By Josh Eidelson
Since Monday, ten workers and consumers have been hunger striking on behalf of the embattled U.S. Postal Service. Their action comes amid a fierce debate over what ails the agency and how to fix it. “It’s a shame,” says hunger striker Tom Dodge, “to let something that’s so efficient and doing so well just die, starve to death.”
Dodge says he’s “amazed” to find himself on hunger strike. A 13-year postal truck driver in Baltimore and a member of the American Postal Workers Union, he says in the past he never got involved in union activism because of “too much politics.” Dodge describes being inspired to act following proposals for major cuts last year. But after participating in rallies coordinated by USPS’ four unions, he concluded they’d had only “a limited effect.” Reached by phone Tuesday while waiting to meet a representative from House Speaker John Boehner’s office, Dodge called the hunger strike “about the strongest thing you can do without breaking the law.” “We’re trying to shame them,” says Jamie Partridge, who recently retired after 27 years as a letter carrier in Portland.
In an e-mailed statement, USPS expressed “respect” for the hunger strikers’ right “to engage in lawful public dialogue,” and cited its own efforts to raise awareness of “the urgent need for Postal reform legislation.” USPS said that the “dire financial condition of the Postal Service – which is currently losing $25 million a day and is projected to record a loss of more than $14 billion this fiscal year – requires necessary and responsible cost reduction steps to ensure the long-term affordability of mail, and to return the organization to long-term financial stability.” Like the strikers, USPS emphasized the importance of addressing the pre-funding of retiree health benefits. It also called for “full implementation of [USPS’] comprehensive five-year plan,” which strikers oppose.
The hunger strike was organized by an organization called Communities and Postal Workers United. The hunger strikers are holding daily morning and evening vigils at the capital. In between, they rally and split up for congressional office visits; Dodge says they plan to visit the offices of every member by end of week. Monday, they rallied with Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Tuesday, they marched to the Treasury with a mock check representing the cost of pre-funding. Yesterday, they protested the Washington Post for its coverage of USPS’ budget; Partridge says they passed out leaflets to 50 Post employees. Today, they plan to conclude the fast with an attempt to track down and confront the Postmaster General. Satellite actions are underway in other cities.
While many politicians blame the Postal Service’s deficit on labor costs and technological change, unions argue that Congress is the real culprit. The pre-funding mandate was part of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which was passed on a voice vote in the final days of unified GOP control of government. The mandate, which has no parallel in government or business, required USPS to fund seventy-five years of benefits over the following ten years. While imposing that expense, the same act put new restrictions on postal revenue, including a restriction on providing “nonpostal services.” If not for the pre-funding mandate, UPS would have run an operational profit in the first quarter of the current fiscal year.
USPS argues that a multi-pronged approach is necessary to secure its fiscal future: changing pre-funding, changing employees’ health insurance, cutting jobs, and reducing service. The White House has supported parts of that plan. Republicans, led by Congressman Darrell Issa, have called for more drastic changes, including the creation of a board empowered to override union contracts and postal management decisions. Unions, with the backing of some Democrats, have opposed USPS’ proposed cuts—some of which are set to begin next week—and warned that shuttering post offices, ending Saturday service, and loosening first-class delivery guarantees would drive customers away from the Postal Service.
Dodge agrees. “You’re just going to cut yourself right out of business,” he warns. “Which is exactly what’s happening…We’ve been doing things literally just to drive customers away from the Postal Service.” “There’s ways to restructure this,” adds Dodge, “without cutting service. You just have to be creative and give the Postal Service a little more flexibility.” Among the suggestions made by labor and Democrats are allowing post offices to perform additional government functions, including some license and notary services; ending the ban on shipping alcohol by USPS; and offering new internet-enhanced options, like scanning and e-mailing postal mail.
In April, the US Senate passed a tri-partisan compromise bill with a combination of cuts and changes. Unions and their allies were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to amend the legislation. The legislative focus has shifted to the House, where Issa is pushing a bill opposed by postal management and labor alike. But Dodge says he doesn’t expect a law to reach the President’s desk until after the November election.
“The Postal Service is still providing a necessary service to an awful lot of people,” says Dodge. He warns that cutting tens of thousands of postal jobs “might be just the tipping stone to actually push us right into the recession.” He blames USPS’ current predicament on politicians he says do the bidding of private companies seeking to “bankrupt the post office and sell it off for pennies on the dollar.” Dodge adds that he believes conservatives are also out to break postal unions as part of “class warfare” to weaken the labor movement. If they succeed, he says, “all of the other unions will be easy pickings.”
“It was hard to get people to do this…” says Dodge, who is drinking juice but forswearing food during the fast. “Just to stop eating is something pretty dramatic.” He says he’d never fasted before a day in his life, and that Monday’s heat “really took a toll” on him. “By the end of the day, boy was I hungry.”
“I’m hungry, I’m exhausted, I’m ache-y,” Partridge said yesterday. “But I’m endangering my personal health because I want to make any impact on these people [in Congress], and I think we are. They’re looking very uncomfortable around us.”
Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. This first appeared on the Working In These Times blog.