Trump’s move triggered a wave of disbelief, with people taking to social media to thank letter carriers and buying stamps to keep the USPS afloat. But the truth is, the Postal Service has been under attack by conservatives for years. Trump’s personal hostility to the USPS—“the Post Office is a joke,” he said on Friday—merges with a long-standing Republican embrace of both postal privatization and the trope that the USPS is a mismanaged business. The Trump administration is now playing a costly game of chicken to get what it sought long before the current crisis: drastic service and facilities cuts, more noncareer labor and outsourcing, and a rollback of employee rights and benefits. If it succeeds, we’ll all be the poorer for it.
Trump’s personal hostility has merged with long-standing conservative antipathy to endanger a vital civic institution.
When I carried the mail in Durham, North Carolina—back in the 1990s, before I became a historian—an older man used to greet me joyfully, “Here comes Uncle Sam!” To him, and to others on my route, I represented not just the chance of a letter, but also a connection to the federal government—and to an institution that had probably provided a relative with a steady job, and a path into the middle class. The United States Postal Service is among the country’s most popular institutions, enjoying approval ratings as high as 90 percent. The USPS delivers 48 percent of the world’s mail to 160 million homes. Yet in late March, as the Postal Service struggled to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump threatened to veto a version of the $2.2 trillion bipartisan CARES Act stimulus package that contained a $13 billion grant to help the USPS keep meeting its payroll, gassing its vehicles, and paying its suppliers. What he finally signed instead included a $10 billion loan that would require approval by the Treasury Department.
On March 18, 1970, the successors of the original post riders revolted against both their employer and their union leaders in an eight-day nationwide illegal wildcat strike, demanding a living wage and job dignity as well as greater union democracy. The roots of the Postal Service’s current financial crisis lie in the compromise legislation that followed the strike, the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act. The act replaced the Post Office Department with a hybrid government agency and corporation that would provide full collective-bargaining rights to employees, become financially self-supporting, and continue to provide universal service at reasonable rates. Although the USPS provides a service mandated by the Constitution and federal law, it has received no federal funds since 1982, relying on postal product sales to keep revenue ahead of expenditures.
The Post Office has historically provided an avenue toward middle-class stability for a wide variety of Americans—veterans, new immigrants, rural migrants—but for no group has it been more important than for African Americans. The Post Office was for many years the nation’s largest employer of black workers; in the decades that followed its conversion into the USPS, blacks were at least twice as likely to work for the Postal Service as whites. The Postal Service today is 37 percent minority and 37 percent female.
Conservatives, who had previously argued for the privatization of the Post Office, continued those efforts after the 1971 creation of the Postal Service. But not until 2006, during the George W. Bush administration, did those efforts gain much traction. That year, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, imposing a unique burden on the Postal Service by requiring it to pre-fund retirees’ health benefits through annual payments of roughly $5.5 billion, for 10 years. These obligations, the rise of the internet, and the Great Recession combined put the USPS in the red, where it remains today: The USPS had $11 billion of outstanding debt at the end of the last fiscal year (which was up to $14.4 billion as of April 1). Excluding those debt payments, it should be noted, the USPS has finished each year with revenue surpluses for most of the past decade—as a 2018 Trump administration report documented.
The Postal Service survived the 2008–09 crisis in a diminished state. American homes and businesses did not stop growing or depending on the USPS, but hundreds of post offices and mail-processing centers were shuttered, many others had their hours cut, some services were reduced, and the postal workforce has lost 126,000 career positions since 2009.
NEXT STORY: Lead with Empathy During the COVID-19 Crisis