The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 10, 2006

Postal Service must change, official says

By Fred Pace

Many believe the future of the United States Postal Service is in jeopardy.

“Because the Postal Service continues to see a steady decline in first-class mail volume, postage prices will continue to increase and mailing industry jobs will be eliminated, unless the Postal Service can take the necessary steps to reduce its operating costs,” said Robert McLean, executive director of the Mailers Council in a Sept. 8 letter to members of Congress.

McLean isn’t the only one that knows changes must be made.

Victor Dubina, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, says the Internet, higher fuel costs, 1.5 million new addresses a year, increasing employee costs, and a host of other reasons have created challenges that threaten the ability to provide high-quality, universal postal service at affordable rates.

“The business environment has changed and continues to change,” Dubina said. “Postal employees and management see it, mailing associations see it, members of Congress see it, and it scares the hell out of all of us.”

Dubina said when gasoline prices go up a single cent, it has an $8 million financial impact in increased costs to the Postal Service.

“The impact from increased gasoline costs were $1 billion in 2002,” Dubina explained. “That was during a period when we didn’t raise rates.”

In an interview with The Register-Herald, Dubina and Karen Schenick, Appalachian district manager for the Postal Service, pointed to a few local and national statistics that show the need for change.

“Overall first-class mail is down about 5-1\2 percent since 2001,” he said.

In 2001, the Postal Service handled 103.7 billion pieces of first-class mail, but by 2005 that figure had dropped to 98 billion pieces, according to Dubina.

“If that downward trend continues, and we think it will, something has to change,” he said.

In Beckley, the numbers are even worse.

“First-class, single-piece cancellations in Beckley have declined 20 percent since 1998,” Schenick said. “That’s a big chunk of the business in Beckley.”

Prior to the Internet revolution, first-class mail had increased about 3 to 5 percent each year.

“Now the premiere product, which is first-class mail, is not achieving its needed revenues,” Dubina said. “People are paying bills online, using e-mail instead of mailing letters, using direct deposit and withdrawal for items previously mailed, using text messaging, using the Internet to file their income taxes and the list goes on and on.”

Dubina says the U.S. Postal Service is finding it harder and harder each year to just break even.

“Reform legislation is needed to minimize the risk of a significant taxpayer bailout or dramatic postal rate increases,” he said.

The United States Government Accountability Office did a study of the U.S. Postal Service and concluded legislative reform must be done and it must include clarifying the service’s mission and role so that it remains focused on universal postal service and compete appropriately. It also called for more flexibility to operate in a businesslike manner.

Currently, the U.S. Postal Service is part of a $9 billion mailing industry that supports more than 9 million jobs. It maintains 37,000 post offices and 450 mail processing facilities that collectively employ more than 704,000 individuals in every state in the country.

“We are the only business that goes to every one of our customers every single day,” Schenick said. “Changes must be made, but we believe that can be done and our regular customers will not notice a change at all.”

The Postal Service plan calls for consolidation of unnecessary and outdated facilities.

“This doesn’t mean we’re closing post offices,” Dubina said. “We are talking about operating more efficiently.”

The plan does call for consolidating some of the Postal Service’s 450 mail processing plants, and doing it without laying off one postal employee.

“Postmaster General Jack Potter has said he is committed to cutting costs without reducing service or laying off workers,” Dubina said.

Nearly 100,000 jobs have been eliminated, Dubina added.

“This has been done without one postal employee being laid off,” he said.

Last week, some union workers at Beckley’s main post office on Industrial Drive held an informational picket to protest what they say is a bad Postal Service consolidation plan.

According to Beckley postal officials, there were 57 workers at the Industrial Drive post office in 1996 and today there are only 35.

Union leaders say the U.S. Postal Service has a major consolidation plan, and the union has selected Oct. 26 for a nationwide day of picketing.

“It will be a nationwide day of picketing to protest ill-advised postal consolidations,” American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus said.

He said the coordinated informational picketing is intended to highlight the potentially damaging effects of the consolidation plan and to expose how the postal service panders to major mailers.

“The Oct. 26 date was selected to give local unions the opportunity to seek support from elected officials and candidates prior to Election Day, Nov. 7.” he said.

Union officials said they will continue to take their message to the public.

“I urge locals and state organizations to participate in the nationwide day of picketing,” Burrus added. “This plan will delay mail to local communities, and it is being forced on the American people without their input.”

The nationwide day of picketing will present an opportunity for union activists to encourage their co-workers to vote, Burrus noted.

“This is a crucial election, and we will support candidates who support postal workers,” he said.

Dubina said the Postal Service is just adapting to the changes in the business world.

“The USPS has its own Internet site at www.usps.com,” he said. “The Internet is an important part of life for many Americans, but the Postal Service remains the vital communications tool for Americans of all ages, and as important a vital tool of commerce. For Americans who cannot use the Internet, or choose not to because of concerns about security of their financial information, the Postal Service is their only means of receiving and paying bills, and for receiving parcels, legal notices, magazines and small town newspapers.”

Dubina said despite many cost-cutting measures already in place, costs continue to increase.

“The Postal Service filed a cost increase proposal that would take effect around April or May of 2007,” he said. “If approved, it would increase the cost of a first-class stamp to around 42 cents.”

— E-mail: fpace@register-herald.com