On Contact: Corporate assault on US Postal Service
Chris Hedges discusses the corporate assault against the US Postal Service with author Christopher W. Shaw.
The corporate seizure of public utilities and privatization of schools is part of a broad assault to turn government assets into assets that will swell corporate profit. The post office has been a coveted target for decades. Corporations such as FedEx and UPS have used their lobbyists and campaign contributions to cripple the government postal service in an effort to destroy it and take it over. These corporations engineered a congressional mandate in 2006 that requires the post office to pre-fund the next 75 years of retiree health benefits in one decade. No other federal government agency is required to carry out a similar pre-payment plan, nor is there any actuarial justification for this measure. The requirement, which forces the post office to fund retiree health benefits for future employees who have not yet been born, is part of the broader corporate assault to dismantle the postal service. Mail service is already suffering from slower delivery, huge staff cuts, restrictions on window hours, the removing of mail processing equipment, and the uprooting of the familiar blue mailboxes. The goal is to drive the post office into utter disfunction, justifying the corporate seizure of one of America’s most beloved and iconic government institutions.
Christopher W. Shaw is the author of ‘First Class: The U.S. Postal Service, Democracy, and the Corporate Threat’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the corporate assault against the US Postal Service with the author Christopher Shaw.
Christopher W. Shaw: There’s a lot of intangibles associated with the post office that aren’t measured on the balance sheet. So post offices are often meeting places for communities. In some places, they’re really the only public space. So they serve as a heart of the community and also, really, a source of identity. So that kind of role and purpose is, I think, integral to why Americans value the post office, to why it is so beloved, to why it’s like the highest-rated government agency in terms of approval and trust. And--but this is--this aspect of the Postal Service has continually been ignored or pretended that it doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s a--it’s a big mistake and it’s a real underestimation of its significance, and also of why it’s important, the role that it--that it plays in the--in the society. So the post office really is--has long been an institution in this country of great importance in the thousands and thousands of local communities, you know, everywhere, smallest town, urban neighborhoods, every part of the country.
CH: The corporate seizure of public utilities and privatization of schools is part of a broad assault to turn government assets into assets that will swell corporate profit. The US Post Office has been a coveted target for decades. Corporations such as FedEx and UPS have used their lobbyists and campaign contributions to cripple the government Postal Service in an effort to destroy it and take it over. These corporations engineered a congressional mandate in 2006 that requires the post office to prefund the next 75 years of retiree health benefits in one decade. No other federal government agency is required to carry out a similar pre-payment plan, nor is there any actuarial justification for this measure. The requirement which forces the post office to fund retiree health benefits for future employees who have not yet been born is part of the broader corporate assault to dismantle the Postal Service. Mail service is already suffering from slower delivery, huge staff cuts, restrictions on window hours, the removing of mail processing equipment, and the uprooting of familiar blue mailboxes. The goal is to drive the post office into utter dysfunction, justifying the corporate seizure of one of America’s most beloved and iconic government institutions. Joining me to discuss the attack on our Postal Service and its ramifications is Christopher Shaw, the author of First Class: The US Postal Service, Democracy, and the Corporate Threat. So, as you point out in the book--Ralph Nader writes the introduction. This assault is decades in the making. It has long been a target for private interests. So explain a little bit about that history and how they have been gradually chipping away and crippling Postal Service before we get into where we are today.
CS: We’ll start in the 1970s. There’s a well-funded group of think tanks in Washington DC. They really churn out a lot of books, reports, columns stating that the government, by definition, inefficient and it would be much better if the post office was to be privatized. And then at the same time, you also have corporations that are preventing the Postal Service from offering any new services at all. So, for example, taking your package to the post office and having it wrapped. Well, that was a problem. It had to be stopped. Even installing photocopy machines in post offices, there is an issue around that. And certainly any attempt to offer new electronic services around the turn of the century, that was an issue that was--basically said the post office can’t do--can’t do that either. And even dating back before that, because the Postal Service actually looked into electronic services in the 1970s, and that was stopped. So it’s all been an effort to claim that the Postal Service is just, by definition, flawed, needs to become a private, for-profit business, and then to prevent it from being expansive or creative in any way.
CH: And so talk a little bit about how these powerful lobbyists who work for FedEx. They have quite a presence, as you write in the book, in Congress. I mean, they’re major lobbyists. And how they work in essence to kind of actually disembowel the infrastructure itself. Here, you spoke about the services they blocked, but they’ve also--you know, they’re uprooting the very foundations of the post office itself.
CS: One thing is that the Postal Service does not have its own airline. And so as a result, it actually has to contract to fly the mail with commercial passenger airlines, and then also starting a little under 20 years ago with FedEx Corporation itself. And then also has contracts with UPS. And so this has a real impact on the Postal Service’s ability to move and transport mail and packages because it’s dependent on these other entities and is prevented from having an airline. And UPS and FedEx are really two of the most aggressive corporations in terms of lobbying on Capitol Hill. And this has been remarked on by members of Congress, by observers. And so, you know, again and again, if there’s an attempt to expand the services the Postal Service offers or to make it so that its rates are more competitive, they will lobby to prevent that from happening. So it really is an ongoing campaign to essentially remove this government service. And the fact is is that UPS and FedEx don’t actually want to deliver the mail in large parts of the country because the profit isn’t there at the level at which they require in order to operate there.
CH: Yeah. We’ll get into that, because you talk about what happened when--like in the UK, they privatize the Postal Service. But let’s first begin with telling us about Louis DeJoy, who he is and what he’s been doing, where he came from, why he’s now running the Postal Service.
CS: So he’s a trucking company executive. And he’s also a major Republican donor. He was actually the Finance Chairman for the Republican National Convention. He gave over a million dollars to President Trump. And so he came with a background in trucking and a background in Republican Party politics and no background in postal issues whatsoever. When he was put up for nomination, a couple of the members of the Board of Governors, which is the body that oversees the Postal Service actually resigned. They didn’t feel that he was actually prepared for the office. And then he came in right before this pivotal national election where the Postal Service has an essential role in making sure that people could cast their ballots through the mail, and began to do things like removing mail-processing equipment, reducing post office hours, uprooting those blue mailboxes, all things that really made people very worried about the election. You actually had the unprecedented situation of federal judges intervening and overseeing postal operations at that time. So he’s come up with a 10-year plan that aims to run the Postal Service more like a business. You’ve already seen its impact in terms of slowing down the mail in this--in this country. And he plans to stay there. He said very combatantly that he’s not interested in leaving. “Get used to me. I’m going to be here a long time.” In the next month or so, we will have openings, perhaps on the Board of Governors, and that could maybe lead to a decision to look for new leadership, a new Postmaster General. But for right now, we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens with that.
CH: Let’s talk about what privatization look--looks like, because we have very clear examples, several countries that you write about, in Europe. You made the point earlier that they’re not really interested in delivering the mail to everyone. It’s focused on those centers, largely urban centers, that are profitable and your rural communities will just be forgotten. And you also make the point that a lot of these rural communities don’t have broadband. So speak about what privatization will look like.
CS: If you privatize the Postal Service, you’d really disrupt the basic premise under which it operates, which is that you have profitable areas to serve and you have the areas to serve that are not profitable. And you have essentially a cross subsidization that allows for a universal network to serve the entire country. And so in Europe for instance, there was the idea that if you private--that if you basically deregulate postal markets and treat it less as a government service and more as a private business, that that will lead to gains in efficiency and it will be an improvement. And what we’ve actually seen in Europe is mass closings of post offices. We’ve seen reductions in, you know, days of delivery--the number of days of delivery, and so--and at the same time the prices have continued to go up. So the promise has not been there in terms of the actual benefits to the people who use the postal system. And in this country, in the United States, because of the fact that we have a lot of inequality and also just a lot of space, it’s a vast geographic area, those consequences would most likely be even greater, be magnified in this country if you were to go down that route. So it’s certainly a way that certain businesses would profit from, but the American people would suffer and they would really lose this essential national resource.
CH: You talk in the book about how privatization really means that because they don’t want to deliver to areas that are difficult to get to, people will have to drive for hours to get their mail. And in order to get packages, you talk about the surcharges that are put--it will become far more expensive, so--especially to those people who are not in these profitable urban centers, what is it--what is it going to look like for them?
CS: Right now, a majority of ZIP codes in the country actually have surcharges if you are to try to get delivery from a private carrier. And there are parts of the country where essentially there--you know, they basically actually hand-deliver your packages over to the post office. So there’s large parts of the country that there’s just no interest in serving. And then also, in terms of post offices, you’re absolutely right, that there are post offices that are in areas that are remote from other population centers. And if those post offices were to close, then those people would have to drive perhaps hours in order to actually get to a--to a post office. So what you would see is delivery would be very much disrupted and be--and be diminished. And, also, any type of way to access a post office, we’d see the same problem. So a lot of people would really be left out and would no longer receive the kind of standard of service that they rely on and have depended on for all these years.
CH: You also write about how the services of post offices are being merged into for-profit companies, Staples for instance, and in Sweden which privatized--you said there’s actually no post offices operate in Sweden. They were all closed in favor of moving postal transactions into commercial stores. Talk about that aspect of it.
CS: Well, there’s--we’ve seen this abroad in foreign countries where essentially you shut down post offices and you open a counter in a commercial business. And, of course, the problem with that--or the one most glaring issue is that a private business can close. It’s actually not a public service. It could, you know, just decide to shut out the shop entirely and then you no longer even have an outlet at all. And, unfortunately, this is an idea though that has been pursued in this country as well under the--a previous Postmaster General. The idea was taken up to basically start having counters in Staples stores, and that that would be the way that you would start to access the post office. And there was a boycott of Staples. There’s a lot of protest around this. And the management at the Postal Service backed down because people understand that they will see reduction in service and accessibility if you were to have this kind of a change. So it’s not about providing better service to people. It really is just about trying to save some dollars and cut some corners.
CH: Great. When we come back we will continue our conversation about the attack on our Postal Service with the author, Christopher Shaw. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the assault on the US Postal Service with the author, Christopher Shaw. So you write in the book about how the assault on the Postal Service not only destroys one of the most beloved and trusted government institutions in the country but has ramifications for the community itself which erode, I think, you argue the fabric of our democracy. Can you explain that?
CS: There’s a lot of intangibles associated with the post office that aren’t measured on the balance sheet. So post offices are often meeting places for communities. In some places, they’re really the only public space. So they serve as a heart of the community and also really a source of identity. So that kind of role and purpose is, I think, integral to why Americans value the post office, to why it is so beloved, to why it’s like the highest rated government agency in terms of approval and trust, and--but this has--this aspect of the Postal Service has continually been ignored or pretended that it doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s a--it’s a big mistake and it’s a real underestimation of its significance, and also of why it’s important, the role that it--that it plays in the--in the society. So the post office really is--has long been an institution in this country of great importance in thousands and thousands of local communities, you know, everywhere, smallest town, urban neighborhoods, every part of the country.
CH: Ralph Nader has long made the point that the privatization of public space makes democratic participation harder and harder. And you quote Christopher Lasch who wrote, “Civic life requires settings in which people meet as equals, where they bind--things like the post office bind the nation together by offering a site where community members from diverse walks of life cross paths with one another.” Certainly very true in a small farming community in which I grew up. You also talk about the physical buildings that, often many quite magnificent, large numbers of post office were built during the New Deal. And part of the corporate assault is the seizure of that real estate itself. Can you address that issue?
CS: So there’s a lot of value in that--in a lot of those post offices on the real estate market. And the thing about them is though is that they are, again, a marker of the--of the community. They’re often much beloved. And they’re often very historic. They will be decorated with New Deal murals, for instance. And so this is part of our common heritage. It’s part of our local identities but also our national identity. And too often we’ve seen it be auctioned off to the highest bidder in attempt to get some short-term revenue. But it really does attack the institution and its place and its role in society. And it’s certainly true that the post office is a--is a democratic space. It’s a place where all kinds of people from all walks of life meet one another and interact. And I think this also speaks to the post offices’ broader democratic role in the society just as egalitarian democratic institution which serves everybody equally. And it doesn’t matter, you know, what your income is or anything else about who you are. Everyone is entitled to the same service from the Postal Service. And so the post office is a place where we--where we see this in action, but really all aspects of the agency point towards this affirmation of democratic principle.
CH: You write about the major mailers. They’re part of the effort to essentially privatize the post office. And this is because you write, “Every piece of mail has a unique cost. While the expense of collecting, sorting, transporting, delivering each piece of mail varies, posted rates are uniform, because universal service is the principle that governs the postal office. Averaging the costs of all mail together, including institutional costs, makes uniform rates possible. Major mailers would prefer to pay only the costs that are directly attributable to each individual piece of mail.” Explain that process and what it means for everyone else.
CS: So the principle that governs the postal system is the idea that you’re going to have a uniform rate structure. So you can go and buy a postage stamp and put it on an envelope and get it delivered from Alaska to Florida, just like you could put it on an envelope and get it delivered to the house next door. And so what this requires is that we have to have all the cost of the Postal Service essentially put in one basket and averaged out across all deliveries. But what you have with major mailers is they have the ability to do things like presort their mail. They have the ability to drop it off at processing facilities. Do these various things that do actually reduce the cost of processing the mail. And so they would like to be rewarded with basically handouts for doing that. And the thing is that they’re already--they already get discounts for this. They already, you know, get--shave off those cents on the postage. But they would like to do this even more and have basically the whole rate structure reworked so that the idea of cost averaging the mail across all the pieces is no longer the governing principle.
CH: Let’s talk about what’s happened to the employees of the post office. Once unionized, my grandfather ran a post office in a small town in Maine. He was a government employee with a pension and a union. And now the whole gig economy or temp economy is infecting the post office as well, reducing hours, working conditions are becoming much more draconian. What--talk about the assault on postal workers.
CS: Well, this is a way that the postal management is attempting to save money. And what you’ve seen is really hundreds of thousands of positions have been eliminated over the past decade plus. And this means that the postal workers are much more burdened with work. The agency is short-staffed. And so you’re having situations with basically mandatory overtime. You have letter carriers out after dark, trying to deliver the mail. And then you also now have, instead of hiring career employees who get all the full benefits and privileges of being a postal employee, they’re hiring people called non-career employees. And they do not have the same benefits. They do not have the same privileges. And it also reduces the service level, because there’s a lot of turnover, because it’s not as good of a job if you’re in one of these non-career positions and so people are not as interested in staying in the job. So what you’re seeing is kind of a two-level system emerging, which is a common theme really throughout employment practices in this country, where, you know, some people have traditional kinds of employment standards that we expected and then other people are part of a new low-wage economy. And, unfortunately, we’re starting to see that creep into the Postal Service.
CH: Talk about the consequences. Where are we going, especially with the current direction of the Postal Service? What do you see happening in the months and years ahead?
CS: Unfortunately, the way we have been headed is to not recognize that this is a public service and instead to think of it like a business. That is the direction that Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General has adopted and he would like to see going forward. But I do think that there’s some hope because there are literally millions of Americans who do believe that it should be a public service and have actually taken action to make that happen. And we saw that in August 2020 when the DeJoy service cut came through and you had literally hundreds and thousands of protests. So there’s a real new awareness of the issue amongst the American public. And I do think that the post office has always been an institution that people can make it into what they want it to be. One time, the Postal Service did not deliver mail in rural America, rural Americans demanded that it do so. One time, the Postal Service did not deliver packages, and Americans demanded that it do so because they were being price gouged by private corporations. So this is a--it is a democratic institution. It is our Postal Service that we all own. And if we apply the political pressure, we can make it into the kind of agency that we can be proud of going forward and improve it and maintain it.
CH: Well, the Postal Service used to offer banking services, which is very important for a huge segment of the population. And this has long been proposed by many who would--then, again, it’s been blocked by the lobbyists, but maybe you can just mention that aspect of the Postal Service.
CS: There was a large grassroots movement in the late 19th and early 20th century to get banking in the post office, and that’s because the banking system just did not serve the average working American. And so this grassroots pressure was able to overcome the very powerful banking lobby. And so for most of the 20th century until the 1960s, there was a savings bank at the post office. And today we have a similar problem with eight million households that don’t have bank accounts, and this is because banks are not interested in serving these people. They are not deemed to be profitable enough. And so with the post offices located in over 30,000 communities, there’s a real opportunity here to get a banking system up and running again that could actually be designed not to maximize profit but to provide basic financial services to people who do not have bank accounts. And right now there’s actually a small pilot project that got off the ground and--just only for post offices, but it’s the first step of any kind that we’ve had towards restarting that post office banking that once existed in this country. So that is a hopeful sign that we could get this much needed service back in post offices again.
CH: Great. That was Christopher Shaw, author of the new book, First Class: The U.S. Postal Service Democracy, and the Corporate Threat.