Alan Zendell, April 10 2021
When I was a kid everyone took the post office for granted. Everyone in my building knew our mailman’s name, and our parents left $$-filled envelopes for him at Christmas. In the years after WW2, when everyone yearned for a return to normalcy, the reliability of mail delivery was an anchor to cling to in a chaotic world.
I remember the 1946 Fourth of July parade in Brooklyn, holding my father’s hand – he’d only been discharged from the army for a month. He stood passively as companies of soldiers and sailors marched by, lost in the cacophony of overlapping marching bands, experiencing (I learned, years later) what we now call PTSD. I was oblivious, cheering wildly as each cohort of men and a few women in uniform marched by. I cheered just as loud when a few hundred mail carriers passed in full uniform with mail bags slung over their shoulders. My father finally reacted: “Why are you cheering for mailmen?”
He didn’t know how my mother and her sister had waited every morning, hoping for letters from him and my uncle. Mailmen never missed a day, except for the ones who’d been drafted and sent overseas. Most people may have taken them for granted but not me. Fourteen years later, as a freshman at Columbia paying his own way, I needed a job. I became an all-purpose postal worker at the huge Grand Central Station post office in Manhattan.
Grand Central’s workforce was made up of what my inflated ego thought of as drones, thousands of them, who along with police and firefighters in New York made up the predominantly Irish civil service. A mix of high school graduates and dropouts, those with college degrees were foremen and managers. The post office was like a huge anthill with people scurrying around everywhere. Even on my 6 pm to 6 am shift, it was always busy in an organized chaos sort of way. The mail got where it was supposed to 99% of the time, the other 1% largely the result of pranks by bored college students like me. It was an amazing feat in the low tech world of 1960.
Postage stamps increased in price every few years, but the largely manual operation was always in the red. The United States Postal Service became a political football, threatened with privatization in each election cycle. As companies like UPS, Fedex, and Amazon prospered, USPS struggled to keep up with optical scanners and automated sorters, but it was a tortoise racing against an army of hares, and in the real world hares always win. Everyone disdained “snail mail.”
Enter 2020, the pandemic, and the most vicious presidential election of the modern era. It was clear that the election could only be successfully conducted using massive mail-in voting. Trump’s bungling of the response to the pandemic had turned his expected re-election into a likely defeat. Conventional wisdom was that his best chance of winning lay in sabotaging the USPS. It’s unclear how much Trump influenced the selection by the USPS Board of Governors of wealthy Trump donor Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. The Board was an independent body that consisted of five Republicans and four Democrats. Earlier this week, it confirmed that DeJoy continues to enjoy its unanimous support, despite the fact that he has a $50 million conflict of interest in investments in private mail delivery firms and was hired with no prior relevant experience.
DeJoy is accused of slowing down mail delivery prior to and during the election. Whether that’s true, or it was merely the first step in a long-term modernization effort, we have all suffered from the degraded performance of the USPS in the past year. DeJoy’s recently published ten-year plan does little to reassure people, since it calls for longer delivery cycles, reduced staff, and severely curtailed services and hours of operation.
On February 16th, my wife submitted forms to have our mail forwarded from Maryland to Florida, from February 28th through the end of April. As of today, April 10th, we had not received a single item of forwarded mail. Our situation is not unique; it’s typical and totally unacceptable.
President Biden has nominated three people to fill vacancies on the Postal Board, which Democrats hope will result in DeJoy’s firing. But the problem is a lot bigger than Louis DeJoy’s tenure as Postmaster General. Are Americans willing to see their beloved post offices become relics of the past and depend entirely on private, for-profit companies to deliver our mail? It’s a serious question about how we do business in the future and how our workforce survives the next wave of automation.