WASHINGTON -- With the U.S. Postal Service planning to shut down 82 more plants starting in January, postal worker unions and allies in Congress are pushing for a late-game moratorium on closures they say will weaken the agency and further slow down the mail.
The scheduled shutdowns are part of a consolidation plan the agency put in place in 2011 to help staunch its red ink, much of it the result of pre-funding mandates instituted by Congress. The closures go hand-in-hand with the postal service's plan to save money by reducing the service standards for certain mail categories, a strategy that's divided stakeholders in the postal reform debate.
According to the postal service, the plant consolidations would most affect first-class mail. Personal letters, bills and greeting cards that normally reach their destination overnight would take two days after the closures. Priority mail and packages won't be impacted, the agency said.
The upcoming consolidations are the next battleground in a larger debate over how to make the postal service viable in the future. With the agency facing a possible bankruptcy, the postmaster general, Patrick Donahoe, advocated for a number of cuts and reductions that postal unions found counterproductive.
The facility closures and lowered service standards, the unions argue, will ultimately hurt the agency rather than help it, leading to the proverbial "death spiral" as customers find the service slower and less reliable. The unions are gearing up for a round of protests on Friday, with nearly 150 demonstrations scheduled around the country.
"The mail has already been slowed down. We're trying to keep it from being slowed down even more," said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 200,000 postal workers and retirees. "Two days will become three days and four days. It will be a slowing down of the mail throughout the country."
The postal service has said that it is responding to falling mail volumes -- particularly first-class, which has dropped by 53 percent over the last decade. The closures, it maintains, are necessary for the agency to regain its financial footing.
"The fact is that the US Mail is changing. There are now fewer letters and considerably more packages and the network must reflect that," Sue Brennan, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email. "With major volume decreases in First-Class Mail, the Postal Service has significant excess capacity in its network and cannot sit idly by and do nothing. The Postal Service firmly believes that the operational changes being implemented are necessary."
The postal service closed 141 processing facilities between 2012 and 2013 in the first phase of its consolidation plan. The second phase, originally slated for early 2014, was pushed back to this coming January. According to Brennan, all the consolidations together are expected to save $2.1 billion annually.
The consolidation of plants means that some facilities will lose jobs, while others gain them. An analysis by the publication Government Executive found that the postal service's plan will result in a net loss of 7,320 jobs.
The agency has said it needs to implement such cuts in order to contend with a long-term decline in first-class mail volume, the rising cost of wages and benefits for its workforce, and the funding mandates placed upon it by Congress. In a public letter to customers earlier this year, the postal service said the plant consolidations "will establish the low-cost, technology-centric delivery platform necessary to serve the mailing and shipping industry for decades to come."
Indeed, the agency has lost billions of dollars in recent quarters, and first-class mail has fallen off significantly in the Internet era. But most of the agency's financial losses stem from a requirement passed by Congress in 2006 that the postal service prefund retiree health benefits to the tune of more than $5 billion per year. The postal service is an independent agency that's funded through postage fees rather than taxpayer dollars, but Congress still oversees the agency and would have to legislate any major overhaul.
With mail rebounding during the economic recovery and package delivery growing with e-commerce, the postal service actually turned an operating profit recently when the retiree health costs are set aside. Unions have held up those financial improvements as evidence that service cuts would be damaging.
"With the Postal Service operating at a profit -- about $1.3 billion so far this fiscal year -- degrading service by closing processing plants and slowing the mail makes absolutely no sense," Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, told HuffPost through a spokesman. "It would hurt Americans and their businesses, eliminate overnight mail, cost jobs -- and it would be destructive for USPS as well, because it would drive away mail and revenue."
There are a couple of ways the unions may win a reprieve on the facility closures.
The first would be if Congress includes a delay in a spending bill passed in the lame-duck session. In August, 51 senators sent a letter to leaders of the appropriations committee, urging them to insert such a moratorium into either an omnibus spending bill or a shorter-term continuing resolution. "As the postal network has been weakened, service delivery has suffered," they wrote.
Lawmakers did not put a moratorium into the continuing resolution passed in September, though they'll have to pass another funding bill by the time the current one expires in early December.
A moratorium has the support of most Senate Democrats. But it doesn't have backing from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the postal service, and who is one of the most influential voices in the postal reform debate. A Carper spokeswoman told HuffPost that the senator would only support a delay in facility closures as part of a larger postal reform bill -- something that's all but certain not to pass Congress by January.
Without a moratorium from lawmakers, the other hope for the unions is that the postal service itself will decide to postpone the closures like it did last year.
"Congress is not the only way this can be done ... it's also in the hands of postal management," APWU's Dimondstein said. "There's nothing that says the postmaster general has to move forward with any of this."