Week in Review: More news, more of the same

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Time for another “Week in Review” already?  Seems like only yesterday we were talking about more post offices closing, angry citizens speaking out at public meetings, appeal cases at the PRC, and off-base articles in the mainstream media.  This week, it’s more of the same.

Occupy the Post Office: This year December 19th will be the busiest day during the holiday season for post offices.  That’s the day dozens of communities across Oregon will be Occupying their Post Office.  A group called the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) is organizing an “Occupy Our Post Office” movement in the state.  They’re circulating petitions, sending out press releases, asking folks to sign holiday postcards to send to Congress, and encouraging people to deliver a holiday card to their local postmaster.  Their website has a lot of great information, sample letters to Congress, flyers, and more.

Tempers Flare: On Friday night there was a heated meeting in Queens, New York to discuss the Postal Service’s consolidation plan, which calls for closing down all the mail processing and distribution centers in Queens (photo at the top).  More than a hundred postal workers, dozens of area residents, and a few local politicians turned out, including State Senator Tony Avella (D-Bayside).  Commenting on the decline in service standards that the consolidations will cause, Avella put the situation nicely: “You are basically signing a death warrant for the entire postal service.”

More junk from the Times: The New York Times has an op-ed piece today by Elizabeth Rosenthal entitled, “The Junking of the Postal Service.” Its thesis is that since most mail is junk mail, why do we need Saturday delivery, daily mail delivery, or a state-run postal service at all?  “The fact is,” writes Rosenthal, “the primary beneficiary of the United States Postal Service today is arguably the advertisers whose leaflets and catalogs flood our mailboxes.”  (Strangely, the piece is accompanied by a photo of a postal worker dealing with hundreds of parcels, not bulk mail — a reminder, if you needed one, that there’s more than junk in the mail.)  Rosenthal does acknowledge that the Postal Service is a large employer (another article in the Times this week explains how Black Americans are hit hardest when the public sector sheds jobs), and she also mentions Ralph Nader’s point that the Postal Service “is a crucial delivery network for items like medicine in the case of national emergencies.”  And she notes that the Postal Service “still delivers essential communication to small subgroups that are not (yet) well connected online: the elderly and rural residents.”  But it’s Evite and Facebook that get the last word in the article, which is really just another call to privatize the postal system.

The "digital divide": That “small subgroup” not “yet” hooked up may not be so small after all.  There’s another op-ed in today’s Times, entitled “The New Digital Divide,” and it says the following: “Increasingly, we are a country in which only the urban and suburban well-off have truly high-speed Internet access, while the rest — the poor and the working class — either cannot afford access or use restricted wireless access as their only connection to the Internet.”  Millions are offline, others can only afford slow connections, and “a mere 4 out of every 10 households with annual household incomes below $25,000 in 2010 reported having wired Internet access at home, compared with the vast majority — 93 percent — of households with incomes exceeding $100,000.”  A large percentage of those households doing without are African-American and Hispanic.  Public libraries are overwhelmed with people who need to use a computer, and private Internet providers are jealously guarding their turf, making it difficult for the have-nots to join the haves. 

Perhaps if the Postal Service had gotten into the Internet business years ago — as many hoped it would — we wouldn’t be talking about the “digital divide” and the junk mail problem.  It’s not too late to extend the “universal service obligation” to email and the Internet.  Why not charge the Postal Service with the responsibility of making sure that every American has access to high-speed Internet?  The least we could do is put some public computers in post offices.   There are over 4,000 remote locations within the postal system that receive Internet service via satellite, and the Postal Service has the world’s largest VSAT network with 12,000 sites. This network could be put to use providing Internet to rural America, and if libraries can provide computers, why not post offices?  Anyway, while junk mail in the waste stream is a valid concern, viewing the post office as irrelevant is simply not good progressive thinking.  For a much more thoughtful take on why we need to save the post office, check out this piece by John Nichols in Nation.

More appeals to the PRC: Appeals on post office closings keep coming in to the PRC.  Over the past week, there were 14 more, which brings the total for November to 46, and 191 for 2011.  Given that about 500 post offices have closed this year, and another hundred or so have received a Final Determination, that means nearly a third of the communities are filing appeals.  The PRC has ruled on some twenty of these appeals, and all but two decisions — Monroe, Arkansas and Innis, Louisiana — have been affirmed in favor of the Postal Service.   Monroe and Innis were “remanded” for further consideration by the Postal Service, but that’s no guarantee even those post offices will remain open.  The Postal Service may “reconsider,” come back to the PRC with more evidence, and get an affirmative judgment down the road.

They close anyway: There’s supposed to be a suspension on closing post offices in effect from November 18 until January 3, but that hasn’t stopped the Postal Service from closing post offices.  The post office in Milan, Kansas, closed on Tuesday, Nov. 29.  The decision to close the post office was being appealed, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered either.  The video has the story (if the video's not appearing, sorry, just refresh your browser):

More emergency suspensions: The Postal Service has an infamous history of closing post offices by “emergency suspension.”  That may be necessary when the postmaster gets sick or the building becomes unsafe, but breakdown in the lease negotiation is too often a manufactured emergency.  In 1998, so many post offices were closed by emergency suspension that there was a Congressional investigation and a five-year moratorium on closings.  The PRC has an open docket investigating the practice, and there’s evidence that the practice is increasing now that the Postal Service has hired CBRE to handle the lease negotiations.

The post office in Mahanoy Plane, PA closed on Wednesday because of a dispute over the lease.   "This is not a final determination for the Mahanoy Plane office," the Postal Service spokesperson said. "The district will take the next few months and evaluate to determine the next step." But the owners of the building say they didn’t want to spend money on winterizing since the post office “is scheduled to close anyway.”  There’s a great post on Going Postal about a visit to this post office — the Postal Service doesn’t even seem to know where it is.

The post office in Homestead, IA closed on Monday, Nov. 29, also because of “failed lease negations.” Homestead is in an area called the Amanas, a group of colonies settled by radical German Pietists who lived a communal life, with a self-sufficient local economy.  There’s been a post office in Homestead since 1852, and it’s been in the same building since 1913.  

The post office in State Line, PA may close for an emergency suspension on January 31 because the Postal Service and landlord cannot come to an agreement on renewing the lease.  The post office has been in this spot for fifty years, but the owner says he worked with a leasing agency acting on behalf of the Postal Service and they couldn’t come to an agreement: "It's unfortunate. I hate to lose the income, but we couldn't come to a reasonable conclusion to benefit both sides."

Saved: A few post offices were removed from the RAOI closing list this week — Pitkin and Sargents in Colorado, Dayton and Trotwood in Ohio.  And the Brighton Beach post office in Brooklyn, NY, has been “saved again.”  It’s still not clear why some post offices are escaping the cutting block.  A USPS rep said only that a number of factors led to the decision to keep Pitkin open— written comments, concerns expressed at the public meeting, the financial analysis.  But those are always the factors that the Postal Service is required to look at, so the explanation is not an explanation at all. 

Also, the Final Determination to close the post offices in Balm, Florida and Campaign, Tennessee, were both withdrawn by the Postal Service on Nov. 29.  As usual, no explanation was provided.

Another Village Post Office: The Postmaster General may have given up on the Village Post Office concept, but on Nov. 22, a new VPO debuted in Sherry’s Quick Mart in Doe Run, MO.  It’s the eighth of the Postal Services “fully-functional VPOs,” says the press release.  Why the Postal Service is using that expression is a wonder: This new VPO may be functioning, but they hardly have any functions to fill.  Just stamps and flat-rate boxes.  Not really a post office at all, no matter what you call ‘em.

Postmasters, an endangered species: The PRC issued a decision to deny a complaint by NAPUS and the League of Postmasters seeking to prevent the Postal Service from implementing changes to the Code of Federal Regulations that permit the Postal Service to change a post office into a station or branch and that allow a post office to be run by a postmaster not on the premises.  The PRC denied the motion on procedural grounds, but left the door open to a refiling of the complaint.  In the meantime, the new rule went into effect on December 1, and the postmasters associations are deciding on what legal action to take next.  There’s more on the significance of this fight here

This can’t be condoned: An interesting comment this week on the “Send the Love” page of the Save the Post Office website.  A reader comments, “As I was placing an order for a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights from the National Archives e-store this morning I was surprised to learn that orders within the United States are shipped by UPS.”  Sure enough, the National Archives only uses the Postal Service when shipping to military posts; all other orders use UPS.  You’d think one branch of the government might be interested in helping out another.  But it’s probably a case where the Archives was able to negotiate a better volume discount on parcels from UPS than the Postal Service could offer.  “At a time when the U.S. Postal Service is struggling to carry out its mission to provide universal mail service," comments the reader, "I can’t condone a federal agency such as the National Archives limiting its ‘shipping methods’ to a private shipping company.”

(Photo credits: Meeting in Queens, NYImnaha, OR post office; handling mailWatson OK post office with satelliteMahanoy Plane PA post office; Homestead, IA post office; State Line PA post office; VPO in Sherry’s Quick Mart, Doe Run, MO;  National Archives.)

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