Photo credit: Trevor Bexon / Shutterstock.com
As I turn onto the northbound entrance for the New Jersey Parkway and speed through the EZ-Pass lane, I take a look at my clock–I have less than two hours to make the 60-mile journey from Brick, New Jersey to Newark Penn Station, find parking, hop on the train, and get to New York Penn Station in time to catch the beginning of the Postal Workers’ Day of Action at the James A. Farley Post Office.
Thankfully, I’ve made the trip countless times, and it’s the middle of the day on a Tuesday. Traffic should be minimal, and the New Jersey Transit is relatively reliable: it never runs more than a few minutes late, even during peak times.
Today’s protests, organized by the American Postal Workers’ Union, come in response to nationwide delays in mail delivery precipitated by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s appointment in May, followed by weeks of President Donald Trump’s fearmongering over mail-in voting in the midst of an election year. The union’s demands for members of Congress are clear: they desperately need the passage of the previously-requested $25 billion in emergency COVID relief funding for the Postal Service and, in order to prevent a national outcry come November (to whatever extent that’s possible) and the degradation of the USPS as a public service thereafter, the permanent reversal of DeJoy’s delay-inducing policies.
The Parkway—in spite of all its flaws and the aggressive, but quintessentially New Jersey drivers that frequent it—certainly hasn’t had to contend with the same shortage in both subsidies and revenue as has the USPS; the parkway, completed in 1957, was funded through state-sponsored bonds, and its maintenance and operation are paid for by tolls. As traffic has increased (and as it fluctuates on an hourly basis), the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which manages both the New Jersey Turnpike and the Parkway, prices those tolls dynamically. In response to a sharp coronavirus-related decline in traffic at the onset of the pandemic, for example, tolls on the Turnpike increased 36 percent while the Parkway’s went up 27 percent.
The USPS, by contrast, has had to undergo a wrenching series of reforms in recent years. The service itself dates back to the eighteenth century: Benjamin Franklin was appointed the nation’s first postmaster general in 1775, a year before independence from Great Britain. In 1792, following the ratification of the new federal constitution of the newly formed United States, the federal government established the Post Office Department, as mandated by the Constitution. (The post office is one of the few federal agencies mandated in this way.)
In the nineteenth century, the postal service became a cabinet-level position, and a key part of the “spoils system,” in which Presidents rewarded supporters by appointing them to key positions in key federal agencies. In an effort to curtail this practice, and professionalize the service, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which transformed the Post Office Department into an independent government agency, the USPS that we know today.
Unfortunately, since then, the USPS has seen many of its direct tax subsidies either reduced or eliminated altogether. At the same time, the Republican Party, inspired by the election of Ronald Reagan and his conservative crusade against ‘big government,’ began chipping away at the USPS’s ability to sustain itself financially with the goal of moving toward privatization.
It’s plain to see that the traditional services offered by the USPS are falling out of favor with many Americans: As of 2017, first-class mail volume was down 43% from its 2001 peak–a consequence of our transition into the digital age. FedEx and UPS compete directly with USPS for the delivery of urgent mail and packages, but without the financial and logistical challenges of delivering to every address once a day, six days a week at a uniform rate and quality of service.
Still, somehow, overt attempts to close post offices have faced opposition from Democrats and Republicans in both Congress and the Senate; but Republicans have supported legislation that affects the ability of USPS to effectively fund itself.
The most egregious example of this is the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, passed by a Republican-led Congress, which requires the USPS to pre-fund the present value of earned retirement benefits for employees, effectively forcing them to put away money for people who haven’t even been hired by the USPS and won’t theoretically retire for decades. While some private businesses choose to do this, none are required by law to pay for retirement costs before employees actually retire. The USPS has repeatedly defaulted on billions of dollars in payments into this fund, and it’s certainly a factor that has contributed to its present-day financial crisis.
In 2012, another Republican-led Congress limited rate increases for First-Class Mail to the cost of inflation, though the rate can exceed inflation if approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission. The Postal Regulatory Commission operates independent of the USPS Board of Governors, which sets policy, procedure, and prices, but is manned in much the same way–members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate–and it has the final say on all USPS proposals. Thus, a Republican president with a Republican-controlled Senate can essentially dictate postal policy, even if that means preventing the USPS from increasing rates or implementing other operational changes, like the governing agency of any other state-or-federally-owned infrastructure, to ensure its own continuity. For example, between 2009 and 2013, Postmaster General John E. Potter tried numerous times to cut Saturday delivery as a response to mounting cumulative losses–the USPS hasn’t turned a net profit since 2006, when it managed to bring in $900 million; the passing of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, however, put a stop to the few cuts that Potter was able to enact.
Which brings us to July of 2018, when the Trump administration proposed turning the USPS into “a private postal operator” as part of a governmental reorganization plan. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that Trump said out loud what the Republican Party had been thinking for decades.
So it came as no surprise that, in May of 2020, Louis DeJoy, a loyal supporter of and donor to the Republican Party and the Trump Campaign, was appointed Postmaster General.
Almost immediately, DeJoy slashed overtime and ordered postal workers not to take extra trips to deliver mail. He oversaw the removal of mail collection boxes from streets in many cities and scheduled more than 600 high-speed mail sorting machines to be decommissioned and destroyed.
On August 16, the Democrats convened the House of Representatives, in the middle of its summer recess, to consider a bill that would roll back DeJoy’s changes, and two days later, DeJoy announced that he would pause his cost-cutting measures until after the November election.
At present, however, 95 percent of the mail sorting machines slated for removal have already been removed, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claims that DeJoy said he does not intend to replace these machines or the mail collection boxes.
Dejoy’s operational policy changes have caused backlogs and delays in USPS mail delivery, which have contributed to significant legal, political, economic, and health repercussions. For a party that always seems so concerned about interpreting the United States Constitution exactly as the framers had originally intended, it comes as a surprise that the Republicans have such disdain for the agency. And while some argue that the competition unleashed by privatization would improve the quality of mail service and ultimately make it more profitable, proponents of the postal monopoly argue that it’s necessary to keep the service funded and ensure that it can meet its legal obligation to provide universal postal service.
Arriving in the lobby of New York Penn Station, I try to keep my social distance from swarms of masked midday commuters. Penn Station is the busiest intercity railroad station in the Western Hemisphere. If the USPS–the second-largest civilian employer in the U.S. behind Walmart–were to cycle its entire payroll through this lobby, its workforce would eclipse Penn Station’s average daily ridership (pre-coronavirus) by over 30,000 people. Its 633,108 employees are represented by four different labor unions–the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. But as more Americans transmit and consume their information digitally, fewer postal workers are needed because of the declining volume of mail. As a result, the postal service is at constant risk of downsizing and restructuring, as positions become increasingly automated and efforts are made to consolidate mail routes.
I exit Penn Station on Eighth Avenue. Across the street is the James A. Farley Building, which bears the inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It was built in 1912, and renamed for Farley, the nation’s 53rd Postmaster General, in 1982. It used to be open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but it started closing at 10:00 p.m. back in 2009 as part of the fallout from the Great Recession.
I can see some one or two hundred protestors stand on Farley building steps, waving signs to protest Postmaster General DeJoy and his policies. If you want to argue that DeJoy’s appointment as Postmaster General wasn’t politically motivated, be my guest. But the facts are clear: Trump detested Amazon’s relationship with the USPS, he wants the service privatized, and he’s adamant in his opposition to mail-in voting (even though he himself votes by mail).
Before DeJoy’s appointment, the Postal Service Board of Governors asked Congress to provide the USPS with $25 billion in emergency appropriations to offset coronavirus-related losses, along with a $25 billion grant to fund the modernization of the service and $25 billion in unrestricted borrowing authority from the Treasury.
In the initial coronavirus relief bill in March, the House provided $13 billion in relief. Trump threatened to veto any bill that bailed out the USPS, however, so rather than appropriating $25 billion, or even $13 billion, in emergency funds, the House decided against a “bailout” in favor of a $10 billion loan, essentially doubling the service’s present debt.
It’s been suggested, most notably in the Washington Post, that the treasury loan could be used as leverage to exert greater political influence on the USPS, particularly when it comes to increasing charges for package deliveries–a change that has long been pushed by Trump in a thinly-veiled dig at Amazon and arch-enemy Jeff Bezos.
I listen to speeches from union representatives and collect a few flyers, and as I head back to Penn Station, I’m struck by an all-too-familiar (in recent months, at least) sense of dread, and it’s not just because of the pandemic, which has made my trip a bit of an adventure.
No, I’m worried about November.
I still haven’t requested my mail-in ballot. But if I have any choice in the matter, there’s no way I’m standing around for hours with people who may or may not be carrying a potentially deadly pathogen just to cast my vote.
Still, even if I get my ballot and mail it in with time to spare, how can I be sure, in the midst of our present postal predicament, that it will even be delivered and counted?
It’s times like this when we, as a country, desperately need a public service with a constitutional mandate to deliver every piece of mail in every locality, without discrimination, six days a week.
Ryan Yursha is an MFA (Creative and Professional Writing) student at Western Connecticut State University