Darrell Issa is going postal. In the name of "Saving the Post Office," the head of the House Government Oversight Committee is ready to knock off 200,000 jobs and put the U.S. Postal Service, founded in 1775, on the path to oblivion. President Obama's rescue plan is only slightly better -- 80,000 people might lose their jobs.
The bipartisan eagerness to sink the Postal Service has Ben Franklin, the first Postmaster General under the Continental Congress, rolling in his grave.
The Original Job Creator
For me, the attack on the post office is personal. My daughter wouldn't be around if my father hadn't met my mom while working at Philadelphia's central post office in the depths of the last Great Depression. Back in the dark days of the 1930's, Postal Service jobs kept millions of extended families and communities afloat.
With 570,000 good postal jobs in America, things are not so different today. The Postal Service not only provides secure high-wage jobs, it is key to providing high-quality, low-cost services to hundreds of thousands of businesses across America.
"We are the original 'job creators'," says Ron Berg proudly, a Wisconsin postal worker who delivers to 497 small businesses and homes rain or shine.
So why is Issa threatening to reopen collective bargaining agreements to allow for massive layoffs at the worst possible time, and create a special commission to close thousands of delivery centers and post offices across the nation? When you plant a poison pill, you have to convince people to swallow.
The Poison Pill
Keep in mind that the Postal Service does not take one dime of taxpayer money. It is an independent agency authorized by the U.S. Constitution. The 2008 Wall Street economic meltdown has hurt. Less economic activity in America means less mail. Email and Facebook have taken a toll as well. But the post office could weather these hard times if it were not for a poison pill passed by a lame-duck Republican Congress in 2006.
The so-called "Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006" required the Postal Service to pre-fund healthcare benefits of future retirees, a 75-year liability over a 10-year period. Yup, that's right -- prepayment for postal employees that have not even been born yet. Contrary to what Issa claims, the Postal Service is the only federal agency or private business under this onerous obligation.
The requirement costs the Postal Services $5.5 billion a year, about the amount the economic downturn is costing the post office. Without the prefunding requirement, the Postal Service would have broken even financially despite mail volume declines. With it, however, the Postal Service is moving toward default -- a deliberately manufactured crisis that could give the privatizers and profiteers in Congress an opportunity to "restructure" America's oldest independent public service.
Shock Doctrine for the USPS
Creating a crisis to kill a public service is classic "shock doctrine," a trick learned from old Milton Friedman who saw every economic crisis, real or manufactured, as an "opportunity" to advance a free-market, privatization agenda.
"We are not broke. This is a crisis created by powerful politicians who want to privatize the Postal Service. We will hear the word 'bailout' but I say bull," says postal carrier Berg. Or as consumer advocate Ralph Nader puts it: "The post office is being pushed to the cliff, into the abyss. The ultimate goal is shrinkage -- continual shrinkage and private businesses pick up the cream."
Private mail carriers only deliver to a fraction of the American population, at a higher cost. The small West Virginia town of West Liberty is so desperate to keep its post office open, that it recently bought the post office building and offered the U.S. Postal Service a free lease.
Idea Spreads to the States
Recently introduced, Wisconsin Assembly Bill 219 would apply similar prepayment provisions to local governments, cities, villages, towns, counties, and school districts who dare to provide post-retirement health care benefits for their employees. Hitting at a time when the economy is still staggering, the bill seems designed to force localities to give up these benefits altogether.
"This is an idea cooked up outside of Wisconsin. I don't know whether it is the Tea Party or ALEC the American Legislative Exchange Council, but it is an idea with no local or organizational support," said Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin state legislator preparing to run for Congress in 2012. Senator Leah Vukmir, a long time ALEC member, is the Senate chief sponsor of the bill.
This week postal workers staged nearly 500 rallies throughout the nation to draw attention to the issue and protest Issa's plan to gut services and kill jobs. The unions are supporting Rep. Stephen Lynch's bill, H.R. 1351, which does not solve all the problems but which allows the Postal Service to claw back some of these prepayment from the U.S. Treasury.
Postal Service workers know they are in the battle to defend low-cost universal service for millions of small businesses and families. I have no doubt whose side Ben Franklin would be on.