post office

“Why Would You Privatize Something the People Own?”

Postal workers have had a long and difficult year. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifies in the House next week, Mike Cinelli won’t be present. But Cinelli, a Long Island postal worker, has plenty to say. About his job, for decades a reliable step toward a middle-class life. About his bosses, who make that job more difficult by the week. “From management down, it’s been pretty much a hostile work environment with the delaying of the mail,” he tells Intelligencer by phone.

Cinelli is one voice in an angry national chorus. DeJoy, a major Republican donor, has enforced widespread service cuts since he assumed control of the U.S. Postal Service in May. As the mail slows down, and a presidential election approaches, public outrage is beginning to spread. Protesters have gathered in front of DeJoy’s Washington, D.C., home. On Twitter, users circulate photos of the agency’s distinctive blue mailboxes, locked up on curbsides, or stacked onto trucks, headed for destinations unknown. Reports that the postal service also removed mail-sorting machines from some facilities only made the story more urgent.

In a middling concession to pressure, DeJoy announced on Tuesday afternoon that he would suspend some service changes until after the election on November 3. The goal, he claimed in a statement, was to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.” But the statement leaves many questions unanswered, and the compromises it offers may not be enough to speed up the mail.

That leaves workers and consumers alike in a bind. In conversations with Intelligencer, workers and union leaders blame DeJoy and a longstanding conservative campaign to privatize the postal service for the slowdown. Morale is low, though they’re eager to reassure Americans that the postal service is still functioning, and that workers are still doing their jobs despite a concerted attack on their efforts. To paraphrase the old feminist slogan, Cinelli’s woes aren’t just personal, but political.

His frustration is palpable when he speaks to Intelligencer. “I’ve been doing deliveries pretty much my whole life,” he says. After 20 years as a teamster working for the milk industry, he moved on to the USPS, where he’s a shop steward for the American Postal Workers Union and drives mail trucks. It’s a good job, he says, and it still is when politics doesn’t get in the way. Once DeJoy took over, work became more complicated and less efficient. Cinelli’s problems start at the plants where the mail gets processed. “Any little hiccup, like when an elevator doesn’t come down right away, or any little delay, you can’t wait five minutes. You have to go now,” he explains. “We’re forced to make trips with no mail on the trucks because we’re not supposed to wait for anything anymore.” Since they can’t wait for the mail, the mail has to wait overnight. And that means delayed deliveries.

This problem is exacerbated by reduced hours imposed by DeJoy. “We’re seeing slowdowns in the mail as a result of DeJoy’s orders to not use overtime, which is needed because a lot of post offices have been short-staffed for a long time,” says Doug Brown, the president of APWU’s Indiana state affiliate. In Cleveland, Ohio, Daleo Freeman of APWU Local 72 says his members received memos and directives “reducing retail hours, as well as removing mail processing equipment.” The formal rationale, he adds, is the pandemic, which reduced letter mail volume. It did not, however, reduce parcel volume, and Brown says that DeJoy’s interventions deprive workers of the flexibility they need to handle any fluctuation in the mail. According to Brown, truckers in Indiana can no longer carry out extra trucking runs on days with heavier mail volumes. The mail sits at the plants, and the backlog grows.

That backlog has consequences. The possibility that DeJoy’s slowdown will threaten voting by mail in November reinforces anti-democratic rhetoric from President Trump. The beleaguered incumbent has claimed, repeatedly and falsely, that mail-in ballots encourage fraud and that universal voting by mail would be “catastrophic.” Trump has also blocked a bailout for the postal service, which faced a serious fiscal crisis due to the pandemic even before the Republican-dominated Board of Governors appointed DeJoy to his role. In August, Trump explicitly tied his opposition to a bailout to his objection to mail-in voting. “They need that money in order to make the post office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” he told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business.

On his own, DeJoy may not be acting out of a direct desire to hobble the election. He founded his own logistics company, and he and his wife both own investments in companies that are competitors to the USPS, which might be motive enough to push the agency to its limits. The conservative campaign to privatize the USPS is also much older than the Trump administration. But Trump’s antipathy for the post office, and DeJoy’s strong links to the White House, encourage worry over the integrity of November’s election.

Although DeJoy himself has denied any anti-democratic motivation for his reforms, his Tuesday statement was so light on detail that it may not alleviate the public’s fears. The press release said only that retail hours would not be reduced, and that equipment, like mailboxes and mail-processing machines, will remain in place. It didn’t say anything about replacing equipment that has already been removed, and it didn’t mention recent changes to mail-truck schedules — a key source of the slowdown. Moreover, it only promised to delay cuts until after election day, an indication that the postal service still faces an uncertain future. “The struggle to save the public postal service is far from over,” Mark Dimondstein, the president of APWU, said in a statement responding to DeJoy.

Postal workers themselves have told reporters that they believe they can handle an election as long as voters mail in ballots well ahead of November 6. Freeman repeats that sentiment to Intelligencer. “I’m confident in what we do as postal workers,” he says. “It’s the culture to make sure we get the mail out.” The postal service won’t exactly rebound if consumers avoid using it. But the agency needs a federal bailout, and deprivation has consequences that reach far beyond the election.

Even if DeJoy isn’t trying to rig the election for Trump, the slowdown can still have terrible ramifications for vulnerable people. Though the busywork of daily life is beginning to move online, the mail is still a lifeline. For low-income Americans, the postal service is a bank and a pharmacy; a voting booth and a link to faraway family and friends. In Houston, an 82-year-old man told a local news station that he waited a week to receive the heart medicine he needs in order to live. The Veterans Health Administration sends about 80 percent of all prescriptions through the mail. Slow mail means late rent checks, delinquent bills, and more hardship.

That weighs heavily on postal workers. “We service the people,” Cinelli says. “We deliver the medications. We deliver their checks. If not for us, how are they getting their supplies? I see anything and everything coming through the mail. Diapers, wipes. It’s sitting in the main facility and it can’t get to the post office where you need them.” Cinelli adds that he knows older co-workers who are considering retirement because of the changes, and some younger workers are thinking about leaving the postal service altogether. In Cleveland, Freeman says that although he doesn’t know of any members considering a career change, the atmosphere on the floor can be low.

“They do see what’s going on around them across the country, and how people are getting on TV and talking badly about them,” he says of his members. “They know they come into work every day and put their lives on the line to take care of people.”

Despite the challenges they’re facing, postal workers are hopeful that a groundswell of public support for their mission will influence legislators to do more than repair DeJoy’s immediate damage. They want a bailout, and they want longer-term reforms. Brown, for example, criticizes a controversial Bush-era law that requires the postal service to pre-fund employee health benefits 75 years in advance. “No other agency is required to do this,” he says. Beyond policy, DeJoy’s handling of the post office could help shape public attitudes toward the same government services that fiscal conservatives routinely try to cut. However inadvertently, he has clarified the value of the USPS as one of the last great public services in American life. The idea that businessmen should run the government the way they run private companies looks like a failure in motion. That doesn’t bode well for the push to privatize the USPS.

“You cannot run a service as a business,” Brown says, emphatically, and points out that the USPS is a self-supporting agency with high public-approval ratings. “If you try to run it as a business and remove service from the United States Postal Service, then you have defeated its mission.” Freeman, meanwhile, frames privatization almost as a version of theft.

“Why would you privatize something the people own?” he asks. “It’s in the Constitution. It’s very clear. It’s the people’s post office.”

Postal Workers Are Gearing Up for a Long Fight