As threat of privatization draws closer, postal workers rally

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
The Altamont Post Office looms against a gray sky on Wednesday as a patron exits the building. Postal workers intend to rally in protest of possible privatization of the post office on Columbus Day.

Almost 40 years ago, the United States Post Office became the Postal Service, a new entity that would function like a business without government funding. But some postal workers and politicians believe that the postal service could one day become an actual business, and they believe that day is coming closer.

The most recent actions stoking the fear of privatization include the issuing of two federal task forces in the Trump administration, one which has already recommended that preparations begin to privatize postal service in light of fiscal concerns.

“It’s like the monster’s at the door now,” said James Kaufman, of the American Postal Workers Union.

Postal workers are being invited to join rallies across the country on Columbus Day to protest the privatization of the United States Postal Service. While privatization is not imminent, the threat of it happening has grown in recent years, said Kaufman, who is spreading the word of such a rally taking place on the corner of Central Avenue and Old Karner Road in Colonie.

The rally will include APWU members as well as the National Association of Letter Carriers, The National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. While the NALC is also planning a rally near Colonie Center that day as well, according to their website, Kaufman said he welcomed having two rallies. He said the goal is to make the public aware that the post office is at risk of being privatized.

Kaufman has been the legislative director of the APWU Local 390 of Albany for the last 16 years. His role, he said, is to keep members informed of relevant legislation, and to visit and write to lawmakers.

“The sanctity of the mail is important … we’re not sure it’s going to be the same if it’s private,” he said.

Legislation

A bill has been introduced in Congress confronting this proposal. House Resolution 993, and its counterpart Senate Resolution 633, state that legislators “should take all appropriate measures to ensure that the United States Postal Service remains an independent establishment of the Federal Government and not subject to privatization … .”

Congressman Paul Tonko is one of over 200 cosponsors of the House resolution, which was introduced in July; the Senate resolution was introduced two months later.

“It expresses the interest of Congress,” said Tonko. “And I think it’s a strong statement.”

While Tonko said that it’s a bipartisan resolution, Kaufman said that GOP support comes from just a small number of Republicans. The proposed resolution does include Republican cosponsors such as New York legislators John Faso and Elise Stefanik, but Democrats make up the majority: There are 172 Democratic cosponsors and 47 Republican cosponsors in the House; in the Senate, there are 34 Democrats, five Republicans, and two independents supporting the measure.

The resolution mainly serves as an expression by Congress that the post office must not be privatized, but, Tonko said, other bills and resolutions have been introduced that would ensure some financial stability to the USPS. One such resolution states that the postal service should continue its six-day delivery service. He said that six-day delivery ensures that people, particularly the elderly or homebound, can access things like mailed prescriptions.

“Government solutions”

Both Tonko and Kaufman believe that there have been continued efforts over the years to privatize the post office.

“While there’s an element in the House and in Congress that would like to see them privatized, it’s always been a risk,” said Tonko. Kaufman agreed.

“I don’t know if they can push it through Congress if Congress is opposed to it, but the Congress I’ve been seeing over the last couple of years has been willing to give in on a lot of issues,” Kaufman said, adding that this could change if the November midterm elections tip the majority over to Democratic legislators.

In March of this year, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to the director of the Office of Management and Budget to develop a plan to reorganize the federal executive branch and eliminate unnecessary agencies and programs. The office issued a report in June, titled “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations.”

The report delves into numerous government factions and offers recommendations like consolidating different departments into one, such as all food-safety oversight agencies coming under the Department of Agriculture, or merging the Department of Labor and the Education Department. The report also proposes taking steps to prepare the USPS for eventual privatization.

“A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure, be able to adapt to changing customer needs and make business decisions free from political interference, and have access to private capital markets to fund operational improvements without burdening taxpayers,” the report states.

Some of the reasons a private service would be more cost-effective, according to the report, include not being required to conduct door delivery or operate as many days of the week. The report also reviews the postal system’s financial woes, stating these would need to be tackled prior to being sold to a private entity.

Such issues are being looked at by another task force, which Trump formed with another executive order in April.

“It’s always been a desire of the private sector to take over our business,” said Kaufman. A private business, unfettered by government regulation, could be far more profitable than the postal service, but this would likely mean prices would increase or vary based on location, he said.

Retirement system

Both the report and the executive order creating the new task force state the post office has lost over $65 billion since the recession. Tonko and Kaufman both say the financial woes came from federal government requirements not imposed on other offices.

Kaufman said the federal government has set up the post office to fail.

In 2006, after operating on a “pay-as-you-go” system, the post office was required under a new law to fully fund its retirees’ health benefits for 75 years into the future. Tonko said that the post office pays between $5.5 billion and $5.8 billion a year into the retirement system and that expense has done the most damage to the postal service.

“It caused tremendous revenue drain … ,” he said. “There’s a lot we could do with $5-and-a-half billion,” he said.

Tonko said the first step in stabilizing the postal service is undoing the requirement to pay retirement that far out.

Kaufman believes the issues go back further, to 1970, when the Postal Reorganization Act dissolved the United States Post Office Department and created the United States Postal Service, a “quasi-independent” agency that would fund itself, he said. The postal service was removed from the federal budget, and now had to fund itself with stamps and shipping fees.

He believes these changes over the last 30 years are slow but purposeful steps to privatize the post office. Kaufman also believes efforts to undermine the postal service continued into the 1980s with the system being “corporatized.”

“They were mimicking corporate attitudes and corporate policies … ,” he said. “And with that came a lot of cutting.”

Kaufman was also critical of new cost-saving efforts, offering contracts to private services. Private companies can win contracts to ship and sort mail by coming in under a postal service bid, and stamps can be sold at a profit in stores, he said.

“Contracting out is just a slow way to privatize the postal service,” Kaufman said.

The threat of privatization

In 2012, with decreasing visits to post offices, partly because of the burgeoning use of the internet, the postal service considered closing thousands of post offices. Rural areas, with a lack of internet access, would be most hurt by these closures, according to a Reuters analysis.

That year, the Knox Post Office closed, although this was due at least in part to the building’s poor conditions; it’s post office boxes were moved to the East Berne Post Office. Though it did not occur, Clarksville’s post office was also threatened with closure. The closure was appealed by the late Peter Henner, a Clarksville lawyer.

The plans to close many rural post-office branches was dropped in 2012 by the postal service. Instead alternatives such as reducing hours of operation and using rural carriers or contractors were offered.

The possibility of privatization would likely again cause rural areas to suffer, according to both Kaufman and Tonko.

“Something gives when you privatize,” Tonko said, adding that this could be closing branches, reducing the days of services, or increasing rates. One such effect could be reducing services or access in rural areas, he said.

“Rural turf is particularly a costly service for fuel to deliver to the homes,” he added. “So I would be worried that would be a likely target.”

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