The announcement that the US Postal Service will deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays came just a few days after a federal judge halted USPS’ sale of Stamford’s historic downtown post office. The juxtaposition of the two events throws into stark relief the new Janus-like philosophy of the postal service: a big hug to big business, the back of the hand to the public.
For its first 175 years the US Post Office also served business. But protecting the public took precedence. When private carriers began to siphon away the most profitable parts of the mail delivery system, raising the cost and lowering the quality of services the Post Office could provide the general public Congress created an effective post office monopoly, enabling a sharp reduction in the price of a stamp and mail delivery to the doors of urban, and later rural residents and businesses. When private packaging companies mistreated their customers, the Post Office established Parcel Post. When shaky banks didn’t pay their depositors the Post Office established the Postal Bank.
In 1971 Congress transformed the cabinet-level Post Office Department to the quasi-public United States Postal Service. Nevertheless the Postal Reorganization Act explicitly noted its public purpose: “The United States Post Office shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people.” Or, to paraphrase Lincoln’s immortal phrase, the postal service was to be, as the Post Office had been, an institution “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
But the actions of USPS management mock those words. The USPS not only gives business access; it gives them handsome subsidies. Companies that preprocess their mail qualify for a discount. By law, discounts cannot exceed the avoided costs of USPS doing the work, but the Public Regulatory Commission, an independent agency, estimated in 2012 that businesses were given $1.5 billion annually in excess discounts. Indeed, as William Burrus, former president of the American Postal Workers Union notes that as the cost of USPS handling a letter dropped, discounts actually increased.
The agreement with Amazon should be viewed in this pro-business light. The Washington Post reports, “For years Amazon wanted to deliver seven days a week but was stymied by the cost of getting packages from distribution centers to doorsteps.” Normally a business would have to pay a premium to have the post office deliver on a Sunday. Under the new deal Amazon will not be charged a premium. Why? According to the USPS they will be served by part-time, low-paid employees, a growing part of a USPS workforce that has been reduced by over half a million career employees since 2000.
While the Postal Service bends over backward to help big business, it often takes an in-your-face attitude toward the general public. Casual readers of USPS’ proposal earlier this year to end Saturday delivery might have missed the fact that it would apply only to first-class mail, not to junk mail.
Elsewhere I’ve discussed the appalling treatment of communities by the USPS as it dismantles a universal infrastructure lovingly built up over almost 200 years. To those with strong stomachs I recommend a daily dose of the remarkable website SaveThePostOffice.
One of the most galling and revealing actions of the USPS is its eagerness to sell off buildings that once were the Post Office’s biggest calling card. “The Post Office is the visible form of the federal government to every community and to every citizen,” Postmaster General John Wanamaker observed in the late 1890s. “Its hand is the only one that touches the local life, the social interests and business concern of every neighborhood.” The local post office was often a monument to the commons, the most handsome building in town, part of a social contract between the federal government and tens of thousands of communities.
In a recent article in Minnesota History Quarterly, Greg Gaut and Marsha Neff describe the local reception to the 1891 opening of a new post office in Winona, a small city in southeastern Minnesota on the Mississippi River. TheDaily Herald opined, “This magnificent structure becomes the common property of the people. Every citizen of this Republic…possesses a joint ownership in this indivisible property of the government of which he is a component part. Here the millionaire and the day laborer pass in and out of the same door, where each is entitled to the same privileges, the same consideration, the same courtesy….”
The New Deal built over 1,100 post offices, three times as many as had been built in the previous 50 years. Whenever possible, the buildings’ design and interior art were viewed as a physical and daily reminder of the pact between government and citizen. “The post office was ‘the one concrete link between every community of individuals and the Federal government… [The post office] brought to the locality a symbol of government efficiency, permanence, service, and even culture,” Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz write in Democratic Vistas: Post Office and Public Art in the New Deal.
Current Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe has aggressively broken the bond between individual, community and government that was to his predecessor John Wanamaker the very essence of the Post Office.
In 1936 a New Deal built post office opened in Northfield, Minnesota. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and a cornerstone of the Northfield Downtown Historic District. The Postal Service announced it would close the building and open an annex two miles away. The city offered to pay $1 for the building. The post office responded, “It is not in our best interest to consider an offer of $1 for a building that has a market value that far exceeds that amount.”
The Postal Service does not always view maximizing the financial gain from selling off historic post offices as its best interest. In his powerful new book Going Postal Peter Byrne discusses how the Postal Service gave CBRE, a company whose Board Chairman is Richard C. Blum, husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) an exclusive contract to sell or lease its $85 billion real estate portfolio. In June 2013, Postal Service Inspector General David C. Williams issued a report noting that outsourcing these activities to a single firm is “a fundamental change from how the Postal Service previously managed its real estate portfolio… Specifically, there are conflict of interest concerns.”
Williams’ fears have been realized. Byrne discovered that in one 23-month period CBRE sold 52 postal properties for almost $80 million less than their market value. One out of five of those sales were to CBRE’s own clients and/or business partners. “In the majority of these deals, CBRE appears to have represented the interests of the buyer as well as those of the seller, even though CBRE was originally contracted to represent only the interests of the Postal Service,” Byrne observes. Maximizing the speed of destruction, not the revenue generated, appears to drive the Postal Service.
To accelerate the rate of destruction the USPS often refuses to allow a full hearing on the sale of a building, arguing that it is not closing but simply relocating the post office. This happened in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the historic 1917 post office building was closed and relocated to a former pet supply store.
The before and after pictures tell the story.
It happened again in 2012 when the USPS auctioned off Stamford’s historic downtown post office. But in this case the USPS went too far. It not only didn’t bother to identify a relocation site, it refused to sell the building to the highest bidder, a local non-profit, the Center for Art and Mindfulness whose intent was to preserve the post office and its art for the benefit of residents of Stamford.
This was too much for District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who on October 28 issued an injunction stopping the USPS sale.
We can, and should, condemn the horrendous artificial financial burden Congress has imposed on the USPS, a burden the USPS uses at every opportunity to justify its actions. But every time the USPS weakens and cheapens the physical network that binds us together, every time it turns its back on the public, it reduces the willingness of the public to champion the Post Office. In this sense the USPS management is rapidly becoming the enemy of the people.
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