Labor activist Paul Prescod gives context to the fight over the future of the post office.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, great to have you all with this once again. Now I really want to explore today part of the postal crisis we’re facing the United States today. And to understand this crisis, the nation’s facing at this moment, we have to go back to the roots of labor militancy back in 1970 when there was a walk-out postal strike that led to increased wages and benefits, but also opened the Pandora’s box of privatization, which led to Federal Express and other mail delivery companies being born.
While the strike was successful, Richard Nixon got a law passed that said the agency would have to raise its own funds [inaudible 00:00:36] products, postage and more. So this crisis we face now has its roots in a 50-year old labor struggle. And that 50 years slow death and diminution of the post office.
To walk us through that history and bring us to the moment we’re in now, we’re joined by Paul Prescott. He was a union activist, member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, a teacher himself, and the contributing editor to [Jacqueline 00:00:58] Magazine, where he wrote the article, When the Mailman Rebelled. And Paul, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Paul Prescott: Thanks so much for having me. Good to be here.
Marc Steiner: So take us back to 1970 and what happened then. Maybe in terms of our ages and generations, I probably could take you back there first. But in terms of your history and your study, tell us what went on in 1970. This walk out strike that changed the nature of the post office, and in many ways were the roots of where we are now.
Paul Prescott: Yeah, sure. And definitely fill me in on gaps that I miss. So postal workers, this had been building for a while. So this was what seemed like a very spontaneous strike, but the conditions have been building for a long time.
So generally, they were treated worse than other public workers, government workers, civil servants. They made a lot less than sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters. And based on the law, they weren’t allowed to strike. So a lot of postal workers called it, they had collective begging, not collective bargaining.
And they described a lot of the mail rooms they worked in as dungeons. Overheated, no ventilation, no air, no windows, and things like that. So it had been building for a long time. And in 1969, Postal Workers Union branch in the Bronx, a few workers went on a sick out. So they called in sick as a protest action.
And this really caught fire in a way people didn’t really expect, and workers started on their own mobilizing to get those same workers reinstated and not be fired for what they did. And it really took off and it showed there was a lot of anger boiling beneath the surface.
And this boiled over into this big union meeting in New York City. It was the largest meeting that they ever had in that Postal Workers Union local. There were some [inaudible 00:02:51] activists who were gaining prestige in the local, and they basically led a strike vote that passed by somewhat of a thin margin.
And from there, the leadership of the unions were not really in control of this. So it spread like wildfire, and all of a sudden you had this national postal workers strike that no one saw coming. Union leaders in necessarily sanction it, and so things seemed out of control from that point. But they were really striking to catch up to what they saw the gains that other government employees were making during that time.
Marc Steiner: There’s always the thing about the moment we were in then, and why this might’ve been happening as well. Some of the lowest paid federal workers were among the postal workers back in the day. We can talk a bit about that, and how many of the workers were people of color, Latinos in the Southwest and black workers who, especially in urban areas in the West and the East, and the Panthers and black power was rolling, and the Vietnam war was happening. A lot of the people working there were Vietnam war vets. So there was a lot there that made this boil over. Think about that moment and talk a bit about that from your perspective historically in your studies, but also think about what that means for right this moment.
Paul Prescott: And it’s interesting because even a lot of average [inaudible 00:04:14] workers, they didn’t consider themselves radicals. They talked about this climate of the sense. So this is a point where the Vietnam war is very unpopular. And it’s not just unpopular, but even it’s now becoming mainstream to oppose the Vietnam war. It’s not just students on campus.
You’ve had the civil rights movement going for many years, the black power movement. In general, a lot of workers described that people just questioned authority in general throughout society. And so you had Vietnam war veterans, whether they’re black or white going to the war. They expect to be treated well, and they come back to this crappy job with crappy pay, so they’re angry about that.
Many black people who had been involved in the civil rights struggle. And it’s sort of like taking this militancy that was existing outside the labor movement, and bringing it inside the labor movement, and really starting to question authority in many ways.
I don’t think you can draw direct parallels, but it’s sort of an interesting moment now where you’ve had so many people, especially younger people excited by the Bernie Sanders campaign in this moment we’re living in. A lot of these people do not at least yet have a connection with the labor movement. So it will be interesting to see if they bring these more, I wouldn’t even call them radical, but America’s context, radical politics into the workplace as like a side of struggle.
Marc Steiner: Right, and I think about that. The postal workers or union members, clearly, they’re trying to complete the dismantling of the post office that began in 1970 at the end of the strike. So let me start there and then come back to what I said first. How do you make this connection between what happened at that moment? You have this situation in 1970, the workers strike across the country, workers slowing down, walking out of their jobs about eight days, right? Am I right about that?
Paul Prescott: Right.
Marc Steiner: Eight days in March and 1970. And they sent federal troops to New York, and you can talk a bit about that. You wrote about that. But what do you think happened politically where the workers struck, got what they wanted, in a walkout strike, which doesn’t always happen because those strikes are “illegal” and then Nixon and company, and the republicans in charge and democrats as well in 1970, turned on the workers and started dismantling and creating this privatized agency? Talk about that dynamic.
Paul Prescott: And just to pick up for us about the federal troops being sent and just to give you the [inaudible 00:06:47] dramatic the situation got. So Nixon calls in the National Guard to move the mail. And there’s a lot of freaking out about what this means for just discipline in general.
Federal workers are supposed to be more docile. You’re not supposed to really question authority because you work for authority. And Time Magazine said, “This could really set a bad precedent if you have federal workers defying the law like this, what is this going to mean for our society?”
So Nixon calls in the National Guard. It turns out moving the mail is actually hard. There are skills associated with it. They did terribly at moving the mail. There were actually some reports of some postal workers who were in the National Guard actually deliberately sabotaging the process to help out postal workers.
So it is pretty dramatic. You think about revolutions when they get serious, that’s when the military starts turning on authority. So maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but you have the National Guard also defying orders in that sense.
So the strike ended up, it wasn’t overwhelming victory. So the postal workers got big pay raises. They were also able to maximize the salary where they would max out. They got really good health benefits. They also got more structured collective bargaining that allowed them to actually bargain and not beg in the future.
But the other side of that which you mentioned is the Postal Reorganization Act. And that set it up in a different way. There were some gains and some downsides to it. So they set it up to be less political where the postmaster general was just directly appointed by whichever party is coming in power.
They also set it up, like you said, the post office have to now be self-sufficient funding. A lot of people still don’t know this, but the post office does not take taxpayer dollars. Now I will say the post office actually did not have much of a problem being self–sufficient financially.
So my take on this, and when you interview in the union, they might have a different take. I think the push for privatization was going to come either way. I think especially once the ’80s really got going, that’s where you see the attack on labor, the attack on the left, and privatization in all kinds of industries. You can even actually date it back to President Carter. He actually started a lot of this deregulation.
So I don’t think it was totally because of that reorganization that caused the privatization, I think that was coming anyway because they just wanted to privatize everything in the public sector. The real problems came with funding is in 2006, some people might know about, there was a bipartisan bill Congress passed called the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act.
And that’s where they forced the post office to pre-fund pensions and health benefits 75 years in advance. And literally no other government agency, no other private corporation has to do this. So before that, they were basically breaking even, or running a surplus. Ever since that moment, they’ve been in a deficit. And it’s just been getting worse and worse because each year billions of dollars, they have to set aside.
And when COVID hit, it’s hit everyone hard economically, and the postal service is no different. So they were already in this weak position because of that law. And that was just now being accelerated by what’s been happening with the economic crisis.
Marc Steiner: So one of the things here that’s interesting that you made me think of as you were describing what happened over the decades, culminated in 2006. Is that what we’re facing now with COVID or facing out with this vote by mail and the Trump’s attacks on that and his allies attacks on the post office on voting by mail, this is also attack on the working class. Working class who work in the post office.
And you see most polls say that 90% of Americans are happy with the post office. There’s a confluence of events here that don’t parallel 1970, but clearly for me have the roots there, but talking about what you see now. You’ve been involved as a labor activist. You know a lot of folks were involved in the postal struggle as well. Make those connections for us.
Paul Prescott: And it’s an interesting moment. I’m really glad that all of a sudden the postal service is in the news, it’s like all the rage now. But generally from MSNBC, CNN, they’re coming at this from the angle of the election. And of course that’s important to protect our voting rights. But I think even more importantly is postal service as a working class institution.
And this goes to show why they want to privatize it. And DeJoy’s move to delay mail, it’s not just about the election. I think they also were doing this as one more step to undermine it and privatize it. So the postal service is home to over 600,000 living wage jobs. The average salary is 55,000 a year, so obviously postal workers aren’t living large. It’s not like a worker’s utopia.
But in the United States in 2020, it is harder and harder to come by good solid union jobs with good benefits and stability. So that’s a big reason why they want to attack it. And you can think of it as a form of union busting.
And also, I’ll just say a little bit about particularly for black workers, historically and today. Postal service has been a very crucial institution for upward mobility. This goes all the way back to the 1940s, and it’s continued all the way until today. 21% of postal workers are black, so they’re disproportionately represented in the postal workforce.
And again, there’s been a crisis in jobs for everyone, but especially black workers. A lot of them public sector jobs are like the very thin line between some kind of stability and being impoverished. So it doesn’t seem like it’s a racial justice struggle, but I think people should recognize when we talk about black lives matter, we can hold police accountable. We could defund the police, but if at the same time the postal service is privatized and these jobs are destroyed, that’s going to be a disaster especially for black workers who have gotten so much out of this institution over the long term.
Marc Steiner: So as somebody who thinks deeply about the history of labor and is also a labor activist in your own union and had the sense of solidarity with the postal workers, where do you think the struggle is going to go? And how do you think labor solidarity fits into all of this, and what we may not be aware of this unfolding?
Paul Prescott: The old slogan from labor, injury to one is an injury to all. Many people in the labor movement don’t take that as seriously as they should. But I think we’re at an interesting moment where again, the public is overwhelmingly on the side of the postal service. It’s a good flash point to unite around.
In Philly, we’ve been working with the Postal Workers Union. These unions should see this as a fight they need to double down on because it’s also about saving the public sector more generally. If they can prioritize this, you know they’re going to go to the next thing. And I also think this is an opportunity for activist crisis, hopefully where we do save the post service.
And you’re even seeing centrist democrats are now coming out, at least for the time period of now to save the postal service. Let’s think about the future. So the Postal Workers Union has talked about postal banking, and this is a demand that Bernie Sanders lifted up. That’s the only reason I first heard about it. And that’s all for basic banking services in the post office. We used to have it in this country, many other countries do it, and it would be a big attack on the payday loan industry.
And again, I think you can look at this through a lens of racial justice. I think you see basically these loan sharks are most active in working class communities of color, and this would be a win for everyone. So not only do you provide good banking options for working people, you would create more employment in a post office. So more good living wage jobs. It’s also a way of increasing revenue for the postal service.
So I think people should be thinking about activist crisis, labor and community allies uniting around the postal service, not just to save it, not just to repeal that 2006 law, which absolutely needs to happen, but how can we expand the postal service, postal banking, people have talked about having electric car charging stations at post offices. People have talked about internet as an internet hub for communities that don’t have as much internet access. We should be thinking bigger.
Of course, this is going to take funding, and it’s going to be a political struggle, but I think we’ve seen in this moment that the public is actually on our side on this, and I think there’s a lot of material to work with in terms of mobilizing people around this public service.
Marc Steiner: So we can include. I think that what you’re raising here is a really important issue for us to wrestle with in the coming months around this struggle. It seems there’s this confluence of events happening. The fight for the future of democracy, the right to vote by mail, and the danger of the right trying to seize that. A working class organization with a huge plurality of workers of color in the postal workers in issues of race, and then thinking about what 21st century postal servers should be, that is also a threat to some private companies like Federal Express, like the big internet companies, Comcast, and the rest, because it could change the nature of what we think the public sector should do in terms of being the highway for America. It Allows things to build around it. I think there are a lot of tentacles to this that we’re not considering.
Paul Prescott: It’s a perfect example of… It touches on so many different struggles at the same time. And also we need to look at what can unite the broadest possible people, and it’s kind of cliche, but I’ve been very disturbed at the culture wars, which to be fair, right wing and left wing drum up. But the right wing is very skilled at creating a culture war to divide us. And the post service is good example of institution that 91% support that’s urban, that’s rural, republican, democrat, independent. It’s something that we really can unite around.
Marc Steiner: And the whole idea of public banking, which unites the rural as well as urban suburban. That whole idea was put forth before. If it gets raised in the proper way, this could actually heighten the consciousness and pull some of the elements of the white working class back into the struggle with everybody else.
Paul Prescott: And just wanting to keep in mind, we need to be vigilant. So what DeJoy has said is that he’s going to stop mail delays until the election’s over. And again, these delays are basically a ploy to privatize. So I work in public education, this happens all the time. You take away my funding and support, the school start not doing so well. And then you turn around and say, “Oh, wow. It looks like we need a charter school and we need to privatize.”
So right after the election, this fight will be live. And also we should be aware of that democrats, many of them are probably fine with privatizing the postal service as well. I do think Trump is definitely worse than what Biden would be, but I can easily see the Pete [inaudible 00:18:54] judges of the world in I don’t know, 2028 being totally fine with privatizing it.
So we should be clear that the only thing that will get us out of this is building a broad movement. There’s not many allies we can really rely on in Congress besides someone like Bernie, but he’s unfortunately pretty unique in our political system.
Marc Steiner: Well, Paul Prescott, this one really interesting. And I appreciate you taking the time today and it’s good to have you with us. Paul Prescott, as we said earlier, is a union activist, writes for Jacqueline Magazine, and you’ll be seeing more of him in Real News as we dive into labor and the future of the struggle here in America. And Paul, thanks for your work. And thanks for joining us today.
Paul Prescott: Thanks so much for having me.
Marc Steiner: And we’ll be covering this post office issue in depth over the next coming weeks. And Paul Prescott will be back. Please let us know what you think and give us your ideas. And I’m Marc Steiner, the Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.