WASHINGTON - If all else fails, try shame.
That's what a dozen campaigners - 10 or so present and former postal unionists and two or three allies - did with their 4-day hunger strike on June 25-28, to get lawmakers to save the U.S. Postal Service, the right way.
The group, led by Jamie Partridge from Portland, Ore., a retired Letter Carrier from Branch 82 there, fasted to dramatize that they're endangering their health to show how supposed legislative solutions for the agency's financial ills are endangering its health, as well as the middle-class jobs of almost 500,000 workers.
"We've been fighting this effort" against congressional evasion of the USPS' problems "for more than two years, in traditional ways," Partridge told Press Associates Union News Service at the end of their first day of fasting. "They haven't worked."
So the group, and its grass-roots allies nationwide, seek other ways to "step up the pressure" on lawmakers, from both union members who work for USPS and from its customers - who are virtually the entire country.
Besides the fast, their tactics included an occupation of the Portland Post Office, resulting in 10 arrests. There may be similar occupations, Partridge says, in other post offices nationwide. And they're getting the word out to grass-roots activists around the U.S. via Twitter, Facebook and other social media, going beyond traditional lobbying efforts that the Letter Carriers, the Postal Workers and the Mail Handlers undertake.
The activists say such lobbying, including e-mailing, visits to lawmakers, and letters, don't prevent Congress from dismantling USPS and killing jobs. Traditional lobbying also isn't stopping USPS from starting big service cuts, to save cash, on July 1.
The fasters retort that the Postmaster General's cuts have already begun, and already harmed service to customers, with examples:
Some 129 rural post offices have already had their hours cut in Oregon alone, and the USPS is leaving carrier vacancies unfilled, Partridge says. Instead, current carriers get more routes added to their loads, often finishing deliveries after nightfall.
In the Los Angeles area, says Kevin Cole of the Southern California branch of the Postal Workers, USPS distribution centers in the City of Industry and in Long Beach are being consolidated with centers in Santa Ana and Anaheim. USPS says such consolidations will cut costs by eliminating tens of thousands of jobs.
The hunger strikers, and the unions, say the cuts slow down the mail and reduce service, too. That'll drive customers away, starving the USPS, the hunger strikers add.
"We have the same machines at Santa Ana and Anaheim, and the mechanics to maintain them," Cole says. But the machinery at the remaining distribution centers could well break down under the increased workload, he adds.
The same thing's happening in Indiana, only it's worse, says Curt Cary, a state legislative activist and retired Letter Carrier from Local 98 in Muncie and Local 378 in Marion. He reeled off a list of about half a dozen sorting centers being closed in that state alone, with all the mail being sent to Fort Wayne or Indianapolis.
Tom Dodge, of Postal Workers Local 781, said when USPS closed its mail-sorting facility in Frederick, Md., four of the six information technology workers there got new jobs - as janitors. The others were let go. "I took my neighbor to" the sorting center in Baltimore "to pick up her mail," added Dodge's wife. Now that all the mail's going through there, "some of it's taking three weeks. You can tell by the postmarks."
Besides the hunger strike, designed to shame Congress into saving, not destroying, the Postal Service, the activists also did some inside work: Lobbying lawmakers, but with a twist. Except for a press conference with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the hunger strikers concentrated on foes, not friends.
Whether that worked is open to question. Partridge called a 45-minute discussion with aides to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the committee that handles Postal Service legislation, virtually fruitless. He calls Issa's legislation part of the wider right wing war on unions and workers and the Republican privatization crusade.
Issa's "reform" puts the USPS under an independent czar empowered to tear up contracts, fire workers, cut pay and do anything else to reduce the agency's red ink. The postal unions and the strikers point out the red ink would vanish if USPS did not have to make a $5.5 billion yearly prepayment to fund future retirees' health care costs. Another financial aid: Let the Treasury return billions of dollars in overpaid pension money to the Postal Service.
But will their hunger strike have an impact on Congress? The workers don't know. They do know one thing, hunger striker Nannette Corley of APWU Local 3630 in the D.C. suburbs, said: "We want to see the Postal Service get back to serving the public."
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