Stamp Out Privatization: Berkeley Residents Fight to Save the Post Office

You may not know this, but our US postal system is under attack. The 1% are looking to divvy up our postal services and properties so they can make big profits. Bankster-driven bubbles and crashes create government deficits, mass unemployment, foreclosures and debt nightmares for the 99%. Deficits and bankruptcies created by this economic crisis are used by the 1% to demand cuts in government spending and the privatization of public services. Public education, health care, water and power utilities, parks, libraries, highways, military, prisons, and postal systems, are all threatened with conversion to for-profit institutions. Thus in 2006, Congress passed poison pill legislation forcing the United States Postal Service (USPS) to pre-pay 75 years worth of employee health care benefits in advance, over a 10 year period. For 30 years prior, USPS was in the black. But not anymore. After 7 years of forced prepayments there is now a $16B deficit, $15B directly caused by this pre-funding requirement.

Now that the postal system has been made “sick” with an engineered deficit, the 1%er management is prescribing cutbacks in services and employees, and the selling off of valuable postal property assets. In 2012, USPS management announced a plan to sell the downtown Berkeley Post Office building on Allston Way. A graceful neoclassical structure built in 1915 and designed by Oscar Wenderoth, The Berkeley Post Office was designated City of Berkeley Landmark #38 in 1980. Its beautiful architecture, New Deal Murals in the lobby and central location make it a casual gathering place and a treasured part of the public commons for the people of Berkeley. A local, Richard Blum, is one of the 1%er vultures circling for privatization prey. Husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein and a UC Regent, Blum is chairman of CBRE, the international real estate firm given an exclusive contract to sell off USPS buildings. In a recent interview with Peter Byrne, author of “Going Postal” an exposé of Blum and CBRE’s profiteering at the expense of USPS, he disclosed that their business practices have lost the postal system multi-billions of dollars of assessed value and inordinately benefited customers of CBRE.

Even though the City government officials and citizens opposed the sale of the building, USPS management moved forward as if providing service to the people was secondary. So many of us in the East Bay organized independently and later as Save the Berkeley Post Office, Strike Debt Bay Area and Berkeley Post Office Defense to occupy the grand steps of the post office with tents, literature and food tables on July 27, 2013. We protested the sale of the historic building, the potential privatization of our postal system and the destruction of our commons. We had banners, signs and loads of information to pass on to the public as we occupied. There were as many as 24 campers and a dozen tents at one time, some just slept in sleeping bags. The camp bravely remained there 24/7 for 33 days until Berkeley Police tore out our tents on the night of August 28. Most of the tents and belongings were destroyed or lost. A few items were recovered and now we are filing claims with the City for reimbursement. City officials professed solidarity with our camp even as police harassed and shut us down. So why did they crash us down? Only time will tell, but it seems the usual – destroy the action, claim ignorance, wait to be sued, pay the tab, then repeat. During the encampment we made the issue of privatization and the selling off of our commons into an item for discussion across the nation. Even the New York Times and Washington Post published an article on the Berkeley Post Office occupation.

If we look back in history, our postal system existed before 1776 and was the first iconic presence of US public services. It was in every state and county. Letters were expensive, and mostly for the rich, however postage was subsidized for newspapers. This was done purposely to serve the information needs of the commons and to keep the people politically informed. In 1911 Postal Banking was introduced. The minimum deposit was $1 and the maximum was $2,500, and paid two percent interest on deposits annually. It issued US Postal Savings Bonds in various denominations that paid annual interest, as well as Postal Savings Certificates and domestic money orders. Savings in the system spurted to $1.2 billion during the 1930s and jumped again during World War II, peaking in 1947 at almost $3.4 billion. Organized to benefit immigrants and the working poor who didn’t trust commercial banks, the US Postal Savings System was shut down in 1967. Private banks had captured the market, raising their interest rates and offering the same governmental guarantees.

Zoom ahead to 2013 and we find our postal commons under attack by corporations and the rich. Having blown their wad on the shadow wealth of the derivatives and financials market, dynamiting the housing market with predatory loans and cheap buyups of foreclosed properties, they are now circling public service institutions around the globe. And postal systems are profitable privatization targets. Postal privatizations are underway in the UK, the EU, Japan and other nations. Here at home they have been selling off historic downtown Post Office buildings, eliminating mail collection boxes, cutting back staff and services. All justified by an engineered deficit!

Congressman Darrell Issa from Southern California was the author of the poison pill 2006 legislation and has recently proposed the elimination of home delivery of the mail, requiring each of us to daily pick up our own mail. UPS and FedEx desire the postal system package mail, Pitney Bowes desires the distribution business. Commercial businesses won’t touch home mail delivery as it the most expensive operation from which they will not be able to profit.

From my perspective, the largest group of losers in this privatization “reform” are prisoners. Over 2 million people are warehoused in prisons/jails and growing numbers of human beings are now being housed in I.C.E. detention facilities, which also face privatization demands. The trend of building more jails in California is on the rise thanks to people like Gov. Jerry Brown who feels that non-violent and aging prisoners just CANNOT be let out to join the greater society. The one form of communication with that outside world for many of the poor people who make up most of those incarcerated, is the US post office (USPS). The cost of a stamp vs the cost of a 15 minute phone call once a week ($17.00) can be as much as $16.54. Prison jobs can range from ZERO (GA) to 4.73 a day. You can see how the postal service means a great deal to incarcerated people. The idea of a privatized postal service would mean a great deal of economic hardship on those incarcerated far away from family and friends. Hawaiians are routinely shipped to prisons in states like Arizona, making visits nearly impossible and phone calls too expensive. If USPS becomes a privatized entity we can surely expect the cost of stamps to rise considerably and the level of service will decline. A for-profit organization has only one objective…to maximize profits and minimize expenses. The USPS and other public institutions have no such goal. They are run to provide a service at cost, rolling any “profits” back into service. Why would anyone think that a private corporation would do a better job than the public sector?

The effort to save the Berkeley Post Office is still being fought even though the camp has been removed. There is a lawsuit; an official appeal by the Mayor and City Council to Postal management; and a move to rezone the parcel to eliminate commercial uses and mandate civic uses only, making a purchase by profiteers undesirable. And, if the sale goes forward, possibly announced after October 5th, we will be back with our tents to say… “no to the sale! no to privatization! this is OUR commons and we won’t let you, the 1%, have it!”