Post Office Reform: Sleet and Rain and the Whole Damn Thing
July 7, 1975
“For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery.”
— Thomas Pynchon, “The Crying of Lot 49”
Good news for the enemies of government. The machinery is on the fritz. In fact, the people in Tom Pynchon’s novel would do well to employ an underground mail system to get their letters delivered; the chances being statistically verified at eight to five that the covert route would beat the postal service by a day and a half. If life would follow art …
No such luck. Despite the ever increasing number of suggestions that the postal service be interred in a burial mound of old undelivered shut-off notices, the prognosis for a full, rich, if somewhat deficit-ridden life remains constant. Far too many powerful interests feed off this particular salt lick for anything like serious reform to take place. So, despite the fact that the postal service gives the sloppiest service to those people who foot the largest share of the bill —the first class mailers — the chances of open competition or the purchase of the mail-handling franchise by private enterprise is absolutely nil. So what else is new?
Not much, except the whole blundering process is going to cost a good deal more next year. For one, the four postal unions, representing some 700,000 postal employees, are currently negotiating a new contract. Their minimum demands, once all the dust settles, will include an 11 per cent pay increase, the retention of the current cost of living increase clause, and a continuation of the no layoff provision. How much will all this cost? About five cents for every letter you send.
A government-run Post Office was provided for at the beginning of the nation’s history because of Ben Franklin’s influence. Presumably at one point or another the goddamn thing worked, but that was well before my time and since the 1960s the latest news on the postal front has always been bad. If there is one single reason for this phenomenon, it is probably the fact that early on our political leaders decided that the Post Office was just a jim-dandy place to squirrel away all the patronage bloaters too dumb to put in more prominent positions. As a result, the postal service hierarchy often resembles a ward of lunatics let loose on a three-day pass.
Partly in response to this sorry state of affairs, but more with an interest toward saving their political skins, Congress passed a Postal Reorganization Act back in 1971. Prior to the act, Congress had sole control over the price of a postage stamp and the salary levels of postal employees. It should come as no great surprise that both were kept at unnaturally low rates. But there were a couple of unfortunate side effects to this stinginess. Postal workers were making less than the national average income and the postal service was running at a deficit of $1 billion annually.
In the winter of 1971, New York City based postal employees went out on a wildcat strike which began to spread across the nation. Howls went up from the business and communications communities, and suddenly the Nixon plan to make the postal service a public, nonprofit corporation seemed like a hell of a good way for our fearless legislators to wash their hands of a messy situation. They passed the bill instantly.
Unfortunately, the only thing the act effectively reorganized was the way the postal unions bargained collectively with their employers. Whereas prior to reorganization, the four unions used to lobby pay raises among the various members of the Post Office subcommittees, now they were free to bargain with the post-master general directly.
Allowing postal officials their own heads has subjected the postal service to an unending series of unmitigated disasters. Take, for example, labor negotiations. Prior to reorganization, Congress used to jerk around the postal unions, playing off their demands against those of the special interests, the second and third class mail users. At the end of the year the postal workers were lucky if they wound up getting any raise at all. Occasionally he would be lumped in with other federal employees and given a 5 per cent boost.
Starting in 1973, however, the unions got to negotiate with the postal service directly. They walked away from the bargaining table with a cost of living increase (one cent an hour for each 0.4 per cent increase in the Consumer Price Index) added on to the $1100 a year pay increase. In two years of spiraling inflation the cost of living clause has netted the postal workers a startling $1250 in salary increases, making the 1973 pay package worth close to $2500 or a 25 per cent increase.
Another clause negotiated into the 1973 contract with the consent of the hapless postal administrators was a “no layoff” clause. This guaranteed full employment to 700,000 postal workers, despite the fact that the country was already slipping into an economic recession back in ’73. But perhaps the most devastating effect of the postal administration’s handling of labor relations was the overall militancy among postal employees it helped to nurture. Instead of fighting the 1970 strike (which was patently illegal), postal officials used the strike the get Congress to pass the Reorganization Act. Once the bill was signed by Nixon, these same postal officials refused to press any charges against union leaders or assess any fines against union treasuries despite the fact that both options were available to them under the law. Predictably, this has led to the general viewpoint among postal workers that if they don’t get what they want at the bargaining table they can always go out on strike.
Caving in to strike tactics has hurt the more stable leadership of the postal unions almost as much as it has hurt the postal service. Within the National Association of Letter Carriers, union president James Rademacher has survived two consecutive challenges to his leadership from members of the New York local of the Letter Carrier’s Union, the same local that led the wildcat strike in 1970. The issues, naturally, are that Rademacher and his associates are too soft and the contracts they win are “sellouts.” This, in turn, forces Rademacher to resist even the slightest management demand and sets the stage for an even more expensive contract settlement than the one Rademacher won in 1973.
If the postal administration’s efforts to keep down salary increases have proved less than blinding, its efforts to reduce the amount of labor required to deliver the mails are absolutely hilarious. For instance, there is “Mech and Tech,” the postal program of mechanization and technological development.
The nickname is entirely appropriate, since the whole program is run like a vast vaudeville comedy routine. Mech and Tech was first instituted back in the 1950s by Arthur Summerfield, who was Eisenhower’s postmaster general. The idea was to make the canceling, sorting, and distribution of mail as efficient as possible, while at the same time cutting down on the amount of labor needed to get the job done. Before the Post Office was made an independent agency in 1970, as much as 82 per cent of its budget was attributed to labor costs.
As you might have guessed, Mech and Tech hasn’t worked out too well. One problem is that, back at the beginning, a decision was made to build the system piecemeal instead of designing a completely integrated system. Because of this decision, the letters just sorted at a rate of 40,000 a minute by the latest whoopedo spindizzy have to sit around in trays until some guy decides to pick one up by hand and place it on the conveyer belt heading for their next mechanical operation. Systems like this give time and motion men nightmares.
Then there are the machines themselves. One of the oldest is the Mark II letter canceler. It whips letters along a narrow chute, crushes their contents, and hopefully, cancels the stamp. While watching several in action, I saw four different envelopes systematically ripped apart. A trash basket was thoughtfully placed next to each machine just for such emergencies. The man guiding me around the Post Office assured me that each letter would be taped back together at some point later in the day. By hand, no doubt.
People at the Post Office assured me that the Mark II was a Stone Age vintage machine compared to some of their later models, and indeed it is. There is the Ziptronic Mail Translator, a semiautomatic mail sorter that deposits a letter in front of the eyes of keypunch operator at the rate of one a second. He in turn punches the keys that send the letter on its way to one of 277 geographically divided bins. Ideally, the operator can sort 3600 letters per hour. In reality, the figure is more like 1700. And of that 1700, a General Accounting Office study found, the error rate may be as high as 17 per cent. One step up from Ziptronic is the AOCR (I don’t care what the hell it stands for), a $3 million momma that automatically reads the typewritten addresses on the envelopes, shoots them off to the correct bin, and cancels the stamp at the same time. Ideally, it is able to handle 86,000 pieces of mail an hour but it keeps getting jammed up, its accuracy rate is subject to question, and it still requires 16 people to operate it. Some other day I’ll tell you about the air blower.
The net result of all this idiocy is that the postal service has invested in a multibillion dollar Mech and Tech program that has more bugs in it than a mattress in a Bowery flophouse. It doesn’t work. There is little chance it will work at any time in the foreseeable future. And meanwhile the percentage labor costs the program was designed to cut down on has risen from 82 to 85 per cent.
Another postal service brainstorm that was supposed to cut down on expensive manpower is something called “the Kokomo Plan.” The plan, first tested out in Kokomo, Indiana, involves the standardization of mail delivery routes through the use of computer programming. The Post Office sent out a small army of time and motion men to study the routes walked by mail delivery men. The idea was to come up with a nationwide profile of what the most efficient delivery routes would look like in all cities of 50,000 people. Once the computer profile was developed, the postal service could then feed all the existing routes throughout the country into the IBM mixmaster and out would pop new more efficient routes that would eliminate up to 15,000 unnecessary jobs.
The Letter Carrier’s Association took one look at the Kokomo plan and went through the roof. Even though the ’73 contract guaranteed the postal service the right to make work adjustments without union approval, the union voted last August at its national convention to strike if the Kokomo plan was implemented in any other city. The letter carriers’ reaction was not difficult to understand. Back in the old days, before the postal service administrators gave away the store, one of the attractions of postal work that compensated for the low pay scale was the relatively easy work load of the mailman. I know this for a fact because I worked as a letter carrier some years back in a suburb of Chicago. As a temporary employee, I was assigned to deliver the mail on routes where the regular mailman was on vacation. While occasionally I got caught with a difficult route that took almost all day to deliver, most of the time I had all my bundles finished by two or three o’clock in the afternoon. Since I never had the same route more than two or three days at a time, I was always unfamiliar with where I was going. The regular mailmen, who did the same route every day, year after year, finished in half the time, an accomplishment they would periodically brag about. When the time and motion men started following letter carriers around the streets of Kokomo, no doubt the work process was slowed down considerably. But it is difficult to hide a three or four hour gap in time no matter how slow you walk. The specter of losing their sacred three-hour lunch breaks scared the bejesus out of most of the mailmen.
A more legitimate concern, as far as the mailmen were concerned, was the possibility of the postal service screwing up the routes so badly that you would need King Kong to carry the mail sacks. A computer program is only as good as the numbers you put into it. Given the postal service’s track record with “Mech and Tech,” it isn’t difficult to imagine a poorly laid-out national route profile that would take an average mailman 10 or 12 hours to deliver.
Whether or not the letter carriers’ objections to the Kokomo plan are reasonable, they have proved sufficiently strenuous to sidetrack the Kokomo plan indefinitely. Instead of forcing the issue at the bargaining table, the postal officials agreed to cancel plans to implement the study in Providence, Rhode Island, a few months ago. For the time being, the Kokomo plan is dead, the mailmen still have their three-hour lunches, and the public is still paying for some 15,000 extra mailmen.
If the poor blighters who run the postal service haven’t had much luck cutting down on manpower costs, it follows that they’ve made little headway in trimming the annual deficit that the Congress just as annually makes up with our tax dollars. Prior to the 1970 Reorganization Act, the Post Office was running at a deficit of some $1 billion a year. The act, among other things, was touted as a way of making the postal service self-sufficient by 1980 or 1984, depending on the sense of irony of the expert you happen to talk to. Since even Congress couldn’t swallow the idea that one piece of legislation would wipe out all that much deficit overnight, one of the provisions of the bill called for an annual government appropriation of 10 per cent of the postal service budget. This money was to cover the so-called “public service” costs of delivering the mails. The appropriation was supposed to fade out gradually over the course of 10 years until the government no longer contributed any tax dollars to the postal service and it was run self-sufficiently like any other business. Five years later, the annual deficit is now more like $1.5 billion.
The reason for the growing deficit is quite simple. The rate structure of the postal service overcharges first class mail users and undercharges almost free riders. For example, nonprofit religious publications pay perhaps a penny or two for the privilege of sending out magazines. At a recent congressional subcommittee hearing, John Fink, president of the Catholic Press Association, stated, “We cannot estimate how many religious publications, will cease to exist if second class mailers are forced to pay their own way … ” Mr. Fink went on to explain that he believed religious publications shouldn’t have to “pay their own way” because they were needed to “continue to have an impact on the moral fiber of the country.” Sans moral fiber we could probably have a nine-cent stamp.
The postal service rate structure must also take into account its own well closeted monster, parcel post. As anyone who has ever availed themselves of the service can tell you, parcel post employs several thousands of men and women who, for one reason or another, take great delight in crushing, tearing apart, or completely destroying the most sturdily wrapped packages. Due to this strange preoccupation on the part of its employees, the parcel post division of the postal service has lost some 40 per cent of its business to private firms in the last 10 years, notably United Parcel. The only way it can continue to keep its remaining package business is to keep its rates low, forcing private companies to stay competitive. At current low rates, it’s unprofitable for UPS and the other private carriers to skim off much more of the parcel post’s business. Naturally, the low rates result in larger deficits, higher appropriations, and increasingly expensive first class stamps. But if the postal service raises its parcel post rates it will lose more business, and, since the union contracts call for a no-layoff clause, they can’t correct the loss by laying off employees.
The way the managers of the postal service decided to get themselves out of this particular bind was to invest in a $1 billion mass mechanization scheme for parcel post. Unfortunately it doesn’t work any better than the Mech and Tech program for the other classes of mail.
Hence, there is currently a bill in the House Post Office Subcommittee that would increase the annual appropriation for public service costs from 10 to 20 per cent. The dream of a self-sufficient postal service is about as practical as chasing down the Holy Grail. A General Accounting Office study a while back claimed that if the Post Office ever was put on a self-sustaining basis, given the current trends, the price of a first class stamp would be somewhere between 35 and 40 cents.
Which brings us to the infinitely interesting proposition of what the hell to do with the Post Office. The most reasonable suggestion so far proposed is to allow private companies to get into the mail delivery business. This solution is not without drawbacks. While it is certainly likely that private firms could deliver mail more efficiently than the postal service (trained chimps would probably run a close second in this regard) it is also just as likely that private firms would not deliver mail up back country roads or even from one small town to another. This would lead to skimming and leave the Post Office with uneconomical mail routes and bigger deficits.
No basic reform of the Post Office is going to occur because a great many powerful interests — the unions, the newspapers, the advertisers, the churches, etc. — pretty much enjoy things the way they are. Congress will no doubt pass some bill raising the level of government appropriations. And despite some setbacks, the postal service will certainly raise the price of a first class stamp. The unions will raise the salary levels of their members, which in turn will increase the deficit. Back to square one. ■
The Eight and a Half Cent Hustle
A Postal Rate Commission’s law judge recently let the cat out of the bag when he ruled that the price of a first class stamp should be reduced to 8 1/2 ¢ and the pricing structure for other classes of mail should be increased. The judge claimed that under the current rate structure. first class mail users are paying part of the freight for the other classes. A lot of people in postal circles have been aware of this for many years but law judge Seymour Wenner was the first government official to admit this publicly.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2020