Op-ed: Everyone Loses When Post Offices Close
TONY COX, host: And now the Opinion Page. Last month, the U.S. Postal Service announced it may close up to 3,700 post offices across the country as early as January 2012. This would be the largest downsizing in the history of an agency that is struggling financially. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former mail carrier Philip Rubio argues that post offices deliver a lot more than just mail. He says many people rely on them for checks and medications, obviously, but that people have also come to see the post office as an important link to society and to the government. It is a loss, he thinks, we should avoid.
And now, we want to hear from you as well. What would you lose if you lost your post office? 800-989-8255. That's the number here. Our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us from member station WNCU in Durham, North Carolina, is Philip Rubio. He is now an assistant professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University. Philip, nice to have you with us. Welcome.
PHILIP RUBIO: Tony, thanks for having me.
COX: So when you worked for the post office, many of the people on your route looked at you for more than just their letters and bills, I take it. What did you represent to them?
RUBIO: Well, like I said in the piece, I represented the - not just the post office, but the federal government. I was somebody that they could count on coming around. And in fact, letter carriers are really eyes and ears for the whole community. And they would be looking for something - high school seniors would be looking for their notices of getting into college. And so even though a lot of things are done online, there's still a lot of important mail, including parcels, that people looked forward to getting. And I guess it was just a reassurance, you know, that I was there, especially, as you mentioned, there was checks and medication for seniors and people with disabilities.
COX: I think a lot of us understand the concept of awaiting mail and looking for the mailman to bring you a check or something other that's important, and letter from college you're trying to get into. What I'm not sure is as clear - and I would like for you to explain it more - is how they see you as representing the government, and that that is something that they are looking forward to keeping, that link as well, separating that from the mail, if that's possible.
RUBIO: Well, I think for people that's -heir letter carrier - and I don't want to just concentrate on letter carriers. I was also a postal clerk before I started to carrying, when I started in Denver, and there are mail handlers, all kinds of occupations where, you know, when people go to their retail outlet or they go to any post office, or maybe they know somebody who works for the post office, they're the ones - everybody keeps the mail going. But we are the most visible representative of - not just the post office but the government. They would have to otherwise maybe go to a federal center, you know, something to see federal employees. But we were somebody that they could count on because we are part of a network, a network that's been around for over two centuries, linking the whole United States, universal service that's authorized by the Constitution.
COX: And that's what I was going to say, that linkage, that's what you write about being important. Here's an email I'd like to share with you and get your response to. And it comes from Russ in Richmond, New Hampshire: I worked for 40 years for the post office, he writes. At the height, we had almost 900,000 employees. Now there are less than 600,000. This figure will keep decreasing until it goes out of business. This is another case of the loss of a tremendous amount of jobs and our economy. However, like the local bookstores and newspapers, whatever can be replaced by the electronic media will be replaced by the electronic media. He's suggesting that maybe there's another way to deliver the mail. I don't know that there is. Is there?
RUBIO: Well, the first-class mail monopoly is still something that's protected for the post office unless Congress ever chooses to abolish that. In effect, it would be abolishing the post office. So we do exclusively deliver the mail. Of course, parcels, overnight mail, that's delivered through other - through private carriers. But I don't know. It's...
COX: Let me help you out a little bit.
RUBIO: You know, I'm still - oh, I was just going to say, I'm still optimistic that - and I - I'm optimistic that there will be a post office around, but I think that people have got to campaign for it to make sure that it stays around. What I argue against is the sort - the sense of inevitably and I don't know if Russ is suggesting that. I don't want to put words in his mouth.
But there is a sense of inevitably that is - has been popularized that's really a myth, that the post office is somehow doomed to failure or to be obsolete because of the Internet. And we've heard this before when the telephone was invented in the late 19th century or I even use the example of the fax machine in the 1950s. And yet, they're still - for instance, it's been suggested that the post office could be use for voting by mail.
COX: Well, let me stop you there.
RUBIO: OK. Sure.
COX: Just to - I want to get to a caller and the irony of what you were talking about and the comment that I made to you just a moment ago about how else we could get the mail. I was reading an email to you, so it's absolutely there are other ways of getting certain kinds of mail and, perhaps, I should have been more clear. But...
RUBIO: Oh, can I get - oh, I'm sorry.
COX: Yeah. You see what (unintelligible) what I'm trying to say. And to help me, actually, we have a caller from Nashville, Tennessee. This is Hadasa(ph). I think I'm pronouncing it correctly. Is Hadasa, is that right the way to say it?
HADASA: Yes, it is. You did it perfectly.
COX: Oh, great. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. I think your comment and question is right along the lines of what we are talking about. Please go ahead.
HADASA: Absolutely. I guess my question is, there are so many branches that are going to be closing down, how are we going to get our mail? Is that actually going to affect the range that the post office can reach out to people? Or does that just mean that the branches that are open are going to be working harder? I mean, am I actually going to lose mail in my box?
COX: Good question. Thank you very much. What about that?
RUBIO: Before I got - before I came here to the studio, I took a look - I checked in with the postal historian's office. I used them a lot when I was writing my book "There's Always Work at the Post Office," and the post office actually has up on their website an expanded access study lists These are proposed closures, nothing is set in stone. But they're looking at post offices where they say there's less traffic. So it doesn't mean that your office is necessarily going to be closed. But, yes, if you happen to see your post office on that list, that means you'll have to travel farther. If you don't see it on the list, it means somebody is going to be traveling farther to get services.
The village post office that's been proposed as an alternative may not necessarily mail your packages. It may just sell you stamps. We know it won't be full service.
COX: Can't the post office - or hasn't the post office, to your knowledge, done anything to upgrade itself technologically speaking...
RUBIO: Oh, yeah.
COX: ...so that it can take advantage - more advantage of the high-tech age in terms of getting information process and distribute it to the people who want it?
RUBIO: Sure. I want to answer that - but first, real quick, I want to answer - picking up on your last question. The post office actually is - you could say, it's interfacing with this - with the Internet and having more delivery opportunities, something calls last-mile delivery.
You might order something from an online company and it's shipped UPS or FedEx. But because the post office still operates relatively inexpensively - we don't get a dime from the government, everything that's - all the revenue that we get is from postage and services. The FedEx and UPS, because they knew that we have - we go everywhere, they will pass that off to the postal service. So you might see your letter carrier delivering a package that's got the UPS or FedEx label. You know, it was a parcel that you thought, oh, I thought that was going to come FedEx.
But back to your other question. The post office has consistently kept up with - let's see. I think it was in the '60s that the letter sorting machines came onboard. I was using - at that time, for bulk mail center, when I first started as a clerk, before I switched to carrier, we were keying parcels, and now it's optical scanning so that most mail comes to the carriers are already scanned.
COX: So you're saying that there are some technology that's being integrated.
RUBIO: Oh, definitely.
COX: Well, let's take another call. This comes from Sam, Sam joins us from West New York. Sam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
SAM: Hi. How are you?
COX: I'm fine. How are you? What's your question?
SAM: That's great. My comment is, I don't know what I would do without the post office. I do a lot of online orders and they go to my post office box. I do not have to be home, there at the post office, I don't have to worry about anything being lost. I really don't want anything sitting outside in the rain, you know, in a bag in any kind of incremental weather. But the post office serves my purpose well. I do a lot of mail orders and it's always there. I look for it and I don't have to worry about it. I come from a small community. I can call the postmaster and say, Jerry(ph), could you check the box for me, please? See if this is in there and see if that's in there, and no problem. And so - and that's the service that I like and it's great.
COX: Thank you. That's one of the things that you talked about in your - Philip, in your piece, about the personal contact between the postman or postwoman, as the case may be, and the people that they deliver to. Here's another caller. This is...
RUBIO: Right. And that includes home businesses too.
RUBIO: A lot of home businesses rely on the post office as more and more people are having to go into - or find the opportunity to go into business for themselves.
COX: Let's see what Dan has got to say. Dan has joined us from Atlanta, Georgia. Dan, welcome to the program.
DAN: Thank you for having me. I think that the only thing I would really miss would be actual physical packages, like stuff from UPS that comes from like amazon.com or something that I could otherwise get through UPS. Someone else mentioned college acceptance letters. I got my college acceptance letter via email, as well as my bill and other payments, supportive documents. So other than something I would order online from maybe Amazon or something like that that could be done by a private company, I don't really - I would not miss much from the postal service.
COX: So, Dan, are you saying then that, as far as you're concerned, it would be OK if the postal service either was shrunk down considerably or went away all together except for the parcels that you rely on them to deliver?
DAN: I think shrinking it down is something that should be considered. Like I said, most of my vital documents come from via email now or in the PDF format where I could open up. I even have smart bill so I can pay it inside of the PDF. And I think that the nostalgia or the bond that someone has from the seeing a postal worker visiting with them, I don't think that's worth keeping a large government entity running for those purposes unless there is - it's actually being used by the people a lot.
COX: Dan, thank you very much for that call. I want to talk some more about the idea of nostalgia. We are talking with Philip Rubio about the closure of 3,700 - expected closure of 3,700 post offices around the country, and whether that's a good idea or not. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So, Philip, one of the things that Dan mentioned - and I'd like for you to talk about it a little bit more...
COX: ...was nostalgia. But in the piece that you wrote where you talked about that as an element of trying to protect post offices around the country, you also said there was something more and that the post office was a gateway for a number of communities, particularly African-Americans, into the middle class. And by closing post offices, that route to the middle class is going to be closed off for them.
RUBIO: Right. And someone could make the argument that that's a bit of a nostalgia, too, if I'm making that argument. If that's - well, we need to keep it open because it's been an avenue for jobs and someone would say, well, if those jobs aren't needed, can't they go somewhere else? And I would say, it's - first of all, it's unnecessary. The - there are still a lot of people who rely on the post office not just based on nostalgia. And a lot of people rely on postal jobs and it is a source of wealth. It is a source of income for individuals and communities. It was for African-Americans. That was the focus of my study.
In my book "There's Always Work at the Post Office," because they couldn't get jobs, you know, lot of private-sector jobs starting after the Civil War, discrimination by white employers and unions, and it did become a route to the middle class. In the process it also became expanded so that since the 1960s, about one-fifth of the post workforce has been African-American. But it's also expanded to now being 37 percent female, 8 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian. So even though the post office, as someone pointed out earlier, has declined from about 900,000 employees to just under 600,000, obviously, there's a lot of work to be done at the post office and...
COX: Well, certainly, you know, to that point that you're making - and I'm trying to squeeze one more caller in...
COX: ...before we go. This came in from Christine(ph) in St. Louis, Missouri. She says - or is that Kristin(ph)? I'm not sure. What would I miss if my local post office closed? Here's her answer: long lines, slow service, indifferent employees, generally poor quality. I use electronic media whenever possible, FedEx or UPS when necessary, and the post office is a last resort only.
Anyone that's been to a post office, certainly in an urban area, can attest to the fact that what she is describing is something that we have all seen.
RUBIO: Sure. I've seen it too. And that's one of the things that I tried to do as a letter carrier, it was to take care of complaints. Who's going to take care of complaints about checks or services if there's, you know, not the workers to actually be there, At West Durham station where I retired before I went to graduate school, they started closing at 2 o'clock on weekdays a couple of years ago.
COX: The post office did? Oh, that's bad.
RUBIO: Right. So when I get there - when I go there in the late afternoon to drop something in the slot, I still see people coming because they don't - they haven't remembered; it was just a force and go, darn. Over in Raleigh, now, I know they're talking about closing the East Durham post office. That will be missed. It's in the urban area. In Raleigh, where I used to work before I came to Durham, remembering that these are proposed closings, citizens actually got angry and kept the Five Points station from closing its stores in 2009.
COX: Let me interrupt you to - only because our time is short. I want to share with you...
COX: ...this very last email, which I think goes to the point that, ultimately, you were trying to make, and why we decided to have this conversation today. It comes from Eleanor in Easton, Pennsylvania. I can walk to my local post office. I never know who I am going to run into on my way to or from the post office itself. It is the opportunity to see friends and find out information about the community goings on. You never know what you're going to find out. And to not have that opportunity would be devastating in some respects.
Philip Rubio, thank you very much for being with us.
COX: Phil is the author of...
RUBIO: Thanks, Tony.
COX: ..."There's Always Work at the Post Office: African-American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality." His op-ed: "What We'll Lose if We Lose the Post Office" ran in Sunday's Washington Post. There is a link to his op-ed on our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from member station WNCU in Durham, North Carolina.
Tomorrow, we'll keep an eye on the negotiations over the debt deal and talk about a common argument in this debate, what about the next generation? This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.