Not quite two weeks ago, Senator Sanders – who is always protesting something – was on the warpath over the proposed closing of post offices in some small Vermont towns. The USPS wants to shut down a number of its facilities across the nation, not just in Vermont.
Well, actually, it doesn't "want" to shut down the post office in any town. No big organization – from the Pentagon to General Motors – likes to downsize. When it does happen, it is because there is no choice. It is no longer "grow or die," but "shrink or die."
And why does the USPS need to downsize? It has a monopoly on the delivery of first class mail, after all, and isn't shy about raising the price of a stamp. Obviously, e-mail is a competitor. As are UPS & Fed Ex, especially in the delivering of packages and overnight mail. Still ... these are long term trends and it seems unlikely that executives at the USPS just noticed them. They've had time to plan and adjust. Why, all of a sudden, is the USPS in such drastically bad shape that it has lost $20 billion in the last four years – $8.5 of that in fiscal 2010 – and just announced it will be insolvent within a month?
Could some of the problems be traced to
Long-standing labor agreements with two major postal unions [that] prohibit the Postal Service from laying off or reassigning workers because of broken equipment or periods of low mail volume. Instead, idled employees show up for work, sit in a break room or cafeteria and do nothing.
The money isn't big enough to account for the entire deficit – a mere $31.9 million for 1.2 million hours of non-work in 2009 – but one suspects that an organizational culture that accommodates that sort of waste has a fairly high tolerance for slovenly mismanagement.
In the last sad days of the old, privately owned General Motors, workers were assigned to something called a "job bank" and after they had reported for duty in the morning, they would spend the day doing ... nothing. Some found the idleness more stressful than working on the line. But the money was good. And, hey, it was GM and the real jobs would come back when things turned around ...
USPS management is proposing drastic action to include laying off 120,000 people and quitting the federal health and retirement plans because, interestingly, they are too expensive. This would be in breach of its contracts with the unions that represent its employees and require congressional action. The unions, needless to say, have promised to "vehemently oppose" these measures.
As the UAW was willing to ride GM over the cliff and count on its political muscle to look after its interests in the bailout, so the postal unions seem to be counting on Congress for protection. So that taxpayers can continue to pay people to not deliver the mail.
This is out of the playbook that worked for unions in the 1930s and they have seen no reason to change it. They look out for their members and let the public interest take care of itself.
In the debate over the future of the U.S.P.S., Senator Sanders will, no doubt, side with the unions. Which is to say, with the obstructionists.
He always does.