Make USPS a Solidarity Co-op!

The recent fight over the post office has been dramatic and hyper partisan while also obscuring the causes of the financial problems of the post office. These problems largely result from one major decision by the Congress known as the Post Office Accountability and Enforcement Act in 2006. This vote passed 410-20 in the House. The “Aye” votes included such progressives as Tammy Baldwin (now Senator Baldwin) and Bernie Sanders (now Senator Sanders). The crucial provision of the bill required the Post Office to maintain a $72 Billion dollar fund to guarantee 75 years of pension payments into the future.

The Congress created a financial fiscal crisis that no corporation or government agency could survive.

The reality is that the Post Office has been profitable for that last six years. It is covering its operational and debt costs with the exception of the pension fund. The crisis is manufactured and fake. It was designed to force the economic collapse of the agency and require it being sold off to private interests. Sadly, the problems facing the Post Office today have become part of the overall crisis of 2020. The occupant of the White House is trying to destroy voting by mail (even though he, his family, and even the Postmaster General all vote by mail). To do that means destroying the Post Office. This is a crisis that goes beyond the election.

Forty years of neo-liberalism has actually created an incredible role for the Post Office. In rural communities, the closest pharmacy might be a 60-90 minute drive (one-way). The consolidation of business under the attacks of Wal-Mart and Amazon, have made rural communities dependent on the post office for basic needs such as medicine and (quite frankly) even healthy food.

The USPS is still an amazing deal. For 55¢, you can send a check to your landlord, a letter to a friend, or even make a donation to a fund. Compare the 55¢ to the finance charge for making a payment through a system (which might be externalized to the receiver)? Compare it to the cost of using a private service (over $20 dollars). Even the priority mail for the USPS beats any competitor price. FedEx, which does not have a labor union unlike UPS and the USPS, cost significantly more at every level.

More importantly, the USPS is an American institution. It was formed early in the Republic with the great cooperator, Benjamin Franklin, as the first postmaster. Franklin was also the first founder of a cooperative in the United States: Philadelphia Contributorship, a mutual insurance company.

The Post Office is important. It pulls our country together as a nation.

The fight over the Post Office needs to stop. The post office is an essential service for the nation. Once the fight is over, though. We need to fix the post office. One proposal by the Institute for Policy Studies makes four good points:

  1. Repeal the prefunding mandate and allow USPS to use accumulated post-retirement reserves to fund future pay-as-you-go costs.
  2. Adopt generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP accounting as set forth by the Financial Accounting Standards Board) for determining USPS liabilities.
  3. Medicare integration for future postal retirees.
  4. Eliminate the requirement to invest solely in Treasury bonds.

The Post Office should become a solidarity cooperative.

The US Post Office is an “independent agency of the Executive branch” of the US Government. It is explicit authorized in the US Constitution. Clearly, though it isn’t independent in the sense of what most of us would consider being independent. The 2006 POAEA is proof of this, so is the ability of the Executive Branch to appoint the Postmaster General who has incredible authority. When this is all over, the Congress should re-establish the Post Office as a new organization with true autonomy and control. Make the USPS a solidarity Cooperative as a Public Benefit Corporation independent from government control but with a long term contract with the United States to serve as the official post office of the United State (99 years).

To see what this co-op looks like, we only need to consider an existing co-op that has government, worker, and consumer members: Mondragon University. If I remember my 2007 visit, the membership consists of institutional members (the Spanish government, the Basque government and maybe some others, the workers (professors and other staff), and the students). Obviously, the institutional members cover a lot of the costs as do the consumers. Co-ops operate on a at-cost basis so the goal is only to cover the operational and capital expenses (pensions include), but can be done so on a rolling basis that reflects reality not dramatic methods attached to the Post Office.

What would a Post Office Co-op look like?

The institutional membership would include the Federal government, the States, and the territories (um, colonies) and District of Columbia. This group would receive one-third of the votes and one-third of the board seats. The workers would comprise another third of the membership and board. Finally, the consumers (those who choose to formally join the co-op) would have the final third.

The consumer group would likely include an organizational and individual membership.

The institutional members would guarantee budget efficiency through the respective budgets of the state and federal government with the goal of the USPS being self-sufficient. Pricing of postage would be based on the needs of the organization.

A board (I would suggest 27 people) would be elected by each group. For the 9 institutional members I would suggest a guaranteed seat among for the Executive branch, 1 for the territories, 1 for DC, 1 for the Tribal nations and the remaining five to represent 5 geographic regions of the 50 states). For the workers, 9 seats. For the consumers, a breakdown again similar to the institutional members to ensure diversity and inclusion of the entire consumers (including the organizational members).

As long as I am dreaming, I would also encourage a mandated form of dynamic governance. The Post Office is an ideal organization for the sociocracy circle method. Circles at the local post office level with engagement of all three stakeholder groups moving up to the state/territory level and and finally the federal level. double linking might push the board up to 54 people but I don’t think that is a bad thing given the size (in terms of people or geography). There top cirlce (or board) might need special rules to be less than full consent (maybe a 2/3 majority or 3/4 majority).

Obviously, the current fight over the US Post Office has a lot to do with electoral politics, but the challenges forced onto the USPS were non-partisan. The fix should also be non-partisan. An independent, publicly owned, and community controlled Post Office could remove it from the hyper-partisanship of our era and create a stable means of communication and unity in our nation. A successful Post Office Co-op could also be a model for other independent agencies such as Amtrak as well as more regional and local public utilities such as mass transit, water and sewer, and even power. We can make a more democratic and engaged community without actually recreating the wheel? We need to take this moment to make the world one that is focused on people.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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