After years of indifference to the plight of the USPS from Republican-led Congresses, things finally seemed to be improving. On February 5 of this year, the House passed the USPS Fairness Act by a vote of 309–106—including support from almost half of House Republicans—and sent it to the Senate. But the bill is still sitting there, and in the interim, COVID-19 struck.
The volume of mail the USPS is delivering has already fallen by nearly one-third compared with last year, and it is now projected to lose $22 billion over the next 18 months. Postal workers are still doing their jobs, despite the risks; so far 1,219 postal workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 54 have died. The CARES Act included a $500 billion bailout for large corporations, but no help for the Postal Service. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened to use any loan money to coerce the USPS to raise its package-shipping rates, allow him to oversee the hiring of senior USPS staff (including a new postmaster general), and demand union concessions. Trump confirmed this strategy as he signed the latest stimulus package on April 24, declaring that no loans would go to the USPS if it didn’t quadruple package rates.
Trump’s willingness to block proposed bailout funds to the USPS—a 245-year-old government service—may reflect his personal grudge against Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon (and owner of The Washington Post), combined with an ignorance of how the USPS actually works. But it also reveals a conservative hostility to the Postal Service that antedates the current crisis. In its 2018 report, a Trump-appointed task force (led by Mnuchin) suggested drastic service and facilities cuts, more noncareer labor and outsourcing, and an end to the American Postal Workers Union’s collective-bargaining rights.
Just like the first USPS crisis, sparked by the pre-funding requirement, this one is unnecessary and politically manufactured; and just like that earlier crisis, it is also very real. It threatens the center of America’s $1.6 trillion mailing industry, which employs 7.3 million people. The Postal Service can’t simply file for bankruptcy; the USPS is not a private corporation like FedEx, UPS, or Walmart—which even together could not handle the U.S. mail, contrary to some privatization fantasies. But with the USPS now projecting it will run out of operational funds by September, Trump could cripple the nation’s mail by blocking aid, forcing the USPS to prioritize which vendors to pay and which services to curtail. The USPS has said that it needs $89 billion in assistance, including $25 billion in grants.
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Will House and Senate Democrats hold the line in future stimulus packages for USPS relief? Do they have the political will to save universal postal service along with 630,000 government jobs—80 percent of them good-paying career positions? To preserve the USPS is not to merely conserve it as some relic of the past. The 1970 Postal Reorganization Act says that the USPS should “bind the nation together.” Who else will distribute stimulus checks (as the unemployment rate climbs past 14 percent), census forms, online purchases, letters, parcels, books, magazines—in fact, anything that takes postage? How else can Americans vote by mail—as they now do in six states, and may soon need to do in all 50? Postal workers are out there right now, delivering face masks and test kits, and hopefully one day soon they’ll be delivering vaccines as well.
In 2011, during the last postal financial crisis, I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post warning of what we’ll lose if we lose the Postal Service. That isn’t just the services it provides—that’s the jobs, the path into the middle class, and the glue holding communities together. So much has changed since then, but that much remains the same.