The United States Postal Service has been under threat of privatization for a long time. However, as of this August, postal workers have orchestrated a fight back, and stepped up to defend mail-in voting. Through these battles they’ve made significant victories by taking to the streets in mass.
Written by Evan McCormack, La Voz – San Francisco
The most drastic cuts have occured since 2006 when Congress, in a near unanimous and bipartisan decision, passed a law that required the USPS to pay for all of its retirement benefits, and pension program, in advance every year. This bill has had a severe impact on the USPS in spite of being an arbitrarily manufactured hurdle. Since 2006 the government has declared the USPS “financially insolvent” and has used the law to leverage severe cuts. Since 2006, the USPS has laid off more than 77,000 workers, and in 2011 under the Obama administration nearly 4,000 postal offices were closed nationally.
Earlier this year, Trump appointed Louis Dejoy, the former head of a private shipping company and multi-million dollar stake holder in Amazon to the position of Postmaster General. Since taking the position, Dejoy has done everything in his power to deliberately sabotage the postal service. Since July he has prohibited “extra trips” and overtime and has complied with the president’s request to obstruct voting by mail with zeal. There have also been claims that postal workers have been forced to work while knowing they were exposed to covid-19 or risk being fired. Finally, Dejoy removed more than 600 mail sorting machines from post offices nationally, which has further exacerbated their already difficult work. While he’s implemented these cuts in the name of efficiency, anyone with a brain can see that his plan is like streamlining a car by taking off it’s wheels.
The Postal workers, who are covered by four different major unions: American Postal Workers Union, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, have not idly accepted these attacks. Unfortunately, by and large all of the aforementioned unions have entrenched bureaucracies, and conservative leadership, who’ve done little to staunch the flow of cuts over the years. Further, most of the aforementioned unions have shied away from mass action in the past, and only tentatively engage in it now.
The bureaucracy’s perspective was illustrated by the President of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, in an interview with PBS. He stated that while he opposed the cuts, and attacks to mail in voting, he felt that the union should be “putting pressure on congress” to bailout the postal service. While their website boasts that they rallied members to make 30,000 calls to congress, this seems particularly insignificant considering that the postal service employs around 600,000 workers. Furthermore, earlier this year, prior to the insertion of the new postmaster, the union was forced to accept a new contract following the ruling of a federal arbitrator. It appears the union bureaucracy did not even consider striking to defend its members.
What should be celebrated is their defense of mail in voting. Since July, most of the major postal unions have pivoted in their strategy to defend the right to vote by mail. The various postal unions have engaged in hundreds of demonstrations in major cities, and small towns, across the US throughout the month of August. These mobilizations in defense of mail in voting represent the largest series of actions by postal unions since the 1970 postal-worker’s wildcat strikes. Furthermore, many postal workers have taken the opportunity to vocally explain how cuts in the past and the threat of privatization run contrary to the common good and are undemocratic. By linking their struggle to improve their working conditions, and the struggle to defend a democratic right, they’ve put themselves in a strong position. Since the recent demonstrations, many in the press have also likened postal workers to other essential front-line workers, such as nurses, or other healthcare providers. Also, according to a Pew research poll 91% of Americans hold a positive view of the Postal Service, thus, they’re currently enjoying even more support now than they’ve had in decades. The outcry has been loud enough to drive Dejoy into rolling back the changes he implemented at least until after the presidential election.
In the wake of the demonstrations, the ruling class appears, at least for the time being, to have retreated on their position on postal privatization. Nancy Pelosi, who voted for the 2006 bill that put the Postal Service in jeopardy in the first place, has since authored two bills that would reverse the cuts made by Dejoy this year and repeal the 2006 law. Considering her leadership position in the Democratic Party, this stance is representative of the ruling elite generally, and thus suspect the bills will probably pass without controversy. The pandemic may have demonstrated the untenability of privatizing the USPS. Capital depends on it as much as workers do, if not more, thus even if they are ideologically committed to privatizing everything, most capitalists are prepared to concede that it’s existence is useful, much like liberal democracy itself.
In summary, while the USPS has faced serious threats in the past they may come out of the pandemic stronger than when they entered because of how they mobilized. If rank and file postal workers continue demonstrating, and organizing, it is possible for them to turn back the tide of cuts they’ve faced and potentially even start making real gains. Furthermore, the August demonstrations should be viewed as a labor victory, and a demonstrative example of the strength of bargaining for the common good. However, there are also factors to be critical of. If we consider the transitional method while examining the August demonstrations, we can discover the source of their appeal, and rhetorical strength. The support the postal workers garnered while defending the vote by mail process was tremendous, even more so than the public support they received in the decade prior. They were more successful this time around because they illustrated how defending their trade from austerity is in the material interest of all working class people by defending voting rights. They brought together the struggle for their immediate demands with the greater needs of society organically. With that being said, this can be seen as a victory for labor, but it is a temporary victory. It will be impossible to seize lasting gains without a rank and file leadership, and an orientation toward class struggle. The lessons from the demonstrations have not permanently changed the operation of their unions either. From the outside, it appears that rank and file postal workers are no better equipped to raise their voices within their unions, or to strike for their demands, than they were at the beginning of the year. However, if other labor victories, such as the red state educator strikes, are comparable to this then hopefully postal workers will feel inspired by this win and keep struggling.