Among the most prominent victims of the coronavirus financial crisis is the United States Postal Service, which could quite literally run out of money to operate if the federal government does not approve a rescue package for it soon. The Trump administration — which, like much of the GOP, has long advocated for cutbacks and privatization of the postal service — actively prevented the USPS from being bailed out in the CARES Act, even as Donald Trump has made a show of publicly thanking Fedex and UPS for their work. Not very subtle.
Fifty years ago last month, U.S. postal workers staged an unprecedented and historic eight-day strike, backing down the Nixon administration and winning the right to collective bargaining. A half century later, Mark Dimondstein, the leader of the 200,000-strong American Postal Workers Union, says that the Trump administration is using today’s crisis as an opportunity to destroy the postal service as a public entity once and for all. In These Times spoke to Dimondstein about the existential peril facing postal workers, and what they plan to do about it.
What specifically are you asking for from Congress right now?
Mark Dimondstein: The pandemic is having a huge economic impact on mail. The Post Office is not taxpayer funded, so it normally runs on revenue from postage and services. And if 40 to 50% of that dries up in this pandemic — which is what looks like it’s happening, in a very quick and precipitous way — then that money has to be made up. So the Postal Board of Governors is asking for $25 billion for relief, and another $25 billion for modernization, which gives them money to modernize the fleet. This is a relief for every single person in the country. It’s not a relief for a private entity.
We had bipartisan support for some real relief [in the CARES Act], and it was actually stopped by Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin, representing this administration.
What do you think is the source of the Trump administration’s hostility towards rescuing the Post Office?
Dimondstein: I think it’s pretty straightforward. In June of 2018, an Office of Management and Budget report — that’s the White House — openly called for an opportunity to sell off the Post Office to private corporations. Their agenda is to enrich a few of their private sector friends at the expense of the people of our country.
What makes it even more shameful is, we have massive unemployment at a rate that’s never been seen, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And there are 600,000 good, living-wage jobs in the Post Office. That they would dare come after these jobs makes it much more shameful.
The underlying thing is, they’re coming after a right of the people. If the Post Office is privatized and sold off to private corporations, then who gets mail will depend on who we are, where we live, and how much it would cost.
How urgent is the situation at the Post Office right now? If the rescue package doesn’t happen, when could people start seeing an impact on their mail?
Dimondstein: The Post Office has done some modeling, so there are estimates of what would happen. Some time between July and September, the Post Office will likely run out of money. And when they run out of money, their operations will cease. There isn’t any way to put fuel in the trucks, there isn’t any way to pay workers, there isn’t any way to keep the lights on.
We had bipartisan support in the House and Senate [to fund the Post Office in the CARES Act]. And a Wall Street, Goldman Sachs Secretary of the Treasury said to both parties,”You will not have an incentive package that the Post Office is in.” Even though they gave $500 billion to the private sector. So we have to flip it. We now need Congress to tell Mnuchin, “There will be no incentive package that you want without the Post Office in it.”
Are you afraid that they might try to come after your collective bargaining rights as some sort of tradeoff?
Dimondstein: The presidential task force that Mnuchin headed up actually called for an end to our collective bargaining rights. So that’s on their agenda too. Since 2010, our workers made great sacrifices, and made huge concessions worth billions and billions of dollars a year to the Post Office. So we’ll vigorously oppose any effort to tie any strings to it — no strings should be tied to anything that happened Covid-related.
You’ve got postal workers on the front lines, doing essential work. We’ve had over 30 postal workers die from the coronavirus. Thousands have been sick, thousands more have been quarantined. And they’re gonna talk about coming after our wages and benefits? No way.
Your union has a fairly large membership. Since you find yourself in this borderline existential situation right now, are there any more militant actions you might take as a union, if it comes down to life or death for the Post Office?
Dimondstein: We haven’t given a lot of thought to that right now. Right now we’re focused on worker health and safety primarily, and focused on getting Congress to do the right thing. In terms of how people will react if Congress doesn’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But I am sure that workers will be highly upset. Their families will be highly upset. Their communities will be highly upset. And I would think that certainly there would be escalating efforts on the part of the people of this country to make sure that the Post Office is saved.
I want to mention one other thing: The whole question of whether the ballot is going to be protected. Here you have a situation where people are unable to come vote physically. Poll workers are unable to come and be safe in their civic duties. Poll by mail is safe, there’s a paper trail, it’s working in states that do it by law, it’s working in states that do it voluntarily. It increases participation. And look, there are those in this country who would rather not have people coming to the ballot box. The work of the ballot box is largely going to become the mail. So again, the public Post Office is the civic life of this country.
Your union endorsed Bernie. What are your thoughts on how the primary turned out?
Dimondstein: I think Senator Sanders did a terrific job over the last number of years, 2016 and 2020, boldy raising issues that needed to be raised. And that’s why people responded so well. Sanders has raised up single-payer healthcare, i.e. Medicare for All. It was a fringe issue. Now it’s not a fringe issue. Look at what this pandemic says to us: We live in a society. If we’re going to be healthy, everybody has to have health insurance. If you’re sick, guess what? You may give it to somebody else.
I think what happened was, and Sanders put it this way himself: He lost the electability argument. That’s unfortunate, because I think Sanders was the most electable. I think this pandemic underscores that we have to have a more collective, take-care-of-each-other approach, whether it’s on paid sick leave, whether it’s on Medicare for All, whether it’s on child care, whether it’s on the ability of the federal government – I mean, the idea that this government couldn’t figure out in advance to have tests for people, and to be able to get it done quickly? That’s an absurdity.
What do you think this crisis is going to mean for the labor movement going forward? Will it damage unions, or will it be a big opportunity?
Dimondstein: If we’re really gonna be a movement, I think this is the time when workers are saying to each other, “We have to have a true voice at work.” Workers all over this country are absolutely vulnerable in this pandemic. I think it’s a valuable lesson for workers of this country that we need stronger unions, and we need stronger societal and collective benefits.
I would hope — and there’s certainly some sentiment out there, in the articles I’ve been reading, from the Instacart workers, to the Walmart workers, the Amazon workers, all sorts of warehouse workers and so on — that they have felt much more vulnerable without having an organization to defend themselves.
The labor movement has to act like a movement. The labor movement needs to be much more clearly, in my view, fighting for all workers, whether they’re in unions or not. That means fighting for societal-based health insurance, not employer-based health insurance. Societal-based sick leave, not employer-based sick leave. The AFL-CIO and the other unions have a great opportunity to be at the forefront of the entire working class in those negotiations.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.