The other day I came across a metal container which egg farmers used around 1920 to ship their fragile produce to consumers. This particular one, sold by Montgomery Ward, had separate pockets for two-dozen eggs. What was so surprising about this container? Only that farmers sent fresh eggs by the U.S. Post Office which, for a nickel, would guarantee against breakage. Farmers, it is said, rarely bothered with the insurance.
Consider the corporate-style U.S. Postal Service (USPS) today. Overriding the Postal Commission decision, the USPS has decided that you will pay, as of November 1, 1981, 20 cents for a first-class letter and 13 cents for what once was known as a penny postcard. Not satisfied with an increase last March from 15 cents to 18 cents for a first-class stamp, Postmaster General William Bolger got his rubber-stamp Board of Governors to unanimously approve the override late last month. Bolger has indicated that he would be asking for at least 23 cents for first-class within two years.
What are people receiving for these skyrocketing stamp costs? The price of a first-class stamp was six cents in 1968, went to eight cents in 1971, 10 cents in 1974, 13 cents in 1975, 15 cents in 1978, 18 cents in March, 1981 and now will reach a fifth of a dollar before the Christmas mailing season. The increases are faster than inflation and even more insupportable, given two other factors. One is the USPS’ boasts about its improved productivity over the past decade. The second is its actual reduction earlier this year of certain second- and third-class commercial mail rates.
When large mailers like Time and Reader’s Digest flex their lobbying muscles, it is small wonder that the first-class user is expected to pay more than his or her fair share. There is a reason for this growing cross-subsidy. The USPS is feeling competition from private delivery systems that deliver other than letter mail. Federal law grants the Postal Service a monopoly on letter mail. So, to keep the third-class customers, for example, the USPS refrains from increasing rates.
A comparison between the two categories illustrates how first-class mail users are going to be burdened in the future. First-class letter mail rates will have increased 54 percent between 1976 and November, 1981. Third-class bulk rates for advertising material are the same as in 1976. Third-class bulk rates for advertising material weighing five ounces have decreased 14 percent during the same time period. The USPS can pile it on the first-class user, where it has a monopoly, in order to restrain rates in the other areas where it must face competition.
There is another problem affecting first-class users: they, unlike other mailers, are not organized. Recently I received at my office in Washington a special-delivery letter ($2.10 plus 18 cents postage) from Boston. The postmark was Tuesday. I received the letter the following Monday. Nothing unusual. Many businesses now spend between $7.50 and $9 for USPS Express Service in order to get the next-day delivery that the Postal Service should be providing for 18-cent users within a distance of 500 miles.
Special Delivery is a consumer fraud. A Postal Service employee admitted that deterioration of first-class mail and Special Delivery service increases the use of the very expensive Express Mail—a service that is booming for the postal business.
The 1970 Postal Reorganization Act replaced the old Post Office Department with a corporate-shaped U.S. Postal Service. The chief designer was a former head of AT&T. For the past decade, the Postal Service has been following a policy that will continue to undermine its historic purpose—that of running an efficient, growing, productively expanding series of delivery services.
Year after year, contractions of service add up. Saturday delivery is in jeopardy. Postal boxes are being withdrawn. Delivery time standards routinely are not met. For new housing developments, there is no home delivery. People have to go to curb-line or cluster boxes. The frequency of collections at most residential collection boxes has been reduced to one per day.
Things only will get worse until household first-class users organize. For information on how this can be done, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Katherine Conkey, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, D.C., 20036.