The Postman Rings Every So Often
The end of Saturday mail is coming—and Friday mail might be next.
So a measure that Canada adopted back in 1969, it turns out, might not help the United States much in 2012. And to Ian Lee, an assistant professor of business at Carleton University, the USPS and his native Canada Post now face problems that strike at the very idea of postal systems themselves.
"The post office's public utility is diminishing because the public doesn't use it," he says. It wasn't always that way. Working at a Canadian bank in the 1970s, he saw the country reel from the effects of postal strikes: "It was apocalyptic. Banks were absolutely dependent on the postal system."
During a 2011 Canada Post strike, by contrast, few people took much notice of the interruption. It's a sign that postal systems, professor Lee warns, "are in a long, terminal decline."
Congress isn’t likely to save this patient. Postal unions are large, vocal, and solidly Democratic; attempts to break up or reduce the Postal Service are primarily Republican. Even well-intentioned reforms—and not all are—will be viewed with suspicion by congressional Democrats. Their worries aren’t purely political; the post office's historical importance as a minority employer means that closings and layoffs, if not accompanied by serious retraining and educational opportunities, could prove devastating to black communities.
The Postal Service's overcapacity in labor and facilities recalls nothing so much as the politically explosive issue of demobilizing redundant military bases at the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the GAO has already made the connection, with an idea that has received little coverage: "Congress," they report, "could set up a mechanism, such as one similar to the Military Base Realignment and Closure Commission." The BRAC process hands closures to a panel appointed by the president; for its recommendations to take effect, Congress need only remain silent, rather than cast politically ruinous votes. If that model allows congressional Republicans and Democrats alike to walk away from what would likely follow, postal workers may have a lot more free time on their hands, and not just on Saturdays.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.