Some people don’t like any government; they see 200,000 government workers and they want them gone,” says Brian O’Neill, president of the North Central Florida Chapter of American Postal Workers Union. Photo by Ashley Crane.

Will Congress further gut the post office or save its service and workers?

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is set to cut $20 billion from its operating budget by 2015 due to an increasing deficit. In order to accomplish this goal, USPS, a public entity that receives no tax dollars, plans to close more than 3,600 facilities, 252 postal sorting locations and to eliminate Saturday service and first-class mail.

Gainesville already shut down its downtown post office in September, and its sorting facility is currently on the chopping block. USPS will make a final decision on May 15, and if the currently proposed plan goes through, mail will be shipped to Jacksonville to be sorted and then shipped back to Gainesville to be delivered.

Gainesville is set to lose 232 good, local jobs. But because the national American Postal Workers Union (APWU) reached a new four-year employment agreement last May, the majority of these employees cannot be laid off or transferred more than 50 miles away. Those currently under this contract would be sent to other cities to work, most likely Jacksonville. Of these employees, though, about 30 are non-union workers, so they will be laid off.

“I live 50 miles from work now. If I get transferred another 50 miles, I’d have a 100-mile commute. Their gain in savings from consolidation is my loss,” said Brian O’Neill, president of the North Central Florida Chapter of APWU.

But O’Neill will go wherever they tell him to. After 17 years of working toward his retirement and little hope of a private-sector job, he’d be foolish not to.

This story has been playing out across the country for the past 20 years. According to O’Neill, the APWU went from 300,000 workers in its heyday down to 177,000 now. In Gainesville, it went from 400 in its peak down to 275. And if the sorting facility is closed, it’s going to go down to 130 unionized workers.

O’Neill believes this is part of the reason why Congress won’t help.

“Some people don’t like any government; they see 200,000 government workers and they want them gone,” he said. To him, Congress isn’t acting to save USPS because it wants to “starve the beast.”

“No one is feeling sorry for postal workers,” O’Neill said. He believes that the perception of a wealthy postal worker is false but pervasive.

“I make $55,000 a year. Big freaking deal. I’m not saying I’m wealthy, but it’s a decent salary.”

Closing the sorting facility would also mean no more overnight local mail. All mail would take two to three days minimum.

According to plant managers, closing this sorting center would lead to a net $5.8 million in savings. But there will also be an increase of $2.3 million for transportation costs. Many have pointed out that the price of fuel is expected to increase, meaning the savings will be lost in the coming years. There is also the unnecessary environmental toll from driving mail out of town and back.

Fiscal irresponsibility or manufactured crisis?

USPS’ yearly operating budget of $75 billion has been met (or nearly met) by an almost identical revenue until 2008. Because of falling volume, revenue has been declining since 2008. In 2011, USPS hit an operating deficit of $5.1 billion.

But this crisis traces its roots not only to falling demand but also to the 2006 passage of H.R. 6407: Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. This law forced the postal service to pre-fund payments for future retirees’ health care benefits for the next 75 years. The pre-funding of retiree benefits for workers who have not even been hired yet is something unknown in any government or private industry.

Without this bill, the postal service would have a $1.5 billion surplus today.

Postal workers at a December town hall forum speculated as to why the bill was passed. Some expressed concerns about “bleeding USPS into privatization by FedEx lobbyists.”

Regardless of the reasons for this crisis, Congress has begun to move on legislation that will dramatically affect USPS.

The passage of H.R. 1351: United States Postal Service Pension Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act of 2011 would allow USPS to use money that it overpaid into the retirement systems toward its deficit. This bill currently has 228 cosponsors, does not use any taxpayer money and would save more than 28,000 jobs nationwide. But this bill has been stuck in the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and Labor Policy since last April.

Meanwhile, H.R. 2309: The Postal Reform Act of 2011 has been moving forward. This piece of legislation was written by Rep. Darrell Issa, the wealthiest man in Congress, and has only one cosponsor, Rep. Dennis Ross, chair of the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and Labor Policy. Aside from not addressing any of the financial underpinnings of this crisis, it is also a major attack on union rights. The “solvency authority” clause would give a group of unelected individuals the right to entirely seize control of all aspects of USPS. This includes nullifying existing union contracts.

The outpouring of public support last September for the post office affected Congress enough to postpone the closing of any sorting facilities across the country. The decision was supposed to be made by mid-February, but the actions of 15 senators have pushed it to May 15. This agreement was reached in order to have time to come up with a comprehensive reform – a reform that could either further cripple the already-weakened post office or rescue this public service.

This story was printed in our Spring 2012 issue as an extended version of Tough Times for Your Mail(wo)men.