When the curtain fell two weeks ago on the immortal series Seinfeld, I bid a fond adieu to one of my favorite characters in television history. No, not Kramer. Not George, Jerry, Elaine or the "Soup Nazi" either. To me, the centerpiece of that show is, and will always be, Jerry Seinfeld's sworn enemy -- the evil little mailman Newman.
Portrayed brilliantly by veteran character actor Wayne Knight, Newman's combination of sloth, diabolical cunning and outright contempt for society at-large has, for the last nine years, served as the ultimate caricature of a federal government employee. Well, next to Ted Kennedy, at least.
I will miss Newman immensely and I know millions of other fans feel the same way. But while Newman may be gone, we need only look to his real-life brethren in the U.S. Postal Service for a constant source of zany hijinks. When not perforating each other in a firestorm of post-termination bullets, members of the American Postal Workers Union keep busy by mounting a steady stream of angry public demonstrations, the purpose of which would seem to be, ostensibly, to demonstrate just how out of touch with reality government unions have become.
The most recent postal whinefest commenced yesterday, May 27, with nationwide picketing to protest the "horrors" of competition and outsourcing. Sparking this latest outburst is a bill-H.R. 22, also known as the Postal Reform Act-sponsored by House Postal Services Subcommittee Chairman John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) The bill-which, according to its text, aims to keep the Postal Service a "viable" government operation -- calls for modest changes in the postal structure, mandated bar-coding, stricter enforcement of the nine-digit postal codes, some outsourcing of sorting and automation components that have been slow to get up to snuff, and a new requirement that non-postal services of the Postal Service be individually solvent without federal subsidies. It is, all in all, a pretty darn dull bill. But try telling that to the postal workers.
"The Postal Service continues to contract out Priority Mail and other USPS products and services to private, profiteering companies such as Emery Worldwide Airlines," announced an angry APWU press release regarding the protests. "The winners are these big, greedy corporations, while the losers are the American public-our customers-and postal workers and our families."
Big, greedy corporations make a convenient political foe for big, greedy unions-even when the corporations take home far less taxpayer money. Of course, not every proposal for postal reform includes public-private partnerships. Last year, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) -- ordinarily a budget-slasher whose union-bashing rhetoric far exceeds that of McHugh-introduced a bill that would transfer ownership of the Postal Service to its 800,000 employees. Under Rohrabacher's plan, each employee would receive stock options, which could be sold after one year, and would be able to vote for a Board of Directors in much the same way other billion-dollar corporations do.
A great idea and one you'd imagine would be whole-heartedly embraced by the union. It wasn't. Or rather, the suggestion was heavily protested by the union's National Executive Board, who were scared off by the bill's proposal that the Post Office's monopoly protections be phased out over five years.
It's impossible to know what the actual union membership-those who would stand to inherit ownership of their employer-thought of the bill. Under a mandate imposed just days before Rohrabacher was to introduce the measure on the House floor, the APWU announced it would strenuously oppose "the use of all surveys, focus groups, polls and audits as a means of interviewing employees and union officials to evaluate job-related and internal union issues." Members who violate this mandate face ostracization, as the executive board declared "employees (must) speak in a united voice, and their united message cannot be manipulated to achieve a management goal."
Message to mailmen: We don't care what you think. Shut up and do what you're told. No wonder those guys are so disgruntled.
I'd be bitter too if my union dues went to pay the salaries of officials who wouldn't listen to me; windbags who are long on grandstanding rhetoric, short on provable facts. Yet, despite an abysmal record of service to its customers, APWU President Moe Biller is assured the union will win this battle in the court of public opinion because the public doesn't trust politicians.
"We've worked hard to earn your trust," Biller said in a prepared statement. "Don't let Congress destroy what we've built together. Our Postal Service isn't broken. The last thing we need is for Congress to 'fix' it."
So how, Mr. Biller, would the American public lose by opening up more avenues for competition? Desperate counter-arguments offered by Postal Service apologists run the gamut of paranoid delusions.
Private carriers would censor free speech, they say. This from a government agency with a 200-year history-from colonial restrictions placed on abolitionist tracts to refusing to carry Hugh Hefner's Playboy and Larry Flynt's Hustler-of doing exactly that.
The union alleges private carriers wouldn't deliver door-to-door in many areas. Perhaps that's true. But then again, neither does the Post Office anymore; not since 1978, when it decided that no service would be provided to the doors of newly built residences.
Eliminating universal rates would force people to live in congested areas and inappropriately penalize rural residents, the union says. Again, perhaps. Or perhaps introducing efficiency and competition to the system would bring down rates for everyone. It certainly would help bring down their tax bills. And aren't these union-loving liberals the same folks who decry suburban sprawl and chastise us for leaving the cities anyway? Maybe this would finally shut those folks up.
As a last resort, the union will complain that competing private postal vendors would mean too many mailboxes cluttering up city corners. As opposed to too many mailmen cluttering up city post offices.
The union's smokescreen is far too thin to conceal its real motivations. This has nothing whatsoever to do with consumer protection, as consumers are always best served by having choices, something the postal workers consider anathema. This is, as these things usually are, about money. The average wage and benefits package of postal clerks and sorters is $43,000, compared to $35,000 for private sector workers. The Postal Rate Commission found in 1996 that "nonproductive time" constitutes 28.4 percent of mail-processing labor costs. There is one manager for every 10 workers at the USPS, compared with one for every 15 at Federal Express.
Postal employees have it pretty good, and they don't want anything to threaten that. That is perfectly understandable. It is not, however, a protected right to have a cushy job on the taxpayers' dime. No amount of sanctimonious posturing can change this simple fact-the Postal Service is an anachronism, a lumbering dinosaur in the Age of Information. Contrary to John McHugh's well-intentioned bill, there is no public benefit to preserving a "viable government-owned Postal Service." It is, like the giant panda, already on the way to extinction. But unfortunately for them, mailmen aren't nearly as cute as Ling-Ling.
We don't need a Postal Reform Act. We need a Postal Dissolution Act, to break up the service into manageable pieces and sell them off to the highest bidders. Similar privatizations are transpiring the world over-in New Zealand, Peru, the Czech Republic, even the People's Republic of Vietnam -- to remarkable success and yet in this country, the cradle of free-market capitalism, such proposals are seen as "nutty" or "radical."
Perhaps what holds lawmakers back from taking the obviously necessary steps toward privatizing the USPS is fear. Not of losing the millions in union-donated PAC money or of risking a public backlash. No, what I think has Congress shaking in their Bruno Maglis is the prospect of 800,000 disgruntled ex-postal workers descending upon Capitol Hill and, for lack of a better phrase, "going postal" on the House and Senate.
So maybe that's not likely to happen in my lifetime. But hey, it would kill two birds with one stone.
Ray Lehmann is the State Liaison of the Republican Liberty