Ten current and former postal employees stopped eating yesterday in Washington, DC, starting a hunger strike to protest continuing cutbacks at the United States Postal Service. Organized by Community and Postal Workers United, they do not plan to starve themselves to death; they are, however, desperate to get public attention for their cause.
So far, this effort has worked–a little: Representative Dennis Kucinich appeared at their protest and endorsed the cause, and there’s been some coverage in local and national media. But they’re fighting an uphill battle.
Fasting is never an easy route to political influence. (We’ve discussed the strategy of hunger strikes here, as well as fasting campaigns by DREAM activists and prisoners.) If postal workers thought they could depend upon allies in Congress or their union to stave off very large cuts in post offices and sorting stations (and jobs), they certainly wouldn’t be standing outside, hungry, in the summer in Washington, DC.
They have grievances about jobs and pensions, but their cause represents a much larger conflict in contemporary American political life. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” The idea was that a reliable communication infrastructure was essential to building a nation. Even before the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin ran the post office in Philadelphia, which was located in the offices of his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette; both he and the city prospered. Franklin served as the first Postmaster General of the United States.
Postmaster General was a Cabinet position for nearly 150 years, between 1829 and 1971, when the United States Postal Service moved from being a department to become a (somewhat) independent agency. Somewhat? Political figures wanted the Post Office to operate more efficiently and to cease operating as a haven for patronage. They also wanted the postal service to cover its own expenses. At the same time, politicians didn’t want to allow the post office to operate just like a business and close unprofitable offices. Ironically, the least profitable offices tend to be located in rural areas, often represented by Republicans in Congress, representatives who are generally reluctant to see their local post offices closed. So, the USPS is supposed to support itself, to compete with corporations for the most profitable services, like overnight mail, and to enjoy a monopoly on the services that lose money, like 6 day a week delivery of circulars in rural areas.
With email and electronic banking, most customers are able to reorganize most of their communications to bypass the post office anyway. Once Grandma figures out how to slide a $5 bill into an email….
The postal workers are focusing on one particular Congressional restriction, the requirement that the USPS pre-fund its pension liabilities 75 years in advance; neither Fedex or UPS are similarly encumbered. So, the government agency is supposed to compete against the private sector, but also operate within special restrictions in that competition. Does that sound like anything else in contemporary politics? Does that sound like everything else in contemporary politics?
A leaner more business-like USPS would focus on profitable services and areas, leaving sparsely populated areas to pay more and/or enjoy less service–or to support a new business that somehow finds a way to survive by serving such areas. (Hint: it hasn’t happened yet.) It’s a somewhat different America than imagined by Ben Franklin.
Whether the four day hunger strike, in conjunction with sympathy events, can succeed in putting the future of the USPS on the political agenda remains to be seen. The hunger strike got my attention; you?