Issues behind postal workers’ struggle

The battle over six-day delivery and to save the U.S. Postal Service from being privatized reflects both the depth of the capitalist economic crisis and the level of the class struggle in the United States.

This quote from a current television ad inadvertently points out some contradictions facing postal workers and customers: “Hi, I’m Lorenzo. I work for 47 different companies. Well, technically, I work for one. That company, the United States Postal Service.”

The U.S. Postal Service provides universal mail delivery at the lowest standardized prices in the world. Only the USPS makes regular postal deliveries to remote islands and secluded areas that would not be profitable for a private business. In rural and low-income regions where broadband isn’t commonly available, it provides a much-needed lifeline of communication.

Yet, while the USPS spends millions of dollars on commercials, postal management is closing or reducing hours in thousands of retail facilities, subcontracting postal trucking and is in the process of closing half of its processing plants, deliberately slowing down delivery standards. One-third of the country’s post offices are up for sale.

At the same time, postal management in Washington, seemingly against the Postal Service’s best interests, has hired the Boston Consulting Group to lead another public relations campaign promoting the idea that email makes “snail mail” obsolete.

Struggle over Saturday mail delivery still on

In January, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe announced that the USPS would drop to five days of mail distribution while maintaining six-day delivery of parcels, beginning in August. Not coincidentally, the Lorenzo commercial emphasizes parcel, not letter, delivery.

Eliminating Saturday delivery would remove up to 80,000 jobs. Thirty percent of postal jobs are held by people of color. Veterans hold more than 20 percent and women more than 40 percent of postal positions. Closing processing plants and post offices economically undermines working-class communities and small businesses. Postal management also plans to use low-paid, part-time workers (city carrier assistants) on the limited Saturday work.

On March 21, in a vote opposing Donahoe’s plans, Congress passed a spending bill that included a requirement for six-day mail delivery. The Government Accountability Office also announced that the USPS is bound by law to keep delivering on Saturdays.

David Partenheimer, a spokesperson for Postal Service management, responded: “We strongly disagree with the GAO’s legal opinion.” California conservative Congressman Darrell Issa said, “The Postal Service is not eliminating a day of service, but is merely altering what products are delivered on what day.” (Washington Post, Jan. 21)

“We fully expect the Postal Service’s board of governors and the Postmaster General to follow the law and the expressed will of Congress about maintaining six-day delivery,” Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said in a statement. (Associated Press, March 22)

Corporate eye on profits from privatization

Neither the Internet, private competition, labor costs, nor the recession justifies the Postal Service’s harsh actions. A 2006 congressional law, which forces the postal service to unnecessarily pre-fund retiree benefits 75 years in advance, is seemingly responsible for sending the Postal Service into a death spiral. These prepayments for future workers not yet born are a burden no other government agency has to bear and something no private corporation would ever consider.

Before that law was passed, the USPS turned a profit for four consecutive years, from 2003 to 2006, totaling $9.2 billion over that period.

Many postal workers view the actions by Congress and Donahoe as part of a campaign to privatize the post office, a popular government public service since 1775.

Lorenzo Hudson in the TV commercial — reportedly a real postal worker from Great Neck, N.Y. — is undoubtedly wondering if his job will be privatized. He’s not alone. The jobs of hundreds of thousands of teachers as well as other city, state and federal workers are also being privatized.

Since this never-ending recession began in 2007, capitalists have been sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars, reluctant to invest in the production of more consumer goods because of the high capital investment required and the expectation of low profits. There are often not enough workers with high enough wages to buy back the products corporations have overproduced. Much of the excess funds are invested in guaranteed government loans.

Today, the rich are demanding cuts to government benefits for the working class, so that the huge interest payments to the banks can continue to be paid. The capitalist class regards the maintenance of services for the workers and the various communities as unnecessary overhead.

Decreased wages and the loss of jobs caused by privatization and sequestration also decrease the number of workers paying taxes into the federal and local coffers, creating decreased government revenue. The ruling class in turn calls for more austerity, creating a downward spiral over time.

Some of the capitalists are taking advantage of austerity to raid the public sector, searching for opportunities to exploit labor and make profits selling services such as in education, water treatment, road maintenance, the post office and more.

What is driving the increase in privatization?

Workers World Party founder Sam Marcy wrote that “Profit is created only in the production process as a result of exploitation of workers’ labor. Of all the commodities on the market that are exchanged for each other, there is only one with the peculiarity of creating profit. The others are exchanged for equal value. The peculiar commodity is labor power — it alone creates more value than the employer ever pays for it.” (“The GNP and you,” May 27, 1993)

Karl Marx called the amount workers produce above what they are paid “surplus value.” It constitutes the profit for the employer. At a time when the wealthy are reluctant to invest to create more commodities for sale, postal delivery and other services historically controlled by government offer a place where exploitation of workers can generate real profits.

Under privatization, the new bosses would aim to eliminate unions and reduce postal workers’ wages and benefits. The National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the Rural Letter Carriers Union are justified in fighting it.

The mailing industry generates $1 trillion of business a year and employs more than 8 million people. It is approximately 8 percent of the gross national product. Although the post office now employs only about 500,000 people and takes in only $66 billion, it is the catalyst for the entire industry. Privatization of the USPS could reap large profits.

Pitney Bowes, UPS, FedEx and other mail, parcel and trucking industry corporations covet the profits possible there. Under their profit-driven tutelage, universal delivery to every address in the U.S. would inevitably be eroded.

The big business coalition that constitutes Congress so far has been divided on whether it would be wise to let the postal industry be controlled by the whims of for-profit decisions, or to keep it in government hands.

At a time when Congress is split on this question, mass pressure from postal workers and community activists can tilt the balance of power to their favor. So if Lorenzo wants to continue to offer his services to the 47 businesses on his route, he’d better put on his marching shoes. The fight is far from over.

The writer is a retired letter carrier.