Postal activists try to shame Congress with hunger strike

A group of activists launched a hunger strike on Monday to urge Congress to deal with the U.S. Postal Service’s financial troubles. 

The strikers are pushing for Congress to scrap a requirement that USPS make billions of dollars in prepayments for future retirees’ healthcare, a burden they say is central to the agency’s fiscal problems.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) joined the strikers on Monday and said the prepayments and other policies amount to a concerted attempt to dismantle the Postal Service.

“Make no mistake about it, there is an effort to try to privatize even more postal services," said Kucinich. "And this would inevitably result in less service, and higher costs for postal service for the American people."

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In all, 10 people — though not Kucinich — will be taking part in the hunger strike, which has been organized by a grassroots group called Communities and Postal Workers United. The group of strikers includes current and retired postal workers and local postal union leaders, as well as an activist from an Occupy group in Indiana. 

The strikers and their supporters — whose efforts have been endorsed by a collection of liberal, union and Occupy groups from across the country — will hold vigils on Capitol Hill and stage protests at the Postal Service’s headquarters this week before breaking the fast on Thursday.

Jamie Partridge, a national coordinator for CPWU and one of the 10 strikers, told reporters on Monday that the postal activists moved on to the hunger strike after more traditional lobbying efforts, like rallies and phone calls, did not move the needle on Capitol Hill.

A press release also suggested the hunger strike would shed light on efforts to starve the Postal Service through service cuts.

“Congress is stuck on stupid,” said Partridge, a retired letter carrier from Portland, Ore. “We’re here to shame Congress into doing the right thing. We’re willing to suffer.”

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Those actions come as lawmakers are still pressing to pass legislation that would overhaul operations for the cash-strapped agency, which has said it needs to cut some $22.5 billion from its annual budget by 2016.

USPS has seen first-class mail volume fall off since 2006, and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said that the agency will be unable to make two separate retiree prepayments, both roughly $5.5 billion, that are due in the coming months.

The Senate passed postal reform legislation in April, and key senators have been urging the House to follow suit. House GOP leaders have said that they will try to bring a bill sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to the floor before Congress breaks for August recess.

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), a key co-sponsor on the House GOP bill, said in a recent op-ed that Republicans were not looking to privatize the Postal Service, which does not use tax revenue for operating expenses.

But Ross also said that changes must be made to keep taxpayers from picking up the tab on postal workers’ benefits.

“It is not a choice between having a Postal Service and not,” Ross wrote. “It is a choice of having a Postal Service that works, does not take taxpayer money and meets the needs of a 21st-century information society or a Postal Service whose only hope of survival is a taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Postal unions and hunger strikers have called the Senate bill inadequate, and are fiercely opposed to the House GOP bill. Some of the strikers said Monday that they also hoped their protests would push lawmakers to move beyond those two bills as they sought to reform postal operations.

Partridge, for instance, said Congress should instead concentrate on measures like a bill signed on to by more than half of the House that would allow USPS to use what they say are billions of dollars in pension overpayments to take care of the healthcare prefunding.

The Postal Service’s inspector general and other organizations have found that USPS has overpaid some $50 billion to $75 billion into the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS).

The strikers add that neither the weak economy nor the rise of the Internet are the driving force behind the Postal Service’s losses, noting that the vast majority of the agency’s most recent quarterly loss was chalked up to the prefunding mandate.

They also are protesting the Postal Service’s plans to consolidate mail processing centers and shorten hours at smaller local post offices.

Donahoe has called for Congress to ease the pain of the prefunding requirement as well, but has also said that USPS needs to cut costs to cope with the declines in first-class mail.

Supporters of postal cuts have also noted that USPS lost $5.1 billion in fiscal 2011 without making a healthcare prepayment, after lawmakers pushed back the deadline. And for its part, the Government Accountability Office has said that it did not believe that USPS overpaid into CSRS, calling payments into that pension fund more of a policy choice.

The bill the Senate passed in April would allow USPS to access another pension overpayment to ease workers into retirement, and also reduce the burden of the healthcare prepayment.

Donahoe has said a combination of that bill and the House GOP bill would put USPS on much stronger footing. The House bill would allow the agency to move more quickly to scrap Saturday delivery, among other things.

This post was updated at 1:25 p.m.