June 20, 2014
By Steven Weiner
I wholeheartedly applaud the members of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) who recently took to the streets in 27 U.S. cities amidst shouts of “The US mail is not for sale!” They were vigorously protesting the latest attempt to privatize the United States Postal Service (USPS).
It began as a backroom deal with the office supply chain store Staples. Overriding the union, USPS management agreed to allow Staples, a private, for-profit company, to handle mail at “mini post offices”inside their stores, staffed by their poorly paid employees who have high turnover rates. To date, there are USPS counters in over 80 stores, with plans to put these outlets in over 1500 as early as the coming fall.
As the APWU president, Mark Dimondstein pointed out, “This is a direct assault…on public postal services.” And referring to responsibility for and safety of the mail, he explained: “If we’re going to have mini-Post Offices in Staples stores, they should be operated by uniformed postal employees, who have taken an oath and are accountable to the American people.” I totally agree with Mark Dimondstein.
It’s worth noting many news reports about the postal service’s large deficits, seeming to say that it doesn’t work efficiently. But what these accounts rarely report is the fact that the USPS is required—as no other public or private institution is—to prepay its employee benefits 75 years in advance (even for those employees not yet even hired) at a cost of 5 billion dollars a year! The irony of this is something to see: the same politicians who forced this bill through Congress would happily get rid of the pensions for millions of other unionized government employees if they could.
My own experience illustrates the extent and perils of outsourcing the work of public employees to private firms. I worked as a Computer Specialist for the NYC Department of Education (DOE) and witnessed firsthand the privatization of jobs. These tasks, performed by skilled, unionized workers were outsourced to non-union employees. Consulting firms were paid huge sums to bring in hundreds of workers who most often had no experience in the field of education. Some were so unqualified that much of their work was slipshod and had to be done over; and the DOE, not the consultant firm, was charged for their training! So, money that should have gone to an experienced, unionized work force was instead siphoned off to enrich outside companies.
Now there are escalating and intensive efforts to increase corporate profits by privatizing more and more public services. These include measures intended to weaken, demoralize, and ultimately destroy the unions that represent public employees.
The Success of Unions
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the reason for the continuing, increasingly virulent attacks on unions, including the postal workers, arises from their success in raising the standard of living for millions of workers and their families, thereby cutting into companies’ profits. Unions rose to power in a profit economy, where the profits from a person’s labor went to the owner (or shareholders), not to the person doing the work. In the 1950s and ‘60s, unions were a powerful force in American life; strikes were an effective tool for betterment, and unions achieved new prestige and economic gains. Although employers were never for unions, they were reluctantly tolerated because most companies were still able to profit. That is no longer true. Most companies cannot make profits to the extent they once did and at the same time still pay their employees decent wages and benefits. The only way that our profit-driven economy can stumble along is by impoverishing the American worker, forcing persons to work longer hours while paying them as little as they can get away with. As a result, the New York Times reports (June 15th) that America’s middle class has been steadily declining. Aesthetic Realism taught me that the very success of unions, along with ever-growing competition with U.S. products, have both been major factors weakening profit economics.
Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, explains that the profit system depends:
“…on seeing a person in terms of how much money you can get from him; on a boss and stockholders, who don’t do the work, taking the profits that workers have produced with the labor of their thought and bodies.”
In these last years there have been massive attempts to save the profit system. One large way is the present assault on public services in America, including our postal system—which belongs to each and every one of 320 million Americans. Explains Ellen Reiss in The Right Of #1789:
“Because of …[the] failure of business based on private profit, there has been a huge effort…to privatize publicly run institutions. The technique is to disseminate massive propaganda against the public institutions, and also do what one can to make them fail, including through withholding funding from them. Eminent among such institutions are the public schools and the post office. The desire is to place them in private hands—not for the public good, not so that the American people can fare well—but to keep profit economics going… and to have people feel that the non-profit or public way of owning and employing does not work and that the only way things can possibly be run is through the profit system!”
The Post Office is a proud American public institution, going back well over two centuries to Benjamin Franklin. We should cherish it, improve it, support it, and not yield it to the privatizers and their misleading propaganda.