Do You Need Your Mailman?

Today is perhaps the busiest day for the U.S. Postal Service. While workers are hustling to keep up with holiday mail, the agency lost $5 billion last year. The postal service plans for major cuts, but Congress wants to weigh options. Host Michel Martin speaks with two advocates of the postal service, Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY), and author Philip Rubio.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, our money coach offers some end-of-the-year advice on keeping your credit clean during and after the festive season. That's coming up. But first, if you want those holiday cards to make it in time, then you better get them in the mail soon. Today is expected to be the busiest day of the year for the U.S. Postal Service and your last chance to guarantee first-class delivery before December 25th.

The post office is bustling right now, but in the rest of the year, volume is down and the agency's deficit is up. The agency wracked up about five billion dollars of debt during the 2011 fiscal year. In just a minute, we'll talk to somebody who thinks it might be time to take a new approach to delivering the country's mail, but first, we want to talk to a strong advocate of the postal service, Congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns. He is the ranking member of the subcommittee on government organization, efficiency and financial management.

And for additional perspective, we've also called upon Philip Rubio. He is the author of, "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African-American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality." He's a professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University and a former postal worker. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

CONGRESSMAN EDOLPHUS TOWNS: Thank you for having me Michel.

PHILIP RUBIO: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Congressman, let's start with you because you have been very vocal about the importance of the post office, but I think that you don't have to be that tech-savvy to know that many people are moving the kinds of mail distribution that used to go to the post office and they're moving those operations online. So, why do you argue that we still need the post office?

TOWNS: Well, first of all I really feel that what the postal service needs is flexibility. If you would give them flexibility and take a look at where the needs are and see what we might be able to do to save these jobs. I really feel that we should establish a commission to take a look and to see in terms of what could be done. There's some things that the postal service might not be involved in now that they could get involved in.

Maybe they need to set up a technology center that would be also important in terms of for the postal service to look at what they can do to be able to maintain these jobs. And not only that — the minority community in particular — this has been their route to move into the middle class, and if we going to eliminating all of these jobs then what happens with people that had their dreams, aspirations and hopes to move into the middle class now will not be able to move.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit more about the history. I'm going to ask Philip Rubio to talk a little bit about this. African-Americans make up 21 percent of the postal service's workforce, according to The Chicago Tribune. Philip Rubio, you wrote a book about the role that the postal service has played in the advancement of African-Americans to the middle class. Why has the postal service been that important to the advancement of African-Americans in particular, and other groups too?

RUBIO: Well, like the rest of America, the black community has grown with the postal service and they definitely had to fight their way in but once they got in they were able to start making it a job migration magnet. Many of them had college degrees, couldn't get jobs in the private sector, so it became a tradition to the point where African-Americans could count on the postal service as a job either for a long-time career or something to do while they were waiting to get a job in law or in medicine, or jazz musicians or actors.

MARTIN: Really, the question I think for many people would be: does it still work that way today? Does it still work as an avenue or as a path into the middle class?

RUBIO: Yes, it still definitely is a road to the middle class. With top pay at $53,000 a year you can buy a home, which is what we're supposed to do.

MARTIN: But, Congressman Towns, as the postmaster general has said in 2000, 5 percent of people paid bills online. Now, it's 60 percent and the postal service lost $5.1 billion last year, and a lot of the deficit that the post office seems to be running is in prepaying for future health care costs for retirees. Congressman Towns, though, to that end though, is your argument that maintaining the jobs is worth it even if the business model doesn't work anymore?

TOWNS: Well, it will work. I think what, you know, based on what I'm saying, you know, I've heard the same argument when it was referenced to the automobile industry. You know, eliminate it, you know, let's, you know, and now all of a sudden there's a profit being made, and the people who are arguing the point about, eliminate them, let them file bankruptcy — I mean, now, they're saying, oh, that was a great idea to be able to infuse money, to be able to get them to be creative and be able to come up with hybrid cars. That made a lot of sense.

MARTIN: This is a very polarized time in our politics right now. I mean, do you feel that other people in leadership share your perspective that preserving these jobs is important enough to look for ways that the postal service could continue to be relevant?

TOWNS: I don't think the atmosphere and climate in the United States House of Representatives is there at this point. You know, and I think the faith-based community is going to have to rise up and begin to talk about this. And if that happens, then there's a possibility to slow this down, to have people to look and to evaluate and see into the what we might be able to do next.

MARTIN: Philip Rubio, I wanted to give you the final thought here. Have you looked at the countries in which postal service has been privatized and I'm just interested in whether it has affected the employment of particular groups in the way that Congressman Towns fears that it would here?

RUBIO: Well, what it's done is cut employment, but just as importantly, it's also cut the ability of people to network. And when you look at countries like Argentina and New Zealand, Finland, and others, they have lost service from privatizing. And, you know, when you think about it, the postal service still delivers to 150 million businesses and homes, and that's 40 percent of the world's mail even with a cut in first-class mail. And when you consider that UPS and Fed Ex deliver to 20 million addresses — nobody else goes around the country to every business and home the way the postal service does.

And it will be devastating if we eliminate it. Right now it stands at the hub of a $1.3 trillion mailing industry so, we'll lose all those jobs. But more important, we'll lose that connection that we've had for almost 250 years.

MARTIN: Philip Rubio is the author of, "There's Always Work at the Post Office: African-American Postal Workers and the Fight For Jobs, Justice and Equality." He's a professor of history at North Carolina A&T. He's also a former postal worker. He joined us today from member station WNCU in Durham. Also with us, U.S. Congressman Edolphus "Ed" Towns. He is a Democrat. He represents New York's 10th District, and he was kind enough to join us from his home office.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

RUBIO: Thank you Michel.

TOWNS: Thank you.

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