Postal workers set to deliver on D.C. hunger-strike threat

BY Liza Béar  |  So far, the United States Postal Service’s announcement that overnight, single-piece, first-class mail will end for most of the country on July 1 has met with very little fanfare. That should change on June 25 when hunger strikers occupy the halls of Congress in a timely protest organized by the newly formed Communities and Postal Workers United, a national coalition.

Their aim is to highlight the July 1 deadline and to expose the main reason for the postal budgetary crisis — a 2006 congressional act that requires U.S.P.S. to prefund retiree pension and health benefits a surreal 75 years in advance, thus effectively starving the Postal Service of operating income.

Mail being sent within the New York metro area won’t be affected.

“Our delivery standards are based on geographic distances between mail-processing facilities,” said Sue Brennan, a U.S.P.S. spokesperson. “For example, New York City to Los Angeles is three days and will remain three days. D.C. to Richmond was overnight and will likely change to two-day service.”

In conjunction with the hunger strike at the Capitol, a rally will be held at U.S.P.S.’s D.C. headquarters at L’Enfant Plaza Hotel on June 28.

The hunger strikers and their supporters are calling on Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to maintain delivery standards and suspend cuts and closures while allowing Congress to fix the service’s finances by repealing the mandate and refunding a pension surplus.

According to Robert Weiner, former spokesperson for the House Government Reform Committee, U.S.P.S. could theoretically accede to the demands and “fix the finances,” if the committee’s chairperson would stop blocking a bipartisan bill sponsored by 229 members that gives the Postal Service the same 20-to-30-year pension prepay funding requirements as other federal agencies.

One of a slew of supposedly cost-cutting measures — such as mail-processing plant closings and reduced hours of service — slowing first-class mail by one or more days is considered by many to be self-defeating, since it will drive away businesses and customers while hurting those most dependent on the mail and general delivery: the elderly, the homeless, the urban poor and rural populations.

Supporting the strike is community organizer Johnnie Stevens, 55, a founder of Community-Labor United for Postal Jobs and Services.

“We’re taking vans down to D.C. on the 28th,” said Stevens, a Chelsea resident whose wife gets her medicine delivered by mail. “We’re working with Picture the Homeless in the Bronx and the Reverend Al Sharpton-sponsored National Action Network Youth Move group. It’s not just a workers’ issue. It’s not just a union issue. It’s not just a postperson issue,” Stevens said. “It’s an issue of losing a guaranteed service for a community.”

Mark Julion, president of the Chicago letter carriers union, points out the devastating impact post office closures will have on inner-city neighborhoods, composed predominantly of black and brown people who are not financially well off.

“These people don’t have access to the Internet and still rely on the Postal Service as a primary means of communication,” Julion wrote in an e-mail statement. “In that sense, these urban areas are just as remote as some of the rural communities.”

Among those most affected are homeless people dependent on General Delivery, a service provided in 35 states for people without a mailing address or a P.O. box. Anticipating cuts in General Delivery services, recipients of federal benefits have been notified to acquire a Direct Express DebtMasterCard, which is not always cost-free and has already shown malfunctions.

Kendall Jackman, 56, an activist and former postal worker who has lived in a Bronx shelter since September 2009, gets her mail at nearby Picture the Homeless, a membership group. Ironically, after she lost her job, she became homeless when the post office didn’t deliver her notices for unemployment hearings. (After she slipped and broke her ankle, she could no longer get to a public phone to confirm the dates of her hearings, and therefore lost her case for unemployment benefits by default.)

For all the damage done to the public by service cuts, the impact on postal working conditions is even more severe.

Frank Couget, a shop steward at the Times Square Station who suffered an on-the-job neck injury, notes the building’s physical deterioration — leaky roof, no hot water all winter, no AC — and the disorganization on the work floor created by cuts in clerks and mail-handlers. In addition, he said, the elimination of several routes and carrier jobs at Times Square has resulted in the redistribution of that workload on the remaining workers.

“The worst example,” said Couget, “is Route 19’s carrier, 65-year-old Joe Kaplan, who has 34 years of service. Management dumped the 1211 Sixth Ave. News Corp skyscraper tower onto his route in August 2011, adding several hours of work to a full shift. Supervisors will routinely pressure these carriers to simply work faster and longer to make up the difference. There has been a wave of retirements simply because the job has become so miserable.”

Lack of maternity leave is “another barbarity,” according to Couget.

“I have four union sisters in my station who worked into their third trimester because they wanted to save the meager 90 days of possible unpaid leave in order to maximize recovering and to bond with their child,” he said. “At least one of them worked until the day she gave birth in order to do this.”