Hutkins for his help on this one, and for further reading, here are some of my related posts. — M.J.

What are people — and the Post Office — for?

Betrayal without remedy: The unwinding of the Postal Service

On behalf of infrastructure: Rethinking the postal environment

[Mark Jamison is a retired postmaster for the US Postal Service.  He can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com.]

(Photo credits: New Yorker covers; Saturday Evening Post covers.  By the way, both the Post and Conde Nast, which publishes the New Yorker, belong to MPA.)

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