Can One Union Save the Beleaguered U.S. Postal Service?

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its initiative on The Public Good. He is the author of “New City States” and four other non-fiction books. Originally  published at Alternet

Let’s begin with the bad news. The U.S. Post Office, the oldest, most respected and ubiquitous of all public institutions is fast disappearing. In recent years management has shuttered half the nation’s mail processing plants and put 10 percent of all local post offices up for sale. A third of all post offices, most of them in rural areas, have had their hours slashed. Hundreds of full time, highly experienced postmasters knowledgeable about the people and the communities they serve have been dumped unceremoniously, often replaced by part timers. Ever larger portions of traditional post office operations— trucking, mail processing and mail handling– have been privatized. Close to 200,000 middle class jobs have disappeared.

Since 2012 the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) has lowered service standards three times, most recently in January when in preparation for closing an additional 82 mail processing plants it announced the end of one day delivery of local first class mail and an additional 1-2 days for all mail. Subscribers to Netflix’s DVD delivery service may soon discover the cost effectiveness of a monthly subscription has been cut in half because the number of DVD’s they receive in a month has been cut in half.

The Postal Service, we are told, has fallen so deeply into debt (more on this in a moment) that it has exhausted its borrowing capacity. There’s no cash left. It’s been challenging to invest in capital projects. Post offices are in disrepair. Trucks are out of date.

Now for the good news. On November 12, 2013 a slate of insurgents won seven of nine national offices at the American Postal Workers Union (APWU). What? Can the election of new officers in a single union, even one with over 200,000 members possibly save the post office? Certainly not if they try to do it singlehandedly but there’s a chance, just a chance they could turn the tide if they build an effective national movement. And that’s what they’re trying to do.

The APWU Strategy

The APWU’s new officers are unusually experienced and talented organizers. After leading the Greater Greensboro Area Local for 12 years and co-founding the Greensboro Chapter of Jobs with Justice, President Mark Dimondstein was appointed APWU’s National Lead Field Organizer in 2000 in a new campaign to organize workers in privatized mail trucking and processing operations. That afforded him important experience in the rough and tumble world of the private sector where workers have the legal right to strike (post office workers can’t) and corporations have the legal right to do almost anything they want to thwart union organizers. The campaign had many successes but prolonged strikes against several companies eventually exhausted the union’s strike fund and its national leadership refused repeated requests by Dimondstein and others to replenish it,

Other new officers include Political Director John Marcotte who organized a local coalition that stopped the consolidation of his Michigan plant and Executive Vice President Debby Szeredy who led her Mid-Hudson local in fighting their plant closure. Both she and the new Clerk Craft Director Clint Burelson also participated in a hunger strike in 2012.

The activist stance of these new leaders is evident in the tactics they embrace. Dimondstein insists, “We’re not afraid of the streets. We’re not in the streets enough. We need to picket, march, sit-in–not leave it to lobbying or one-on-one negotiations.” He often pointedly praises the actions of postal workers who 55 years ago this March took their future into their own hands by defying union leaders and staging an illegal strike against low pay and benefits and poor working conditions.

The 1970 strike galvanized postal workers and stunned the nation. “So invisible were the docile, dependable men in gray until last week that no one noticed that their passions were about to explode into a historic and ominous strike,” TIME magazine reported a week later, “The first national postal stoppage in U.S. history and the largest walkout ever against the Federal Government…the illegal strike, which started in New York City, quickly spread to surrounding areas and gradually began marching north to New England and westward across the country, hitting Akron, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dearborn, St. Paul, Detroit, Denver and San Francisco By week’s end the strike had either shut down or curtailed service in more than 30 major cities, and was still spreading.”

The strike resulted in the transformation of Walmart like jobs into middle class jobs with good benefits and working conditions. For the first time postal workers gained the right to bargain collectively. And the APWU was born from the merger of five postal unions.

The new leadership has undertaken four overlapping and mutually reinforcing organizing strategies intended to protect their members and resurrect the public mission of the post office.

One strategy is internal: instilling a renewed sense of individual activism in the APWU. Dimondstein envisions a “cultural shift from a service model to an organizing model of unionism.” “People are disengaged not because they don’t care but because they see their union dues as a premium to an insurance company or as lawyer’s fees,” he maintains. “We need to retool, to retrain people to see the union as themselves. We need to encourage workers to take their grievances directly to the boss, in groups, not just file paperwork and wait for union officials to service them. We need more of a movement, a sense of connection to the larger community, which will give postal workers hope and confidence.”

The other three strategies are external. One involves an active working partnership with the other three postal unions. (National Postal Mail Handlers, National Association of Rural Letter Carriers, National Association of Letter Carriers). “The idea that we have different fights, it’s the classic divide and conquer,” says Dimondstein. Six months after the APWU election, the Postal Union Alliance was born to coordinate a fight that cuts across union jurisdictions: stopping processing plant consolidations, the closure and downgrading of local post offices, and the end of direct-to-the-door delivery and Saturday mail delivery.

The second external strategy is to expand the partnership to non-postal unions. Last year when USPS management launched a project designed to create mini post offices in big box retail stores, a step toward eliminating local post offices, this new partnership became evident. USPS chose Staples as the site of its pilot project.

In April A Day of Action generated hundreds of pickets, marches and rallies in more than 50 cities across 27 states under the rallying cry, “Stop Staples: The U.S. Mail is Not for Sale.”

In May Staples Vice Chairman Joe Doody nervously acknowledged that its deal with the USPS “could become a problem if more unions backed the postal workers.”

In June California’s Service Employees International Union 32BJ, representing 145,000 union members in 11 states and the District of Columbia, endorsed a boycott of Staples. In July the International Association of Firefighters representing more than 300,000 followed suit. AFSCME, representing 1.6 million public-sector workers, signed on as well.

Addressing the national convention of the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Dimondstein made the case for solidarity, “We too are in the public sector, we too are meeting the needs of people. We’re facing some of the same problems you are—I call it divert, defund, demoralize, demonize and dismantle.” On July 12th the AFT endorsed the boycott. School supplies are a key market for Staples, accounting for up to one-third of its sales.

On July 14th Staples announced it was withdrawing from the pilot project.

The third external strategy is to broaden the partnership to private as well as public unions and to build “a grand alliance between the people of this country and postal workers.” On February 19h, that Grand Alliance launched the same day the APWU began negotiating a new contract, the first not only for Dimondstein but also for the new Postmaster General Megan Brennan. In a highly unusual expression of solidarity APWU was joined that day by the Presidents of the AFL-CIO, National Association of Letter Carriers, Communication Workers of America, American Federation of Government Employees, AFSCME, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Some 64 civil rights, labor, community and religious organizations had signed on with the Alliance.

The contract negotiations will tackle bread and butter labor issues including ending a three-tiered structure that pays workers significantly different amounts for the same job and offers new hires barely a living wage. But Dimondstein promises they will also “promote a vision of a vibrant Postal Service for generations to come.” That includes fighting to regain high delivery standards, halt plant closings, expand hours of service and staffing for customers and use the USPS universal infrastructure to deliver new services such as public banking to generate new revenue.

Four paragraphs on the real financial condition of the USPS

And now a few words about the USPS’s widely proclaimed dire financial straits that according to both USPS management and Congressional Republicans requires drastic shrinkage and privatization.

Back in 2002, an independent examination discovered the USPS had overpaid into one of its two pension funds by $40-70 billion. The post office was not allowed to benefit from this windfall because the CBO and OMB determined that if it did the federal deficit would increase. To prevent this from happening Congress created a new Retiree Health Benefits Fund (RHBF) in 2006 and mandated the USPS make ten payments of $5.4 billion a year into it. The payments had no actuarial basis. They were simply intended to offset the USPS surplus.

From 2003-2006 the post office boasted a cumulative net operating income of $9 billion. In 2007, the year it made the first of its mandated payments into the RHBF the USPS lost $5.1 billion. In the last quarter of 2014 the USPS posted a $1.325 billion profit. But the $50 billion so far diverted into the RHBF makes it appear a financial basket case.

As the Postal Regulation Commission Chair Ruth Goldway has accurately observed, “The Postal Service has been a kind of cash cow for the federal government for the last 40 years.”

What is to be Done?

With Republicans in control we cannot expect Congress to lift a finger to save the post office. But management can do a great deal to revive this hallowed American institution even without Congressional approval if only it can be persuaded to take the public interest into account.

So far the USPS Board of Governors and its previous Postmaster General have been unwilling to do so. Indeed, sometimes they seemed to go out of their way to justify an assault on their own institution. When the Postal Service was planning to close processing centers it contracted with a market research firm to survey mailers about how they would react. Its study found that mailers would curtail their volumes so much that the losses to the Postal Service could erase any savings from the plant closures. Rather than shelve its plan USPS management buried the study and had another done based on a changed format and questions that arrived at a more palatable (to management) conclusion.

Management’s approach to closing local post offices would be welcome in the Boardrooms of Sears or Walmart but is inappropriate in a public institution. Consider that according to the USPS itself the closing of several thousand post offices would save the post office a paltry $200 million out of a budget of $55 billion but the real cost to thousands of communities and millions of Americans will be far, far greater.

The Wall Street Journal carried an instructive story about the unquantifiable costs that result from shutting down a post office. Closing the Prairie City, South Dakota post office saved the USPS $19,000 a year. But as Daniel Beckman, a recently widowed farmer observed, postal clerks kept a pot of coffee brewing and posted birth and death notices. “That was the gathering place for people to come in the mornings, have a cup of coffee or a can of pop, and visit, but we don’t have that no more.”

The area’s only major hospital and pharmacy is in Hettinger, N.D., 40 miles away and over the state line. When someone in Prairie City quickly needed medication, a pharmacist in Hettinger would rush prescriptions to the Hettinger post office, catching the mail carrier who each day delivered to the Prairie City post office. Closing the Prairie City post office eliminated that direct route, delaying the delivery of medicine by two or three days.

Even if management simply took into account the quantifiable costs to a community resulting from the loss of a post office, an analysis by my reading it is legally required to undertake, it would close very, very few. The only genuine cost-benefit analysis of which I am aware was done not by the USPS but by students in an economic class at the University of Wisconsin. They identified a tiny post office the USPS would clearly mark for closure and concluded that would save the USPS about half a million dollars but cost the community, just in increased travel time and expenses, more than $700,000.

The APWU hopes to shine a spotlight on these true costs to the public and to recruit communities across the country into a national coalition that demands that the public interest must be taken into account.

The APWU also promises to ask USPS management to introduce new services that can benefit both its customers and its balance sheet. Public banking is one service the APWU has identified. The concept has received widespread attention since a study by the postal service inspector general concluded that if the USPS captured 10 percent of the interest and fees generated by the 68 million Americans on the fringes of the banking system it could generate $8.9 billion in annual revenue to the USPS. Dimondstein believes Congress need not approve the introduction of banking services and has suggested a pilot program noting, “a third of the Zip codes in America don’t have a bank.”

Union-management contract negotiations usually take place far from the public eye and involve only those at the bargaining table. But in some respects this spring the APWU is negotiating on behalf of all of us. Its intention is not only to force postal management to treat its workers with respect but to respect the unique public nature of this most public of all institutions. We all would do well to join the APWU in its Grand Alliance.

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  1. Gerard Pierce

    One of my close friends in the 1980s was a shop steward for the Denver Post Office. What I remember from that time was a great deal of conflict between postal workers and management/supervisors. It was as though they were working for two different companies.

    These kinds of divisions usually do not change on their own and I haven’t heard anything to indicate that the two groups have reconciled over the years.

    Now they need unity, but unless the APWU has purchased a clue, they may wind up with a repeat of the Air Line Controllers fiasco.

    Hoping for the best…

    1. ambrit

      Like the Air Controllers strike, the government doesn’t have the resources to bring in outside agents to fully replace the postal workers. If I remember correctly, Reagan fired over 10,000 trained personnel and air traffic control took ten years to recover to the previous standards. PATCO had endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election!
      I was a rural sub in Louisiana for three years. This was in the ’80s. The Postal Service was going through a process of semi-privatization driven ‘efficiency enhancement.’ Management was demanding that truly onerous conditions be imposed. The rest of the American work world is just now catching up to where the USPS went back then. Those shop stewards were fighting a real war against a truly exploitative management. PATCO had roughly 12,000 members. Replacements, to only about 50% of previous staffing levels, were scraped up. The USPS has over 350,000 employees the last time I checked. Try scraping up even half that number on short notice, much less training them to competency.
      The big albatross around the USPS’ neck is the requirement that they fully fund their retirement fund. No one else that I can think of has to do this. It is a huge drain on the systems resources. Let the Post Office fund its’ pensions system like most other big enterprises do, and you’ll have much more budget to play around with.

    1. Carla

      “use the USPS universal infrastructure to deliver new services such as public banking to generate new revenue.”

      Oops — watch it. If public banking generates any more revenue than is needed to provide the service, it really won’t be public banking.

      Expanding its services and mission can strengthen the USPS, but we need to get rid of the idea that everything is or should be a “profit center.” That’s what’s killing us. Literally. (Item: the Medical Industrial Complex.)

      1. JTMcPhee

        Maybe you are talking about a different animal. Here’s Forbes on the subject. “Yes, people would bank at the Post Office,” I recall reading an article that denigrated Post Office banking as “penny ante” and “not real banking,” and the writer had the chutzpah to assert that all the people who would be working in all those little branches, serving their friends and neighbors presumably, would be subject to temptation and likely to commit fraud and embezzlement. You have to wonder, since that was a recent piece I can’t tag at the moment, was the writer scribbling with tongue in cheek? Given how the TooBigBanksters operate?

        Right on, Mail persons! You go for it! Maybe the rest of us will stiffen our spines and join in.

        There’s lots more thoughtful stuff out there too, maybe even in the NC archives…

    2. ian

      As long as you are talking about regular (ie, boring) banking practices and not speculating in derivatives, I’m with you on that. Make it like my credit union.

  2. hunkerdown

    Dimondstein believes Congress need not approve the introduction of banking services

    If this is the case, here’s hoping they get it rolling before some yuk-yuk from Clown Car Traffic School[1] specifically prohibits it.

    [1] i.e., the first-term rookie taking the heel for the team, some anti-popular position, in exchange for favorable campaign fund allocations, committee assignments and/or revolving-door trajectories.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘Dimondstein believes Congress need not approve the introduction of banking services’

      Sure, Obama can do it by executive order.

      Who needs representative government anyway?

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        ‘Who needs representative government anyway?’

        yes, well, you get the government we have, not the government we need (in which case the Postal Service wouldn’t be in trouble anyway).

        P.S. Still think Hillary will be coronated regardless of your valid points; we’ll see. My analogy in previous thread was bad – I was thinking in 8 year blocks and breaking the past two on two pattern – not to mention the ceiling.

  3. bkrasting

    Cash cow? The PO owes the Federal Financing Bank $15 LARGE!

    Those billions have been outstanding for years, the PO is rolling over this unpayable debt at 0.15%! The details:

    The PO is the victim of technology. The internet is doing it in – slowly. Turning the PO into a bank is A) Not going to happen and B) Would be a huge disaster if it did.

    1. ambrit

      A better argument in favour of Postal Banks is the social utility of that institution. Insofar as it would take fee paying customers away from ‘regular’ banks, the idea is probably high up on the financial lobbyists ‘hit list.’

      1. beene

        Plus it would could become stock holder in the local Fed; which pays 6 % on capital investment which is guaranteed.

    2. jjjj

      in japan, the post office is a bank.90% of peoples money is in it. no fee gauging, speculative destruction in that economy!

    3. two beers

      Wrong. The PO is benefiting from the internet.

      Unless you are getting delivery by drone, most of your purchases from ebay, amazon, etc, arrive by mail, because it’s faster and cheaper than the for-profit carriers.

  4. Jeremy Grimm

    What is the Federal Financing Bank? I went to the webpage you cited and looked at the list of borrowers and guaranteed loans. The USPS was the sole agency in the “AGENCY DEBT” heading but I have no idea what your weblink is supposed to tell me. My take away is that something dark and strange has been done to the USPS. I am also unsure why I should care whether the USPS is a cash cow or a service provided and paid for by our taxes. Given a choice between the USPS and continuing construction of the Air Force’s new fighter bomber, or paying a little less for one of our foreign wars the USPS wins hands down.

    I disagree with your assertion that the PO is the victim of technology. Obviously I use the Internet but using the Internet has not cut down on my use of the USPS. I love printed books and similarly cards I can hold in my hand, and exchanges of letters that have more permanence than a moment on a mail server. I don’t believe I am alone in these sentiments. I also see no good reason to make it easier for anyone but me to be collecting my communications. Besides, the Internet is proving none too reliable as evidenced by numerous and recent criminal attacks perpetrated through the Internet.

    I believe a better case can be made that the USPS is the latest victim in the neo-liberal push to privatize all things — for the profit of a very few and a great loss to all of us.

    As for Postal Banks — at this point I put far more trust in the USPS than any bank I’ve had the distaste of dealing with. If Postal Banks did nothing more than shut down the pay-day lenders it would be a great benefit to all.

    Finally, I will be very disappointed if a long thread forms around your comment. I already have an unpleasant feeling in my stomach that I may be feeding a variety of Internet denizen for which I have very little regard.

    1. Katniss Everdeen


      And how to explain the fact that FedEx and UPS have become multi-billion dollar companies doing the same thing that used to be the almost exclusive function of USPS? To hear the proud CEOs of those companies tell it, the internet has grown their “bottom lines” through delivery of online purchases justifying ever-increasing stock prices.

      This has nothing to do with the internet or unions or “unprofitable” rural post offices. It has everything to do with wanting to “privatize” a vital service for private profit.

      To paraphrase the infamous Downing Street Memo, the financial “facts” are being fixed around the intended outcome.

    2. bkrasting

      You ask what is FFB – it is a $73B bank owned by the US Treasury. FFB makes loans to government Agencies and also to entities whose debts are guaranteed by the Feds. This is the bank that makes loans for the mega-solar projects being built in the deserts. It also lent bankrupt Solyndra $800m and bankrupt Fisker $200m.

      The PO owes FFB $15B, the energy project lending comes to $14B. The biggest category is loans to rural utilities at $36B.

      I’ve never been able to make sense of the utilities lending. There is a long list of loans in the link I provided. One, for example:

      East Kentucky Power #2768 12/19 $21,622,000.00 1/03/45 2.531% Qtr.

      So good old E. Kentucky gets $21m for 30 years at rates less than what Treasury borrows at?

      Also, consider all those loans to colleges. They don’t pass the smell test – not with those borrowing rates, For example:

      *Xavier University 12/01 $68,596,050.41 6/01/15 0.073% S/A

      You tell me – what to make of the FFB?

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Thank you for elaborating on the content and meaning of the FFB site. However, I remain uncertain how to regard your reference to their site.

        The conclusion to your comment: “You tell me — what to make of the FFB?”

        — Sorry, I have no idea.

  5. Demeter

    I don’t think we can turn back the clock on this.

    The worker’s union movement will have to reinvent itself…the old model got mouse-trapped at every turn. The tactics that brought us the prosperity of the 50’s have all been rendered “illegal” by Congress and the courts, those elitist sell-outs to the Corporate thieves.

    In fact, I’d lay money on violent revolution before that. Because there literally is no alternative.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      @Demeter — I am not sure how to read your comment. I agree the worker’s union movement will have to reinvent itself. Based on you closing sentence, I guess you either don’t believe the postal workers union is reinventing its union movement or you believe it is reinventing itself but the kinds of reinvention suggested by today’s post will be ineffective.

      Union actions, as they evolved in the last several decades have indeed proven quite ineffective. But I thought some of the actions unions took before union activity became legal, and thereby co-opted and eventually neutered, were effective. I am surprised not to see their resurgence. I suppose these older means could use a little update.

      I just finished watching the video for the prototype quadrotor with machine gun. That coupled with your bet on violent revolution leaves me feeling very uneasy about the future. Your bet seems strange — something I would expect more likely coming from Athena or Ares.

      1. Code Name D

        I actually share in Demeter’s pessimism here. I’ll grant that the workers union here has vainly crystallized that playing by the book is futile, its solutions and “innovative thinking” are still buy the book. As stated, all of the effective union strategies have basically been outlawed by law. So they only “innovative approach” they have are public relations. The problem with that approach is there is simply no way for them to compete with the noise machine.

        The very idea of what a labor union itself needs to be invented.

        One idea I had in that regards is to change it from “labor” unions which will organize a particular shop or profession, to around organizing cities and communities. Rather than organizing under the shadow of management, you remove the hostel middle men that separate the work of the union leaders from the rank and file workers. If a particular shop can not go on strike because it’s against the law – have the shops around it go on strike on its behalf. Retake city hall and write re-write tax abetments to be contingent on good worker relations. And expand the mission statement. Instead of just “workers”, start addressing other problems such as poor process safety which endangers the community at large. (Plants blow up because of poor process safety standards.)

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I also share Demeter’s pessimism. I don’t want to give up hope quite yet, and when hope is forsaken, I want to be far away from large cities. I am working slowly, though perhaps too slowly, toward that goal.

          I like your idea of broadening unions beyond shop and profession to communities. I think the parochialism of the unions was one factor leading to their decline. Labor’s concerns should be community concerns and clearly identified with the good of the community. Ties to community would help negate the anti-union feelings fostered by the opposing side’s public relations.

          Community level organization is not sufficient however. Once communities are united clusters of communities must also unite together around common cause. I believe clearly identifying this common cause and building awareness of it are at the heart of the problem facing unions. Besides the USPS union, the nursing unions should take a strong part in this. Community action must become statewide and national action to be truly effective.

          Besides community organization, I believe unions should organisze the supply chains end-to-end. Corporations have organized extremely narrow and long supply chains to provide their inputs “just-in-time”. These supply chains have already proven fragile in response to natural disasters and political events abroad. One step further — unions here must organize with unions overseas to control every link in the supply chain. With control over a supply chain, small imperceptable actions at several points in the chain can create large impacts at the destination. Wooden shoes were made for more than walking.

          One concern nagging at me from past union history — unions muct avoid becoming or seeming self-serving at the cost of the common good. I believe that is another source of their declines.

          Unions must become political and break their ties with the Democrats as the Democrats have already broken their ties with unions. This is NOT to say they should not support Democratic candidates — rather they must support carefully selected candidates Democratic and third party directly [unless something changes Republican candidates are well beyond any consideration] and eschew all decisions made toward selecting a lesser of evils.

          I also think unions need to become more aware of the new age they live in. To get funds they need to create cool merch to sell and cool art to post on youtube and capture in posters. Art is the ally of political and social action. What little stuff I’ve seen unions come up with — like the Walmart T-shirts — are pretty lame.

          I don’t know that it’s especially cool — I wondered why the USPS couldn’t get Kevin Kostner to act as their spokeman. They could sell “Postman” DVDs and copies of Brin’s book.

          I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to assert the USPS is iconic of our nation. The USPS union can serve as an example for how to achieve some equity for working people — an example for other unions, old and not yet formed. Few unions can expect the same broad support from the public that the USPS unions should and I sincerely hope will find.

        2. jrs

          “If a particular shop can not go on strike because it’s against the law – have the shops around it go on strike on its behalf.”

          Isn’t this against the law? We need a labor lawyer here as it may not be cut and dried. But that seems to be a “sympathy strike” which are sometimes prohibited.

          But like I said if all the good tactics are legal, maybe unions need to break the law.

          I agree that city hall might be worth focusing on.

            1. Ulysses

              Nearly everything that the U.S. labor movement did, during the first half-century of its existence, was technically “illegal,” and many unionists were killed in the struggle by Pinkertons, army troops, etc.

              The fairly harmonious relations between organized labor and (some) capitalist organizations that emerged by the 1950’s was only a temporary truce. The danger posed by the crippling limits that were put on effective union actions, by Taft-Hartley, needed time to become fully apparent.

              By the early 1980s the long-term movement to completely crush organized labor was in full swing. Today, only inertia sustains what’s left of U.S. organized labor. The two-tier contracts entered into by the UAW are an alarming signal of how nearly comatose the legacy unions are at this point.

              We need people like Mother Jones, not Lane Kirkland, in these desperate times!

              The good people of the I.W.W. give me hope in these dark days.

    2. jrs

      If all those tactics are illegal why not just break the law rather than violent revolution? Why not try civil disobedience before violent revolution?

      1. beene

        Civil disobedience rarely works. Mostly it’s ignored or compromised by the political parties who have strengthen the laws so leaders may be jailed for longer periods. Then you have the state which has a police force which acts more like an occupying military force than a public servant.

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        Given the way the government treats whistle blowers, “violent revolution” (to them at least) means a polite letter of protest to one’s senator.

      3. Jeremy Grimm

        Indeed, why not just break the law — though I would suggest actions sub rosa rather than as plain and “in their face” as civil disobedience. Civil disobedience worked before our government decided it could efficiently deal with social unrest and social actions as yet another manifestation of domestic “Terror” using tactics more appropriate to [note I refrained from just saying “appropriate to”] dealing with foreign enemies at times of war [here I mean “real” war as in fighting invading foreign Nazis].

        One lesson all political movements should learn from our recent wars. Overt actions, whether peaceful civil disobedience or otherwise are doomed to fail. The Iraqi soldiers who went toe-to-toe with our Army are carbon statues wearing down in the sand of desert winds. I will never forget the photograph (sorry I don’t have the link) of the Iraqi soldier burned to death in his vehicle. His face is the face of the horseman War. As US forces advanced into Iraq I wondered why Saddam Hussein didn’t disband his Army and advise them to go underground. At this juncture, I suspect someone in his Army did just that. Head-to-head, toe-to-toe, and assuming we maintain control of the air, the American Army would be very difficult for almost any Army to defeat. The U.S. government appears quite willing to deal with domestic threats the same way they deal with the imagined foreign threats and should not be put to test by other than the foolhardy.

        However, the Army is not a police force, just as a police force that becomes an Army is no longer a police force. U.S. forces can and have been worn down by sustained enemy actions as “simple” as planting IEDs.

        I am not advocating a domestic equivalent of IEDs. I am suggesting political and labor movements must find strategies to subvert and most importantly embarrass and belittle. I recall a dictum from my service to the Military Industrial Complex — if you can hit it, then kill it. For political and labor actions I would modify this to — if you can hit it, then blind it, then slow it, then make it very uncomfortable for the passengers. Military vehicles and police shock troopers with face gear holding clubs and shields could be blinded by well-placed water and flour. Ridicule need not and must not harm persons.

        There is no more powerful attack on an enemy such as the trade unions face, than ridicule. Deriving from from Machiavelli’s dictum — ridicule => despising => overthrow of the Prince.

        1. jrs

          Are the techniques that would be used against civil disobedience now, any worse than those that have been used against labor in the past? I’m not saying the techniques that could be used now aren’t horrible, most official legal protections are repealed (the NDAA etc.) and police departments and prisons torture (long term solitary and more). I just wonder if they are *uniquely* horrible given that labor history was pretty bloody as well.

          If the same objectives can be achieved sub-rosa then surely it’s foolhardy to do otherwise. But can they?

          I don’t see violent revolution working against the u.s. government, at best you’ve turned the country into a permanent Iraq, which would be good for the rest of the world to have the empire reduced to that, they might finally have a fighting chance of a decent world without the U.S. crushing all hope of such, but not so good for empire residents themselves. Of course if one could put significant fear in the powers that be short of revolution then …

          I don’t know if I see ridicule working. Or what John Oliver would change the world?

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            Honestly, I don’t know whether ridicule would work either except in the case we still have some remnants of representative government — a topic I would hate to speculate on. I believe ridicule works to undermine the propaganda of the opposition — of course propaganda doesn’t break heads or stop heads from being broken. You’re 100% correct that ridicule alone will not work to fully accomplish change.

            Who is John Oliver?

            In my opinion, today’s labor and social movements face a much more brutal repression than they did in the past. In forming this opinion I admit very subjectively — even fancifully — I measure Pinkerton and National Guard units vs Blackwater goons. The Blackwater goons have been specially trained and combat selected to kill men, women, and children without compunction or conscience. I don’t believe the Pinkertons or criminal goons of the past can match the efficiency or willing brutality of the corporate state’s new forces for oppression. I view Blackwater goons as Cossacks at the Winter palace with machine guns instead of sabers. Of late, our police seem to be drawn from the same pool as Blackwater contractors. So in short, I don’t know that today’s threats are uniquely horrible but they definitely seem that way.

            Will sub rosa actions work by themselves? I think the answer comes from the many conflicts where our armies are engaged. The effective actions are violent AND sub rosa. I guess I am hoping there are means short of harming persons — even Blackwater goons — that can have impacts. I count closing production lines because parts aren’t available or failing to deliver the goods because half+ the employees are “sick” as sub rosa but they would definitely have impact. Cyber attacks aided from inside are effective, and could be executed sub rosa. I view all acts of sabotage and slowdown as sub rosa. Those means were effective in the past, and little has changed that would mitigate their impacts. Indeed their impacts should be magnified by the long fragile supply chains. Postal workers could selectively lose the mail that comes to them through Congressional franking privileges.

            1. beene

              It seems what normally (historically) brings down unresponsive governments is when the politicians feel peril. Like many have said direct action against the military or police will end in a loss.

              My personal opinion is we simply finish what was started in the last election cycle end the neo leadership of the democratic by bringing down the democratic party in the next election cycle.

              1. Ulysses

                So all it takes to accomplish the revolution and bring down the power of concentrated capital is to vote Republican? Duly noted!

                Bringing down one half of the duopoly, in one cycle, accomplishes nothing but perpetuate the false impression that there is no alternative to the duopoly. The two-party system itself must be dismantled, nothing less will save us.

            2. jrs

              John Oliver just has a political comedy show on HBO called “last week tonight”. So he’s like Bill Maher etc. only his political points are actually good (as opposed to horrible, awful, brainless, stereotyping, racist, and not even funny Bill Maher and his Dem brown nosing). John Oliver is so good I have to remind myself it’s mainstream t.v. and thus has to be propaganda in some sense. It’s not designed to actually bring about social change now is it?

              But anyway that was throw away, there are plenty of comedy shows ridiculing our politics, but we clearly need more than laughing at how bad things are.

  6. Code Name D

    The “problems” within the USPS are entirely synthetic. The shanghais we see with its pension is just one example. But the key thing here is that the mess is a feature – not a bug.

    Conservatives hate the postal service and with a visceral passion. They hate it because it’s a venerable and even celebrated government institution that works. (Or at least it used too.) It provides a vital and even indispensable service to the public, and did so cost effectively and efficiently. A useful government agency that is efficient and capable is something that can’t exist in the minds of conservatives because of – markets.

    Another problem is junk-mail.

    The cell-phone industry spends a great deal of energy to keep solicitors off the network. This is because unwanted solicitations will quickly fill up network capacity, and sneeze out legitimate traffic. Unwanted solidifications also creates noise which chases away customers.

    It’s a variation on the boy-who-cried-wolf.

    Imagine that you are waiting by the phone, hoping for that phone call from that hot guy or girl you met at the party last night. When and if it rings, you will answer it.

    But now imagine that your phone gets called several times a day with solicitations. When it dose ring, it may or may not be that hot girl. And the only reason you are answering it at all is because you are anticipating a call. But what if it’s just another day and you have no reason to suspect some one is calling? You are likely to ignore the calls or just unplug the phone all together. This means you will likely miss that unfortunate call informing you that a relative had died.

    The USPS in their infinite wisdom seems to think they are special by embracing and even encouraging junk-mail. Indeed, the majority of the traffic on the mail system is unwanted. And some of that is even predatory or fraudulent. It’s an example of growth through waste, rather than through efficiently they so love to boast about.

    And it’s chasing away customers who are figuring out how to pay bills on line or communicate through e-mail. True that snail-mail as its come to be called has some disadvantage here. But it also has advantage as well.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I guess I’m just paranoid. I would never pay bills online. I already feel very uncomfortable with direct deposit for fear (unfounded I’m told) that what goes in could be pulled out. On the web — “There be dragons!” The number of zero-day exploits available to root or key-log my machine are legion and the server side has proven far from invulnerable.

      I email and post from the web but I also use snail mail. People ignore my emails but my letters are both read and receive an answer — albeit often an email answer. I treasure and save the letters I receive from my father.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        I also use snail mail and when paying bills with enclosed envelopes, my form of, ‘violent protest’, is to write, “Support Our Postal Workers and pay by mail; Don’t be a dirty Red ECommunist and send postal jobs to China” when ever there is a message on the envelope telling you to save money and pay online (often on the area intended for the stamp). I make sure to position the stamp so that the online message and my reply remain visible and I draw an arrow pointing to the, pay online blurb as if to point out that commies are lurking everywhere. It’s perfectly nonsensical so I figure it will make perfect sense to the intended audience.

  7. Marie1846

    “postal workers who 55 years ago this March”

    In the interest of accuracy, may I humbly point out that the Strike of 1970 was 45 years ago.

  8. purple

    If the USPS privatizes then hundreds of unprofitable rural PO’s will close. Right in the middle of red state country.

    Like bashing the VA, I suspect this has to do with brow beating workers, not actually privatizing something that is a big subsidy to red state types.

  9. Jeremy Grimm

    As for your observations regarding the advertiser mails the post office handles — I am not pleased to receive them. I often wonder why we might not put re-cycle container next to our mailboxes [I live in an apartment complex]. However, I tolerate the advertisers because they bring revenues to the USPS. Like you I worry what might be lost or hidden in the advertiser refuse — but I sift through it carefully. Like you, I wonder at their place in my mail and like you I wonder whether they serve to undermine the popularity of he USPS.

    If I had a fireplace I would hope to receive more advertisers — especially newsprint advertisers, which I could use to start a fire.

    1. jrsh

      I wonder how much money they get from advertisers for junk mail spamming one person for a year. And then I wonder if I could just pay the post office that amount instead in order to be put on a “do not junk mail” list.

      1. bh2

        Curiously, the cost impact on the general public by mountains of junk mail appears to have not made it into the calculations. Let’s put numbers to that: about half (48% is cited) of all mail delivered by the nice folks in grey is junk mail.

        Eliminate that useless cost (heavily subsidized by first-class rates) and the USPS could be nominally reduced by half (ex labor and facilities not engaged directly in delivery services). That should also provide much higher margins to fund operations not choked with printed advertising (unless paid for at first-class rates).

        Going off in search of new tasks for this organization makes little sense except to unions on the make to preserve their roster of dues-paying members. (Like having it operate banking services — seriously?)

        What is needed is to simply rid USPS of cheap crap mail and further automate the distribution process, then gradually slim it down through normal retirement attrition until it’s right-sized to comfortably deliver only those core mail services actually valued by the general public at large.

        1. jrs

          If it was truly “right sized” I’m not sure it would be all cutting it. Mail boxes and post office that actually serve people’s needs have been eliminated already, actually “right sizing” would bring them back. And eliminate junk mail as well? I’m all for that.

          But I think at this point if anything pay and working conditions for postal workers could be improved. Ok the union people may be ok, but I don’t know that most USPS mail carriers today are even unionized. I’ve heard many aren’t. I wonder if the union will speak for them as well.

          1. bh2

            Only government agencies can expand workforce without fear of competitive pressure as demand for their core services declines. Monopolies do not deliver service more effectively or efficiently because operated by government. (Cf. Parkinson’s Law.)

  10. nothing but the truth

    when there is no one to support me or my business i fail to understand why i should support public sector unions who already are pampered beyond control. The play the game of bullying the public. Now that technology is rendering them obsolete we are supposed to bail them out yet again? From what, my 401(k) that i have _deferred_ taxes on? Ah yes, MMT says deficits dont matter…..

    Now that they have raised the stamp to 49 cents i make sure I use the PO as an absolute last resort. Billpay, email and faxes almost all the time.

    The reason why the PO will be culled is that the FIRE sector is more important than the PO unions. The PO is sitting on trillions of prime real estate that does not let the Pelosis sleep at night.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      No one is there to support you or your business? I do sympathize with your predicament. Forget the Post Office for a moment — I have a strong affection for small business. Like you, although I don’t own a small business, I am deeply concerned with how small businesses can survive caught between the forces of big labor, such as remains, and big business. I have no ready answers for many of the problems you face. But one answer that comes immediately to mind is governments should work to foster and protect small business. [I do discriminate between small businesses and “small” businesses that are nothing more than Corporate franchises — little guys carrying water for big players who use them.]

      Small businesses provide the specialized services, creative products and product offerings that remain the hallmark of a capitalist economic system. I believe in capitalism and I believe that government help to small business is consistent with capitalism, and necessary. I view capitalism as a means whereby special individuals, such as you, can give free expression to their desires to create enterprise and create and offer new products — for the benefit of all. I favor subsidies and special privileges allocated to foster your enterprise. But be warned I would also tax your income past a certain point — beyond your capacity to consume. Your success does NOT belong to your enterprise alone. You live and sell your goods and services in a community.

      I remain mystified by small business owners who ally themselves with big business interests. Small business interests are much more closely aligned with the interests of labor. Like labor, small business is preyed upon by big business both in the marketplace and in politics. Until you reach a certain size, and a certain level of profit, can you really afford to pay your employees the same as big business or offer the same benefits? I don’t believe that you can. So why ally your interests to the very forces that would see you fail? True, big labor is not your friend either, but i hope I am correct in asserting that most Americans value small business. Drop big business and ally with labor. Push for special subsidies from the government to make your business competitive for labor with big businesses. When your business is successful and you have more than you could consume in two lifetimes that should be more enough. Pay your taxes to support labor and to support other small businesses like yours and join the fight to reign in the excesses of our larger Corporate enterprises. They were started by those like you, in different times, but the current incarnation of most large enterprises is alien to you and all that you believe in.

      Now return considering the USPS —
      ” … support public sector unions who already are pampered beyond control …” You need to go to your local Post Office and watch the action there. Talk to the person who delivers your mail. Postal workers are NOT pampered — let alone pampered beyond control. [If you treat your workers with less respect than the way postal workers are treated — conversation over.]

    2. Lambert Strether

      No, MMT does not say “deficits don’t matter.” New Economic Perspectives:

      InvestmentNews: Are MMT theorists saying deficits don’t matter?

      Ms. Kelton: Deficits do matter, but not in the way people think.

      And the article to which Kelson refers, which has, as Kelton points out, exactly the wrong headline:

      Stephanie Kelton, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri/Kansas City, believes that the root of all these problems can be found in a fundamental misunderstanding – shared by Democrats, Republicans and mainstream voters alike – about the government’s balance sheet. She argues, plausibly, that the whole idea that we should control the deficit at all is costing our nation trillions of dollars in lost output. The result is lost income, savings, wealth and prosperity.

      In other words, your small business would be a lot better if Obama’s stimulus package hadn’t been so small.

      Kelton fully understands the discomfort that comes with the realization that the government can actually open up the purse as wide as it wants, so long as somebody has access to the right keyboard.

      But get used to it, she says, because that is the system we have today.
      Therefore, the government can stimulate the economy at will, pay off our debt obligations and forestall the next round of debt ceiling negotiations. It never has to worry about default so long as it maintains the power to issue money by fiat. This sounds a bit preposterous until you remember that much of what has been said about Greece’s debt predicament is the same argument in reverse. Greece cannot control (or print) its own currency, and therefore has been stripped of its main policy option in the wake of massive government debt. It was widely predicted that Greece would bail itself out by leaving the Eurozone and reclaiming the option of printing drachmas and using them to pay off its loans.

      So is Kelton really saying that government debt doesn’t matter to a country that controls its fiat currency? Yes and no. Kelton does not say that deficits don’t matter, or that the government should keep on spending money until we get to full employment, or that we can print (or keystroke) our way to prosperity. But she thinks that deficits don’t matter as much as most people think, and when they do matter, the consequences are different from what most people believe.

      To see the world through Kelton’s eyes, look at the Eurozone, where each country has to sell goods and services in return for euros, and use those euros to pay off their debts. Bond investors recognize that certain countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal) have been having trouble raising enough euros to service their debt, so these investors, in aggregate, have demanded higher coupon rates for the additional risk.

      In the U.S., investors perceive zero risk; Kelton pointed out that U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is close to 100%, yet short-term interest rates are still roughly what you would get if you buried your money in the backyard. It’s the same with Japan, which has a 200% debt-to-GDP ratio. What do Japan and the U.S. have in common that Europe doesn’t have? They control their own currency; that is, neither country has to sell goods and services to obtain dollars or yen.

      And so on. Read the whole thing. Again, I empathize with the isolation of the small business owner, but there’s no reason to remain in thrall to the ideas of long-dead economists — or misstatements of the ideas of living ones.

      1. nothing but the truth

        the deficits comment was facetious…..

        small business is facing rising costs and declining revenues. My costs are rising (mostly utility, insurance, healthcare and utility monopolies) and my customers are more and more price sensitive.

        Govt supported actors are making more and more. Once MMT becomes widespread we will basically all be on the teat of the govt, ie, political operatives. I can already see that happening as bigger businesses are basically cronies.This is just sad.

        1. Lambert Strether

          So you have a problem with democratic regulation of money creation? Seems odd.

          Not seeing a lot of “government supported actors” at working level being pampered; I sure wouldn’t want to be my post-person, though I’m sure it’s better than Hardees.

          As usual, there’s rental extraction, but that intensifies with privatization.

    3. jrs

      Actually a non-unionized worker has every right to be angry at how only concerned about their own working conditions (ie selfish) unions have often been and sometimes still are, how lacking in true Solidarity with everyone who works for a living (although solidarity is often outlawed like I’ve mentioned). And it’s come back to bite them, of course. Karma police ….

      But you know there is whether or not the anger may be justified and whether or not acting on it is rational (as in even in one’s one’s rational self-interest broadly conceived!). And the two are not the same thing. If post office workers are more and more poorly paid for instance does this benefit other working people? No, IT HURTS THEM. Because it’s usually not such people (unionized workers) that are actually rich enough to be say bidding up housing prices beyond everyone’s affordability etc., but it IS such workers they are now going to be competing with for jobs at the bottom of the barrel. Even private sector employers will not need to offer as good pay/benefits/working conditions etc., if everything they compete against is slave labor.

  11. Vatch

    “Back in 2002, an independent examination discovered the USPS had overpaid into one of its two pension funds by $40-70 billion.”

    I looked at the 2011 article in the link on the word “discovered” ( ), but I couldn’t find anything that specifically said this. There is a sentence that says that as of 2005 the USPS was free of debt. If they had overpaid into a pension fund by $40 billion, then they were far beyond being free of debt; they were loaded with dough. But the Bush administration wouldn’t allow them to use any of this money, and instead, the USPS had to pay additional money into the pension and retiree health benefits system, even though they had already overpaid into the system. For those who are interested in a government document that discusses this, see:

    Report to the Chairman, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives: U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Status, Financial Outlook, and Alternative Approaches to Fund Retiree Health Benefits

    From pages 50-52:

    First, the USPS OIG stated that USPS started prefunding its retiree health benefits as a result of the discovery that, because of external fund management misjudgments, it was on track to seriously overfund its pension obligations by $78 billion. The USPS OIG also said that a decision to turn a mistake into a second prefunding obligation created its own problems, including a 10-year schedule of prefunding payments that was structured toward a 100 percent funding goal, and that the aggressive payment schedule appears to have been set based on byzantine “budget scoring” considerations rather than actuarial assumptions or an evaluation of USPS’s ability to make the payments.

    As for pensions, USPS reported in its most recent annual financial report (10-K) for fiscal year 2012 that it had an unfunded pension liability of almost $16 billion, which represented a 95 percent funded percentage (i.e., close to fully funded), based on a projected year-end fund balance of $285 billion and a liability of $300 billion; the prior year’s estimate had indeed been a pension surplus.

    In other words, the U.S. Postal Service is in excellent financial condition, but the Congress is playing games to make it appear to be in financial trouble. No doubt, many in Congress receive campaign donations from people who work for United Parcel Service and Federal Express.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, I don’t trust Yelp reviews one iota. My doctor, who is terrific, has a bad Yelp rating, and you’ll see Yelp has held back tons of very positive reviews of her, and only featured unfavorable ones, some of whom has trouble with the reception desk, not her, and one by a woman who was an obvious nutcase. I’ve seen similar patterns with other businesses.

      1. jrs

        They are of course gamed on the positive side as well to pump up a business that are really pretty @#$#.

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