A group of concerned citizens paid us a compliment the other day -- showing up to picket outside our doors. Community and Postal Workers United was protesting what its members consider our unduly stringent view of the need for the Postal Service to restructure, especially by reining in labor costs that account for 80 percent of its overhead.
The protesters repeated the oft-made argument that the Postal Service would be just fine, financially, if only Congress would relieve it of an annual $5.5 billion retiree health fund prepayment. This deserves a respectful reply that fortunately can be brief. Postal Service data clearly show that the agency would still lose several billion dollars per year over the next half decade even without the prepayment.
The Postal Service's essential problem can also be stated simply: Because of technological change, the volume of first-class mail is plummeting, with no end in sight. Yet the Postal Service remains geared to the demands of a bygone age, burdened by a large network of little-used post offices and mail-processing centers, as well as a unionized workforce of more than half a million people. The union labor contracts insulate workers from layoffs and guarantee them more generous health care benefits than the general public, or even other federal workers, receive. This is not a sustainable system.
Congress is working on the issue, though efforts thus far do not inspire confidence that lawmakers can or will overcome entrenched interest groups that benefit from the Postal Service status quo. The House's relatively realistic approach would empower a commission to decide on closing postal facilities, on the model of the military base-closing efforts of recent years. It would allow the Postal Service to move more quickly to five-day delivery and bar no-layoff clauses in labor agreements.
The Senate, alas, has approved a bill that would shrink the postal workforce by up to 100,000 through $7 billion in early retirement packages but is otherwise tepid. For example, it requires the Postal Service to consider downsizing installations before closing them.
The Postal Service is burning down, financially speaking. Time for Congress to stop fiddling.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST
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