“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
– inscription on the James Farley Post Office, New York’s main postal branch and a beloved historical monument. Named after the 53rd Postmaster General, the 8-acre facility was rebuilt in 1912. Its zip code is 10001.
The Post Office has failed me. It’s bad enough that I suffer rural delivery, sometimes seeming as though mail comes by mule, delivered days later than expected. Yesterday it didn’t come at all, which means — oh, woe! — I won’t have a Netflix movie for the weekend. On the other hand, it’s pretty amazing what this service accomplishes on a daily basis (660 million pieces of mail to as many as 142 million delivery points, all for less than fifty-cents per). Except during blizzards, I guess.
On Wednesday afternoon the news announced that a West Coast storm named, inexplicably, “Q,” dropped snow on Tucson, enough to shut down highways and close some schools. Video from a disrupted Southern Arizona golf tourney made the news, giving a heads up on projections that it would hit Missouri in the middle of the night. Local news announced heavy snow to the north and south but forecast a three-county band of ice running directly through the Pea Patch. Around here, that’s cause for alarm. Ice storms are the worst, shattering trees and downing power poles. Due diligence, I got a fresh canister of propane for the grill, made sure I had dry wood on the back porch and filled buckets with water in case we lost power to the well pump.
While I was at it, I covered unexpected green shoots I’d noticed at the beginning of the week, peeking up from my bulb bed. Along with budding on some of the trees, these delicate precursors of spring had once again been lulled by mild weather that brought them out way too soon. I’ve long since given up whining that nature is out of kilter here, that the wild things’ breeding schedule is out of whack, that off-season buds doom fruit crops. I finally got some validation for my concerns from a local university study that found the Pea Patch three weeks ahead of schedule in all these areas. We haven’t had fruit locally for four years in a row, after premature blooms fell to savage storms, and it appears we’re working on five.
Thursday morning, I was awakened by thunder-snow and a landscape already reshaped in shades of white and grey. By mid-morning, sleet was coming down in an opaque sheet. Lulls in delivery revealed the ground scattered with sparkling diamonds of ice crystals, and by the time the clouds had dropped their load and moved along, several inches of ice crusted over everything, cold enough to freeze on contact. When I put the dog out he walked across it like Jesus on the Red Sea. The world had turned into a hockey rink and I didn’t blame USPS rural delivery for not wanted to chance it. This morning after the storm passed, I made the trip — walking gingerly on the slick path — out to the box, knocked off a 1/4 inch glaze of ice and raised the flag. We’ll see if Gene the Mail Guy shows up today.
Now, obviously I could write at length about the global warming issues that make this situation so distressing to most of us, but that’s not my intent today. As an aside, let me complain that FOX News spent time poking fun at these concerns because there was nothing ‘warm’ about the icy cold that gripped most of us this week (and reportedly coming to those of you on the East Coast by this weekend.)
Indeed, Fox Business’s Charles Payne suggested that the XL protesters “probably have done very little research” and are relying on “anecdotal” evidence of climate change. And Fox News’s Neil Cavuto mentioned “bad optics” to “protest global warming in the middle of this Arctic blast,” reports of which made me yet again wonder if Neanderthals bred more than occasionally with Homo sapiens, yielding us such a division in thought-process. Some days, I marvel that humankind has made it this far. Still, this isn’t a rant against stupidity or a whine about climate — it’s a testament to the United States Postal Service, its cutting edge influence on American society, and its rather amazing history.
During the Second Continental Congress in 1775, as the nation considered the basic requirements of its ability to thrive independent of the mother country, Benjamin Franklin was made her first Postmaster General. Mail delivery, critical to connect the varied factions of a growing republic, was explicitly authorized by the United States Constitution.
Over ensuing decades, postal routes criss-crossed the nation via waterways used by steamships, established roads in uncharted rural areas, and accompanied western expansion by utilizing both the army and the intercontinental railway, eventually connecting the whole of the nation and uniting its people. Mail service acted in tandem with development in transportation and commerce, in 1918, for instance, taking over air mail from the U.S. Army.
Over the years, the Post Office kept recreating itself. Stamps were first issued as an act of Congress in 1847 and parcel post became available in 1913. According to Wiki, package delivery “greatly increased the volume of mail shipped nationwide, and motivated the development of more efficient postal transportation systems. It also led to the growth of mail order businesses that substantially increased rural access to modern goods…” Mark that in memory, if you will, and we’ll come back to it.
By 1970, the postal service was still regulating its employees through the modestly-paid Civil Service Commission and had given little attention to its aging policies or infrastructure. That year, Congress, in all it’s wisdom, granted underpaid workers a grudging 4% increase in wages while at the same time passing a 41% salary hike for themselves. Furious postal workers walked out in one of the largest wildcat strikes in U.S. history, beginning in New York and quickly spreading to include over 200,000 postal workers nation-wide. Richard M. Nixon declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to deliver the mail.
That incident resulted in two major changes in postal service. First was the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, revamping the service along more corporate lines. The first paragraph of the Act reads:
The United States Postal Service 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. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.
The other thing the strike prompted — significant in that the administration refused to directly negotiate with the postal union that included the largest membership of black workers — was the merger of five federal postal unions to form the powerful American Postal Workers Union, the largest postal workers union in the world.
Make no mistake: what we’re suffering today with the apparent failure of the USPS to survive the economic downturn or navigate the rise of 21st century communications is a direct result of that powerful union, one of the last remaining in the nation. There is nothing that gets the attention of the conservative party so quickly as a union that contributes leadership to a successful business endeavor. Republican think tanks turned their attention toward the postal service in the 1990s, working to erode the notion that ‘government’ can do anything right, including deliver the mail. That they would take glee in killing off so powerful a union needs no further explanation.
In 2006 — on a voice-vote alone, not even recorded for posterity — Bush crony and House Speaker Tom DeLay pushed through a requirement for the Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years of retiree costs, both pension and health care benefits. Pre-fund: think about that a moment. Not just the half-million employees of the USPS, third largest employer after Wal-Mart and the Fed. We’re talking retirement funding for employees NOT EVEN BORN YET that must be banked — some 5 BILLION dollars, each year — prior to their first dollar being deposited. What private company, do you imagine, might be able to survive that?
USPS receives no government subsidy, and since 1970, is required to break even. Is there any other government agency required to do so? No, not even close. By definition then, the postal service is ALREADY over the cliff at the start of each fiscal year, with Congress limiting their ability to raise rates, enter new lines of business or increase revenue with new options because in doing so, they might “have advantage over private companies!” Those private companies, by the way — UPS and FedEx — exercise their HUGE lobbying budgets, spread liberally among those who would like to privatize everything in sight, including the United States Postal Service, the public service mandated by the Constitution.
Now, let’s go back to parcel post service for a moment, and let me make this personal. The county I live in — one of the smallest in Missouri — is about 400 square miles of rural territory. No hospital, no major shopping center, very few options. Less than 10,000 souls live here, and almost 20 percent of those live below poverty level, with a full 30 percent retired. Making the trip into a town that offers services is not an option for many of this county’s residents. It’s 25 miles to a cheap pair of shoes at Wal-Mart, 67 miles to a real city with clothing options, and the tiny local medical clinic and tinier apothecary offer little other than the basics.
In 2004, some 18+ percent of prescription drugs were received through the mail, and although I can’t find stats to prove it, I can’t imagine the last ten years have done anything but increase that percentage, given the rise of on-line shopping. Here in rural Missouri, without supermarkets, superstores or drugstores to rely on, elders depend on the mail for their meds. Even Wal-Mart offers mail service for refills. Ending Saturday service adds one more essential stressor to the process of providing for the chronically ill across rural America. And this, of course, does not address all the OTHER things that come via mail for those of us far from services, making life easier for rural residents with transportation challenges; me, for one.
Meanwhile, dropping Saturday delivery minimizes postal service, decimates a remaining source of middle-class jobs and opportunities, and trashes local post offices as well as huge fleets of vehicles and equipment. It is an assault on a public service guaranteed us by the Constitution and it’s not only fixable, it’s EASILY fixable. This is about eliminating an ill-advised law that was meant to deal the postal service a death blow. And I don’t know about you, but this whole thing REALLY rubs me the wrong way.
The Post Office is one of those things that shouldn’t be ALLOWED to disappear, to be sucked into the vortex of competition-gone-mindless, capitalism-gone-heartless. If you agree, be sure to let your legislator know that in your mind, the post office is just like Mom, home and apple pie, and you expect them to find solutions to this challenge, starting with the reversal of archaic laws that make it impossible for USPS to thrive as a mandatory public service.
Anybody remember Kevin Costner’s The Postman? Recall the respect with which the people remembered postal workers, their oath to deliver no matter how difficult, the awe with which they viewed the comforting assurance of basic human necessities like mail service? Wasn’t that more than mere nostalgia or longing for benign government? Wasn’t it a touchstone of civilization, for community and communication? Wasn’t that respect for basic human rights?
The “neither snow nor rain nor heat … ” quote came from an ancient Greek work by Herodotus describing the Persian system of mounted postal carriers in around 500 B.C.E. That’s a very long time for humans to have depended on this kind of organizing activity; too many generations to count. Lifetimes, really. I don’t think we can just shrug our shoulders as USPS is further weakened, destined to die for the goals of privatization, a canary in the coal mine of big business and greedy plutocracy.
This little bird was targeted for extinction long ago and we’ve done little or nothing to help it thrive or protect itself. Now it depends on us for its continuance. If all we have is our voice, then lets use it effectively. If you’d like, you can sign CREDO’s petition, Tell Congress: Don’t Let Republicans Kill The Post Office, here.
And — although I’ve already written overlong — this is only the first bird to drop. Sequester is on its way, taking an across-the-board percentage of every government subsidized program we depend on. Republicans went home on break, refusing to deal with the sequester’s inevitability and ignoring the offer Obama has left on the table. They seem ready to kill government even if it takes them with it.
Despite Obama having already cut spending by over $2.5 trillion, traded out for $617 in revenue from top earners, Boehner and the Baggers don’t seem too upset by the shitstorm due to hit them. Yes, they’ll be blamed, no matter how much they try to shift responsibility to the left. Almost half of them are new and don’t remember the last time government shut down. Ask Clinton and Gingrich if they’d like to relive those 28 days of stand-off and emergency! For those of you who’d like to know how this might impact us, here are a couple of reads to prepare us for what’s likely ahead, here and here.
There are canaries everywhere we look, my dears. It’s best to learn to recognize them as the warning signals they are. It’s best to be vigilant, to deal with them as soon as we can, long before they need resuscitation rather than remediation. That part of our citizenship asks us to be mindful and aware of our mutual rights and liberties. It’s the voice that speaks for the portion of our humanity that we must protect not only for ourselves and one another but for the generations that come. It’s a pledge we make to one another, like, “Neither snow nor rain …”
Good citizens look after each other but then, you know that, don’t you? And if you’ll excuse me now, Gene the Mail Guy just pulled up to the box, skidding across the icy lane like the hero he is. Gotta go see what he brought!