Article Published in the Omaha World-Herald
To listen to the leadership of America’s postal unions, you might think that the Postal Service was dead-set on hiring convicted felons to deliver the mail.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, proposes to prohibit the contracting of mail delivery to private firms or individuals, proclaiming, “We cannot allow the Postal Service’s management to jeopardize the safe and reliable delivery of mail to our homes.”
Meanwhile, National Association of Letter Carriers President William Young has warned that contracting would “ultimately corrupt public confidence in the sanctity and security of their important personal and professional communications.”
Such hyperbole by congressional and union leaders obscures the fact that contract mail delivery is crucial to the long-term fiscal health of the Postal Service. The simple truth is that contract deliverers cost about half as much as comparable union employees.
Over the past five years, the volume of First Class mail — which accounted for more than half of last year’s revenues — has declined significantly even as the number of delivery points has increased.
In the past, USPS simply raised First Class mail rates to cover its rising costs. But with the use of traditional mail falling, and a new law prohibiting the Postal Service from increasing stamp prices faster than inflation, cost-cutting measures are more important than ever before.
If these trends continue — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — USPS will have to reduce costs or find new revenue sources to remain financially solvent. Doing both would be preferable, of course. But because labor costs represent 80 percent of the Postal Service’s expenses, it’s obvious that contracting can form a significant portion of a cost-control strategy.
The Postal Service already outsources some of its work. Contract workers currently service about 7,600 routes, or about 2 percent of all routes nationwide. It’s likely that few postal consumers have even noticed.
And money-saving worksharing agreements exist in other areas of the delivery chain, as USPS relies on airlines like United and American to carry mail long distances and technology firms like Siemens to automate sorting and distribution.
But what about the safety and security of the mail? Just last month, John Hegarty of the Mail Handlers Union raised concerns about the trustworthiness of private contractors, telling a Senate subcommittee that “the American people do not want some contract employee reaching into their neighborhood mail box.”
Aside from the fact that this declaration of public opinion is baseless, USPS management has vowed to continue running background checks on its contract workers.
In fact, most people would probably prefer to have these packages left in their own mailboxes, instead of on the front doorstep. This is commonplace in many European countries. But U.S. law forbids private companies from using mailboxes, even though consumers own and maintain them.
In short, despite their grandstanding about safety and security, the reality is that union leaders feel threatened by contractors’ potential to undermine their hold on the postal labor market and their political clout. After all, contractors don’t pay union dues.
It’s not as if contractors are stealing union jobs. Most union workers are protected by contractual no-layoff provisions, and further, Postmaster General John Potter has pledged not to replace existing union employees with contract workers.
While praising Sen. Harkin’s move to prohibit private delivery, NALC President William Young went so far as to call contracting a “death sentence for the Postal Service.” Ironically, if lawmakers choose to act on Sen. Harkin’s proposal, they may be the ones who perform the last rites for the financial solvency of the Postal Service.
Robert R. Schrum is a research fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy research organization in Arlington, Virginia.
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