Yesterday the New York Times ran an article by Campbell Robertson entitled “A Fight for Post Offices and Towns’ Souls.” It’s about the efforts of citizens to save rural post offices in Arkansas.
Robertson does a good job describing the work being done to protect rural post offices, but there are a couple of moments when the Times can’t help but let its urban elitism slip through. For instance, Robertson describes the rural post office as a place “where the Pentecostals who do not look kindly on computers conduct much of their business and where postmasters discreetly read letters for the customers who are unable to do so themselves.” That makes it sound like rural America is filled with illiterates and people who don’t use computers for religious reasons, when the fact of the matter is that millions can’t afford broadband or live where it’s unavailable (as discussed in a recent Times' piece on "The New Digital Divide").
But overall, Robertson's article is one of the best the Times has run about post office closings, and it’s well worth reading, even if it's just to see how Big City folks tend to look at Small Town folks and their "existential anxiety" over losing a post office. Robertson describes the “resistance movement” going on to save the post office, and he cites as an example the Rural Community Alliance. Its director, Renee Carr, is working to protect post offices by requesting public records, creating a website (Save Our Rural Arkansas Post Offices), and contacting members of Congress.
“The letter-writing campaigns have gotten the right attention,” writes Robertson. “Even Republican members of Congress who came into office on the wave of fiscal hawkishness in 2010, like Senator John Boozman and Representative Rick Crawford, are coming to the defense of the rural post office.”
The article also refers to “a dogged brigade of retired postmasters, waging similar fights in little communities and four-building towns across Arkansas, where roughly a third of post offices are on the list of possible closings.”
But it’s not just retired postmasters fighting to save post offices. There’s also a retired city letter carrier name John Meredith who’s joined the battle. Mr. Meredith is not part of the Times’ story, but he’s worth hearing about.
Mr. Meredith worked as a city letter carrier in Southern California. Then he and his wife retired to rural Arkansas, and he’s now the Chairman of the Committee to the Save the Gravelly Post Office. Gravelly is one of the post offices being studied for closure under the Retail Access Optimization initiative (RAOI). It’s located in the middle of the Ouachita National Forest, in Arkansas’ 1ST District — Congressman Rick Crawford’s district.
Like many members of Congress, Crawford has expressed concern about rural post offices, especially those in his district, and he has introduced a bill, H.R. 3370, that would prevent the Postal Service from closing a rural post office if there is not an alternate post office within eight driving miles. It’s similar to another bill introduced by Montana senator Max Baucus, which would prevent closing a post office if there’s not another within ten miles.
Crawford’s bill would save some post offices. About half of the 3,652 post offices on the RAOI list, for example, are eight or more miles from the nearest post office (the Postal Service provided the Postal Regulatory Commission a list with all the distances, here). But it wouldn't save the post office in Gravelly — there's another about five miles away. And the bill wouldn’t stop the Postal Service from closing thousands of other post offices. It’s not intended to. Crawford basically buys into the line that the Postal Service must be radically downsized or we’re headed for a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Back in November, Mr. Meredith wrote Congressman Crawford to share his thoughts about the Postal Service and the importance of rural post offices. The Congressman replied with a lengthy letter that repeats most of the talking points we’ve heard from Darrell Issa and others: Decreasing revenues caused by digital communications and the recession, as well as “increasing and excessive labor costs,” are bringing the Postal Service to “the brink of insolvency.” Crawford puts much of the blame on postal workers and their unions: “Powerful postal unions have negotiated higher wages and better benefits than most federal and civilian employees. Currently, labor costs make up 80% of the USPS’s expenses.”
The Congressman also mentions the pre-funding mandate for retiree health benefits, which many argue is unfair and causing most of the Postal Service’s deficit. “This is simply not true,” writes Crawford. “If the USPS were allowed to cease meeting this pre-funding requirement, they would have an unfunded liability of nearly $100 billion by 2017. These costs would then be passed on to the American taxpayer. . . . I will work to ensure that the cost of restoring the USPS to fiscal solvency is not placed on the backs of the American taxpayers in the form of a costly government bailout.” The letter proceeds then to discuss Darrell Issa’s bill with approval.
All the trash talk about postal workers and unions was too much for Mr. Meredith, and he wrote a second time to Congressman Crawford. It’s a great letter, and worth reading in full, so here it is, reprinted with permission of the author.
December 9, 2011
Dear Mr. Crawford:
Thank you for your detailed response to me regarding the condition of the United States Postal Service. I am in total agreement with your position in trying to save our rural post offices. I think H.R. 3370 is a bill I can support.
It is very hard for me to understand your attack on postal workers. They are the hardest workers in the government. Perhaps you have not been allowed by Darrell Issa to check out the facts yourself.
There are several reasons why labor is 80% of the Post Office budget. The Post Office is required by law to deliver to every address in the nation. A private company will only deliver where they can show a profit. The Post Office already has a contract with UPS and FedEx to deliver their parcels where they refuse to go. This is called “last mile” delivery.
Another labor expense is that the Postal Service has one management position for every seven employees. Some of the supervisors make $70,000 per year just to stand behind the carriers while they are sorting out the mail in the morning. Do you not think most postal employees who have worked at the post office for at least a month know how to do their job?
Letter carriers are forbidden by management to deliver mail in the easiest and fastest way. For instance, the Post Office now has machines that allow mail to be already sorted in order of delivery when the carriers prepare the mail to go out on the route. This does save time in the office, but when the carriers are out on the street, they have one bundle for the letters, another bundle for the magazine-size mail, another bundle of ads, and maybe even another bundle for a second set of ads. They have to stand in front of every house to sort this mail all together.
How do you think a carrier on a walking route can do that, especially when so many of them are now working in the dark? I believe the rural route carriers can sort the mail together in the morning so when they go out on the street they just have to use one motion at every delivery point. Think how much time the city letter carriers could save if they were allowed to do that.
The so-called powerful postal unions are not allowed to go on strike. They have already lost over 100,000 members in the last ten years, because of Postal Service downsizing. The clerks' union has already agreed to a substantial reduction in wages and benefits. The letter carriers will probably agree to a cut in wages also, if they are treated fairly. The only thing the union is doing wrong is fighting to save Saturday delivery because they do not want to lose any more jobs.
The Postal Service is the most profitable government agency ever created by the United States Constitution. Any agency that still brings in $65 billion a year is not obsolete. Just a few minor adjustments would return the Postal Service to a position to break even or show profit. Even the Government Accountability Office has said the Post Office funding of its retirement benefits for people who have not even been born yet is wrong.
Darrel Issa’s bill may have some good points but careful study of it suggests he wants to break up the Post Office into little pieces and have private enterprise take parts of it. It almost appears that some Republicans are so dogmatic they cannot stand to see a successful government agency.
Mr. Crawford, because of your comments about the hardworking postal employees and your misunderstanding of how the Postal Service works and you blaming the postal unions for the problems of the Postal Service, for the first time in my life I am ashamed to be called a Republican. Unless you change your position on Darrell Issa’s bill, I have no choice but to work for your defeat in the next election.
A special thanks to David Fisher, the editor and publisher of the Yell County Record, for the photographs of the Gravelly post office and the meeting, and for some of the background on the story. The Yell County Record has run several excellent stories about the post office, available here. (Apologies for not mentioning the Record when we first posted this piece.)