Conservatives have always been very blunt about their opposition to the United States Postal Service. Milton Friedman said plainly: privatize it. On the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, a McKinsey partner says the agency is “obsolete” and must be “phased out,” that its popularity is solely due to “nostalgia.” The Trump administration has not tried to disguise its intentions. Its “Delivering Government Solutions in the 2st Century” document announces plainly that the administration wants to privatize the service, turning it into a “private postal operator that delivers mail fewer days per week and to more central locations (not door delivery).” The administration says:
A private entity would also have greater ability to adjust product pricing in response to changes in demand or operating costs. Freeing USPS to more fully negotiate pay and benefits rather than prescribing participation in costly Federal personnel benefit programs, and allowing it to follow private sector practices in compensation and labor relations, could further reduce costs.
So: a post office that operated (1) to serve investor profits rather than the public good, (2) has higher prices (3) pays lower wages and cuts workers’ benefits and (4) delivers a few days a week, and not door-to-door but to “central locations” that you have to shlep your packages from. This is the dream!
It sounds awful, yes. But conservatives are always going to be committed to privatizing the post office, no matter what. This is because they hold firmly to an ideological conviction that government is incapable of working as well as private, for profit-companies. They believe, as a matter of religious faith rather than evidence, that the public sector is necessarily ineffective, even when the USPS is ranked the most efficient postal service in the world, beating out many privatized postal services.
If a government agency were to function well, it would threaten right-wing ideology in a very serious way. When public services work well, they make it difficult to convince people of the argument that strong public institutions are the “road to serfdom” and that the welfare state is a form of slavery. Look at the National Health Service in Britain: despite the right-wing myths in America about its uselessness, the NHS is so popular among Britons that a Conservative prime minister like Boris Johnson has to praise it highly and pay tribute to its greatness. Once people have experienced good free-at-point-of-use public services, they like them, and they don’t want to get rid of them.
This creates an incentive for conservatives in government to make the user experience of government as dreadful as possible. If people absolutely hate every interaction they have with public airports or schools or the DMV, they will certainly be more receptive to the argument that government cannot succeed and must be turned over to for-profit corporations. Nevermind that in other countries, public schools and public airports function perfectly well, thus disproving the idea that the problem is that ours are public rather than that ours are poorly-run. Americans are rarely told about what other countries are like, so we do not get to see that you can eliminate private schools almost entirely and still have an excellent education system.
Donald Trump has insisted that he wants the USPS to raise prices on packages, possibly “by up to four times,” and threatened to withhold coronavirus aid to the agency if they did not increase prices. USPS packages are already not cheap and go up constantly, and Trump’s idea would make the USPS more expensive than FedEx and UPS. The postal service is the most popular government agency, with over 90% of Americans wanting it to receive renewed financial assistance from the U.S. government. A good way to try to destroy that public goodwill is to do what Trump wants to do: jack up prices and to delay mail deliveries. Now, there are much easier ways to solve the phony financial crisis that the USPS is supposedly in, by repealing the unnecessary financial obligations Congress has pointlessly imposed on it and expanding the range of services it offers. But the Trump administration is focused completely on rolling back services, slowing down mail, increasing prices, and cutting “labor costs” (a phrase that should never be used, since it is a propagandistic euphemism for “people’s salaries”).
Unsurprisingly, the guy Trump has put in charge of the USPS, Louis DeJoy, is a Republican donor who has never actually worked for the postal service and has financial interests in private delivery competitors to the USPS (he’d be in a position to benefit handsomely if the agency was privatized). An Intercept report on DeJoy revealed him to have a long history of overseeing labor violations during his time in the private sector:
A bevy of worker violations and complaints have racked up at DeJoy’s old stomping ground. When he was CEO, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that New Breed’s hiring practices were “motivated by anti-union animus” when it avoided hiring any Longshore union members after it secured an Army contract in California. Between 2001 and 2015, New Breed and its affiliates paid more than $1.7 million for violations of labor law, wage and hour regulations, employee discrimination, and aviation regulations. In 2014, the New York Times reported on four women who worked in a Memphis warehouse for New Breed who suffered miscarriages after their supervisors refused their requests for light duties while pregnant. That same year New Breed merged with XPO Logistics, and since 2015, XPO and its affiliates have paid more than $30 million for a range of workplace violations. Last year, hundreds of drivers, warehouse workers, and intermodal drivers at XPO facilities worldwide protested against abuse and wage theft. Then when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, XPO offered to “lend” workers up to 100 hours of time off, but said they would have to repay that time.
Mark Diamondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, has described the Trump administration plan clearly:
“There’s a White House agenda to privatize and sell off the public Postal Service… But there’s too much approval for the organization right now. They want to separate the service from the people and then degrade it to the point where people aren’t going to like it anymore.”
We know that Diamondstein is right about the agenda, because the White House has published that agenda publicly. We also know he’s right about instituting changes that people don’t like because, again, they’ve been very open about this. The only remaining question is whether they’re going to succeed in turning the public against the USPS rather than against Trump and the Republican Party. The important thing we need to do is make sure that people understand exactly what is going on, who is doing it, and why. The Trump administration does not have the power to unilaterally privatize the postal service, but what they can do is wreck it, so that people will use its services less, its revenue will drop further, and eventually a treasured public asset becomes worthless and is sold for scrap. Do not assume that the postal service will always be with us. Many countries have privatized their postal services. Margaret Thatcher succeeded in selling off huge parts of the British people’s common assets (it’s one reason Heathrow Airport sucks). They will not let up in the war against the USPS until they win, not only because people like DeJoy stand to make a lot of money, but because—like public libraries and the fire department—if people see that government can be good, they might not be so terrified when the young people talk about socializing more things. If we do not fight to preserve our precious public assets, they will disappear, and people will forget what it was ever like to have them. That cannot be allowed to happen.