A Postmaster Goes to War Against His General

Employees take aim at a plan to close thousands of post offices

Mark Strong will happily tell you he knows quite a bit more about the post office than the average person. He should. He began his career with the U.S. Postal Service 34 years ago at a rural post office in Montana. Today he is postmaster of Sun City, Ariz., where he commands the country’s largest bike delivery fleet. Strong is also president of the National League of Postmasters of the U.S. It is in this capacity that he is leading a postmasters’ revolt against U.S. Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe’s plan to close as many as 3,650 post offices in hopes of staunching the financial losses at his agency. Strong has testified before Congress, warning that closing post offices will leave millions of people without easy access to a basic service. His members have also embarked on a campaign to enlist the public’s help in fighting the closures.

There are more than 26,000 post offices in the U.S. Nearly every one has its own postmaster. Naturally, Strong’s colleagues aren’t thrilled with Donahoe’s cost-cutting efforts, which would mean fewer of their positions. But Strong insists his campaign isn’t merely about self-preservation. He says Donahoe’s plan would be catastrophic for small towns, where the post office often serves as a quasi-community center and information hub. “Rural areas, they only have the post office,” Strong says. “They don’t have banks. Many of them don’t even have cell phone service, let alone the Internet.” Eliminate the post offices in these places, and you might as well wipe them off the map, he argues, perhaps a bit melodramatically.

The USPS downplays the rift with its postmasters. “These are extremely challenging times for the postal service and all of its employees,” says spokeswoman Sue Brennan. The service celebrates postmasters on its website. Two U.S. presidents—Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman—held the title. So did hotel baron Conrad Hilton and Nobel-Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner. The author of The Sound and the Fury played cards on the job at the University of Mississippi’s post office and could be surly with patrons.

Donahoe, a postmaster himself in Lancaster, Pa., from 1990 to 1992, can’t afford to be nostalgic. The postal service projects a $10 billion loss this year. It will shortly reach its statutory debt limit of $15 billion. That means it is unlikely to make a required $5.5 billion payment on Sept. 30 to fund future retirement benefits. The USPS would like Congress’s blessing to dip into what it describes as $75 billion in overpayments it made for decades to the federal civil service system. Long is enthusiastic about this proposal, too, because it would considerably ease the agency’s financial strain. But the White House doesn’t seem interested, and congressional Republicans are strongly opposed, saying it would amount to a bailout of an agency that hasn’t done enough to cut costs.

Donahoe has estimated that reducing the number of post offices would save about $200 million a year. According to the USPS, 80 percent of post offices lose money. R. Richard Geddes, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, says many rural post offices typically do only $50 worth of business each day. “That is not enough to cover the heat and electricity, let alone the salaries.”

Donahoe would like to move some postal services into supermarkets and convenience stores where they can be run less expensively. Strong doesn’t think much of that idea. He laments they might not offer financial services such as money orders or provide that special quality postmasters bring to the position. “There’s something about having that title,” Strong says. “You’ve got someone who is proud of that job.”

Even so, Strong concedes his fellow postmasters won’t go hungry if Donahoe succeeds in shutting down the post offices. It’s hard to get rid of people who work for the postal service, which may be part of the reason the agency is in such dire shape. Strong says displaced postmasters would qualify for jobs as union-protected letter carriers and clerks if they can’t find other managerial positions. “They’d probably make more money,” he says.

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