The USPS: Middle Class Jobs, Unmatched Public Service

The eight-day U.S. postal strike of 1970 was the largest wildcat strike in American history and won collective bargaining rights for hundreds of thousands of workers.

“The strike in 1970 brought the USPS and the National Association of Letter Carriers into a position of providing great middle class jobs to a wide portion of Americans,” Wisconsin State Association of Letter Carriers President Scott Van Derven recently told the La Crosse Independent. 

“Getting a job in the USPS was done by test score, not on the basis of patronage, or gender or other such factors,” added Van Derven, who is a retired mail carrier. “Previous to 1970, many postal employees had to work other jobs to supplement their incomes because Congress would not pay a living wage.”

Five decades later, the gains won by the striking postal workers, and the unmatched public service those workers built, are under threat. The economic slowdown provoked by COVID-19 has reduced volumes of mail delivered by the USPS, although some of the lost revenue has been replaced by big increases in package delivery. Keeping workers on the job during the pandemic has also increased costs due to spending on protective equipment, increased cleaning and the need to hire workers to replace those who have gotten sick. Thousands of USPS workers have fallen ill from COVID-19 and at least 60 have died from COVID-related symptoms.

Facing billions of dollars in losses, the postal service could run out of money by the end of the summer; yet President Trump has repeatedly attacked the USPS. Although there is bipartisan support for a relief package, Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate appear unwilling to help, despite overwhelming public support for a USPS bailout . All this comes at a time when the postal service seems more vital than ever, both in delivering packages anywhere in the country to those who are quarantined at home, and in an election year when many are voting by mail.

Despite what many conservatives might think, the USPS has been self-funded since the 1970s and has historically been profitable. That changed with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which imposed a mandate to prefund Retiree Health benefits for 75 years into the future. This worked out to be about $5.5 billion per year, which the the USPS was able to manage until the 2008 downturn made those payments impossible. No other governmental agency or company in the private sector has a similar obligation.

Despite these enormous challenges, the USPS continues to provide a coordinated delivery and retail network that affords every U.S. citizen the same service for the same price regardless of geography or distance. 

“The economy of scale provided by the USPS keeps the rates the lowest in the world while maintaining the best service in the world,” Van Derven said. “Recently privatized postal systems in the EU have raised prices and hurt service.”

Van Derven said anyone interested in helping the postal service, which employs 600,000 workers, should contact the offices of their congressperson or senator.

“In our bid to convince Congress that the USPS needs a helping hand, contacting their member of congress and senators and requesting inclusion in a stimulus bill would go a long way,” he said. “We are determined to provide a robust postal service to every American and protect this vital institution for future generations while providing a strong middle class opportunity for those willing to follow this storied profession.”

One of many proposals to reinvigorate the USPS is to reintroduce a postal banking system. This would use the USPS’s massive network of offices to create a public banking system that could offer checking, savings accounts and small dollar loans. Without the need to reward investors, the system could be used to benefit the poor, many of whom cannot access the commercial banking system now. Many countries already have postal banking systems, and the U.S. had a government guaranteed savings scheme through the postal service between 1910 and 1966.

*To contact your elected official to show your support of the USPS as a fundamental public service, visit www.heroesdelivering.com.

By Dave Dolle. Support our journalism by becoming a patron here. Top photo credit: A USPS Truck in Winter, Lexington Massachusetts/John Phelan/CC BY 3.0. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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