Like a lot of people concerned about the fate of the U.S. Postal Service, Jeanette Dwyer is frustrated. The president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association insists the USPS is in better shape than people think and says the agency should be expanding service, not cutting it. That might sound a little pie-in-the-sky at a time when the postal service has been losing billions of dollars in part because fewer and fewer people are sending letters. But she sees a future in which package delivery overtakes first-class mail as the USPS’s most important service—and where some of the biggest names in retail contract with the agency, taking advantage of its nationwide fleet and army of letter carriers to deliver products.
There are some experiments under way. This month, the USPS announced an agreement to provide Sunday delivery for Amazon.com (AMZN). I asked Dwyer about the postal service’s troubles, and her plans for the 100,000-member union.
How have things changed since you started with the postal service in 1981?
It’s a lot different now. We are a service organization. It seems to me that the postal service has eroded service rather than building on really what made us an American icon. I think that so much gets lost in the news right now. I don’t think we’re as bad as maybe people think we are. And part of the reason is that we have this [retiree health-care benefit] prefunding [requirement] that is not placed on any other government agency.
In the last four years, the postal service has lost 21 percent or more of its volume, and there are predictions that it’s going to lose about another 20 percent by 2020. What’s your answer if that much volume goes away?
Do I agree that first-class volume is down? Absolutely. However, it’s shifting to the people who are shopping online, who have a business online, who have an EBay (EBAY) business. And guess where they’re sending that product? Through the United States Postal Service. Right now, we’re working with Amazon.com. We’re doing Sunday deliveries.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that the total unfunded liability is close to $90 million.
The postal service already put aside that $50 [billion] to $55 billion. That’s enough to pay premiums for decades to come. Decades.
What’s your union prepared to do to help save the USPS?
In our last contract we accepted a lower wage level; we accepted a frozen [cost-of-living adjustment]; we accepted a new tier system for our new employees, a new health system for our new employees.
Any other ideas to put the postal service in better financial footing?
Give us a chance to do things that we’re already doing well—the packaging, the parcel delivery that we’re doing. I don’t like the idea of five-day [delivery], that’s ridiculous. I’m all for Sunday delivery. We need to be offering our customers more. We need to be looking at the post offices that we own. Put some other things in there. Insurance, do some banking, do some things that other countries are doing. Somewhere along the way, we have lost the fact that rural free delivery was put in to service the American public. On Sept. 11, you know what happened? Rural letter carriers and city carriers around this country went to those mailboxes. Americans who looked out saw their mail being delivered, and they realized that, guess what? America’s still here. That is the impact that nobody thinks about. I understand what you’re going to say: “Well, now we have the Internet.” Well, guess what? All of America doesn’t have the Internet.
I actually wasn’t going to say anything. I thought this was a good place to end.
I didn’t mean to beat up on you.
(Interview compressed and edited for clarity)