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As the Postal Service is attacked by Trump, workers lament what's been lost

Austin musician and concerned citizen Mike Hidalgo filed a Change.org petition to save the United States Postal Service in April, assuming he’d rack up about a thousand signatures or so. He wound up with about 300 times that. “I said to myself, ‘Whoa, I guess a lot of people care about this,’” Hidalgo tells Mic. “Then I asked myself: What can I do with this?” He decided to post updates directly on the petition, reasoning that arming its signatories with information about the dual financial and operational crises currently haunting the USPS was the best way to capitalize on the unanticipated response.

Presently, that response includes 1.5 million signatures and counting, which speaks to how strongly Americans feel about the Postal Service — and by extension how strongly they feel about the Trump administration’s stubborn-verging-on-impressive attempts at dismantling it.

The appointment in June of Louis DeJoy, erstwhile logistics career man and proud Trump ally, to the position of postmaster general sent the already hurting agency into urgent disarray after the announcement of new guidelines that essentially forbid employees from doing their jobs properly, including slashing overtime as well as branch hours. Crucially, if mail came into the office late, postal workers, who typically never leave letters behind and take as many tours as needed to make sure every parcel is delivered in a day, were ordered to leave it where it sits, leading to mail delays that stack up over time.

This isn’t the essence of the Postal Service, and it’s been made even worse given that the USPS is already fighting the dual obstacles of coronavirus and anterior economic struggles. Being roughly $160 billion in debt is bad enough when your workers aren’t under threat from a highly transmissible respiratory disease, as well as a president with petty grudges against Amazon.

According to the comments on Hidalgo's petition, most Americans weren’t even aware of the Postal Service’s pre-existing woes, much less the new DeJoy guidances, which sound so cartoonish on paper that they’re almost unbelievable. After all, what kind of PMG intentionally prevents mail from going out?

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“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"; that’s the old USPS creed. If it’s a blizzard or if it’s a hurricane, it’s still the sacred duty of USPS employees to deliver the mail. “But now,” says American Postal Workers Union member Michael Cinelli, “you’re being told, ‘just leave it there, don't worry about it,’ even though it's just one minute late.”

Cinelli has worked as a USPS motor vehicle operator and shop steward on Long Island for 20 years. The service changes made under DeJoy’s watch are unprecedented, he tells Mic. “Since day one, we were told: ‘Get the mail out, no matter what.’ We stay until the job is done. Now, whatever time your time is, you’re done. That’s it. Pull away from the dock and go.”

This is a fundamental shift in how the Postal Service functions. If letters and packages don’t make it out on the last trip of the day, they stay in distribution centers until the next day. Logically, that leftover mail should get processed first thing the following morning, but new mail actually filters in ahead of the delayed mail, which means your medications, your paycheck, or your baby’s diapers could all sit unsorted and undelivered in processing centers for a day, two days, or longer. This, all because the Trump administration wants to save a few pennies on overtime for mail carriers while systematically denying millions in needed funding.

Daleo Freeman, president of the Cleveland’s local APWU chapter and a 26-year USPS vet himself, says of the changes, “I haven’t seen anything like it. We've cut back on service, which has severely curtailed and delayed the mail. We've had packages and letters in my main processing plant delayed; at the customer service stations and branches, we've had them delayed as well.” It’s a domino effect, Freeman says: “When [packages] leave the plant to go to customer service, it's already delayed leaving! Once it gets to the station, it’s delayed more because the carriers have been told to get out on the streets and leave packages behind if they don't make it at certain times.”

Imagine not being able to perform the duties of your job because the COO sees good performance as a hindrance ... That’s what’s happening with the USPS.

The mandate to provide worse service to Americans doesn’t sit well with USPS employees, who fulfill their jobs each day with unabashed pride. Imagine not being able to perform the duties of your job because the COO sees good performance as a hindrance to their personal agenda of tanking the company they work for. That’s what’s happening with the USPS.

In a statement provided to Mic, the National Association of Letter Carriers noted that members “have become angry, frustrated, and embarrassed by various USPS management initiatives that are now resulting in delayed mail and undelivered routes in many areas of the country,” adding that “the Postal Service must provide reliable service to postal customers, particularly during the pandemic when our role is more essential than ever.”

This holds particularly true as America hurtles toward an election likely to be held primarily through the mail. For many, the threat of coronavirus makes voting booths feel like plague cauldrons, and mail-in ballots a whole lot more appealing. If the general election is to succeed, people need to be able to receive their ballots through the mail, and send them back through the mail — something the president has openly stated he wants to prevent. (Tactical unscrupulous politicians know not to say the quiet part out loud, so perhaps it’s a small blessing that Trump is only one of those things and not both.)

But Trump stands to gain more than percentage points for re-election by hamstringing the USPS. He gets to put his hand in what Mark Dimondstein, the president of the APWU, refers to as “the public till.”

“That cash register belongs to all of us,” Dimondstein tells Mic, “and if the private side can get their hands on that, that's a hell of a lot of money.” He’s referring to about $70 billion in revenue, because despite claims that the Postal Service only loses money, in reality it does still make some back too. The service’s losses are attributed to the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), which forced the USPS to prefund retiree benefits well into the future. But these losses don’t consider the operating profits, which, though down as a consequence of coronavirus, remain high enough that avaricious types want to pillage the piggy bank.

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Destroying the USPS and realizing the long-sought Republican goal of privatizing the service would mean handing over profits from mail service to Wall Street and private entities like UPS. There’s no political advantage to attacking a service as beloved as the USPS across partisan lines, but as Dimondstein puts it, “there's an economic advantage for the few that would benefit.”

“It's not a good move at all for people to derail the Post Office,” he explains. “But any time you can grab that public domain and put it in the private sector, unfortunately services go down, prices go up, and workers' rights and benefits cost go down.” The decreasing quality of services, of course, is what Freeman and Cinelli have seen every day since DeJoy’s appointment. “[DeJoy’s] trying to run it like a business,” Cinelli explains, “and this is a service to the community.”

For Freeman, the problem with the Trump administration’s interference with USPS operations ties is that a functioning mail service is part of America’s DNA. “It’s the people’s post office, right? It's not supposed to be run like that. It’s supposed to be run strictly and for the people.”

DeJoy testified Friday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where he attempted to downplay his hamstringing of the USPS. He already committed to hitting the brakes on his own guidance earlier this week. Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that when she spoke with DeJoy about his pledge, he admitted that he had no intention of undoing the damage he’d already done to the USPS, just that he’d suspend the efforts to further destroy the service.

“People everywhere are affected no matter where you come from, or what side of the aisle you’re on.”

Maybe DeJoy is reacting to political pressure, as lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have started banging pots and pans in justified alarm over the damage he’s done in just over a month. Maybe he’s reacting to public outcry. Maybe he inexplicably took Trump’s “save the USPS” tweet seriously.

Freeman has another idea: The USPS is such a universally cherished institution that the American people won’t tolerate an attack on it. “People everywhere are affected no matter where you come from, or what side of the aisle you’re on,” he says. “That's why you see this movement picking up steam.”

That’s true — as long as people know about the attack, which is where Hidalgo comes in. “The only thing I think citizens have — the only tool in our arsenal against concentrated political and financial power — is our numbers,” he says. “I'm hoping that this petition can be one of the tools used to show how much support the USPS has across the United States.”

Right now, there’s no guarantee DeJoy’s backpedalling will meaningfully change anything, and in fact some clear evidence that it won’t. The mail’s already delayed. Packages languishing in processing facilities will likely still sit there for another day as service catches up. But in the short term, it’s a start. And as long as people — whether they work for or are simply served by the USPS — speak up, the mail service can hopefully weather this latest storm, even if it’s one churned by the U.S. president himself.