Return to Sender: Saving the U.S. Post Office Is a Racial Justice Issue

Posted by News Beat on August 21, 2020  •  15 min read
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The performance of the U.S. Postal Service took center stage in recent weeks as voting rights activists and Democratic lawmakers condemned President Donald Trump for undermining the agency in the run up to November's general election, accusing him of waging a war against America's most popular federal agency.

On Aug. 13, Trump expressly vowed to curtail billions the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is seeking to boost the Postal Service amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming November election, which is expected to see a record number of mail-in ballots.

In an interview with Fox Business News, Trump said Democrats “need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots," adding that "if they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting.”

Trump, who falsely claimed the 2016 popular vote was marred by fraud (he lost by 2.9 million votes), has similarly made baseless claims about mail voting.

Trump's remarks come on the heels of an apparent mail slowdown across the country as a result of new policies put in place by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a GOP megadonor and Trump supporter, who took over the position in June.

Under DeJoy, overtime has been eliminated for thousands of postal workers and letter carriers have been instructed to leave mail behind in order to avoid delays. There have also been reports of mail sorting machines being removed, further raising concern about the delivery of potentially millions of mailed ballots this fall.

Amid the backlash, DeJoy has suspended these controversial changes until after the election.

The Postal Service and Black Employment

But as you'll hear in this special bonus episode of News Beat podcast, supporters of the Postal Service are concerned these efforts are part of a decades-long campaign to undermine the agency in order to push for privatization.


"Saving the post office doesn't seem like a racial justice issue, but these are the types of jobs that no one can afford to lose, but especially Black people."


Our guest is Paul Prescod, a Philadelphia public school teacher and a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Prescod last year wrote a piece for Jacobin, titled "Defend the Post Office, Defend Black Workers," in which he documents the key role the Postal Service has played in employing Black Americans, tracing that history back to the legal end of slavery.

You can also listen to this episode on your favorite podcast app.

Below is a transcript of our conversation with Prescod, edited for clarity.

News Beat: Can you explain the significance of the U.S. Postal System specifically to African Americans as a source of employment and financial stability, which you trace to the legal end of slavery in your in your piece in Jacobin.

Paul Prescod: "So Postal employment was open for Black people all the way back in 1861. And then 1864, there was some legislation introduced to ban discrimination in federal employment; now [it] wasn't always enforced. But this allowed black people to gain a foothold in some relatively stable employment. A great example of this is someone named William Harvey Carney. He escaped slavery. He joined the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the all Black regiment during the Civil War, then afterwards got work in the Postal Service. And he worked there for the next 30 years. He became a founding member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which is the union for letter carriers that still exists today.

And that was a similar story for many former slaves after the war, and it was kind of like one of the only examples of decent employment most Black workers could get. And this continues today. So even if you look at the early 20th century, Black postal workers kind of had a similar prestige as Pullman car porter workers, which is the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union organized by A. Philip Randolph, so they were kind of known as this groups of Black working class people, but they were relatively stable, there was some prestige to the job. And they were also known as civic actors, which maybe I'll get to that a little later, but just focus on the the economic part. And, you know, there's certain statistics that are pretty incredible when you look at that kind of make this point.

So in 1940, for example, 12% of Black workers that made above the national median income worked as opposed to workers. That's a lot for just one job, providing  that kind of stability. And even in the 1960s, it became a haven for many Black women who were not finding many opportunities in the private sector. And this kind of mirrored what was going on in the public sector more generally. So, of course, the Civil Rights Act struck down Jim Crow, but what it also did was kind of ban discrimination in all kinds of public employment, and later that would kind of become affirmative action. So this is happening at the same time as the public sector is expanding in general, and especially with the war on poverty, it created a lot more government jobs. So Black people were able to gain access to these jobs in a big way. And so if you kind of fast forward to today, 21% of postal workers are Black. The Postal Service is a good, stable union job. It's not like they're living large but the average salary of a postal worker is $55,000 a year. You got good benefits, good stability. So it's one of these things where saving the post office doesn't seem like a racial justice issue, but these are the types of jobs that no one can afford to lose, but especially Black people. Just imagine how much worse the situation is going to be when you eliminate these kinds of good jobs that have provided stability over the years."

NB: Could you explain to listeners the power and the effect of the Postal Service, in both the civil rights and union movements?

PP: "This period of, I mean, some people might call it the early Civil Rights Movement, or whatever you want to call it. I mean, I really think it laid the basis for what we think of the Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s, but in the early 20th century was kind of this labor civil rights alliance. So like A. Philip Randolph is kind of one of the best examples of it, but especially in the 30s And 40s, the new industrial unions like a lot of civil rights activity happened in the context of the union movement. And even when you go to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a lot of that was paid for by the Auto Workers Union. And if you look at signs from that period, a lot of union signs there. So, you know, in the '30s and '40s, for example, a lot of the NAACP biggest chapters were led by Black postal workers.

There was this effort, this tension at that time, between the NAACP, as a middle class organization or a working class one, and you saw some interesting things happen, not just among postal workers, but other industrial unions where they [would] basically take over local NAACP chapters and make them real working class organizations instead of middle class ones. In the '40s, there was a union called the National Alliance of Postal Employees, which was a mostly Black postal union; doesn't exist anymore today. They lobbied in the '40s for some really important reforms they got through executive orders. So one of them was eliminating the photo requirement for applications, which basically, people would use that to screen out Black employees. They are able to get further anti-discrimination clauses through that kind of activism.

Another interesting anecdote is during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you actually had Black letter carriers helping to outline what should be the carpool route for people because they knew the streets better than most people would. They were a big part, the Postal Workers Union was a big part of lobbying for the 1963 Civil Rights Act, and especially the legislation around federal employment. And you know, it's no coincidence that I think in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. was a guest at the National Alliance of Postal Employees union convention in Los Angeles, and he really thank them for advocating especially for the Equal Pay Act, which especially really helped Black women in the Postal Service. So yeah, in general, there was always a big connection between Civil Rights and labor. And especially with with postal workers, they really highlighted that, and even to today, and a lot of Black postal workers recognize this, Like past Postal Worker officials have been saying, as you're attacking the post office, this is really a big attack on the Black middle class—depending how you define, I still would maintain it's a Black working class—but I mean, what they mean is just like some kind of wealth and employment stability among black people."

NB: So a lot of Americans, they hear about the crisis unfolding at the Postal Service, not just the one that's being created now, but in terms of the financial distress that it's in. So can you explain to listeners he Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act and why that sort of been harmful to just postal employees but especially African Americans as well?

PP: "Yeah, this is really important. A lot of people don't necessarily know this, it's getting more information now, but this is literally the one talking point you need. It really is, it explains everything. So in 2006, a law was passed, it had bipartisan support, by the way, it wasn't just Republicans. And this law mandated the Postal Service to pre-fund their employees' pensions and health benefits 75 years in advance. And literally you cannot find another public entity or company, private company, that has to do that. It's totally ridiculous. So and that and that means literally, billions each year, they're setting aside, and so it's no surprise before that law they were running a surplus. And by the way the Postal Service is not funded by taxpayer dollars. That's another thing a lot of people don't know. So they were running a surplus; after that, of course, they're running a deficit. And so any rational person would ask, why would they do that? And to me, this is clearly an effort to privatize. I'm a public school teacher, they do the same thing with education, you defund the public schools, they start performing badly, and then they turn around and say, 'oh, man, looks like we got to bring in the private sector.' So, you know, that really explains the financial crisis they're in. If you repeal that law that all goes away. And you know, the Postal Service has taken a hit from COVID, just like everyone else, and everything else, but this just made—the situation was already bad, and this has made a lot worse from COVID. They wouldn't be in this situation without that 2006 law. 

Actually, what's kind of amazing, as I've gotten more interested in the Postal Service, I honestly don't know where this started my interest with this, but I've noticed more in popular culture and media, there's a lot of like digs at the post office like, 'oh, it's so inefficient,' but it's kind of interesting because polls have shown that they are the highest-rated of government agency 91%. And that cuts across partisan lines. And also, despite this pre-funding mandate that they've had, they've actually been able to maintain very good service all these years, which is pretty incredible. And, you know, maybe I'm jumping ahead a little bit, but another thing we can think about is like, not only repealing that law, but other things could generate revenue for the Postal Service. I think the lowest hanging fruit is postal banking, where you could offer basic banking services, and there's a post office in every zip code. So there's a lot of people who are underbanked, you know, served by banks in this country. And I mean, that's like a win-win for everyone except the payday loan industry. So, you know, because it would not only get banking services, but it would create more revenue for the post office and it would create more jobs. So and again, I think this is another thing—you could actually look at this as an anti-racist demand because you more often see these loan shark places in poor Black communities, if we're being honest, that's kind of where I've seen it most prominent. And, you know, so this reform would, you know, basically take out parasites from the lives of people that are trying to get basic banking services, but they're being ripped off through payday loans."

NB: Can you explain to listeners, you did such a great job in the piece, about where Bernie Sanders had fit into this puzzle? And are you still holding out hope for for sort of those those innovations and recalibrations, if you will, under either a Biden presidency or is there anyone else out there who might pick up that torch?

PP: "There's a lot you could do with the Postal Service. People have talked about having electric car charging stations at post offices, having it serve as internet hubs, you know, there's no real limit, but of course, you would need funding and support to do that. It's funny I heard about postal banking through Bernie Sanders in 2016. He really highlighted it. And, you know, his whole life he's been an ardent defender of the Postal Service. So he's been pushing to repeal that 2006 law. He helped basically vote down [the] new board of governors that was full of people who wanted to privatize the Postal Service. And you know, it's no surprise, and the American Postal Workers Union endorsed Bernie both in 2016 and 2020. So I think in terms of the hope of these reforms, people like AOC (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez), we were actually before COVID[-19] planning to do an event in DSA in New York with AOC and Bernie and the Postal Workers Union on this, and then that kind of all got torpedoed. But, you know, progressives in that vein, I think would champion these things. And what I'm hoping is that, because the crisis of the Postal Service intersected with the election, it's getting so much attention—I don't think there's ever been a time it's been in the news that much.

So I'm hoping public sentiment can now be mobilized around these kind of reforms. I don't have much hope for [a] Biden administration, taking this up, but I do think it kind of depends on if we can build a movement around this. And what I would encourage people to do, if you're mobilizing around this in your area, and especially if you have connections with the union, what we're looking at doing in Philly is like after this crisis, hopefully, when we've at least saved the Postal Service, we can actually launch a local campaign for postal banking, and the union actually has this going in a few areas, and it should be a lot more. But they're basically, it's like a campaign for the Postmaster General to pilot a postal banking program to see how it works. So I think right now is the time where at the local level, you could start pushing for that, and I think there would be broad public support for it. And hopefully, we can get it going at the local level. It can go to the national. But yeah, I think I wouldn't rely alone on a Biden administration. They may not completely destroy the Postal Service like I think Trump would, but I don't even know where they stand on repealing that 2006 law, it's it's kind of hard to tell. But I think like most other things, if we could build a movement around it, there'd be a lot of hope that we could make some progress."

NB: I'd be remiss if we didn't recognize what's been happening in recent weeks, this clear effort to undermine the Postal Service in the run up to the presidential election in November, especially when it seems like the majority of the country might use mail-in ballots to safely vote. So we were looking at mail slowdowns, the dismantling of sorting machines, and the reduction of overtime and all these other mechanisms. So you mentioned it before, but can you talk about the idea of privatizing the Postal Service? Do you see this as part of this long-running effort to do that, and if you could just explain to listeners the recent history of these efforts to try to privatize the Postal Service?

PP: "Yeah, I definitely see this as part of that effort. I think, you know, I don't think it's just the motivation around the election, although I do think that's a factor. I think you'd still be seeing this eventually. And yeah, for some context, so I think 2006 law, the real goal of that was privatizing. In 2018, the relatively new Postal Board of Governors, which is now unfortunately mostly Republican, they came out with a study about, you know, how to improve efficiency, and they came out and admitted they recommend privatization. So you had that. And now you have the new Postmaster General [Louis] DeJoy, a lot of people highlight he is a Republican donor. His background though, is in a logistics firm, and they actually specialize—I mean, he was very good at cutting jobs and automating. This stuff of delaying mail is just, even without the election, again, it's a way to undermine service and undermine people's faith in the Postal Service. And then you can turn around and make the argument for privatizing. And, you know, the negative effects of privatizing are huge; so again, the biggest thing would be they would basically bust the union and there are 600,000 living wage jobs are provided by the Postal Service. And again, 21% of those are Black people working in those jobs. So not just that, but again, this is a universal service that is extremely affordable. You can compare the rates—it's no contest the rates between UPS and FedEx. So again, this is just one more time in America where we would have a public service being undermined, and that would hurt customers in so many different ways. That's kind of the short of it. It would destroy living wage jobs. It would destroy unions and destroy an affordable service that people rely on. And now it's being highlighted how people depend on medicines, the Veterans Administration, they use the Postal Service exclusively for their medication. So this stuff lately has been delaying that kind of things. It would be a complete disaster to privatize the Postal Service."

NB: Can you revisit the fundamental functions of the U.S. Postal Service as a cheap vehicle for communication, among a community, among individuals, and in terms of socioeconomic difficulties and just being poor? Not everyone has a smartphone or the internet or a computer.

PP: "Yeah, and lately the last two weeks I've been working with the unions to flyer customers that post offices and, I'll admit, I don't necessarily go to post office that much but again just popular rhetoric around 'it's so outdated and inefficient,' and I was at various locations and all day there's people streaming in and out, and old. It's not like people don't use this anymore. And it could be used for other things. And one thing I just want to make sure I say is that I think, again, this is an issue that doesn't seem like a racial justice issue, but it is. Especially in this moment, we know with the big protests against police brutality and all everyone's talking about [is] race in America, this is really important to think about the public sector in general.

So Black people disproportionately works in the public sector. And those jobs are disproportionately, you know, more unionized, better benefits. And Black workers in the public sector actually make 25% more on average than their counterparts in the private sector. So let's say we did defund the police and we did have more police account accountability, it would be hard for me to see that as much of a victory if at the same time, there's austerity and the post office is privatized. I think most people, you don't have to be a leftist, I think most people understand [there] is a close connection between crime and poverty and over policing. It's no coincidence. If you take an upper-middle class neighborhood, even if it's an all black upper-middle class neighborhood, there's not going to be as much so-called crime, there might be white collar crime, but there won't be this much crime, there won't be as much over policing. Whereas if you take a poor community, there will be. And again, it's like for many Black workers and Black communities, public sector jobs are a very thin line between some stability and just complete impoverishment. So something like this, or just all this austerity that is probably coming down the pipe, if that happens. I think the policing crisis is going to be a lot worse, regardless of what we do with laws just around police. I think that's important to think about, when we talk about Black Lives Matter to incorporate the defense of the public sector in that."

NB: Paul, you mentioned earlier that you're handing out flyers at the post office. So you're on the ground doing the work. You're a union member. So can you just explain to listeners what you're doing and what you guys are trying to get done in Philadelphia?

PP: "And this, at least in Philly, this started a few months back, because I mean, the issue of funding, you know, they're asking for $25 billion in stimulus to keep the post office running during this crisis. And again, this is, you know, individuals, small businesses and corporations have gotten money. They're not asking for anything crazy that no one else has been getting. So we did start mobilizing with the union in June, they had a National Day of Action, June 23. We were doing some virtual phone banks of senators; it looks like the House is going to pass funding but it's the Republican senators that they're focused on for getting that funding. And then now since the recent policies that have delayed mail, which has been relatively recent, we decided to start flyering customers, because now it's really affecting customers. And I'm not sure in your area, but it's almost universally, mail is being delayed, even whether it's the city or suburbs. It's a very real thing on the ground that's happening. And you know, our ‘ask’ is calling senators but also the Postal Board of Governors, to pressure them, you know, to reverse these changes. And I'll insert here you might have heard that DeJoy actually did back down and said he's going to stop these new policies until after the election, which is good that it doesn't solve the funding issue yet. And I think we still have to keep pressure to make sure they're actually doing that. But that is a good sign that this pressure has been working. And there's actually this Saturday, it's been a little last minute, but it's exploded as an issue, there are plans for national rallies to save the post office across the country. So MoveOn is sponsoring this along with the NAACP and Postal Workers Union, so watch out for that. But right now, I think we've got to keep focus on even though the policies have been changed for now, we got to stay focused on the funding, they need $25 billion in funding, and we got to press on repealing the 2006 law. And also DeJoy said after the election, he plans to reinstitute those changes. So I think right now, because attention is on the Postal Service, we should try to mobilize for the long term, for even after the election, to stop them from these efforts, which I think are like the first steps in privatizing."

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