By Felicia Gustin
...But will Donald Trump Destroy the Postal Service?
For most of my life, like most people, I pretty much took the post office for granted. I wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, slapped on a stamp, dropped it in the mailbox, and off it went, thousands of miles away for mere cents.
I didn’t really think about what it took to get that letter from point A to point B until I got a job at the post office in my early 20s. It was at the old bulk mail center in West Oakland, a few years before automation fully took over. Mail clerks still sorted by hand, inserting letters into dozens of cubby holes by zip code. I can still remember my roommate at the time, another postal worker, studying for her big clerk test by spending hours memorizing the zip codes for cities and neighborhoods across Northern California.
I worked as a mail handler and our days consisted of unloading sacks of mail from the trucks, dumping them onto conveyor belts where mail would go on to be sorted by machines or humans depending on their size. Sorted mail would go back into sacks by zip code and then we’d load them onto trucks heading to destinations across the Bay Area and the country.
It was heavy work (to get the job, you had to be able to lift a 70 lb. sack), dusty (we used face masks long before the pandemic), and loud (pretty much every postal worker suffered hearing loss due to the roar of the machines). It was unionized though the contract was pretty much thrown out each December as mail multiplied due to the holiday deluge.
But the pay was excellent as were the benefits, a reality that especially provided Black workers with a stable, good-paying career. “Historically (the post office) was less prone to racial discrimination than other employers and offered a way out of poverty,” explains Philip Rubio, a former postal worker and author of the book, There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality.
According to Rubio, postal workers played a critical role in the U.S. labor and Black freedom movements. They were also a major factor in the 1970 nationwide wildcat postal strike, which resulted in full collective bargaining rights for the major postal unions under the newly-established U.S. Postal Service in 1971.
African-Americans make up about 20% of postal workers nationwide and are the majority in some urban areas, representing 75 to 80% of the workforce. For years, postal jobs have been dwindling though, as full-scale automation coupled with the use of email led to massive layoffs.
Even before the pandemic, the post office was beset by financial woes, mostly due to a horrible piece of legislation passed by Congress in 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA). This law required that the USPS set up a $72-billion fund for future USPS retirees’ healthcare benefits 75 years into the future, and it had to put $5.5 billion into the fund every year. For an agency that solely operates on sales from postage, products, and services, this was, in the words of Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, “an absurd mandate to fund healthcare retiree benefits for people who not only weren’t in the post office yet, but in some cases weren’t even born yet.” This has drained the agency of billions of dollars. It’s also fueled efforts from some quarters, to privatize the postal service.
Congress was on the verge of making things right when the House passed a bipartisan USPS Fairness Act in February. But when the pandemic hit, that got put on the back burner. At the same time, there was a significant uptick in home deliveries as people sheltered in place, putting even more strain on the understaffed, underfunded agency.
Providing federal funding to the postal service was on the table in the negotiations over the latest coronavirus stimulus package. But Trump and his cronies see the post office as ground zero in the battle for the White House. Trump has made no secret of his intention to starve the postal service of cash as a means to suppress votes. “They need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said in an recent interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo about the states that are implementing universal mail-in voting ahead of the November election. “But if they don’t get (funding) that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting, because they’re not equipped to have it.”
Trump also continues to spread the lie that mail voting leads to massive fraud. And while there is no evidence of this, it’s more than likely aimed at whipping up his base in the event of a close election or a massive voter “turn-out” via mailed-in ballots due to the pandemic.
And while the media continually gets distracted by Trump’s crazy antics, he has quietly installed his people into top positions at the postal service. Big donor pal Louis DeJoy’s first months as postmaster general have been characterized by the cutting of postal worker overtime and the deactivating of high-speed mail-sorting machines at many facilities nationwide, both of which translate into severe delays in mail service. We’re also seeing the widespread removal of mail boxes. I don’t have any data on this, but I would wager those mailboxes are mostly being removed from Black neighborhoods and Democratic-leaning communities.
Now for the good news – the public outcry has been massive! Here’s a document with actions you can take to support the USPS put together by a local SURJ member. Lots of resources are out there to help you figure out when and how to vote. Since laws vary state by state, it’s important to make sure you know the rules for mail-in ballots in your state. Here’s one from Axios with vote by mail rules and here’s a detailed guide from the FiveThirtyEight website on how to vote by state in the 2020 election.
Postal workers across the country are also speaking out, exposing the efforts to slow down the mail and decrying attempts to undermine their long-held creed: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." They may not be hindered by the natural elements, but it remains to be seen if postal workers will be able to deliver mail – and our ballots – despite these latest efforts of Republican voter suppression.