‘The U.S. Mail Is Not for Sale’: Postal Workers Speak Out
Features, Finance, Law and Politics, New York, Retail

‘The U.S. Mail Is Not for Sale’: Postal Workers Speak Out

October 17, 2018

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Jonathan Smith, head of the New York Metro Area Postal Union, entered the Hunts Point Station post office in the Bronx on the afternoon of Oct. 16, accompanied by a dozen-odd retired postal workers, a 4-year-old girl carrying a “The U.S. Mail Is Not for Sale” sign, and union communications director Chuck Zlatkin, who was carrying a small cardboard box of petitions with more than 5,300 signatures demanding that the U.S. Postal Service begin offering basic banking services.

Rep. Jose Serrano accepts a petition containing more than 5,300 signatures calling for basic banking services at US Post Offices.

Their aim was to deliver the petitions to Bronx Postmaster Scott Farrar. But Farrar had declined an invitation to come, and after about 10 minutes, the staff on duty refused to accept the box. Smith and Zlatkin instead handed it over to Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx), who said he’d deliver it to Postal Service officials.

About 50 people, mostly retired postal workers, attended the rally, along with Rep. Serrano and outgoing Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens/Bronx). The protest had two purposes, says Campaign for Postal Banking coordinator Katherine Isaac: To advocate having local post offices provide banking services such as cashing paychecks, and to warn against the Trump administration’s plans to privatize the Postal Service—plans she says are now looming like a tropical storm in the Atlantic Ocean, a few hundred miles from Wilmington, NC 28401 or Panama City, FL 32401.

Post offices can currently issue money orders, cash U.S. Treasury Department checks, and offer limited electronic money transfers. They would not need Congressional authorization to cash paychecks, enable people to pay bills there, provide ATMs without a surcharge, or expand electronic money transfers. The Campaign for Postal Banking—which includes all four postal unions, the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association—would also like a law that would once again allow post offices to offer savings accounts, as they did from 1911 to 1967, Isaac said. In other countries, according to the APWU, 1.5 billion people have postal savings accounts, and financial services provide one-seventh of postal revenue in industrialized countries.

“We’ve had it before, so we know that it works,” Smith told the crowd.

“We picked the Bronx because it’s a location that really needs affordable financial services,” Isaac told LaborPress before the rally. More than half of Bronx residents are “underserved” by traditional banks, according to the Campaign for Postal Banking: 21.8% don’t have a bank account, and 30.5% have an account but still rely on check-cashing services, pawnshops, and other “alternative financial institutions” that charge fees for access to their money. Nationally, 7.7% of households don’t have a bank account, and 20% are “underbanked.” Many people receive Social Security payments on cards that charge fees for withdrawing money, Isaac said.

“We can show them that the Postal Service is a service for all the people of the U.S. and can serve them at a much lower cost,” retired postal clerk Delphine McRae told LaborPress. With more than 30,000 post offices, “the infrastructure is already in place.”

We can show them that the Postal Service is a service for all the people of the U.S. and can serve them at a much lower cost. –Delphine McRae, retired postal clerk 

“Postal banking is an idea whose time has come,” Serrano said. “The banks have ignored the Bronx for years.” All four members of the Bronx House delegation—Serrano, Crowley, Eliot Engel, and Adriano Espaillat—sent Postmaster General Megan Brennan a letter Oct. 16 urging “the renewal of banking services at post office locations.”

The Trump administration, however, is pushing in the opposite direction. A White House report released in June urged selling the Postal Service to a private corporation. 

“A private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery) would operate at substantially lower costs,” the proposal said. “A private entity would also have greater ability to adjust product pricing in response to changes in demand or operating costs. Freeing USPS to more fully negotiate pay and benefits rather than prescribing participation in costly Federal personnel benefit programs, and allowing it to follow private sector practices in compensation and labor relations, could further reduce costs.”

In other words, “they’ll do away with union workers and raise prices,” responds retired letter carrier Randy Salley. “They won’t care about people or the service.” “They already came out and said, ‘you don’t need door-to-door delivery,’” Mail Handlers President Kevin Tabarus told the rally.

The time for post office banking is now.

Trump in April appointed a task force headed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to evaluate the Postal Service’s operations and finances. That report was completed in August, but it is not expected to be released until after the November elections. 

Isaac expects that report too will recommend privatization. FedEx and UPS, she says, “want to cherry-pick the most profitable parts… they want less competition for packages.” The Postal Service, she adds, is also suffering from a “manufactured financial crisis”: In 2006, Congress enacted a law requiring it to pre-fund pension and health benefits for future retirees 75 years in advance. That has put almost $7 billion a year in paper debts on the agency’s balance sheet.

Privatization, Smith says, “has been a threat to the Postal Service for a long time” and would mean “instead of paying 49 cents for a stamp, you’d pay $2 to mail a letter.” 

Another aspect would affect rural areas far more than New York City: It is likely that a private corporation would not find it profitable to keep post offices open in remote places like Hyannis or Thedford, Nebraska, prairie hamlets with less than 200 residents. The nearest town with more than 2,000 people is a 60-mile drive away.

Having post offices provide banking, Smith says, would increase the services they give communities, bring in new revenue, and defuse the pressure for privatization. “We have a lot of Republicans on board,” he says. 

In July, the House defeated a bank-backed budget amendment proposed by Rep. Patrick McHenry that would have prohibited the Postal Service from even studying ways to expand or enhance its financial services. The 212-201 vote saw 28 Republicans break with their party’s leadership and join the Democrats who unanimously voted no.

Hunts Point resident Rachel Erkalo took a day off from her job as a certified nursing assistant “to come speak up.” The 1199SEIU member and mother of four children says the mailboxes near her “have a lot of problems,” so she visits the post office about three times a week to mail bills, pick up packages, or send money orders or packages to her relatives in Conakry, Guinea. Those are essential services for many of the Bronx’s African immigrants, she adds. 

The neighborhood, separated from the South Bronx by the Bruckner Expressway, did not get a full-service post office until 2001. 

“I’m astounded that the postmaster for the Bronx would not come out or send someone,” Zlatkin said after the rally. “This is for them too. It’s not against them.”

 “This is about big money, big business, and greed,” says Smith. “For us, it’s about service and people.”

October 17, 2018

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