Susan Zakin & Alec Dubro
“But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”
So begins Charles Bukowski’s classic novel Post Office, based on the notoriously hard-drinking author’s years working for the U.S. Postal Service. If you listened to Donald Trump, you’d think Bukowski's opening tells you everything you need to know about working for the post office. Easy peasey, just rake in the bucks and chill.
Except by the second chapter, Bukowski’s illusions are decisively stomped by a bullying supervisor (the “soup”) who's fond of dark-red shirts “that meant danger and blood.”
Bukowski published the novel—his first, at the age of 50—in 1971. If the post office was depressing then, things are rougher now. Of the government (or quasi-government) agencies defenestrated by the Trump administration, the post office could turn out to be the most important. The U.S. Department of State might head off nuclear war (oh, that) but the post office--that familiar, taken-for-granted part of American life--could determine the outcome of November’s election.
Donald Trump seems to think so, because he’s making every effort to kill the post office, or at least cripple it, as states ramp up vote-by-mail for Americans concerned about the risk of standing in line at neighborhood polling places during the Covid pandemic. The more problems the post office runs into, the easier it will be to challenge election results.
This appears to be the Trump camp’s strategy, as the president’s poll numbers continue their downward slide. As Vice reported yesterday, followed by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, more than 500 mail sorting machines have been removed from post office facilities for no apparent reason, other than, apparently, in an effort to slow mail delivery. Trump, in effect, announced the plan in a Twitter tirade.
“Mail-In Ballot fraud found in many elections. People are just now seeing how bad, dishonest and slow it is. Election results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers? 1% not even counted in 2016. Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election….” Trump tweeted July 10.
Like so many melodramas in the Trump years, the assault on the post office is an acceleration of the drift toward privatization that started during the Ronald Reagan’s presidency. To the Rand Pauls among us, the post pffice is big bad government at its biggest: the country’s third-largest civilian employer, behind the federal government and Walmart, employing 633,108 people and delivering about 40 percent of the world’s mail. Even with email taking the place of letters, the volume is incredible: in 2019, 900,000 packages were delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
And then, of course, there are the letters to Santa. If a parent sends their child's letter, along with their response as Santa, the post office will send "Santa's" letter back "complete with North Pole postmark!"
From Blake in Houston, 7, written to Santa.
The confounding part of the current situation is that the U.S. Postal Service isn’t exactly government. It’s an independent agency of the federal government, which seems to mean, well, nothing much, except that the post office is forced to operate like a business. Sort of.
Postal workers have to follow federal rules (they can’t talk politics, under the Hatch Act) and they receive federal benefits, but they’re not considered federal employees. Yet the way the postal service conducts its business is subject to the whims of Congress.
That’s partly why the Postal Service is going broke even though postal revenues have risen. Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, broke it down in his 2018 book, Dismantling Democracy: “In 2006, congressional conservatives pushed through a requirement that the USPS pre-fund its health benefits for the next 75 years. Over the past four years, this harsh, unheard-of regulation has pushed the service $20 billion into debt.”
According to Forbes columnist Elizabeth Bauer, all corporations are required to guarantee pensions, but the poison pill in the 2006 law was the requirement that the post office create a $72 billion fund for retiree health benefits.
Trump's own post office task force acknowledged in a 2018 report that without the costs imposed by the health care mandate, USPS would be profitable on an operating basis. The left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies recommended that, like the rest of the federal government and two-thirds of private industry, the post office could use current reserves of $47.5 billion to assure retiree health care costs 10-15 years into the future rather than 75 years.
The president's task force also recommended that the postal service diversify its services, but stopped short of joining the chorus of politicians like Elizabeth Warren who are calling for local post offices to offer banking services to folks who can't afford regular bank accounts; this is something post offices do in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. In fact, post offices did this in the U.S. from 1911-1967.
In late 2019, the U.S. House of Representative passed the USPS Fairness Act, which would repeal the mandate and allow USPS to behave like any other company or agency. The reform bill was introduced in the Senate, where it quietly expired.
So the decline of the U.S. Postal Service continues. Saturday delivery was suspended months ago; now deliveries in general have slowed.
“This is exactly what they wanted,” wrote Cohen, “weaken it structurally so that it falls of its own weight.”
Enter Donald Trump and his re-election worries. In June, Trump appointed Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. According to NBC News, “DeJoy's previous work also poses potential financial conflicts of interests." DeJoy and his wife, own $30.1 million to $75.3 million in assets, including post office competitors UPS and the trucking company J.B. Hunt. The Brooklyn-born DeJoy made his money as CEO of North Carolina-based North Point Logistics, acquired by XPO Logistics, which manages the supply chain for 50,000 U.S. companies in 30 countries, where he served on the board.
DeJoy should have divested his conflicting assets, but his ethics agreement and personal financial disclosure statement are not available on the Office of Government Ethics' website. (We checked; so did NBC.)
DeJoy and his wife, Aldona Was, a Polish-American physician who served as ambassador to Estonia in the Bush administration.
DeJoy and his wife are Trump megadonors, and DeJoy's eyes seem to be on the prize: he has instituted cost-cutting measures, including eliminating overtime, which have already resulted in delays to mail delivery, and would cause significant delays to election results.
That’s why the House Oversight and Reform Committee, led by New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, sent a letter on July 20 asking him to testify to the committee. Maloney was partly reacting to a leaked memo from DeJoy to USPS managers explaining—and demanding—drastic cuts that all seem to point to more delays in delivery. The PowerPoint memo hadn’t been completely verified, but was enough to provoke committee action.
"While these changes in a normal year would be drastic, in a presidential election year when many states are relying heavily on absentee mail-in ballots, increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner—an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election,” the committee wrote to DeJoy.
In the letter, the committee refuted comparisons between the post office and private companies that DeJoy had made in the memo: “While we share the goal of ensuring the Postal Service’s solvency, the rhetoric used in the document compares the Postal Service to a private company concerned only with the bottom line, rather than the constitutionally mandated public service that it is.”
In an August 3 interview on PBS NewsHour, American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimonstein said that under DeJoy’s brief tenure, “... the reports we're getting from both the postal workers and from customers is that, in the last few weeks, mail service has been degraded....It's going to drive revenue and business away.”
Dimondstein noted that DeJoy’s moves are not only hurting the post office but imperiling the election. “We want the post office to correct the problem long before we get to the election,” he said. “Mail should not be delayed. Mail should not be slowed down. Congress should act.”
Congress has acted—or at least the Democrats have—but the administration is all but ignoring it. In Maloney’s initial letter, she requested that DeJoy attend an August committee meeting, but he demurred, citing scheduling conflicts, agreeing to testify in September. In other words, during a time of crisis involving the outcome of an extremely important election, at least six weeks, and possibly more, will elapse before Congress can even begin to act.
This isn’t the first time politics have interfered with Americans getting their mail. Benjamin Franklin lost his job as America’s postmaster general when the British deemed him too sympathetic to the colonies.
Later, George Washington and James Madison backed the Post Office Act of 1792, which expanded the postal network and gave newspapers low mailing rates, supporting freedom of the press. The law protected personal letters from the prying eyes of government. As Columbia University professor Richard John wrote in The New York Times, the founders provided the entire population with low-cost access to information on public affairs while establishing a right to personal privacy.
To anyone who’s traveled to less developed countries, or to countries that are surveillance states, the efficiency and reliability of America’s postal service is fundamental to America’s idea of itself as a shining city on a hill.
Well, that’s gone now, too. Or it will be soon, if we don’t act.
But the post office has powerful allies. In May, The New York Times reported that Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, had squashed a bipartisan attempt to send the agency emergency funds to counter a downturn caused by the pandemic. Mnuchin insisted that Treasury be given new authority to lend up to $10 billion to the Postal Service. His department would help set the terms of the loan, according to officials familiar with the negotiations who described them on the condition of anonymity.
Not long afterwards, a coalition of online retailers backed by Amazon launched a seven-figure advertising blitz opposing President Trump’s demand that the postal service raise package delivery rates to avoid bankruptcy amid the pandemic.
While Jeff Bezos is defending his turf, and could very well turn out to be the postal service's salvation, Americans just want to get their mail. The vast majority love the post office, even if Charles Bukowski didn’t. Bukowski worked at the post office for more than a decade, quit twice, and the second time, after Black Sparrow Press offered him $100 a month for life to write, he never looked back except on the printed page.
But for most Americans, what they think about are those 900,000 Christmas packages. In a Gallup Poll in 2019, 74 percent of Americans gave the post service marks of either ‘good’ or ‘excellent,’ and only 8 percent gave it a mark of ‘poor.’ Pretty much every poll comes up with similar results.
Seeing your mail carrier has meant even more during the pandemic, especially for older and disabled people. Rural letter carriers in Pennsylvania told the Philadelphia Inquirer they’d been getting thank you notes, apple dumplings—and hand sanitizer.
Susan Zakin is an editor at JOTPY. Alec Dubro is the author, with David Kaplan, of Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld. A veteran journalist, he has written for Rolling Stone and is a past president of the National Writers Union.
American Post Offices
59736 - Jackson, Montana
59746 - Polaris, Montana
27960 - Ocracoke, North Carolina
27943 - Hatteras, North Carolina
27956 - Maple, North Carolina
59467 - Pendroy, Montana
59222 - Flaxville, Montana
59275 - Westby, Montana
59211 - Antelope, Montana
59247 - Medicine Lake, Montana
59226 - Froid, Montana
59344 - Plevna, Montana
59035 - Fort Smith, Montana
59007 - Bearcreek, Montana
92259 - Ocotillo, California
86036 - Marble Canyon, Arizona
82242 - Van Tassell, Wyoming
60855 - Mason City, Nebraska
56098 - Winnebago, Minnesota
Marshall Mayer is a photographer from Helena, Montana. He has been a principal in Tech Rocks, and he founded LiveModern, a community for modernist prefab housing. His work can be seen at take-note.com
My Baby She Wrote Me a Letter.
Playlist by JOTPY West Village Editor, Brian Cullman.
Write Me A Letter :: The Ravens
Return To Sender ::: Elvis Presley
Letters From Mississippi ::: Eddie Hinton
The Letter ::: The Box Tops
Please Mr Postman ::: The Beatles
Twistin’ Postman ::: The Marvelettes
Letter In Hand :: Pieta Brown
Love Letters ::: Box Scaggs
Write Me A Letter ::: Aerosmith
Lettre a Ma Bien-Aimee :: Francis Bebey