This is how intertwined the Medicare for All and public mail movements are: if we had a national single payer system in place for the last decade, the USPS would be running a surplus. Steve DeMatteo of the American Postal Workers Union joins us to discuss the surprising connections between the postal service and our healthcare system, the political and financial obstacles that the USPS has faced under the Trump administration, and also how you can fight to protect this vital public service.


Show Notes

This week we welcome to the podcast Steve DeMatteo from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)! The postal service has become crucial for our democracy during the COVID pandemic, as many voters shift to using mail ballots for safety concerns. TOTALLY COINCIDENTALLY, the Trump administration has also attempted to undermine and privatize the postal service in the run-up to the November elections.

We invited Steve on to talk about the important and, for most people, surprising ways in which protecting our public postal service and establishing healthcare as a right are intertwined.

The APWU and its President Mark Dimondstein are among the leading advocates for Medicare for All in the labor movement. Why? As Steve says, postal workers are in a similar position to many workers. Although the APWU has won fairly good health benefits for their members, the rapidly rising costs of healthcare are brought to the table by their employers (the postal service) every contract, and used as a counterweight for winning decent wages and other important benefits for postal workers.

What is the scale of the United States Postal Service (USPS), and how is it different from private mail companies like UPS or FedEx? The postal service employs more than 600,000 workers across the country (second only to Amazon as a national employer!), at 30,000+ post offices around the country. The USPS is also the largest civilian employer of veterans in the country. It is the only service explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and the USPS actually predates the Constitution – in 1775, Benjamin Franklin served as the first Postmaster General.

In contrast to this history, in which the USPS has served as an integral part of American life since the country’s founding, for-profit mailing companies like UPS or FedEx operate on a very different model. USPS service is universal, and does not charge discriminatory rates depending on whether you’re rich or poor, or whether you live in an urban or rural area. For-profit mailing companies, like healthcare corporations, will not mail to unprofitable areas, and will charge every consumer as much as they can. In fact, about 25% of mail sent by UPS and FedEx are dropped off to a public post office for the final leg of your delivery – since for-profit mailing companies won’t service the final address! (See this IPS study on how 70 million Americans are up-charged by UPS and FedEx because they don’t live in a major city.)

Now that we understand what the postal service is, how do we explain the fact that the USPS has struggled financially in recent years – even before coronavirus? Most people will never hear about it, but almost all of the USPS’s losses stem from a 2006 law called the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act,” which required the postal service to pre-fund retiree health benefits 75 years in advance (!!!). That means the USPS has to pay, right now, for the health benefits of future USPS retirees who haven’t even been born yet. No other government agency, and certainly no private corporation, has to pre-fund their healthcare benefits three generations in advance, and it created an impossible financial situation. If you read or watch mainstream news on why the postal service has struggled financially, though, you will never hear about this 2006 law.

The reason the press overlooks the reality of the postal service’s struggles is due to a concerted effort to demonize the USPS – because it IS a universal, public service – and to privatize it. Despite these attacks, the postal service still has a 91% approval rating.

Many people may not realize that, although it is regulated by law and laid out in the Constitution, the postal service does not receive tax dollars, and is financially self-sustaining. If it weren’t for the 2006 law, the USPS would have been profitable in just about every year.

So how has coronavirus impacted the USPS? Many of the businesses that create the largest mail volume stopped doing business for a long time. Early on in the pandemic, it appeared that the losses could be catastrophic for the USPS, but new estimates project that the USPS will lose “only” $50 billion due to coronavirus. Even so, this is a potential tipping point for the postal service, given the losses it was forced to take by the 2006 law.

Of course, we can’t get through a podcast without Trump ruining something. In this case it was Trump’s appointed Postmaster General Louis Dejoy – the first Postmaster General in several centuries with no experience whatsoever with the postal service. In response to the collapse of mail volume due to COVID, Dejoy in August implemented a series of policies that slowed down the mail and limited service. These were fully in line with the Trump administration’s stated goal of privatizing the postal service: they created a 2018 Commission to lay out a pathway for privatization, including price hikes and service cuts. These cuts, however, triggered a national grassroots backlash, and Dejoy was dragged before Congress, eventually reversing course on most of the changes he had implemented. Organizing works!

Attacks on the USPS also have profound implications for our healthcare system. As Steve explains, even before COVID-19 the postal service was delivering over 1.2 billion prescription drug orders (yes: 1.2 billion!) per year – including over 80% of prescriptions shipped by the Veterans Administration. This service is particularly crucial for people with mobility issues, or who live in remote areas where it’s challenging to travel to the nearest pharmacy. The postal service could be playing an even more vital role in our healthcare system – such as the early plan, scrapped by the White House, to deliver masks to every household in America.

We asked Steve about parallels between the fight for Medicare for All, and the fight to preserve a public, universal postal service. The most important, fundamental principle of the USPS – he tells us – is that it provides equitable service, at the same rate, for every single American, no matter who you are or where you live. Exactly the model that we’re fighting for in our healthcare system. The same can’t be said about private mail companies, since this type of equitable service is incompatible with the profit motive. If the USPS were privatized, it would have a catastrophic impact on equal access to mail, and would adversely impact businesses as well.

Steve emphasizes that winning the fight to protect the postal service is important for winning Medicare for All, because it is a model of how universal, publicly administered basic services are good for our country.

So how do we get involved with supporting the postal service? The best way is to visit usmailnotforsale.org, and click “Get Involved”! You should also call your Senator and Representative, and let them know that you expect the postal service to be a priority for them when Congress finally starts to move on a 2nd coronavirus relief package.

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