Union Tops Bow to Profit Drive-Postal Workers Face Jobs Massacre
Workers Vanguard No. 1028
9 August 2013
Monday, August 19, 2013
Union Tops Bow to Profit Drive-Postal Workers Face Jobs Massacre
In the past two years, postal workers have been subjected to waves of draconian layoffs linked to service cutbacks and post office closures. As many as 220,000 union jobs are at stake as Washington, goaded by capitalists standing to profit directly from privatization and by ideologues hell-bent on “downsizing” government, takes the ax to this essential social service. Under Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s plans, 211 mail-processing plants will have closed by the end of this year, with more closures projected after that. This alone will eliminate 35,000 jobs while slowing mail delivery. Meanwhile, trucking and custodial jobs are being contracted out to private companies in California, New Jersey and elsewhere. Particularly dependent on the postal service, the poor, the elderly and minorities are hit hardest as post office hours are cut and first-class mail delivery standards are relaxed.
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is the second-largest employer in the country after Wal-Mart. Its unionized public workforce—some 550,000 workers, down from 683,000 in 2007—makes it a big, juicy target for the enemies of labor. The postal cutbacks are a special threat to black workers, who make up 21 percent of the workforce. USPS is also a significant employer of Latinos and Asians, and 40 percent of its workers are women.
For generations, the post office was one of the few places where black people could get decent jobs, including during the Jim Crow era when even college-educated blacks were systematically excluded from most occupations. At the same time, racist discrimination pervaded the postal service. Letter carriers were usually white so as to present a “white face” to the public, and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) continued to have separate black and white locals in the South until that practice was banned by the federal government in 1962, at the height of Southern civil rights struggles. Black postal workers’ struggles against racism in the workplace and inside the unions in the post-World War II era were an important component of the early civil rights movement. This made them a particular target of the purges of reds and union militants during the McCarthy period.
Universal postal service and national post offices were integral to industrial development under capitalism. The need for speedy mail delivery was a factor in the development of railroads in the 19th century and air transport in the 20th. In the past quarter century, however, postal workers have been hit by privatization, outsourcing and job slashing in a range of advanced capitalist countries, particularly in the European Union and Japan. In the Netherlands, privatization has progressed so far that, in conditions redolent of Charles Dickens’ time, mail sorting and delivery are done out of private houses by casual workers denied contracts and benefits and paid measly piecework wages. In Britain, the former Labour government opened the way to privatizations and forced through tens of thousands of job cuts, longer workweeks, speedup, effective pay cuts and office closures. The current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is poised to sell off the Royal Mail outright. In response, the Communications Workers Union has threatened to ballot its members for a national strike.
In the U.S., the pretext for closures and layoffs is the deficits in the postal services budget. The “free market” apostles leading the attack scream that the postal service needs to make a profit. But mail is a basic public service, like garbage collection, running water, public transit, education and health care. The requirement that the post office generate all its own revenue dates back to the 1970 Postal Service Reorganization Act. In order to expose postal workers to “market discipline,” the Post Office Department was reorganized as the self-funded, semi-independent agency USPS, which nevertheless remained subject to Congressional oversight.
In 2002, the government declared that USPS was “overfunding” pensions paid into the federal Civil Service Retirement System to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Postal union officials argued that this money—in actuality, deferred wages—be used by USPS to stave off rate increases and otherwise keep the postal service “competitive.” Workers saw the question differently: they wanted full funding of their pensions and health care!
In 2006, Congress and the Bush White House cooked up a scheme, codified in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), to shuffle retiree health care funds onto the Treasury Department’s balance sheet, where they could be used to help offset the federal deficit. Originally supported by the NALC leadership, the measure gave USPS until 2016 to pay 50 years’ worth of projected health care benefits—as much as $100 billion—into a new Retiree Health Benefits Fund. This has led to the massive postal service deficits that have put wind in the sails of the union-busters and profiteers who want to break up USPS and sell it for a song.
The drive to ax postal jobs, while long in the making, accelerated in recent years as part of the bipartisan, one-sided class war against public employees unions, as working people and the poor are made to pay for the bosses’ economic crisis. Donahoe was elected in 2010 by a USPS Board of Governors packed with corporate lobbyists appointed by the White House. At every turn, Donahoe has sought to bust the postal unions and undermine the service while corporations such as Pitney Bowes, FedEx and UPS jockey for the profits they expect to get if USPS is privatized. When he demanded that Congress invalidate the clauses in union contracts that prohibit layoffs of workers with at least six years of service, he complained that he could not get rid of enough workers fast enough through attrition, buyouts, etc.
The latest attack originating from Capitol Hill is the “Postal Reform Act,” which was submitted on June 13 by California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, a point man for the right-wing Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. The bill would end Saturday delivery for first-class mail and begin to phase out door-to-door delivery. Putting USPS under a “temporary governance authority,” the measure would ban layoff protections from union contracts and target 30 percent of post offices for closure in favor of contracted retail outlets.
1970 Postal Strike Defied the Law and Won
Facing these attacks, postal workers are crippled by union misleaders who have all but relinquished labor’s own weapons, not daring to even threaten a strike in defense of their members’ jobs and benefits. It took hard class struggle—not begging Congress or the White House—for labor to wrest real gains from the capitalist masters. This lesson is part of the postal workers’ own history, as seen in the 1970 national postal strike. Defying the government’s anti-strike laws, the strike won huge gains for postal workers and their unions and advanced the cause of the entire labor movement.
By 1970, the struggle for black rights and the U.S. rulers’ counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam had polarized society. While students and others staged mass antiwar demonstrations, workers’ wages were being rapidly eroded by inflation caused by the war. Exemplifying the dramatic rise in rank-and-file labor militancy, in March 1970 the New York branch of the NALC walked out in defiance of their national leadership. Like all federal workers, postal workers were banned from striking. On March 23, President Richard Nixon declared a national emergency and ordered 23,000 troops to occupy the post offices in New York. But the wildcat spread throughout the country, mostly against the will of the union leadership. With young and black militants taking the lead, postal workers defied back-to-work court injunctions. All told, over 210,000 workers struck nationally in the largest strike ever against the U.S. government.
It is not accidental that the action started in New York City, where a series of public workers strikes in defiance of the bosses’ laws had taken place, including the victorious 1966 NYC transit strike. In 1968, Mayor John Lindsay backed off from his threat to use the National Guard against striking sanitation workers after the Central Labor Council, under pressure from the city’s workers, threatened a general strike.
When the NYC letter carriers went out, the Spartacist League issued a leaflet on March 23 headlined: “Postal Strike Aids All Workers! Answer Any Troops’ Use by General Strike!” The leaflet pointed out: “The same army that Nixon is threatening to use in breaking the postal strike is being used to suppress the Vietnamese workers and peasants in order to keep Asia safe for American business.” It went on:
“To win this strike, the postal workers need an aggressive leadership, capable of bargaining hard against the government, going to jail if necessary, organizing mass support rallies, and appealing to other groups of workers. More than that, the postal workers need the active support of the entire labor movement.... If troops are brought in, the entire city labor movement must go out on strike.”
The leaflet concluded by demanding the right to strike for all workers and calling for the working class to break with the Democrats and Republicans and build its own party.
Nixon figured out quickly that you can’t sort the mail with bayonets. The Post Office Department quickly conceded wage increases and collective bargaining rights, with no reprisals. Not only was the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) formed out of the strike, but the postal wildcat helped spur the rapid growth of public sector unions in the 1970s. However, strikes by federal workers remained banned, and union officials increasingly used federal and state anti-strike laws, often including the threat of big fines and jail time for union leaders, as an excuse for shelving the strike weapon.
The labor bureaucracy’s subservience to anti-labor laws led to a crushing defeat for all workers when the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike was smashed. PATCO members were among those unionists who had been inspired by the 1970 postal strike, carrying out a number of job actions to win union recognition and better pay and working conditions prior to the decisive 1981 showdown with the government. Using plans drawn up by the Democratic Carter administration, Republican president Ronald Reagan moved to crush the strike he declared illegal. PATCO leaders were dragged off to jail in chains and military personnel were dispatched to help run the system.
With anger in the labor movement mounting against Reagan’s strikebreaking, the SL called for the unions in the industry to shut down the airports in defense of PATCO. But the craven AFL-CIO officialdom refused any such course of action, and the union was busted. The postal union misleaders did their bit by rushing to accept a sellout contract rather than strike alongside PATCO. The government’s smashing of PATCO ushered in a decades-long drive by the capitalists to gut the unions and drive down wages.
As giveback contracts and tiered wage scales increasingly became the norm, in 1984 postal workers were pressured to accept major contract concessions. Meanwhile, horrendous work conditions were leading to several cases of workers “going postal.” Commenting on this phenomenon, a letter carrier wrote to Workers Vanguard:
“There hasn’t been a nationwide strike since 1970, and particularly since PATCO was busted in 1981...management has turned the screws ever tighter, getting more work out of fewer workers.... Forced overtime is a way of life.... Back and neck injuries are endemic.... In the absence of strike action and with our union bureaucrats selling us out in every conceivable way, the intense pressure and exploitation have driven some postal workers to desperate and crazy acts. What we really need is some hard class struggle. It’ll take a workers revolution to sweep away our exploiters once and for all.”
— “The Post Office Drives You Crazy,” WV No. 542, 10 January 1992
Begging Democrats, Rejecting Class Struggle
Postal workers today are weakened by being divided into many unions. The largest, with over 200,000 members each, are the NALC and the APWU, with smaller numbers in the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (part of the Laborers union). In 2011, the APWU agreed to a concessionary contract while keeping a no-layoff clause for six-year employees. The other three unions got similar contracts through binding arbitration.
Faced with a full-bore assault on jobs and benefits, the union officials have readily accepted a framework in which the only two choices posed are dismantling the postal service or keeping the post office intact by screwing the workers! Calling to “Save America’s Postal Service,” they pitch the problem as the postal service being uniquely and unfairly burdened by the legal requirements for funding these benefits. In thrall to the capitalist profit motive, the union tops complain that the mandate to “pre-fund” retiree health care prevents USPS from competing on level ground with private companies like UPS. They also object to the legal ban on developing new products like secure e-mail, which prevents the postal service from grabbing market share from Google.
The kind of “struggle” offered by the leaders of the APWU and NALC is to beg the class enemy in Congress, wooing sympathetic Democrats whom they sell to the membership as “friends of labor,” supplemented by the occasional street protest. Reformists like the International Socialist Organization and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) aid and abet these trade-union bureaucrats in their diversionary schemes. Both groups enthusiastically back Communities and Postal Workers United (CPWU), which was founded in May 2012 at a Chicago conference of Labor Notes, a social-democratic publication associated with the Solidarity organization.
CPWU has mainly organized public-relations stunts and civil disobedience actions in order to pressure USPS, Congress and the White House. Thus a four-day “D.C. Hunger Strike to Save the Post Office” in June 2012, heavily built by the PSL’s ANSWER coalition, was centered on lobbying Congress. The PSL has even created a Web site, Justicefirst.org, where anyone can print out the placard “Saturday Delivery: The People Want It & It’s the Law!”—a fair summation of the labor bureaucrats’ cringing legalism.
To placate postal workers’ anger, the NALC and other postal unions endorsed March 24 rallies to save Saturday mail delivery. Protests against budget cuts, closures and mail delay took place in 112 cities and drew thousands of union members. Held in out-of-the-way locations on a Sunday, when post offices are closed, these rallies exemplified the role of the reformists as water boys for the bureaucracy. At a rally in Maryland that his group helped organize, PSL leader Brian Becker stood shoulder to shoulder with APWU and NALC officials, who were only too happy to let the workers blow off some steam. Giving their efforts a faintly militant gloss, Becker paid lip service to the 1970 strike while neglecting to mention that this was a wildcat strike opposed by most union officials and deemed illegal by the state.
Budgetary shenanigans and outright thievery of workers’ pensions and health benefits by the capitalists are nothing new. In the private sector, bankruptcy has long been a favorite method of airline, auto and coal bosses to dissolve union contracts and discharge pension and retiree health care obligations into thin air. States and municipalities have routinely underfunded pensions or stopped paying altogether in times of budgetary crisis—in Detroit today, this means leaving tens of thousands to twist in the wind. Meanwhile, Wall Street regularly scrapes the cream off the top of massive pension fund investments, to say nothing of profits derived from the 401(k) scam that has largely replaced defined-benefit pensions since the 1980s.
Throughout the labor movement, a new leadership is needed to chart a course of class struggle against the capitalists and their government. Fighting for such a leadership is a key part of building a workers party that can lead all the exploited and oppressed in sweeping away the racist capitalist order through socialist revolution. When those who labor rule, we can begin to rebuild this society through a planned, socialist economy for the benefit of all.