By John Nichols
Occupy Wall Street protesters hit a bull's eye when they invaded a National Press Club briefing where Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe - who makes like a corporate executive and refers to himself as "Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Postal Service" - was giving a speech about the need to close post offices, lay off workers, and, though this was unspoken, take steps that will lead to the privatization one of the country's greatest public assets.
Postmasters general do not usually become targets of passionate opposition, but the protesters were chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donahoe has got to go."
And rightly so. Last week, Donahoe laid out a plan that would destroy the Postal Service as most Americans know it. And the destruction would be not out of necessity, but to perpetuate an austerity lie. The supposed financial crisis facing the Postal Service is a fantasy.
The agency - which continues to provide vital services to 150 million households and business a day, sustains rural and urban communities across the country as a Main Street mainstay, employs hundreds of thousands of Americans, and has a history of being in the forefront of technological and societal progress - is not in trouble because of competition from the Internet or changing letter-writing patterns. It is in trouble because Congress forced it to pay roughly $5.5 billion a year into a trust fund for future retiree pensions.
The Postal Service's inspector general says it has overfunded pension obligations by $75 billion, something no other federal agency is required to do. In addition, it has been slapped with other charges and obligations that make it appear to be headed for bankruptcy. Simply treating it fairly when it comes to the prepayment of pensions would ease most of the burden.
But Congress is dithering, the for-profit mail services that want to carve up the Postal Service are salivating, and the postmaster general is surrendering, with a brutal cost-cutting proposal that could:
So slow down first-class mail delivery as to create an opening for private carriers. Indeed, Americans are almost being pushed into the arms of UPS and FedEx.
Cause as many as 100,000 job losses. Postal job cuts hit people of color, women, and veterans hardest, as the agency has a long history of hiring a workforce that "looks like America." The proposed closing of more than 250 of 561 postal sorting centers is the equivalent of a wave of factory closings.
Have a devastating impact on thousands of rural communities where post offices are slated for closure.
Create a nine-day lag time for periodicals, devastating the print press and public discourse.
Wreak havoc with absentee and military voting processes that are already a mess in many states. Hardest hit will be states that have gone to vote-by-mail systems.
By every reasonable measure, the Postal Service is proposing suicide. American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey said plans to eliminate next-day delivery of first-class mail and periodicals will "hasten the demise" of the agency. "The USPS should be modernizing and striving to remain relevant in the digital age, not reducing service to the American people," he said.
The changes would make it impossible for the postal service to reconstitute itself in better times. As such, they are an open invitation to private carriers to take over lucrative routes and services - while leaving the great mass of Americans with diminished, substandard services.
The cuts proposed by the postmaster general go well beyond cost-cutting. They are the sounding of the death knell for a service that traces its roots to the nation's first days, and that remains essential for isolated rural communities and neglected urban neighborhoods.
The plan "will lead to the end of the United States Postal Service and universal postal delivery in this country," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.). "This would be an incredible blow to our economy. With real unemployment at 16 percent, we cannot afford another 100,000 people laid off.
"I've already heard from small-business owners that rely on USPS and are concerned that the plan would kill their businesses. Some rural Oregonians would have to drive 15 to 20 miles to access their mail. Subscribers of small, rural weekly newspapers would have to wait seven to nine days for their papers to be delivered. This is a shortsighted proposal that fails to address the serious long-term issues facing USPS."