For many of those who grew up thinking that the U.S. Postal Service was one of the few American institutions that could never fail, the announcements that the agency is considering cutting 120,000 jobs and closing 3,700 locations is a painful reminder of how the once-thriving business is slowly losing its influence and profit-making ability.
With $8.5 billion in losses in 2010 alone, the agency is also proposing the removal of 480,000 pensioners and 600,000 employees from federal health insurance plans, further proof that it may have trouble bouncing back from years spent lingering in the red.
The post office has not received government funding since 1971, and the agency makes its money through revenue derived from mailing fees and other services. In April, USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan claimed that only 19 percent of its 32,000 post offices covered their costs. Though it still delivers 40 percent of the world’s mail, shipping volume is down, and with competitors like FedEx, DHL and UPS biting at their heels, the post office has been forced to rethink their business strategies.
Over the last century, the Postal Service has served as a reliable source of employment for minorities, providing them with a steady stream of well-paying jobs and decent insurance and pension packages. This is particularly true for African-Americans, who have historically regarded postal positions as viable middle collar careers.
According to Philip Rubio, author of There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality, by 1970, blacks made up one-fifth of the postal workforce and “were twice as likely to work at the post office than whites,” which paved the way for many other minorities to seek employment by the agency. The potential cuts to 20 percent of the Postal Service workforce, and the slashing of its benefit programs have left many wondering what effect it will have on those in the black community who depend on the USPS for their livelihoods.
As the nation recovers from a poor economy and staggering unemployment rates that are at Depression-era levels for African Americans nationwide, the proposed layoffs have the potential to send some black households spiraling into a chasm of financial uncertainty. And with a recent Pew Research Center study finding that the Recession hit minorities families the hardest and caused their median wealth to fall well below that of white families, it could also cause thousands of African-American postal workers who were considered to be part of a thriving middle class to become another statistic of this negative trend.
About 39 percent of all post office workers are minorities, and 21 percent are African-Americans, according to William Burrus, the former president of the American Postal Workers Union. In July 2010, Burrus told NPR the story of how he first gained employment in the postal service when he got out of the Army, and about how lucrative these types of careers were to those in the black community who were seeking employment in the 1950s.
“I was looking for a job, and discussed it with my father, who was a product of the upward mobility of the African-American community,” Burrus said on NPR. “And I asked his advice as to would the Postal Service be a good place of employment. ‘He said, it’s your decision, son. But they don’t have strikes.’ I had to find employment. I was a painter and I was looking for something more permanent and more reliable. And I was hired from the exam and went in as a career employee in February of 1958.”
Throughout the years, many black veterans and college graduates flocked to work at the post office, particularly because of the job security these opportunities promised, and “the fact that a civil service appointment meant something, and it was a decent salary, it had other benefits, sick leave, annual leave, and it has status in the community,” Rubio told NPR in the interview with the radio network and Burrus. “Black postal workers in general were oftentimes thought of as middle-class. And, in fact, they were also very much civically engaged. And what you have are people who are well-educated and able to find a job where the hours permit them to go to school or that they can work while they’re trying to start their businesses up or start their practices up.”
The Postal Service first opened up employment opportunities to African-Americans after the Civil War, and although it has helped countless black people build a better financial foundation for their families, many postal workers have had to endure discrimination and unequal pay throughout the agency’s history.
“That was from the start when African-Americans entered the post office, that was how they literally entered the post office was having to fight, first of all, fight to get into the post office and once they were there, fighting discrimination both in the post office and the unions, fighting to – for the right to get promotions, fighting against Jim Crow union locals, which unfortunately persisted right up into the early ‘60s,” added Rubio. “And I talk about how they essentially brought the civil rights movement into the post office, into the labor movement and took labor issues into the civil rights movement.”
The fight, it seems, continues for many black post office employees. The Postal Service has reduced its workforce by 212,000 positions in the past 10 years. In addition to the current set of proposed layoffs, the agency may replace workers with contractors and take all of its current employees and retirees off of its the federal health and retirement benefit plan—which accounts for a third of the Postal Service’s labor expenses—and put them on a new plan run directly by the company. USPS has also proposed eliminating required prepayments into the employee retirement plan, which could save them $5.4 billion this year alone.
The plan calls for the agency to put an end to Saturday service, which would not only have a negative impact on postal employees because of the decreased revenue that will result from the closures, but it would also have a trickle down effect on consumers.
The company recently sent out a statement to its employees that detailed the proposed changes. The statement, entitled “Financial crisis calls for significant actions,” reads:
“We will be insolvent next month due to significant declines in mail volume and retiree health benefit pre-funding costs imposed by Congress. However, exceptional circumstances require exceptional remedies. The Postal Service is facing dire economic challenges that threaten its very existence.”
The proposed plan would require congressional approval and the cuts wouldn’t take effect until 2015, which could provide some USPS employees with the opportunity to look for alternate work.
Rubio, who got his first postal job in 1980, recently wrote an editorial in the New York Daily News, and he spoke about the impact that being employed by the agency had on his life. He also warned of the negative effects the impending layoffs will have on black postal workers.
“When I think of the post office, I don’t just think of an agency that delivers to all homes and businesses in the nation,” he writes. “I think of the postal job I got in 1980 – first as a distribution clerk, then, soon after, as a letter carrier. This was a job that helped us buy a home and send our children to college, helped put my wife through graduate school and allowed me to go on and continue my education and earn a doctorate in history in 2006.”
“Last month, right after the announced planned closures, residents and postal workers in the Bronx held a protest to save post offices in the borough that stands to lose 17 post offices – the most in the city,” he continues. “They told reporters of their concerns over the loss of service and jobs. These voices must be heard. Millions of Americans continue to see the post office as an invaluable nationwide network that provides both jobs and services – and don’t want to see those vanish without a fight.”
Now may be the time for the biggest fight of all for black post office workers. Given the dismal unemployment figures and shaky economic climate, the jobs lost due to the cuts could have a far-reaching impact that will not only effect a generation of minority workers, but the future of the nation’s economy and global mailing options.
And while an ideal outcome that benefits all parties may not be possible, many can only hope that a future resolution will not push back all of the gains made by African-American postal employees over the last century.