Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays this administration from attempting to dismantle a cherished institution.

The United States Post Office was critical to the American colonies in winning their independence from England. Journalists led the way, getting laws that would ensure low rates to reach subscribers and exchange news among the 13 colonies. The Second Continental Congress created the federal post office in July 1775 with Benjamin Franklin at its head.

The post office grew with the nation — as mail traveled by horseback, by stagecoach, by steamship, by train, and by plane — and today the system handles almost half of global mail volume, and is regularly cited as the federal agency with the highest public approval rating. We recently wrote about a Columbus Day rally held by the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, The National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union.

They are worried about the the postal service becoming a private, rather than a public, function. We’re worried, too.

Mind you, we’re not arguing here that postal workers’ jobs should be saved at all costs. That would be like arguing coal plants should be fired up again to save miners’ jobs when technology has progressed and there are ways that are more cost-effective and safer to meet energy needs — safer both for workers and for the Earth.

We believe a postal service is essential and must be both maintained and continually retooled to meet modern communication needs. Currently, it is unfairly saddled with requirements other federal agencies aren’t — the postal service is not part of the federal budget and must fund itself with stamps and shipping fees.

Unlike any other federal government entity, the postal service is expected to pay for itself. Following a strike in 1970 — postal workers were upset over poor working conditions and low pay — the the Postal Reorganization Act was signed by then-President Richard Nixon. The cabinet-level Post Office Department was replaced then with the United States Postal Service, a new entity that would function like a business without government funding.

The current administration wants to go a step further. President Donald Trump issued an executive order on April 12 stating that the United States Postal Service is “on an unsustainable financial path and must be restructured to prevent a taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Trump has established a task force to examine, among other things, “the decline in mail volume and its implications for USPS self-financing and the USPS monopoly over letter delivery and mailboxes” and “the definition of the ‘universal obligation’ in light of changes in technology, e-commerce, marketing practices, and customer needs.”

There’s no doubt that the internet has brought a seachange in communication. But, as Congressman Paul Tonko told Enterprise reporter H. Rose Schneider, the postal service loss that Trump cites in his executive order — $65 billion since the recession — came from federal government requirements not imposed on other offices.

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,” Tonko said.

“It shall be the policy of my Administration that the United States postal system operate under a sustainable business model to provide necessary mail services to citizens and businesses, and to compete fairly in commercial markets,” Trump said in his executive order.

That is precisely the sort of language — framing a government service as a business model — that was used in the June report, “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations,” issued by the Office of Management and Budget after another executive order from Trump.

The report calls for the “return”  of the postal system to “a sustainable business model” or to prepare it for future conversion from a government agency into a privately-held corporation.

Government is not a business. The central mission of government is to provide services for its citizens. The central mission of a business is to turn a profit.

“A privatized Postal Service would have a substantially lower cost structure,” the June report says, “be able to adapt to changing customer needs and make political decisions free from political interference.”

Of course a privatized service could cut delivery hours, even days, and stop delivering to difficult inner-city or rural areas. That would save money but would that best serve United States citizens?

And of course privatization would do away with that pesky part of government — where representatives ostensibly look out for the good of the people. Both the Senate and the House have resolutions that Congress should ensure the United States Postal Service remains an independent establishment of the federal government, not subject to privatization.

“A private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery) would operate at substantially lower costs,” the report says. “Freeing USPS to more fully negotiate pay and benefits rather than prescribing participation in costly Federal personnel benefit programs, and allowing it to follow private sector practices in compensation and labor relations, could further reduce costs.”

No surprise there, either. If workers are paid less and have fewer benefits, a private company could make more money. The private company could make more money, too, if mail were not delivered to the door or if the compay charged more money for hard-to-reach areas. But, again, would this best serve United States citizens?

In 2012, when post offices were slated to close locally, we heard a huge uproar — from small businesses that said they wouldn’t exist without the local postal branch to elderly patients who said they wouldn’t be able to get their prescription drugs.

Postal delivery is an essential government service and, with government backing, it could be further retooled to be essential in the digital age.

In 2015, Jim Cochrane, then the chief information officer and executive vice president of the USPS, wrote, “Technology has enabled us — one of the largest employers in the country — to remain nimble and responsive to changes in customer trends and needs. Our robust technology infrastructure has been the backbone of improving mail processing operations and reducing costs, but we’re also harnessing data and analytics to stay ahead of the curve …

“The Postal Service delivers 40 percent of the world's physical mail volume, or 162 billion pieces of mail, catalogs and packages every year. We are at the core of an $800 billion industry, and the size and scope of our physical network is unmatched. However, our focus today is on keeping mail relevant in a world where people increasingly use digital communications.

“Digital marketing now competes with direct mail, bills are increasingly paid electronically, and even our traditional competitors are changing. One recent example is the USPS partnership with Amazon.com to provide package delivery on Sundays in a couple of thousand offices. To get this done, we built and delivered a dynamic routing capability from scratch in three months …

“Information has become nearly as important as the physical product — we maintain 33 petabytes of data storage, and there is a unique identifier on everything moving through our network, all the way to the mailbox. We have analytic capabilities to track where mail is, improve efficiency, predict workloads, understand customers, provide feedback, and deliver consistently reliable service.

“Mail with a digital footprint is both measurable and predictable, so in addition to supporting our enterprise, we provide business-specific data to service partners, enabling them to plan their warehouse inventory, scheduling, call centers and day-to-day operations.

“We’re making the old new again. Our teams are designing mailboxes with electronic keys and Bluetooth technology for secure package delivery. They’re designing delivery vehicles to handle higher volumes of packages and use alternative fuels. We’ve equipped our trucks with sensors to gather geospatial and maintenance information to optimize route efficiency. We’re building out our social media capabilities to be more proactive about customer sentiment ….”

So why not use what Trump’s order called this “USPS monopoly over letter delivery and mailboxes” to the advantage of citizens? Why dismantle a system that is so inclusive and could be so beneficial in the future?

The “universal obligation” remains. All citizens of the United States should have access to postal service, enhanced by the changes in technology.

Chris Durban
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Joined: 10/07/2014 - 07:12
Keep them coming

Thanks for your excellent editorial on retuning the postal service for the future. Privatization of public services has appeal when promoted by skewed and partial arguments, but the guts of the matter is that they serve everyone, regardless of income -- and make our communities stronger.

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