Flocks of Chickens

In the simplified versions of history we often use in conversation, a past disaster is reduced to its ultimate scenario and immediately preceding event: the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. In fact, as with most disasters, there’s more to the story: the Titanic was speeding in the dark in an area that its captain had been warned had icebergs, contributing to both not seeing and not being able to timely avoid the berg.

Many disasters have been analyzed forensically, providing a 20-20 view of all the contributing factors and unfortunate decisions that led up to the final scene of the drama. Seldom are we, as observers, able to watch as factors and decisions unfold in our view, moving toward a disastrous result that, despite the warning signs, seems inevitable.

The case in point

Being observers of the Postal Service in our professional lives, we’re now watching as current events – factors and decisions – steadily push the agency toward a financial disaster that, from what’s available to evaluate, also seems inevitable. However, unlike a sudden and unforeseeable disaster – lightning hitting a crowd of people – the looming USPS disaster has been developing for years. The current pandemic’s effect on mail volume maybe its iceberg, but it’s been sailing in dangerous waters for over a decade, and some of the contributing factors were put in place many decades before.

Persons for whom American English is not their native language are often confused by the sayings we easily use to convey an idea. Relevant to this commentary is a version of one first used by Robert Southey in his 1810 poem The Curse of Kehama: “Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.”

Nowadays, omitting the role of a curse, we say that “chickens are coming home to roost” when events or circumstances are coming to pass because of past actions or decisions (or inactions or decisions not made).

Eggs that will be chickens

Stipulating for the moment that a postal service is a legitimate function of government – a public service, that the US was correct to establish such a service 245 years ago, and that it ran reasonably well until the late 20th century, it would appear that the eggs containing the chickens coming to roost now were laid sometime in the past fifty or so years.

An earlier flock of chickens came home in the 1960s. Postal workers complained about low wages, especially in urban areas, facilities that were old and dingy, and not being allowed to organize (or strike) by law. Dissatisfaction flamed into a wildcat strike in New York when Congress gave itself a 41% raise but only 4% to postal workers. The eggs laid in years of neglect had become chickens home to roost.

In 1970, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act, establishing the Postal Service as a new independent agency within the Executive Branch. Congress would no longer set postage rates, its management no longer would be political appointees, and its workers would be guaranteed the right to collective bargaining. Traditional roles for the post were carried forward – like six-day delivery and the maintenance of 32,000 retail outlets. Along the way, new eggs were laid.

Over the following decades, mail volume ballooned as America prospered and grew. Contracts with the postal unions included generous raises and guaranteed protection from layoff (which, given the seemingly infinite growth of mail volume, wasn’t seen as a potential problem). But the Postal Service didn’t change as the surrounding business world evolved, and commercial mailers wanted a new version.

Congress passed a postal reform law in 2006 to revamp several aspects of the Postal Service, including a new rate-setting regime tied to the Consumer Price Index. However, for the purely political purpose of budget neutrality, Congress invented an obligation that the USPS prepay future retiree health costs within a decade. More eggs.

Then the 2008-2009 recession and the burgeoning use of electronic media changed the Postal Service’s world again, and the eggs of the past started to hatch.

A lot of chickens

There’s quite a flock of chickens roaming around both Congress and L’Enfant Plaza now, and some could lay new eggs unless thoughtful measures are taken soon.

Two of the oldest chickens are the ambiguity over the nature of the USPS – a public service expected to function in a business-like manner – and the relevance (or need for) the Universal Service Obligation and the postal monopolies in the 21st century. Being politically volatile, neither issue has been addressed by Congress, even though doing so would be a logical precedent to other decisions about the agency.

Other chickens are the Congressionally-fostered requirement for six-day delivery and prohibition on closing unprofitable post offices, and politically-motivated meddling in service standards, facility closures, and network realignment.

The most regularly notorious chicken is the prefunding obligation, a questionable mandate in 2006 that has yet to be recognized (or changed) by Congress despite having become totally infeasible just a few years after it was imposed.

The Postal Service’s biggest chicken is its legacy of labor agreements, notably the “no-layoff” clause, rigid craft and work rules, regular raises, limitations on the use of part-time and non-career workers, and an absence of performance standards. Though labor flexibility is increasingly critical now, the USPS let its hands be tied decades ago. (For their part, the postal labor unions have yet to even acknowledge the chickens are there, let alone where the eggs came from.)

Flying home

The confluence of over-a-decade-old trends in mail volume, postal revenue, and operating expenses; externally-imposed costs; outdated labor agreements; and the business impact of the pandemic has called decades of chickens home to roost. The Postal Service and the commercial mailing industry see them and are calling for action to comprehensively address what they all represent.

But Congress, continuing its role as an egg producer, remains indifferent to (or at least ineffective in addressing) the disaster just over the horizon for the Postal Service, preferring instead to play politics and hope the chickens just wander off.

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