The New York Times Editorial: How many things can you get wrong in 300 words?

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The New York Times welcomes the holiday season with a 300-word editorial entitled “Overhauling the Post Office for the 21ST Century.”  The piece gets so many things wrong that it would be laughable if it weren’t so maddening.  It’s really the Times’ editorial staff that ought to overhauled.

 

On five-day delivery

First, the Times calls the request from management to end Saturday delivery “reasonable,” and says it would save $3 billion a year.  But the Postal Regulatory Commission — the agency responsible for regulating the Postal Service — took up the issue of five-day delivery in an Advisory Opinion issued in March 2011.  Based on data provided by the Postal Service, the PRC found that the cost savings would be far less than the Postal Service claimed — more on the order of $1.7 billion.  (The Postal Service never challenged the PRC’s analysis.)

More important — and the Times says nothing about this — the PRC found that eliminating Saturday delivery would have many adverse effects.  It’s not just about the inconvenience of not getting your mail on Saturday.   Cutting Saturday delivery would also cause 25% of First Class and Priority mail to be delayed two days.

Add that delay to yet further delays caused by consolidation of 500 mail processing plants down to 135 facilities (120 P&DC’s and 15 hubs) — a plan now being implemented — and delivery times will slow down even more.  If you’re used to seeing your mail delivered in one or two days, think three or four, or more.  Eliminating Saturday delivery would also hurt some people more than others, like people in rural areas and small businesses, or people waiting for medicine or perishable matter.

Given all the problems with cutting Saturday delivery, you have to ask, who’s behind it?  In the PRC Advisory Opinion, one of the main advocates was Valpak, the direct mail company that sends you the blue envelope filled with coupons.  And why would they back five-day delivery?  Simple.  Anything that keeps the Postal Service’s costs down also keeps postage rates down.  Valpak and many others in the bulk mail industry don’t care if you get their mailings on Saturday or Tuesday or whenever, so long as the rates they pay are as low as possible.  Apparently the New York Times doesn’t care when you get its newspapers delivered either.

 

On Village Post Offices

The Times goes on to say, “Congress needs to produce a bill that allows the Saturday shutdown as well as the closure of up to 3,700 local post offices where service would be continued through automated outlets at neighborhood businesses.”

It’s hard to imagine where the Times got the idea that the Postal Service wants to replace 3,700 post offices with “automated outlets at neighborhood businesses.”  The Times must be referring to the “Village Post Office” concept — the Postal Service’s plan to contract with a local business so it can provide basic postal services.  But this concept has nothing to do with automation.  It’s not about putting an “automated postal center” or postal kiosk in a business.

Rather, the Village Post Office is about allowing a local business to sell stamps and flat-rate boxes.  And that is all a Village Post Office can do.  The folks working in the local business cannot weigh packages, do registered or express mail, sell money orders, or any of the other things a post office does.  In other words, a Village Post Office is not a post office at all.  It’s just a place to buy stamps.

The idea for the Village Post Office was released last August amidst much ballyhoo about what a great new “concept” it was.  It would save the Postal Service money and help a local business bring in new revenue.  (The business is paid a couple of thousand dollars per year but makes no money on the stamps or flat-rate boxes.)  Supposedly people coming in for stamps would buy something else.  Forget about the fact that in a small town, people are going into that local business anyway.

Grand as it all sounded, the Village Post Office idea ran into a little trouble, and so far, some four months later, the Postal Service has established just five VPOs.  Turns out a large number of the 3,700 communities where the Postal Service planned to locate a VPO didn’t even have a business where you could put one.  The Postmaster General has recently backed off the concept and said he needed to find an alternative to this alternative.

(It’s possible the Postal Service has leaked to the Times that its newest concept is to put 3,700 automated kiosks in local businesses, but if that’s the case, the Times has buried a terrific scoop inside a silly editorial.)

 

On post office closings

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The Times also makes it seem like the Postmaster General is interested in closing only 3,700 post offices.  That is the number of offices on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), the plan released in July that is now being reviewed by the PRC, as it’s being implemented by the Postal Service.  (Actually, the original number was 3,650, and about 200 have already been removed from the list.)

However, far more than 3,700 post offices are going to close.  In a recent article in Time.com, the Postmaster General is quoted as saying, “We’ll probably look at 15,000 post offices rather than just 3,700.”  That’s half the country’s post offices.

And it’s not as if the Postal Service is waiting on the PRC’s Advisory Opinion or new legislation to get the process started.  A few days ago, the Postmaster General told the National Press Club that the Postal Service had closed 500 post offices this year.  At least a hundred more have received a “Final Determination” notice saying they would close in 60 days.  There’s a temporary suspension on closures until January 3rd, but those post offices will close soon after the New Year.

While many of the closures have been reported in the local news, there’s been little attention in the national media to these closings.  The Postal Service has not even produced a list of the closings.  In Great Britain, where they have closed over 7,000 post offices over the past few years, there’s a phenomenon called “the secret closure programme” — closings that happen “quietly,” under the radar of the media.  The same thing is happening here.

The cost savings from closing post offices is surprisingly small.  The Postal Service says closing the 3,650 offices on the RAOI list would save $200 million a year — about 0.3% of its annual budget — and even that estimate may be inflated.  As we’ve seen in the appeals on closings that communities have brought to the PRC, the amount of savings for closing an individual office is consistently inflated by the Postal Service, and several closing decisions have been questioned by the Commissioners for precisely that reason.

Now, closing 15,000 post offices might realize more significant savings, perhaps over a billion dollars a year.  But at what cost, and at whose expense?

Think about all the extra driving closing half our post offices would cause, all the fuel consumption, pollution, and gas money and extra time each person would need to spend on postal matters.  Think about the harm to small businesses that go to the post office once or twice a day.  Think about all the people who walk to the post office, like seniors or people who don’t have a car, who won’t be able to get to a post office at all.  Think about the communities — small rural towns, inner-city neighborhoods, and suburbs too — that will lose an important social and economic hub.  For many towns, the post office is a nexus of its identity — close the post office, take away the zip code, and the place isn’t a place anymore.

 

On the legislation

The Times editorial also refers to the House bill, legislation crafted by Tea Party congressmen Darrell Issa and Dennis Ross on behalf of the right-wing, anti-government, anti-union 1% in this country — people like the billionaire Koch brothers, who are large campaign contributors to Issa and Ross and whose Cato Institute has been cranking out studies advocating the privatization of the post office for years.

This bill, as the Times admits, is “draconian,” but it’s far more draconian that the Times suggests.  The bill would not simply “transfer power to a control board if the service runs deficits for more than two years.”  The Issa-Ross bill would completely gut the Postal Service and prepare the way for breaking it up into manageable pieces so that private corporations can skim the most profitable parts and leave behind the universal service obligation — the part that makes sure every American gets equal and reasonably-priced access to the mail system.  The House bill is about setting up the Postal Service for privatization, pure and simple.

The Times says the “Senate measure offers creative ways to finance buyouts of 100,000 workers and ease health care costs.”  “Easing” health care costs is just a euphemism — the only way to ease costs are to transfer them to someone else by reducing the benefits.  It means postal workers will have to pay more so the Postal Service can pay less.  This is a cruel insult to postal workers, who have paid billions more than necessary into their retirees’ health and pension funds, and now find that most of this money is buried deep in the US Treasury.  We’re talking about billions and billions of dollars — $50 billion, $75 billion, maybe more.  It’s those payments — combined with the bad economy — that have put the Postal Service in the red, but the Times only makes passing reference to this fact and says simply that Congress should “reconsider” the pre-payment mandate.

As for those buyouts, the amount of money the Postal Service offers workers to retire is typically very modest, and the extra cash can disappear quickly.  Many workers who are eligible to retire are still relatively young, and they may not have enough savings to supplement their pension for a long retirement.  Some find themselves working a part-time job after retirement, just to make ends meet.

But those aren’t the workers we should be most worried about.  The Times does not mention the fact that the Postal Service wants to gut the no-layoff clause in union contracts and lay off 120,000 workers.  It doesn’t mention that it wants to lose another 100,000 workers, some through retirement but many through other forms of “attrition.”

Attrition.  That’s another Postal Service euphemism.  What it really means is that thousands of postal workers are being put into a position where they simply cannot keep the job.  We’re talking about the people who work in mail processing plants that are being consolidated and post offices that are being closed.  These workers are told that there may be a position for them in another plant or office that’s maybe 50 or 100 miles away.

So what are they supposed to do?  Commute several hours everyday?  And don’t forget, the plants that survive the network consolidation plan are going to be running 24 hours a day.  So it’s not just the long commute — it’s the midnight shift.  Maybe they can sell the house and move the family.  But in this market, who’ll buy?  And what if the spouse has a job and can’t move, or what if there’s an elderly parent or sick relative who needs that postal worker living nearby?

That postal worker may have no choice, then, but to leave the post office, to give up a job he or she has had maybe 10 or 20 years, a job than enabled the family to rise up into the middle class and lead a good life.  That’s called “attrition.”  Face it, that postal worker was fired.

 

On competition

The Times editorial continues: “First-class use is plummeting, and annual revenues have dropped from $75 billion to $65 billion in the last four years.”  The Times offers no explanation for these losses.  Thankfully, it does not mention the Internet — the usual bogus excuse offered the by Postal Service and the right-wing privatizers.  But did the Times somehow forget what’s been going for the past four years, something called the Recession?

Of course mail volumes and revenues have declined over the past few years.  Nearly everything else has.  Why shouldn’t mail be down too?  But how is reducing the workforce of the Postal Service by 220,000 workers going to help the economy get back on its feet?  You would think the Obama administration would at least be taking an interest in that aspect of the Postal Service’s plans.

The Op-Ed continues: “Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is pleading for authority to make $20 billion in cuts by 2015 to let the service fairly compete against private mail and delivery companies.”

It’s hard to know what to make of that remark.  So that the Postal Service can “compete against private mail and delivery companies”?

The Postal Service isn’t interested in competing with FedEx and UPS and other private mail companies.  The Postal Service has been “partnering” with these companies for years, outsourcing billions of dollars to them through “workshare” arrangements and other sweet deals that have enriched these businesses beyond the imagination.  The Postal Service devotes much of its energies to keeping its partners in the “mail industry” happy.  It does not want to compete with them and cut into their profits.  The Postal Service exists largely to help them increase those profits.  The symbol of that cooperative arrangement can be found in front of almost any post office — the FedEx box that stands next to the USPS blue box.

 

On creative compromise

The Times concludes: “As the nation’s mail carriers plunge into the holiday rush, Congress should deliver a bonus present of the very thing constituents find in dreadfully short supply — creative compromise from the Capitol.”

The Times must think it’s cute, using the phrase “bonus present” for the holiday season.  But the bills coming out of the House and Senate are so bad (aside from a “service standards” amendment in the Senate bill that would help protect rural post offices) that there’s no way a compromise — no matter how “creative” — is going to be better than the sum of its parts.  The compromise will more likely combine the worst of both bills.

At Thanksgiving dinner last night, a friend said, “Who can really care about what happens to post offices and postal workers after the way they’ve treated customers for all these years?”

But what most people don’t understand is that the problems they encounter with the Postal Service are not the fault of postal workers.  The long lines are there because the Postal Service has already reduced its workforce by a couple of hundred thousand workers.  The mail gets delivered to the wrong house because the Postal Service became enamored of automation and spent billions on machines that make mistakes, and letter carriers are not given the time on their routes to make the corrections.

And the rudeness one sometimes encounters in the post office?  It’s the product of a dysfunctional workplace culture that is entirely the responsibility of management.  There is so much emphasis on quantitative measurements of productivity — and so many people whose job it is simply to count and watch over and boss — it can come as no surprise that postal workers might not be as sweet and courteous as you’d like.

Postal workers are craft workers.  They have skills that they take pride in.  They work hard to serve customers and sort and deliver the mail.  With the holiday season upon us, they’re going to be working harder than ever.

Mail volumes may be down, but they are not down all that much, and the workforce is significantly smaller than it used to be.  That’s going to make it very tough getting all the Christmas mail delivered on time.

And the way postal workers have become so demoralized by anxiety about their future, uninformed media reports, stupid op-ed pieces, duplicitous politicians, and a management more interested in pay-for-performance bonuses than the good of the post office, it’s a wonder that mail will get delivered at all.

(Photo credits: Letters to the editor stampFive-day delivery; Village Post Office; post office closed; Darrell Issa; FedEx box; mailman delivering Xmas mail.)

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