Digging for Postal Dirt

Sept. 1, 2001
Don't believe every story you see in the newspapers when it comes to the Postal Service.

Digging for Postal Dirt

If you’re a disgruntled ex-employee of the Postal Service — retired, fired, whatever — you can accuse it of anything, and some newspaper will publish your accusation.

Guaranteed. The First Rule of Newspapering is that disgruntled ex-employees of the Postal Service are always newsworthy. The Second Rule of Newspapering is that disgruntled ex-employees of the Postal Service always know what they’re talking about.

But — surprise! — the Associated Press recently published the accusations of an ex-employee of a USPS Bulk Mail Center who (a) was not newsworthy and (b) didn’t know what he was talking about.

First let me tell you a story.

Twenty-five years ago the Postal Service unveiled a network of 21 Bulk Mail Centers. Each center was a mechanized material handing system with a roof over it. And a lot of conveyors. So naturally it was reviled in the press as “Space Age” or “bionic system.” Members of Congress were quick to hold hearings.

In the Chicago Bulk Mail Center a disgruntled ex-employee (fired) told a Tribune reporter a long story about reworking some out-of-spec conveyor rollers. On the basis of Newspapering Rules One and Two, the story got printed, even though it made no sense.

Twenty-five years later. Again, a Bulk Mail Center. Again, a disgruntled ex-employee (retired). This time the accusation was about inaccurate mail counts instead of conveyor rollers.

Right on cue, Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH) appeared and demanded that the General Accounting Office investigate. This was hardly likely as the GAO would defer to the Postal Service Inspector General. And since the inspectors did an audit in 1998 that showed mail counts in the BMCs were as often too low as too high, the likelihood of an audit was remote.

The Associated Press article that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer was full of holes. Take the sentence: “The volume of mail often is cited as a reason for postal rate increases.” Not among people I know. When postal income falls, as it has, the Postal Reorganization Act mandates that USPS break even, and rates have to increase. So the real reasons for postal rate increases are the impact of e-commerce on the profitable first-class mail. Plus rising fuel costs. Plus mandated wage increases. Plus competition from overnight delivery services and from overseas postal services that are marketing in the U.S.

“Also, the mail counts are factors in determining the pay-for-performance bonuses paid to postal managers,” states the article. Not really. Since 1996, management personnel (including front-line supervisors) went from cost-of-living and automatic step increases to a pay-for-performance package based on service, financial goals like meeting a budget, and safety and quality of the work environment. The amount of mail that passes through a given Bulk Mail Center is irrelevant.

Twenty-five years ago the disgruntled ex-employee’s accusations were limited to publication in the Chicago Tribune. Today’s story has been spread all over the country by the Associated Press. I think it only fair that AP dig more deeply into postal rate-setting, how pay-for-performance is determined, and the credibility of the disgruntled retiree.

Twenty-five years ago a congressional member of the House Post Office Committee summed up the whole charade of accusations against the USPS: “In an election year, you can’t lose votes by criticizing the Postal Service. You can only lose votes by defending it.”

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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