March 2015We all know the word “valentine” from the February day when sweethearts exchange red-frilly cards. But it’s also the name of a third-century saint who literally lost his head, a ninth-century pope whose reign lasted only 40 days, three Roman emperors, a silent movie heart throb, a peppy Mexican hot sauce, the first woman in space… and a town in Texas.
I have been to that town, and it has a story to tell us about the meaning of community. It’s a haul to get there, for Valentine, population 217, is way out in Southwest Texas on a long and lonely stretch of US 90, close by the Mexican border. One of only two burgs in the far-flung desertland of Jeff Davis County, it was founded in 1882 by the Southern Pacific Railroad as a whistle stop and shipping point for area ranches. The railroad also named the place.
It seems that Southern Pacific’s construction crew arrived at the town site on February 14, and who would’ve guessed that in 1882 in Nowhere, Texas, there’d be a bunch of romantics on a burly construction crew? The men were apparently so touched by the felicitous beginning of a new town on the symbolic day of romance that–well, what else could they have named it? (Actually, some historians offer a less charming version, claiming the place was named for John Valentine, at the time the president of Wells Fargo and a major stockholder in Southern Pacific. But no one likes a cynic, so let’s stick with the enchanting story of Cupid’s influence.)
In fact, this tiny town has one particular attraction that truly does enchant people, drawing attention from every state and many foreign lands: The Valentine Post Office. The post office opened in 1886, shortly after the trains started running, and it has continued its proud public service ever since. Today, Postmaster Leslie Williams runs the one-room adobe PO, not only serving local residents, ranchers and businesses, but also serving thousands of customers worldwide who mail batches of their valentines to her each year. Why would they mail them to this faraway station? People around the world send their pre-addressed and stamped valentines to be re-mailed bearing this fanciful postmark:
Ms. Williams, who has been a postal worker at the Valentine station for 22 years, is happy to do this for all sweethearts who want this extra spoonful of sugar on their missives. Adding to the love, each fall she asks local students to submit artistic designs for the next Valentine’s Day postmark. The city council chooses the winning drawing, and the US Postal Service certifies it to be the Love Station’s official cancellation stamp for that season.
Then, around February 1st, Postmaster Williams begins the task of hand stamping and re-mailing the envelopes sent to her from some 30 countries, totaling nearly 40,000 valentines. Sometimes she has to bring in another postal worker or local volunteers if the volume is heavy and the deadline for delivery is closing in. But zip code 79854 gets the job done every year–on top of its normal workload, and all for no charge beyond the standard 49c stamp. Now that’s service!
Like thousands of their counterparts around the country, the Valentine station and its postal workers are a public treasure, literally delivering for the people–no matter who they are, how poor they are, or where they are. Hardly an impersonal franchise that peddles stamps, a post office is a place where townspeople from all walks of life regularly cross paths, maybe have a bit of conversation, and begin to see each other as neighbors in a shared community. Each station also links its postal community to all others, forming a human network for the common good. That’s why this institution is widely appreciated, often beloved, and consistently rated the most trusted by the people–whether their zip code is in a teeming metroplex or is in a place like Valentine, a dot on the map of America’s vast countryside.
So here we have a highly beneficial social entity that’s located everywhere, open to all, dedicated to service, resourceful, and extremely popular–obviously, this thing needs to be shut down.
A public mugging
That’s what passes for logic among the boneheaded/goober headed/Kochheaded muckamucks who are using their lofty perches in Congress, atop the USPS managerial hierarchy, and in Washington’s corporate lobbying suites to undermine our invaluable public postal system. Elimination and privatization of this civic asset is their goal, and for several years now they’ve been using ideological flimflam, legislative monkeywrenching, and political deceit in constant attempts to disable or dismantle piece after piece of the system–including trying to shut down the little jewel in Valentine.
In July 2011, word wafted out to Jeff Davis County that the venerable post office on Highway 90 was on USPS’s list of 3,700 offices across the country under review for closure. Budgets, you know–USPS is running about $5 billion a year in the red, explained a postal spokesperson who’d been dispatched to this outback to calm the locals. He sympathized with their loss, but said with a sigh: “The postal service has to look under every rock, to save every dollar, to try to keep the service alive.”
That comment makes the postal powers seem almost heroic, but their actions are actually somewhere between pathetic and vile. Three points:
1. The “savings” hoax. Locking the door on Valentine’s station would save a paltry $60,000 a year for the $67 billion a year USPS (which, since 1971, has been a quasi-private enterprise that’s solely funded by sales of its stamps and services, so the widespread notion that taxpayers somehow benefit from these cuts and closures is completely fallacious). Not only does $60K do nothing to solve the company’s problems, but the bulk of that goes to pay the salaries of Leslie Williams and one postal support employee. Thus, the so-called savings would be achieved by siphoning out of Valentine the dab of revenue that creates two of the town’s few middle-class jobs.
2. The “every rock” hoax. While Congress and the postal service’s top bosses busy themselves by scrutinizing financial pebbles, they continue to pretend that the massive boulder of manufactured debt hung around the neck of USPS isn’t there. You see, far from being “broke,” as the right-wing, anti-government crowd ceaselessly claims, the Postal Service’s annual revenue greatly exceeds its operating costs these days, generating an impressive operating profit of $1.4 billion. Yet, the service appears to be sinking in red ink, thanks to one outside factor: Malicious congressional meddling. While Washington has loudly insisted that our public mail network must sink or swim on its own as a business, getting no taxpayer subsidies, Congress quietly intervened (directly and massively) in the Service’s business in 2006 to rip a Titanic-sized gash in its balance sheet. That fall the Bush-Cheney regime and lobbyists for postal corporatizers pushed a lame-duck session of Congress to ram the “Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act” into law. Some enhancement! The law mandated that the Service must pre-fund all of its retiree benefits for the next 75 years. And pay for it within 10 years. That’s criminally outrageous! No other business or government agency has to pre-fund for even one year, much less seven and a half decades. This adds an unbearable, artificial, government-manufactured debt of more than $5 billion a year to USPS–accounting for 100 percent of its current “losses.”
3. The “keep the service alive” hoax. Excuse me, but the only important part of the Service is–hello–its services. Kill off the community facilities and the dedicated workers who deliver, and what’s left of the PO? Nothing–which is precisely why the extremist, anti-public ideologues and corporate profiteers keep chanting their “shrink to survive” mantra. In addition to its PO closure list (which bears the ridiculously Orwellian title of “Retail Access Optimization Initiative”), the postal hierarchy is either contemplating or is already implementing such “shrinkages” as–
- shutting down about half of the 487 mail processing centers throughout the country (thus slowing delivery);
- reducing the hours of business for more than half of America’s post offices;
- cutting nearly a third of postal jobs by the end of this year (the largest reduction in the PO’s 223-year history);
- eliminating Saturday mail delivery;
- corporatizing the marketing of the most popular and (most profitable) mail products by letting Staples run boutique PO kiosks in its big box stores, staffing them with its poorly paid, minimally trained, non-union workforce.
That’s not a survival plan–it’s a slow-motion mugging. This vital, vibrant national resource has been seized by a band of official ruffians who don’t want it to survive. Cut-by-cut they’re draining the Service’s ability to serve. And if we let them, they will bleed it until there’s no life left–no sense of public mission, no throbbing heart of an energized workforce, no community soul… no customers.
What a contemptible bunch of no-can-do “leaders” they are. What a disgrace they are to the legacy of Ben Franklin, our first Postmaster General (appointed by the Continental Congress in 1775–prior to the establishment of the USA itself). Franklin not only set up a mail system, he saw it as a tangible expression of the new nation’s inventive, public-spirited, democracy-expanding possibilities. Have we Americans today lost all of that spirit? Are we now so culturally corporatized that we can no longer imagine the big possibilities that we as a society can team up to build?
No. Although it’s clear that the sluggish sad sacks in charge of America’s marvelous postal framework are eager to surrender it all to corporate plunderers, I’ve found in my travels through grassroots America that We the People want to do the exact opposite. If the eminences in Washington accidentally stumbled upon some workaday folks at a Chat & Chew Cafe, they’d find a powerful commitment to the democratic ethic of “we’re all in this together,” a yearning to rebuild and expand The Commons, and a rebellious dismay at the obsequious servitude of our national leaders to the corporate few.
Back in 2011, when the USPS fellow came to tell Valentinians that the shuttering of their branch office was both fiscally necessary and not that big of a deal (after all, he cheerily explained, the station in Marfa is only 36 miles away!), he was met by a packed house of 79854ers. They hadn’t come to talk about the inconvenience of driving to another county for service, but about community:
- “Once the post office goes away,” said one, “we’re just another ghost town. Where we go to get our stamps is not important. It’s our central place.”
- “Where will the community bulletin board be?” asked another. Good question because this community counts on the very lively bulletin board at the post office to learn what’s going on in the area. The out-of-town postal man, growing weary of the challenging questions, answered rather curtly, “That’s up to the community.” Well, thought the locals, if it really was up to us, we’d keep it in our post office.
- Then came the biggie: “What about all those sweethearts who send valentines (here)?” Nothing needs to change, the official assured the crowd, though he conceded that the actual stamping of the Love Station postmark would not be done in Valentine, but would likely shift 223 miles away to the postal processing center in Midland. In short everything would change, including having the global integrity of the Valentine name turned into a big fat marketing fib. But what the hey, exclaimed the clueless USPS spokesman: “Who’s to know the difference?” To which one exasperated attendee cried out: “She would!” pointing to the town’s postmaster. Indeed, everyone in the area would know the difference and feel both abused and used by officials who’re so obtuse that they view a town’s post office as nothing but a $60,000 liability, rather than a physical and emotional force of gravity that pulls a community together. So Valentinians joined a nationwide rebellion against the shutdowns, standing up and speaking out loudly enough that even Washington heard them. In 2012, USPS had to suspend its wholesale closure plan, and the doors to the Love Station remain open today in its proper 79854 home (albeit with its hours reduced to six a day, and no Saturday openings).
What the majority of people are making clear in fights like this from coast to coast is that the common good matters more than all of the doctrinaire blather from corporate suites, Wall Street, and Washington about shrinking and privatizing government. The people of our country are not small thinkers. Unlike those in power, their vision and goal is not to have a postal service that can “survive,” but one that can expand and thrive.
Bank on it
The answer: “It’s not legal.” Sadly, congressional leaders and top USPS managers who’ve been directing our postal future have the cutting-edge creativity of a pair of dull scissors. Their entire vocabulary is restricted to variations of “cut, chop, cancel, contract out… corporatize.”At that 2011 meeting in Valentine to tell folks that their iconic post office was a goner, the USPS man blamed it on the office’s declining sales of stamps. Well what the hell, asked a clear-thinking resident, “Why not sell other items to generate revenue?”
Instead, why not listen to those in the USPS who really know what’s going on, who deal directly with customers, who are not in cahoots with the privatizers, and who see the entrepreneurial possibilities of this phenomenal public asset: The post office workforce. For years, the four major work groups in the USPS (American Postal Workers Union, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and National Rural Letter Carriers Association) have been pointing out to the system’s aloof powers that the real path to postal prosperity is to do more, not less. They also make the point that the USPS is uniquely positioned in the marketplace to deliver important but unavailable services people want–for example: low-cost, basic banking services.
Millions of Americans in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas now have no alternative to the Wall Street-backed predatory lenders and check cashing chains that rip them off. In a January report titled “Underbanked and Overcharged,” United for a Fair Economy (UFE) documented that this is a huge market of 68 million adults–more than a fourth of US households. UFE’s report confirms the findings of another study done a year earlier by no less an authority than the US Postal Service’s own Inspector General. It found that the average underserved household is spending some $2,400 a year (nearly 10 percent of their income) on the outlandish fees and usurious interest rates charged by predatory financial stores.
Both the Inspector General and UFE pointed to the obvious solution: Postal banks. A third of America’s zip codes have no bank–but all of them have a post office. With 31,000 post offices, USPS is by far the largest retail presence in the country, so the national infrastructure is already there to offer savings accounts, reloadable pre-paid debit cards, access to e-commerce, small loans, and other banking needs at an affordable price. Plus, the postal network is trusted, accessible, and secure, making it one of the few national retail entities that has a positive reputation in these communities.
Expanding into banking makes sense for USPS–in fact, until the banker lobby got Congress to kill the business in 1967, post offices had been offering savings deposit accounts for more than half a century. Even today, the Postal Service provides international money transfers and sells more money orders than any other entity. And postal systems around the world (in Japan, New Zealand, France, Brazil, India, and China, for instance) run very successful postal banks.
Postal banking would help decentralize money, meet a real need, save billions of dollars for America’s struggling families, and enhance and extend the agency’s historic mission of public service. Oh, one more reason to do it: The Inspector General estimates that postal banking can bring nearly $9 billion a year in revenue for the USPS.
A Grand Alliance
The post office is not merely a thing, though it is composed of many things–buildings, touch-screen postage machines, delivery trucks, mail boxes, etc. The post office is also an idea, an important concept and a mechanism for making real our people’s Big Ideal of a democratic, egalitarian, one-out-of-many society.
It’s this idealism, this inherently public nature of the postal service, that is the heart of its appeal and its significance–and it is the only thing that will save the service from being shrunk to just another corporate profit center by Congress and top USPS officials.
Just over a year ago, Mark Dimondstein, the fiery, newly elected president of the American Postal Workers Union, roused his members with a populist call to action. “Writing to Congress is not enough,” he declared. “Lobbying is not enough. History shows that only movements move Congress. We in labor must build a grand alliance with low-wage workers, retirees, civil rights organizations, women’s groups, rural communities, Occupy, veterans, family farmers, faith leaders, seniors, small business and other allies to restore the primacy of the public good–including the right to a vibrant, expanding public postal service.” Sure enough, last month, more than 60 national people’s groups joined with APWU to launch a remarkable grassroots campaign: “A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service.” It takes a movement to advance democracy–and this is a democratic movement that needs and wants you: AGrandAlliance.org.