Spreading the News: The American Postal System From Franklin to Morse
by Richard John (Harvard)
Labor Struggles in the Post Office
by John Walsh and Garth Mangum (M.E. Sharpe)
Mail @ the Millennium: Will the Postal Service Go Private?
ed. by Edward Hudgins (Cato Institute)
Once upon a time, long before the Internet, a reliable, secure, government-operated postal system was a wonder. It fulfilled the dream of the first postmaster general, Ben Franklin, by uniting a diverse, rapidly growing country. The Post Office flowed information and goods across mountains and rivers and plains, prospered despite even more modern wonders like the telegraph, and became a perennial plum for political patronage. But in 1970, about 200,000 postal workers went on strike. They walked off the job in 30 cities to protest stagnant wages, poor working conditions and an absence of collective bargaining rights. President Richard Nixon eventually ordered military personnel to replace them. Nobody went postal, and the strike subsided after two weeks. Nixon, Congress and postal union chiefs negotiated. The Post Office lost its status as a Cabinet-level department in the executive branch and changed its name to the United States Postal Service, often referred to as USPS. It was a corporate-like government agency regulated by Congress, but only partially (and then decreasingly) funded by it. Nixon’s three-way negotiations had designed an elephant by committee.
Workers did get the right to collective bargaining, which gradually yielded benefits like 100 percent employer-paid life insurance, which other federal employees still envy. USPS got the power to regulate its competitors and exemptions from taxes and parking tickets. The arrangement prospered into the 1990s. Then its lucrative monopoly—first-class mail—declined by nearly a third. Although the future looked dim, the service was legally obliged to deliver stuff to every nook and cranny in the country. The 2006 Congress helpfully added to the mess: It ordered USPS to fully prefund retiree health benefits, an additional cost of billions per year; corporations typically prefund 70 to 80 percent of pension benefits. Think things look bad for USPS? Many say the Internet is making snail mail obsolete anyway. True enough—unless you’re among the 30 percent of Americans without Internet access.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.