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Postal workers and the fight to save USPS

By staff |
May 6, 2020
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Milwaukee, WI - The United States Postal Service (USPS) is in a state of crisis. Nearly 15 years ago, Congress forced the Postal Service into financial ruin through a mandate to pre-fund retiree benefits for 80 years in advance. Since 2013, this pre-funding mandate has accounted for 100% of losses. The mandate has been kept alive in spite of an independent audit which proved that for decades, the federal government had been using a flawed accounting method which caused USPS to overpay into federal pension systems by roughly $86 billion. No other company or government entity is forced to do this and the impulse behind it is clear- break the postal service, weaken postal unions, and sell off profitable parts of USPS.

While USPS was able self-fund through postage revenue up until now, the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be more than a weakened USPS can handle. While parcel volume has risen considerably, the volume in letter mail has plummeted. Current estimates are that letter mail volume is down 30% and it’s expected to drop as low as 50% by summer.

Costs are expected to skyrocket as an increasing number of workers have to enter quarantine periods or worse. This creates a situation where if there is no immediate intervention, there will be no funds to put gasoline in the vehicles, pay utility bills, or send out pay checks. Trump is taking advantage of this crisis by intervening to deny USPS any stimulus funds in order to push an anti-worker privatization agenda. In fact, Trump has placed extreme reforms as a demand for USPS to even get a loan! Meanwhile, private industries are receiving untold sums of money with absolutely no strings attached and no obligation to repay.

Postal union activists are now in a position where they have to both fight for the survival of a public service, but also for the survival of their membership. So far, over 9000 postal workers have been under quarantine and over 40 postal workers have died from COVID-19. While the union leaders at the national level have been negotiating new procedures, leave categories, and protective measures to be implemented nation-wide, the rank-and-file membership has been organizing to fight back both to win victories against postal management and to put pressure on lawmakers to provide the necessary relief to keep postal employees working and safe.

A petition calling for appropriate safety equipment, hazard pay and special leave provisions quickly got over 88,000 signatures. Using existing networks, as well as contacts from the petition who wanted to get involved, a COVID-19 response Facebook page for postal workers formed and grew to 20,000 members. Union members have used the platform to share information about how to report unsafe conditions and how to file winning grievances. Additionally, workers have discussed tactics such as getting everyone at their shop to agree to let their coworkers know if they are diagnosed. With this knowledge, other workers can then choose to enter into a self-quarantine without having to wait to be informed weeks after the fact that they had been exposed.

Beyond the day-to-day union work, organizers also used the page as a means to promote small actions around Workers Memorial Day. In Seattle, a socially-distanced rally took place in front of a postal facility along a busy road. In Portland, a small gathering of postal workers, clergy and community members came together to memorialize the postal employees who have died from the virus. In Des Moines, postal workers put up crosses to memorialize their brothers and sisters who have died from the virus. There was a gathering of workers, and the local news media gave time to these workers to promote their case. In Milwaukee, a statue honoring the founding of the letter carrier’s union was turned into a temporary display to raise awareness of both the health crisis and the financial crisis facing the postal service. The statues of carriers were given masks and yard signs were placed along a busy road reading “At USPS 40+ dead. 9000 quarantined,” “Protect our essential Postal Workers,” and “Stimulus now! Save lives! Save USPS!”

We know that the working class in this country rarely gets anything without a fight. For postal workers to win, these local protests will have to go national in scale. The fightback will have to be a significant display of power and preparedness to do whatever it takes to preserve their lives and their livelihoods. To achieve this, postal workers will have to get the national union leaders to prepare for coordinated, nationwide actions in unity and coordination with the other postal unions.