post office

SPECIAL DELIVERY NEEDED: The late-afternoon activity at local post offices like this one in Greenpoint, Brooklyn could be one of the familiar sights that soon disappears if the U.S. Senate doesn't approve a $25-billion coronavirus-related bailout for the U.S. Postal Service and new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's plans to sharply limit overtime and end mail runs that would go late enough to produce overtime work are implemented.

Even as a recent surge in revenues appears to have delayed the potential demise of the U.S. Postal Service by six months, the American Postal Workers Union urged its members to deliver a message—by phone—to Republican U.S. Senators July 23 that the Service's future—and maybe their own politically—depended on their bucking President Trump and voting for $25 billion in aid as part of a new stimulus package. 

They found an eager ally in that push in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who four days earlier declared that providing that money for both operating assistance and personal protective equipment for the nation's 600,000 postal workers was "a main priority" for the larger economic recovery.

'A Lifeline Service' 

Whether providing reliable, inexpensive deliveries to New York City and its suburbs, or to rural areas throughout the nation that often are not covered by private carriers, Mr. Schumer said "the USPS provides a lifeline service for countless Americans...that must continue amid and beyond this pandemic. The fact is, the coronavirus has severely crippled USPS operations and their funds. Despite this, they have kept their doors open, the mail—and really the economy—moving, and now they need the help to sustain their pace."

One union official estimated that business has declined during the pandemic by one-third to one-half of what would have been expected. Even with a recent surge in revenues, the USPS is expected to suffer further losses of $22 billion over the next 18 months. 

In a statement, Senator Schumer quoted USPS Chief Financial Officer Joseph Corbett saying recently, "We are unable to predict the duration of COVID-19 business closures and the duration of the recession. While we continue to conserve capital and reduce expenses in areas where volumes are declining, our ability to continue to serve the nation will require substantial funding from the Federal Government or other sources."

Mr. Trump, however, after calling the USPS "a joke" in April, has steadfastly opposed using Federal money to keep it viable. He has hinted that his feelings might change if it quadrupled package shipping rates for large companies such as Amazon. The APWU is among those who view that position as a thinly veiled attempt to force the USPS to take a bite out of the business operations of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, which has been one of the President's most-influential media critics.

In June, Mr. Trump appointed as Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who earlier in the year contributed $360,000 to his re-election campaign, and in his first six weeks on the job made clear he believed the Postal Service's salvation rested not on a Federal bailout but through a slashing of its costs, even if it came at the expense of service. He wants to sharply reduce overtime for employees and end the practice of authorizing late trips that add to costs in that area if there are delays in processing the mail on a particular day.

Comparison Not Stainless

A memo issued earlier this month under the heading "PMG Expectations and Plan" stated that the Postal Service was not "untouchable," citing as an example the decline of U.S. Steel, which the memo said had over the past 45 years went from being "the largest company in the world" to "gone."

But after the memo was obtained and detailed by the Washington Post, an Associated Press story noted that while it was no longer the corporate behemoth it had been in 1975, "U.S. Steel remains a leading steel producer, with more than 27,000 employees as of earlier this year."

In flooding the offices of all 100 Senators with calls June 23 to make the case for a large infusion of money for the Postal Service, the APWU  particularly concentrated on Republican Senators who until now have been reluctant to defy the President and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Postal workers were instructed to emphasize how important the viability of the USPS is to rural residents of states generally controlled by the GOP,. according to Chuck Zlatkin, the legislative and political director for the New York Metro Area Postal Union.

He said APWU President Mark Dimondstein believed the push—especially to persuade 20 Republican Senators in swing states to back the HEROES stimulus bill that would grant relief to the USPS as well as state and local governments—would succeed by appealing to their political self-interest at a time when Mr. Trump's standing in the polls has gotten increasingly shaky.

Shift Pressure to McConnell

Amid reports that some major GOP donors have already begun shifting their contributions away from the President and toward Republican Senators in hope of saving their slim majority in the upper house of Congress even if Mr. Trump is defeated, Mr. Zlatkin said, "If enough people in rural areas tell the Senators they need this, they'll go to McConnell and say, 'You're not gonna have your majority to worry about if you don't allow this to go through.'"

He continued, "I have to believe Senators are more committed to their electoral well-being than to Trump's attitude on this. If people understand the Postal Service is under threat and may go down the tubes if it doesn't get help by March, I think this bill will go through."

Asked about reports as recently as last month that the USPS could run out of money by September, Mr. Zlatkin replied, "I guess the package delivery business was better than they thought." That would change, he said, if the Postal Board of Governors acceded to the President's demand for a huge increase in package delivery rates on the corporations for which they are the heart of their operations.

"That's a good, competitive move: raise the rates 400 or 500 percent," Mr. Zlatkin said sarcastically.

Pre-Funding Albatross

The USPS, which is not funded by the Federal Government, was a self-sustaining business until congressional Republicans required that it pre-fund employee health contributions 75 years in advance. Mr. Zlatkin is among those who claim this move was part of a right-wing push that preceded Mr. Trump gaining power to strain the Postal Service enough to force it to reduce services, making it easier politically to justify letting it go out of business and have services picked up by private carriers. Critics of such a scenario say that would lead to large rate hikes and discontinuation of service—particularly in rural areas—that was not sufficiently profitable.

Among those who would be hit hardest, Mr. Zlatkin said, were "people who receive medication on 30-day prescriptions that they count on. Most [Veterans Administration] deliveries go through the Post Office because the 'privates' don't deliver to post-office boxes."

Speaking of both the stimulus package and a separate bill sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—who is among the Republicans in danger of losing their seats in the November elections—that would confine its aid to the USPS, he continued that amid the party divide, "The craziest thing is [both measures] have bipartisan support because people in rural areas are most dependent on the Postal Service."

And, he said, both union members and the public were becoming increasingly aware of the greater role the USPS is likely to play in the November elections, where there is likely to be far-larger mail-voting activity than in the past because of concerns about going into polling places and adding to the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

DeJoy Not Seeking Input?

Despite that, Mr. Zlatkin said, Mr. DeJoy has not called in postal managers from states where in the past voting by mail has been done the most frequently to get their input on how to prepare for a nationwide increase in balloting through the Post Office.

Critics of the Trump Administration charge that this is yet another attempt to depress voter participation, believing the larger the vote, the more presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is likely to benefit at the President's expense. But veteran New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell said the attempt to bleed the USPS was as much an ideological crusade as it was a political tactic, recently asserting, "Trump and his cronies are openly seeking to destroy the Post Office during the worst public-health crisis in a century."

Yet despite the criticism emanating from the President, Mr. Zlatkin noted that a Pew poll earlier this year showed 91 percent of the public gave the USPS a positive rating—the best of any Federal agency—and that a Harris Poll last month concerning 100 large American businesses indicated it was "the most-relied-upon."

Those surveys don't matter to Mr. DeJoy, he said, because "he's not committed to the 159-million people we serve. He's committed to one person, the President of the United States. He's a guy who has no understanding of what the Post Service does."

Dedication Has a Price

Nor, Mr. Zlatkin continued, did the Postmaster General care about the price paid by workers to keep services high: 70 postal workers have died of the coronavirus, and roughly 12,000 of them have contracted the disease.

The effect of planned changes to restrict overtime and have mail trucks leave without full loads if waiting for complete processing would add to worker costs—slowing some deliveries by a day or more—at the same time that Mr. DeJoy is not lobbying for aid from Congress, Mr. Zlatkin said, suggested they were "designed  specifically to rip out what the Post Office offers people. It's gonna destroy the image of the service."  

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