The Past and Present of the U.S. Postal Service
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, welcome back to The Takeaway where we're indulging in a bit of nostalgia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes, those are the voices of the Marvelettes singing Please Mr. Postman. In 1961, this single became the first Motown tune to hit number one. That's the sweet story of a girl waiting to hear from her guy, not by text, Twitter, Snapchat, but by waiting for a letter. In the decade that followed the release of this song, thousands of American families waited for the postman, hoping for word from their sons, and their beaus who were serving in Vietnam. Mail has kept us connected in love and in war. Indeed, the Postal Service is so fundamental to who we are as a nation that the founders established the Postal Service before they even signed the Declaration of Independence. That's a fact we're reminded of in a Winifred Gallagher's stunning 2017 text, How the Post Office Created America.
In that book, Gallagher writes, "With astonishing speed, the post established the United States as the world's information and communications superpower." Nearly 250 years later, the post remains a vital organ in the nation's central nervous system. You talk to us about what it meant to you as well.
Ruth: My name is Ruth [unintelligible 00:01:31], I'm calling from Morris Township, New Jersey. Post office means to me, it's one of the last threads of universal community, it's a service that we share in this country. I can count on communicating with someone this way more reliably than any other. This is one essential social and community glue that I really, really value and would hate to see go or diminished or even kept at the diminished level of funding that it's at now. We talk about improving communities. This is already here.
Alegra: Hi, my name is Alegra [unintelligible 00:02:00] I'm calling from Sacramento, California, and the Postal Service is very important to me. It's how I communicate with my rural friends and family. I mail care packages and letters for the older folks to read. They don't have Internet access and receiving real mail that they can hold in their hands, it's very important to them. It's how they pay their bills. They have no other alternative.
Gail: Hi, this is Gail from San Rafael, California. The post office is important to me because I get my medicine by mail, I vote by mail, I shop and make returns by mail, and I love my local postal workers. They're the best.
Kyle Franklin: My name is Kyle Franklin and I'm calling from Seattle, Washington. A handwritten note is so much more meaningful than an email or even a printed letter. The post office allows me to connect with friends and loved ones near and far to show I care through its services.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, it's pretty clear from your calls that the Postal Service is a big part of your lives, but the USPS is far from healthy. Findings from the Government Accountability Office or GAO found that the Postal Service lost 87 billion over the last 14 fiscal years. Back in March, Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy proposed a 10-year strategic plan to address the fiscal problems. The plan includes cutting post office hours and extending so-called service standards. The changes would significantly delay mail delivery for most households and businesses.
This month, the Postal Regulatory Commission released an opinion of the strategic plan, finding that, "The new standards will not result in much improvement, if any, to the Postal Service's current financial condition." In short, it says the post office is broke and DeJoy's plan won't fix it. With me now to discuss the history and future of the US Postal Service is Phil Rubio, professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University and author of Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service. Welcome to The Takeaway, Professor Rubio.
Phil Rubio: Thank you for having me, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's start with the back end of the title of your book. Why do you say that the current Postal Service crisis is manufactured?
Phil Rubio: Well, the post office has always been a contradiction. It's beloved, as you say, and it's always been a fundamental part of our democracy, but on the other hand, internally, it's been authoritarian and autocratic and been low-waged. It's also been unionized. For years, the post office was trying to cut labor costs, especially at the turn of the century, and using that as a way of keeping costs down. Congress increasingly became anxious about the annual deficit of the post office itself by the 1960s, was not able to keep up its infrastructure, not able to keep up with growing volume.
There grew this idea of creating a hybrid, it actually started in the Johnson administration. Then when Nixon was elected president, that's what he and his Postmaster General really tried to push towards creating a hybrid, a postal corporation that would no longer be in the cabinet, which it had been since 1829, but instead, it would be self-supporting. Meanwhile, postal workers had won partial collective bargaining rights, and they were really becoming restive over the fact that their wages had lagged behind and they didn't have full collective bargaining rights.
To give you an idea of how low their wages were, starting pay on the eve of the strike in 1970 was $6,100, top pay after 21 years was $8,400. That's $1,500 below the median family income. They could see that the legislation was moving through, that Nixon was demanding, in 1969, a Postal Corporation. They were afraid they were going to lose their civil service benefits, and he was going to refuse to pay them their annual raise because not just operations, but postal wages came through Congress. He was essentially holding their raises hostage.
A strike broke out in New York City, where you had a lot of strikes in the '60s. What that does with Nixon is it forces him, that wildcat strike, it forces him to see how much power the postal workers have and that he has to negotiate with them, and to reboot his idea of a postal corporation. What you wind up with is a compromise. What they created was a conundrum, it's both government agency and business,
Melissa Harris-Perry: The post office-- and I think it's important that we point this out for folks who may not quite understand how it operates, that when I talk about that deficit that it has, that deficit is related mostly to paying what was finally established by that strike, these decent kinds of not-so-much-wages, but really the retirement benefits. The post office itself receives no direct taxpayer funds, is that right?
Phil Rubio: Correct. 1982 was the last time that the post office took any taxpayer funds, which is what Congress was trying to do besides getting politics out of the post office. They didn't want to be on the hook for appropriations or for daily operations. The trouble was they created this institution that's autonomous, but it also doesn't have any real power, that it's expected to provide universal service, that it's mandated to do that, while also being self-supporting. Self-supporting is not in the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. That is a myth that Nixon floated at the time and it's still floated today by Postmaster General, DeJoy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us understand also then how it's governed. We have a new president, why can't he simply pick a new Postmaster General?
Phil Rubio: According to the Postal Reorganization Act, this Board of Governors was what governs activities of the Postal Service. They are the ones who appoint the Postmaster-General, which they did. There was a Republican majority, they're all appointees of the Board of Governors and they're mostly of corporate backgrounds. Biden cannot fire him. In the past, this was a cabinet position. Imagine if a president could not appoint their own Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense.
I want to, if I could, go back to just how things change and how we got to this manufactured crisis that you asked about a minute ago, which is that there's the expectation that the Postal Service will be self-supporting and provide universal service at reasonable rates, and will also provide full union benefits, full collective bargaining. You had postal workers staying longer, making it a career, being more productive. There was a lot of hostility from conservative forces who are now concerned by the end of the 20th century that the post office was not going to be able to keep up with its pension fund. the Government Accountability Office warned that they weren't going to be able to replenish that fund.
What actually happened, when the Office of Personnel Management looked in 2002, they found that the Postal Service had overpaid something like $71 billion into that fund. Because the federal government was using the Postal Service at that point as a cash cow, because postal revenue was generated by the Postal Service that was being used to help balance the budget. If the postal service now is going to ask for that money back or not contribute any more annual payments, that could send the federal budget into a deficit, $36 billion by 2014.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Rubio, help me to understand it because you've given us the long history. Just bring us to this current moment. How has coronavirus and COVID-19 really impacted this crisis, even if it's a manufactured one, in the context of the Postal Service?
Phil Rubio: I argued in my book that it was a manufactured crisis that started us on this road to Postmasters General attempting cutbacks and even instituting cutbacks and the rationale being that we can't afford to keep the service at this level that we are, but with COVID that really exploded this conundrum of business and service that the Postal Service has been trying to maintain. When the Postal Service, the previous Postmaster General, Megan Brennan announced in April of 2020 that the postal service could run out of cash that fall because of COVID, because of loss of volume, and because of a loss of business.
Melissa Harris-Perry: At this point, is there anything that Americans can take as a bright spot in what's happening? Is there any good that can come out of this?
Phil Rubio: Well, yes. I think it's forest and accounting of what is it that we expect from our Postal Service? Do we really want to ditch this 246-year-old institution that your callers so eloquently were speaking to because what's trending downward is personal correspondence? The Postal Service can't just respond to trends policies in the past, have been able to influence trends, and also innovate and adapt. The fact that you have people, postal consumers, and postal unionists demanding change, writing into the Postal Regulatory Commission, which I think influenced their criticism of Postmaster General, DeJoy.
The fact that you have people calling for the Postal Service to be allowed to innovate and incidentally before we finish, I wanted to go back to the intro song you played. "Wait a minute, Mr. Postman" was written by an African American postal worker, written by a letter carrier, the one that the Marvelettes recorded in 1961. The post office isn't just nostalgic, it has a past, which should inform our future. The fact that 209,000 postal workers were angry enough to risk their jobs and their livelihoods to go on strike, and that 61% of the public supported them in 1970, that changed the post office to the Postal Service but also created this conundrum.
It's encouraging to me to see that the legacy of that is in strong postal unions, and now coalitions with consumers of people who want to preserve that service and expand it into the future for all the things that we need it for. For mail-in balloting, for medications, for personal correspondence, for checks. Our democracy still relies on it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed. Phillip Rubio, author of Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service, and professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. Thank you so much for joining us.
Phil Rubio: Thank you for having me.
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