Saturday, September 17, 2011
The recent attacks against the United States Postal Service (USPS) are more than signs of desperate times - a natural sunset moment for a service rendered archaic by FedEx and UPS. Rather, the Postal Service has been under constant, vicious assault for years from the right, who views this as an epic battle with the goal of finally taking down the strongest union in the country, the second largest employer in the United States (second only to Wal-Mart,) and a means to roll the country ever closer toward the abyss of privatization.
The Postal Service, which is older than the Constitution itself, stands at a precipice. If this great institution, which provides one of the oldest, most reliable services in the country, is permitted to fall and Congress kills its great union, then truly no collective bargaining rights, no worker contract, no union will be safe within the United States.
As the USPS spirals toward default, the historically uncontroversial mail service system has suddenly become a hot-button issue. It's an unlikely organization to inspire such hysteria. The Postal Service isn't paid for by taxpayer dollars, but rather fully funded by the sale of stamps. It's easy to forget what a marvel this is - that today, in 2011, one can still mail a letter clear across the country for less than 50 cents. And if the impressiveness of that feat still hasn't sunk in, attempt this brain exercise: consider what else you can buy for $0.44.
It was only a few years ago that the USPS was considered not only stable, but thriving. The biggest volume in pieces of mail handled by the Postal Service in its 236-year history was in 2006. The second and third busiest years were in 2005 and 2007, respectively. But it was two events: one crafted during the Bush years and another supervised by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, that would cripple this once great institution.
Perhaps it was its booming history that first drew Congress' attention to the Postal Service in 2006 when it passed the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act (PAEA), which mandated that the Postal Service would have to fully fund retiree health benefits for future retirees. That's right. Congress was demanding universal health care coverage.
But it even went beyond that. Congress was mandating coverage for future human beings.
"It's almost hard to comprehend what they're talking about, but basically they said that the Postal Service would have to fully fund future retirees' health benefits for the next 75 years and they would have to do it within a ten-year window," says Chuck Zlatkin, political director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union.
It was an impossible order, and strangely, a task unshared by any other government service, agency, corporation or organization within the United States. The act meant that every September 30th, the USPS had to cough up $5.5 billion to the Treasury for the pre-funding of future retirees' health benefits, meaning the Postal Service pays for employees 75 years into the future. The USPS is funding the retirement packages of people who haven't even been born yet.
The hopeless task was made even more daunting when Wall Street blew up the world's economies. It was this, and not the invention of email, that became the Postal Service's death knell. Zlatkin finds the whole "blame it on the Internet" excuse amusing. The Internet had already existed for quite a while in 2006, the USPS's busiest year, not to mention that every item purchased on Amazon and eBay - every piece of information addressed to stockholders and bank customers - still needs to be snail mailed, which is enough volume to keep the Postal Service prosperous.
"I've yet to figure out a way to mail a shirt through a computer," he chuckles. (read more)