Save the US Postal Service, Not Just the Buildings

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” Herodotus c. 484-425 BC

santa monica post officeThe rally I went to Saturday to save the Santa Monica Post Office was a bit of a bummer. After 75 years of continuous service, the branch on Arizona and 5th street was closing its doors for good. The US Postal Service, a vital part of the public infrastructure of this country and a source of hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs, is in the process of being raided and its assets sold to the highest bidder. And the best that we the people can muster up is a rally to beg a city agency to recognize the historic value of the building, so at least it won’t be demolished. And maybe, if we’re lucky enough, the new private owner will be a restaurant or some other entity that will preserve the historic lobby of the building for members of the public to see – at least those members willing and able to pay for a meal.

See related article here by Mark Jamison.

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, saw that inclement weather could not keep the mail from being delivered. However, he could not have anticipated the power of the Corporatocracy. Using the playbook described in Naomi Klein’s great book “The Shock Doctrine,” corporate America worked hand and hand with our federal representatives to manufacture a fiscal crisis within the US Postal Service in order to achieve the privatization of yet another public good. In 2006, a bi-partisan group of Congress people, including our own liberal Democrat Henry Waxman, co-sponsored the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) which required the agency to pay for health care benefits for workers 75 years in advance. Ostensibly this was to fix some complex issue concerning unfunded pension liability. However, there were other fixes that could have been made that would not have pushed the Post Office into bankruptcy. Further evidence that this was their goal is that the PAEA also prohibited the Postal Service from providing any other services that would compete with the private sector in order to get out of debt.

As a result, the Post Office went from being profitable to being $23.5 billion in the red, and a thousand US Post Offices have been closed — and often  sold off — across the country. The workforce has been reduced by 193,000 jobs; and 13,000 of the remaining 32,000 post offices are threatened with reduced services and hours. Most people who don’t know about this legislation think the Post Office is losing money because of the internet and email. But before PAEA, the Postal Service was doing fine. The 2006 legislation has the hands of the lobbyists from Fedex, UPS and Pitney Bowes all over it as well as corporate funded conservative groups and think tanks like ALEC, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. But the corporate connection to this travesty does not end there. One company, CBRE, was given the exclusive, no-bid contract to sell or lease the $110 billion worth of real estate owned by the Post Office. And that company is chaired and partly owned by Richard Blum, who is also one of the University of California Regents who is also working on privatizing the state’s public university system. Richard Blum is none other than the husband of California’s US Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Carol Lemlein, president of the all volunteer Santa Monica Conservancy, did not feel it necessary to give this background to the few dozen people who assembled at the Post Office on Saturday. Because the rally was held only one hour before the branch was set to close its doors forever, it was too late to actually save the Post Office itself, as the city government and citizens have united to do in the city of Berkeley. No, this rally was just to notify those assembled that in their meeting on July 8, Santa Monica’s Landmark Commission should be asked to “better define the attributes of the building listed in the covenant and the city should accept enforcement responsibility.” In other words, we the people were being roused to implore the city to try to preserve the historical attributes of a building already owned and paid for by the public before it is sold to a private entity which might tear it down and turn it into something more profitable like an apartment building.

santa monica post officeSo the Post Office joins the ranks of public schools, public parks and other public lands, public prisons and even the military-industrial-intelligence complex in being turned over to or exploited by corporate interests for private profit. And because of the failure of the corporate owned media to report this story, most members of the public, including many of the people at the rally, are completely unaware of what is going on.

When I tried to interest the young reporter from KCAL 9 to videotape a statement from me about this, she told me to send an email to the news producer. Try as I might to explain to her how my information would put the story into a wider historical and political context, she failed to see the relevance. When I noticed she was holding her own camera and microphone, I thought back 35 years ago to my days interning in the newsroom of WBZ-TV in Boston, where a remote news crew consisted of three people. The model of privately funded journalism and increasing media consolidation in this country has not led to more and better news but less substantive news and analysis as big media conglomerates close bureaus and investigative units and cut staff in the quest to squeeze more and more profit out of the product.

In the early days of our country, a lot of journalism was publicly subsidized, as much of it was produced in the form of pamphlets which were distributed by the Post Office.

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell

To further extend our look at the effects of privatization in this country as it relates to this story, due to the corporate financed “education reform” movement since No Child Left Behind and its successor Race to the Top, young people are learning less and less history in public schools. Without a knowledge of history, people have no perspective of what public goods we once had in order to demand that they be returned to us. Most people probably don’t know that this post office, like so many others, was paid for by US taxpayers through the Works Progress Administration, a program started by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression to put Americans back to work building necessary public infrastructure. Sounds like a good idea for today, right? And they probably are unaware that Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR’s wife, had the idea to commission unemployed artists to paint murals and create sculptures for these post offices.

According Gray Brechin, project scholar for the Living New Deal at U.C. Berkeley, there are thousands of post office branches with fabulous public art that are set to go into private hands. 14 murals by famous artist Ben Shahn in the Bronx, New York, post office are probably worth more than the real estate itself. But never fear, we can count on the largesse of the 1% to allow us limited access to this publicly funded art. Movie producer Joel Silver just bought the Venice Post Office for his production company offices and is spending $100,000 to restore Edward Biberman’s famous “Story of Venice” mural. Everyone is falling all over themselves with excitement, because he said he would allow the public in six times a year to view the mural by appointment.

The people at the Santa Monica rally were obviously concerned enough about preserving their Post Office to show up. And some even suggested that the cash strapped city of Santa Monica buy the building. I tried to point out the absurdity of using taxpayer funds so the city could buy a public building that had already been paid for by the taxpayers and was already owned by the federal government. But Ms. Lemlein did not want to discuss that. She felt the deed was done and that the task at hand was to beg for crumbs from the city.

So what can you do? Of course, if you want to preserve the Santa Monica Post Office building and lobby, you should attend the Landmark Commission’s meeting on July 8 and write to the Santa Monica City Council. For more information, go here.

But if you want to try to save the US Postal Service from further privatization, urge your Congress member and Senator to support Congressman Pete De Fazio’s bill HR 630 and Senator Bernie Sanders companion bill S316, which would remove the health benefits pre-funding requirement and allow the Postal Service to earn revenue in other ways.

The National Association of Letter Carriers has all sorts of ideas to make the Post Office profitable again, even with this pre-funding mandate, such as providing low cost banking and internet services. But they have to get permission from Congress which is being heavily lobbied by the industry not to allow this.

However, according the former Postmaster Mark Jamison who writes for Save The Post Office:

Progressives need to build a case for the value of public goods generally and the value of postal infrastructure specifically. It can’t just be ‘Let the postal service get into new lines of business’ or we’ll see nothing but programs that assist the mailing industry. Restore the network of of local and community post offices, stop the privatization of the internal system that moves the mail, strengthen not weaken the postal network, and develop programs, policies, and products that benefit the American people not one small industry. A postal bank, an electronic system of bill presentment and payment that helps late adopters and non-adopters gain access to internet technologies, using the resources of the postal network to beef up and bring transparency to our broadband networks and their pricing, using postal vehicles not as a platform for advertising but as a platform for something meaningful like weather data collection of meter reading, policies that strengthen the rationale for preferential rates for periodicals (along with recognition that print is a very much alive and essential technology) and better coordination with other government agencies and entities so we can be more productive, more efficient and more synergistic.

The Right Wing and the Libertarian utopians preach a form of dog eat dog capitalism that is self-consuming, destructive and not particularly productive or efficient. Recognizing the value of public goods and the fact that markets are not natural entities bequeathed to us by a Creator but man made systems that are the products of design and intention is not socialism. It’s plain common sense and policy that ensures broad participation in the economy with benefits for more people for the good of pretty much everyone. We’re not talking about controlling markets but designing their rules well and responding when they fail. The provision of public goods, like infrastructure, is an efficient and meaningful way of ensuring that markets work as intended for broad benefit. A healthy, well functioning postal network is a public good that provides opportunity for a broad range of commercial and social participation and that, simply put, is good business. A privatized postal network or one that is an industry captured risks squandering the public service benefits while encouraging rent seeking and narrowing the profit base – it is, even by the definitions of those who support it, bad business.

To learn more about this issue, go to Save the Post Office. This excellent site is edited and administered as a labor of love by Steve Hutkins, a literature professor who teaches “place studies” at the Gallatin School of New York University. Steve lives in a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley. He has no affiliation with the U.S. Postal Service—he doesn’t work for it, nor does anyone lauren steinerin his family. Like millions of Americans, he just likes his local post office, and he doesn’t want to see post offices being closed. This website provides information about the post office closings and consolidations that are taking place, the historic post office buildings that are being sold off, the efforts people are taking to protect their post offices, and the things citizens can do to save their post office when it ends up on the closure list.

Finally, there are some wonderful videos from the recent 2013 Public Banking Conference on the Postal Service. To see a slide show of photographs of all the amazing public art in the nation’s post offices, please watch Gary Brechin’s presentation. To hear about the National Letter Carriers Union’s plan to provide other services that can save the post office, watch Jim Sauber’s presentation. And to find out how the City of Berkeley is trying to save it’s post office, watch City Council member Yin Lee’s presentation. They can all be found here.

Lauren Steiner

Monday, 1 July 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on July 2, 2013
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About Lauren Steiner

Lauren Steiner is a long time political activist who has been involved with SoCal Grassroots, Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles, the California Clean Money Campaign Occupy LA, Occupy Venice, Food and Water Watch, Hunger Action LA, the LA Food Policy Council and the Coalition Against Nukes. Recently she organized a grassroots campaign to fight SB4, the weak fracking regulatory bill that Governor Brown recently signed that will ramp up fracking in California. She continues to plan actions that fight the privatization of public institutions and public goods for the benefit of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.