Forum Left, 2/28/12

Uninspiring Leadership
Why the USPS Exemplifies Bad Policy

By Ben Tomkins

The closing of the Dayton mail-processing plant and subsequent laying off of hundreds of employees, despite a union contract expressly forbidding this practice, is yet another example of the price of the failed business policies and practices of administrators being paid by hard-working employees who had little or no control over the decision process.

Ask any postal worker what is wrong with the USPS, and within a heartbeat they will unload a laundry list of reasons why their organization is in dire straits.   Email has severely reduced the money to be made from general mailings, and competition from FedEx and UPS have heavily cut into the package-shipping margin.  To make matters worse, the USPS is expected to compete as a private business, but is subject to all sorts of government regulations because the Constitution clearly states that postal services are a public concern.

This completely sucks for the USPS, because they operate with all the disadvantages of government regulations but none of the competitive benefits of being a government sponsored organization.  For instance, postal rates are never allowed to increase faster than the rate of inflation.  That means that a postage stamp is worth essentially the same amount of money today is it was in the ‘50s.

Toss in the massive spike in electronic communication, and that places a huge burden on package shipping where competition is the worst.   Furthermore, we need point no further than mail-in ballots to make the case that an affordable, federally regulated postal service is a necessary public good.  We cannot trust our voting rights to private shipping companies for reasons that would be embarrassing for me to explain and patronizing for you to be told.

And this is where things get messed up.

I don’t know how much the executives at the USPS make, but I know it’s a hell of a lot more than the guy who delivers your mail.  Why?  Because the job of an executive is to ensure that the business continues to run smoothly and compete effectively by doing things like fighting for less restrictive regulations, developing competitive business strategies and pursuing innovation in an ever-changing market.  What they do affects everyone in the company.

Based on the current situation of the USPS, I’d say their administration has been doing a terrible job of competing.  The last significant innovation I can think of regarding the USPS was the Forever Stamp.  This was a silly move for two reasons.  First, it was only ever good for a short-term infusion of cash.  Second, remember what I said about postal rates being tied to inflation?  Yeah.  Not such a good deal in the big picture, is it?  The lack of initiative, vision and flexibility on the part of the USPS executives resulted in a corporate dinosaur waiting for an economic asteroid to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Once you understand this, you have gained true insight to the insidious and un-American nature of the anti-union slandering that is being leveled against the common worker.  In a traditional American model, if an executive performs poorly they should lose their job just like the mail carrier on the ground would.  Except they don’t.  If a company is failing because of crappy administration, it’s never the fault of management.  It’s the fault of the workers’ unions because they ask for too much money and unreasonable benefits.  And who loses their job as a result?  Not the CEO who deserves to be replaced, that’s for damn sure.  It’s your dad, or brother or you mom who has been working their ass off on that bottom rung to ensure you can afford to go to college.

Rich people don’t take pay cuts when they can fire poor people instead.

That’s why, though it may seem unreasonable and destructive for the postal workers’ union to force in the clause about not firing anyone, it actually makes perfect sense.  The postal workers are standing their ground and saying to their administration, “it is not acceptable for you to do a half-assed job and then fire the rest of us to make up for it.”  I mean, isn’t that exactly what happened to the entire city of Detroit?  The American auto industry executives ran that place into the ground through incompetence and sloth, and who paid the price?  The great American factory worker.  The CEO of GM pocketed $9 million last year.

Cutting jobs and reducing services in a struggling industry is an all-too-familiar death knell of uninspired leadership.  If anything, cutting personnel and services will further cripple the USPS because the public will get less bang for their buck.  Unfortunately, this will only serve to confirm the deceptive argument that the postal workers’ union is ruining the business.  This is happening everywhere these days.  Your kids are doing badly in school?  It’s because unreasonable teachers’ unions are demanding too much money from the district.  Cutting salaries and forcing them to work harder should fix that problem, right?  Same with symphony orchestras.  The executive director runs it into the ground, and all of a sudden when it’s time to negotiate contracts the musicians are a bunch of entitled spoiled brats for asking for reasonable pay and working conditions.

Unions are a good thing, and closing down the Dayton mail processing center and firing tens of thousands of employees nationwide will never fix the USPS’s problems for one simple reason:

They aren’t the problem.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at

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Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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