Last week, postal workers at two plants in Washington state reinstalled letter-sorting machines that had been dismantled as part of postmaster general Louis DeJoy’s attacks on the United States Postal Service (USPS). The workers in the Tacoma and Wenatchee plants defied instructions from USPS management to leave the machines disconnected. This demonstrates the power of worker-led actions and the importance of fighting for worker-led control over public institutions like the Postal Service.
The USPS has been under attack by the Trump administration and by DeJoy, a Trump ally and Republican donor who took over as postmaster general in June. DeJoy has implemented changes such as reducing post office hours, banning overtime, cutting staff, removing mailboxes, and disconnecting sorting machines. Attacks on the USPS predate DeJoy — President Trump has called the USPS a “joke”, and in 2018, a task force led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recommended cuts to the service. However, the recent moves are clearly meant to suppress votes before the November presidential election when millions are expected to vote by mail due to the pandemic.
After facing mounting public backlash, DeJoy announced on Tuesday last week that he would halt his attacks on the USPS. However, he declined to reverse the controversial changes. In two combative hearings with the members of the House of Representatives, he defended his actions and emphasized that mail-sorting machines, capable of sorting 35,000 pieces of mail per hour, were “not necessary.” He instead blamed the coronavirus for service slowdowns. A leaked email to USPS maintenance managers from Kevin Couch, director of maintenance operations, ordered workers “not to reconnect” the machines.
By Tuesday when the changes were paused, forty percent of the machines had already been disconnected at the plants in Tacoma and Wenatchee. By Wednesday night, workers in the Tacoma plant had reconnected five of the machines and parts from two others had been used to increase the mail-sorting capacity of existing machines. One machine at the Wenatchee plant was also reinstated.
However, most of the mail-sorting machines across the United States remain disconnected. A technician for a plant outside of Seattle said that several of the machines had been dismantled to the point where it would be challenging to reconnect them, and that “managers had to take pictures of the actual power cables … to verify that they had been disconnected.” Some machines have even been removed from mail-processing plants and discarded in dumpsters.
These attacks on the USPS are clearly undemocratic — by cutting funding for the USPS, reducing operating hours, removing mailboxes, and dismantling equipment, Republicans are hoping to depress voter turnout in the middle of a pandemic where millions will be voting by mail. Trump admitted as much when he said that increasing funding for the USPS was for “something that would turn out to be fraudulent — that’s election money basically.”
In response to this assault on voting rights, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to increase the Postal Service’s funding, but the bill will not be voted on in the Republican-controlled Senate. Despite their hand-wringing about democracy, the Democrats and Joe Biden have done little beyond condemning the attacks as being “Pure Trump.” Indeed, Democrats and Republicans alike have eroded public services, and the Postal Service has specifically been the target of bipartisan attacks. President Obama made postal worker jobs more precarious, removed thousands of mailboxes, proposed cuts to the service, and one of his budget chiefs advocated privatizing it. We cannot count on the Democratic party to save public services or voting rights, nevermind the USPS.
The actions of these USPS workers instead demonstrates the power of the working class. Postal workers across the United States have the ability to restore critical mail functions across the country by reconnecting mail-sorting machines, replacing mailboxes, and continuing to deliver mail to underserved areas. Like the French electrical workers who reconnected power in poor neighborhoods, and worker-controlled factories which have retooled to help fight the coronavirus, worker-led actions in the USPS could play a vital role in saving the Postal Service. However, to truly protect this institution, we need to fight for full worker control over it. The working class can protect public services and voting rights and fight for true Democracy.