by Jacob Bilsky
Since the appointment of the Trump donor and multi-millionaire capitalist Louis DeJoy to Postmaster General in May, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has become a battleground for the democratic rights and quality of life of working people. Corporate media has tried to spin the role of the Democratic Party as supposedly defending the postal service and staving off DeJoy’s cuts, but the reality is that these attacks are part of a long bipartisan war against the USPS and other public services.
DeJoy plans to implement neoliberal changes to the USPS, which include raising prices, leasing post office space to other government agencies, and otherwise continuing the decades-long practice of running the oldest public service in the U.S. more like a business. The immediate effects of the Dejoy/Trump changes include further delays in delivery of mail, which directly harm millions of workers and retirees who rely on the USPS to deliver prescriptions, medical tests, and other necessities to stay healthy, especially in the midst of the COVID shutdowns and a deep economic recession. In the long term, price hikes for postal services will adversely affect workers living in rural areas or those without access to reliable internet. The USPS enables many people to pay bills and send packages when private companies like UPS and FedEx charge exorbitant shipping prices. For Native Peoples living on reservations, who often lack access to basic utilities like electricity and running water, let alone means of electronic communication, the USPS is often vital to survival. DeJoy’s plan will hurt residents of the non-contiguous U.S. in particular, as mailing rates are expected to increase dramatically in states and territories such as Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii.
The battle for the USPS has been highlighted by mainstream news coverage over the past few weeks, as the Democratic Party and its allied media corporations used it as a rallying cry against the Trump administration and for the Biden campaign. In particular, public attention has been focused on how recent delays in services and potential price hikes for election mail will affect mail-in voting during the 2020 elections. DeJoy and the Trump administration are attacking the democratic rights of U.S. voters, particularly during a pandemic where voting in person could increase the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, voter suppression in various ways, including finding ways to limit or exclude mail-in ballots date back much farther than DeJoy and are historically bipartisan.
The Postal Reorganization Act and Strikes of 1970
The USPS as we know it is the result of privatization. Prior to the 1970s, mail was handled by an office of the federal government known as the United States Post Office Department (USPOD). In this decade, the Nixon and Carter administrations began a shift from the post-war domestic policy, which encouraged high taxes on the wealthy to fund increased federal spending for social programs and public services, towards a policy of neoliberalism, where federal spending is cut and public services are privatized. The Nixon administration’s neoliberalism is exemplified by the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973 (sponsored by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy), which introduced for-profit healthcare to the U.S., and the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. Despite the Republican Party winning the presidency in this period, the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress and pushed for much of this neoliberal legislation.
Although the USPOD was publicly owned and operated without a corporate structure, it had its flaws. In particular, postal workers did not have the rights to go on strike or collectively bargain for better wages. This resulted in postal workers, many of whom were black, receiving low pay for long hours in poor working conditions. Postal workers were organized by their jobs under several different unions, with their origins dating back to the 1890s, but without the right to collective bargaining, these unions instead sought to lobby Congress for better wages. This was a losing strategy, and in early 1970 Congress passed legislation to raise their own salaries by 41%, while granting postal workers a measly 4% raise. For rank and file workers, the greed of their elected representatives was the last straw, on March 17th, 1970, members of the National Association of Letter Carriers in New York City voted in favor of an illegal wildcat strike, one of the largest in U.S. history, against the wishes of politicians and union bureaucrats.
The strike lasted eight days and spread across the nation, requiring Nixon to call in the National Guard to suppress picketing workers. The power of the striking workers came from the important role they played as logistics workers in keeping the U.S. economy moving. Without the mail running, the country became paralyzed and the ruling capitalist politicians were forced to negotiate with the workers. The strike ensured that the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act enshrined the right of Postal Workers to collective bargaining, and further resulted in the formation of the American Postal Workers’ Union, incorporating several unions representing clerks, letter carriers, and other postal workers separately into one union with one contract.
While the strike of 1970 was a major victory for postal workers, it came with its downsides. In addition to the fact that postal workers did not win the right to strike, the abolition of the USPOD and creation of the more corporate U.S. Postal Service paved the road for further privatization of the postal service in later decades. While not run for profit, the USPS stopped receiving taxpayer funding in 1982, instead relying upon revenue from selling stamps, merchandise and services like taking passport photos to operate. Nixon remarked frequently that the intention of the Postal Reorganization act was to make the USPS operate like a “business,” and the fact that the USPS was now responsible for its own cost of operation meant that it could incur debt. Nixon’s rhetoric granted legitimacy to the idea of a privatized postal service, and changes in how the postal service was financed led to further austerity measures in the 2000s.
Bipartisan Attacks on the USPS Continue
In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, a bill which claimed to save the USPS, but in reality created massive, fictitious debt for the postal service by requiring the USPS to pre-pay $72 billion in expected pensions and retiree healthcare for the next 75 years. This devastating “cost” has made it impossible for the USPS to generate revenue since the bill’s passage. The bill passed without opposition from the Democratic Party (including no opposition from Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden). Under the capitalist system, corporate politicians engineer losses in revenue of government services in order to justify further cuts to public services such as utilities, public transit, and the postal service. This results in a never-ending cycle where public services are defunded so they become doomed to fail, harder to access, and in turn lose more revenue and provide fewer services to people. Cutting funding or using laws to restrict revenue is an old trick by pro-capitalist politicians who hope that worse service can neutralize any major opposition to privatization of public services.
While the blatant attacks made by the DeJoy administration and the upcoming election put the removal of postal boxes and mail sorters in the spotlight, further investigation reveals that the process of the USPS cutting hours, routes, and overtime while removing important elements of its infrastructure goes back to before DeJoy’s time. On average, more than 3,000 postal boxes have been removed yearly since 2010, with about 24,000 being removed in 2009 under the Obama/Biden administration, about four times the number of postal boxes removed under the Trump administration in 2017.
Although DeJoy announced he would pause changes to the USPS in the face of political and media pressure, he announced that mail sorting devices and postal collection boxes already removed would not be reinstalled. As another temporary measure, House Democrats passed legislation to fund the postal service in the lead-up to the elections. Even if this legislation were to pass the Senate, it will not undo the decades of damage done by bipartisan efforts to undermine the USPS. In reality, the “efforts” of the Democratic Party to “save” the USPS are a hollow media stunt to win votes in 2020.
A Better Postal Service is Possible
Whereas liberal commentators promote campaigns to save the post office using capitalist frameworks such as buying stamps to help the USPS turn a profit and “freeing up the mail” in the lead up to the election; postal workers in Washington State and Texas show a real way forward through collective working class action. Postal workers in Seattle-Tacoma, Wenatchee, and Dallas have defied DeJoy’s orders and reinstalled recently removed mail sorting machines. The actions taken in Wenatchee are particularly significant, given the city’s status as an agricultural center in rural central Washington, where the USPS serves communities who most rely on it for their survival.
These actions are a good start, but we need collective action taken by postal unions like the APWU and solidarity actions from workers in other sectors and their communities to win widespread change. Even if the union bureaucracy isn’t willing to fight for workers’ rights, history shows that workers can organize and win anyway. In addition to saving and improving the USPS, a nationwide postal or logistics strike could lay the basis for our class to establish a new layer of fighting union leadership, organize unrepresented workplaces, and build a new workers’ party to represent our political interests.
The USPS doesn’t need capitalist managers like DeJoy. What keeps the postal service running is the labor of the workers who sort, transport, and deliver packages and letters to millions of people every day. As socialists, we argue that public services are best run democratically by the workers who operate them and the working people who use them. We need real public ownership and control by regional and nationally elected boards made up of representatives from unions and communities, nation-wide. The point of a postal service should not be to generate profit, but to ensure everyone in the U.S. has equal access to medical care, public services, political participation, news, and a means of staying in touch with friends and family regardless of where they live.
The Independent Socialist Group calls for:
- Immediate reinstatement or replacement of removed postal boxes, mail sorting machines, and all other equipment.
- Tax corporations and the wealthy capitalist class to fully fund the United States Postal Service.
- Repeal the Janus Decision and other anti-union legislation and court decisions which interfere with the ability of public sector workers to organize. Guarantee the rights of federal, state, county, and municipal workers to strike and collective bargaining.
- Expand vote by mail programs, absentee ballots, and early voting to ensure the democratic rights of workers. Reverse gerrymandering measures and voter suppression laws.
- Guarantee the right to obtain a valid passport at no cost at USPS offices and allow voters to register and vote using P.O. box numbers, to ensure rural, impoverished, and indigenous workers have the ability to vote, travel, and apply for jobs and federal programs.
- A public works program using union labor to repair, expand, and build additional postal infrastructure, including additional postal boxes, mail sorters, accessible post offices, and environmentally friendly postal vehicles.
- Break from the corporate agendas of the Republican and Democratic Parties to build a workers’ party with a socialist program, capable of defending public services and nationalizing under democratic control; utilities, transit, healthcare, and education.
- Nationalize private logistics companies like FedEx and UPS and combine them with the USPS into a democratically run public service, made to compliment a National Health Service and other public services.