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Going Postal

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The Postal Service is the nation’s second largest civilian employer (after Walmart—another story), employing 633,108 personnel. It would rank 44th on the 2019 Fortune 500 list if it was considered a private company – which it decidedly is not: it is the only government agency mandated as a service — it’s not the postal business, after all. As a government agency, it has a legal obligation to provide all the various aspects of universal service. It also has special privileges, including sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers, powers to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and an exclusive legal right to deliver first class and third class mail. The Postal Inspection Service, USPIS, is one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the nation. Founded by Benjamin Franklin during the Second Continental Congress in August 1775, its mission is to protect the Postal Service, its employees and customers, from crime, and the nation’s mail system from criminal misuse.

Yes, Ben Franklin was the first US postmaster general. This is the one government agency specified in The Constitution, article 1, section 8, clause 7: “The US Congress has the power to establish Post offices and post roads”—that is, designated mail routes.

This was all made quite clear in letters between the Founders, to “bind the nation together” and “facilitate citizen inclusion.” A far cry from Charles Koch and Donald Trump. Charles Koch, you say? Ah, yes.

Lisa Graves is one of the nation’s foremost experts on how special interest groups distort our political system. She served at the Department of Justice and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has testified as an expert witness in both houses of Congress. Her recent report,“The Billionaire Behind Efforts to Kill the US Postal Service,” published by True North Research for In The Public Interest (ITPI), exposes how Charles Koch (of the Koch brothers) marked the US Postal Service for privatization in the early 1970s—well before competition from email, FedEx, or Amazon. Koch became the main funder for the Libertarian party in the 1970s, and one of its planks was expressly to abolish the US Postal Service. In the 1980s, they pushed for that via an unprecedented privatizing commission President Reagan created at their instigation. Then, Koch brought onto his team the man who headed the Office of Management and Budget for Reagan — a guy notorious for having signed off on the idea that ketchup should be considered a vegetable for school lunches — James Miller, now the longest serving member of Citizens for A Sound Economy, these days going by the name Americans for Prosperity. In 2003 Miller was rewarded with a post on the Board of Governors for the Postal Service.

That board has 11 members, 9 of which are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate; they in turn select the US Postmaster General, who serves as the 10th member along with his chosen deputy, the 11th. From his Board seat, James Miller facilitated the “Postal Accountability and Efficiency Act,” which drastically harmed the Postal Service, requiring it to pay $5 billion per year to fund future retiree health benefits — a newly conceived pool different from retirement pension benefits. No other government agency and no private business has such a requirement to fully fund decades of potential healthcare benefits in advance. But for Charles Koch, this was a win-win. Either it would push the USPS into bankruptcy so it could be privatized or, if it somehow managed to pay the money it would become more attractive to future investors as part of an initial public offering. The act also limited the Postal Service from raising a first class stamp’s cost by about a penny a year, artificially throttling its revenue potential, and barred it from offering banking or other commercial services competing with the private sector, as it had previously done.

This long-term strategy came to fruition with a man appointed Postmaster General by Trump: Louis DeJoy. Once finance chairman of the Republican National Convention, he’s donated more than 2.5 million to the GOP, helps fund a group trying to suppress the vote, and, together with his wife Aldona Wos, has invested as much as 75.3 million into competitors or contractors to the Postal Service in approximately 100 contracts since 2014 alone. (By the way, Aldona Wos has been nominated by Trump to be ambassador to Canada.) Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell hasn’t only been busy packing the courts with Trump nominees. For five years the Postal Board lacked a quorum due to his obstructionism, but when Trump became president McConnell began filling these posts instantly, beginning with DeJoy, the first Postmaster General not from within the Postal Service ranks. In fact, DeJoy’s businesses have been the subject of multiple complaints: sexual harassment, retaliation, unsafe working conditions, forced employee “donations” to GOP candidates – and being cited by the National Labor Relations Board for acting with “anti-union animus.”

The result? Cutbacks on basic services and on overtime, limiting the capacity of USPS to process and sort mail, allowing it to pile up and even be destroyed, removal and destruction of postal boxes, denial of service, “losing” mail, and most of all, corrupting and even suppressing the mail-in ballot. This, for one of our most familiar and intimate institutions.

Your postal carrier likely knows whether someone on her route is pregnant, getting married, or suffered a death in the family – all because of what comes through the mail. She’ll also keep track of who hasn’t received mail recently, and this has saved many lives – especially older people who are ill and living alone. Everything from Social Security checks to life-sustaining prescription drugs arrives through the mail, as do packages eagerly awaited by the military all around the world; the Veterans Affairs Department delivers 80 percent of its outpatient prescriptions by mail. And that’s not even to mention the importance of mail to rural delivery and remote areas. Currently, 12 states vote completely or almost completely by mail, without a hitch, and more come on board each day. Postal service carriers may have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic but they continued as essential workers throughout it. Not surprisingly, 91 percent of Americans are strong supporters of the Postal Service. (Makes you wonder about the other 9 percent.)

This is also one of our most historic and beloved institutions. Did you know that American newspapers owe their existence to the post office? As part of the Post Office Act of 1792, newspapers – viewed by the Founders as essential for maintaining an educated citizenry and as an alternative to what King George III wanted the colonists to read — were permitted to be mailed at extremely low rates. By the start of the 19th Century, they made up the bulk of US mail, and the growing literacy rate was attributed to the widespread availability of newspapers.

Up until the Civil War, everyone had to go to the post office to get mail. In 1863, Free City Delivery of mail at your home was first launched in Cleveland. Joseph Briggs, a postal clerk, reportedly got the idea when he saw women waiting in long lines at the post office, the only way to get word of their loved ones fighting in the war. Free City Delivery was such a success it quickly spread to other cities. This in turn necessitated that streets get names, houses get numbers, sidewalks and lighting be provided, and addresses get added to envelopes. Civil War veterans applied for the newly created mail carrier jobs by the thousands.

Did you know that until the mid-19th Century, recipients — not senders – usually had to pay for postage on the letters they received? Or that, believe it or not, the Postal Service has no official motto? The phrase “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” is engraved on the front of New York City’s James A. Farley post office – but the phrase was taken from the Fifth Century BCE writings of Herodotus, chosen by an employee of the architects who constructed that building.

Starting in 1825, unlabeled or mislabeled mail was sent to a central dead letter office in Washington DC. The postal employees hired for this job had to be honest, and because women were perceived as being more honest than men, the staff overwhelmingly consisted of women (plus a few clergy). Otherwise, postal clerks in 19th Century America tended to be male.

Today, more than 45 percent of the workforce is female. Sarah Black, the first known European American woman appointed to carry US mail in 1845, earned an whopping $48 a year salary. The first known African-American woman, Mary Fields – nicknamed “Stage Coach Mary” – was born enslaved, freed after the Civil War, and settled in Montana, when she began driving a mail wagon at age 63. In 1913 Catharine Stimpson became the first known woman to carry mail by airplane when she dropped mail bags from her plane at the Montana state fair; in 1918 she became the first woman to fly the post on a regular air mail route. By the end of the 19th Century, women managed about 10 percent of the country’s 70,000 local post office locations, and during World War II the number of female postmasters increased significantly. By February 2015, Megan J. Brennan had worked her way up from being a mail carrier in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to become President Barack Obama’s appointed first female Postmaster General of the United States and the chief executive officer of the world’s largest postal organization. She protested the cutbacks once Trump took power, and resigned in 2020.

In came Trump’s appointed corrupt fat cat, DeJoy. This moment is a perfect storm, conflating with the pandemic. People are being told to choose between voting — our political life – and life itself. Black Americans, and Native, Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islanders have long known voter suppression. So, frankly, do the elderly, the disabled, the poor, felons, and the homeless. For decades, starting with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the trend was to make it easier for Americans to vote by expanding voting hours, the number of polling sites, and the availability of voting by mail. Over the last decade, big money opposition has been creating the diametrical opposite — minority rule – from what the Framers intended.

It’s brazenly evident in two statements. The first, by arch conservative Paul Weyrich, founder of The Heritage Foundation, who said flat out “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. Our leverage quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” The second is Trump himself, admitting he’s refusing funding for the post office to recoup now because “If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money, and they can’t have mail-in voting.”

For this moment, we still can have it — the vote, that is. For this moment – possibly the last one available to us – we can rise to the vision of the Founders, which was, remember, to “bind the nation together” and “facilitate citizen inclusion.” It was that first Postmaster General Ben Franklin who, you may recall, was asked what kind of government this new country would now have, and wryly responded, “We have given you a republic – if you can keep it.”