IN THE SHADOW OF THE INFORMATION AGE

Days and nights at the most maligned workplace in the country--the U.S. Postal Service.

So it may not matter whether the new and improved mail bag sorting system works. The consultants sound good, the look of the new system is slick, and a foundation has been laid for the next step, which will be the privatizing of the whole refurbishing operation.

And eventually everybody will cooperate, partly because the new system has already destroyed the old pattern of work socialization. It spread everybody out at separate tables and created a new work environment. If nothing else, that neutralized some of the malcontents. But then it also extinguished the easy flow of talk whereby job lore gets passed along, peer respect is earned and lost and regained, personal problems surface, and the drudgery of a work day is lightened.

One of the regulars left his family's farm when he was 19 to join the Marines. He said it was just a way to leave and go somewhere. Not long after he got to Vietnam, he took a burst of automatic weapon fire in the stomach. During the summer sometimes he'd go a day or so without talking. One day he walked by my new gray table and said, "Are we here or are we there?" I have no idea what he meant.

Another casual, Uncle Sam, earned his nickname when he got his citizenship in mid-August. Years ago he walked to freedom across Cambodia. With unfailing good cheer he'd treat us to lichee nuts preserved, as nearly as one could tell, in kerosene. By then most of us were at the end of our assignments. It seemed clear that in order to get the new system off the ground, the current casuals would have to be flushed out and a new batch brought in. The latter would be content to stand at gray steel tables with little chance to marvel at a regular who followed his work compass for 37 years or listen to tales of snakes arching like graceful rockets into blue Wyoming sky.

The corporate perspective these days is that the postal service is a huge musk ox wallowing in a mudhole on the information highway. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon says, "We have to talk like a business to perform like a business and deliver the bottom line." The man is a delight for the flood of opportunists eagerly lining up to collect whopping tolls on the bridge into the next century.

The postal service has usually been wary but not unfriendly to change or new technology. Rural free delivery doesn't sound very radical, but a hundred years ago it was an innovation that connected our most remote citizen with the outer world, laid out a network that became the national highway system, and made Sears, Roebuck and Co. rich. While you're reading this, over a hundred thousand carriers are driving 57,000 routes an aggregate daily distance equivalent to eight trips to the moon and back. No commercial venture has stepped up to take over service at the going rate. None will.

That's because privatization isn't progress. The post office is already self-sustaining within the federal government. It does not require a cent in tax revenue. In fact, Congress owes the post office about $2 billion and exacts an annual tribute to service its own deficit. Last year the post office paid $47 million toward servicing the national debt.

If Washington believed in privatization, they would have spun off the postal service under legislation regularly submitted to Congress that includes a plan to sell stock to employees.

Privatization is officially sanctioned opportunism. Positioned to capitalize, you select high-density, high-demand postal products with high profit potential, appropriate technology paid for by the postal service, hire away postal management, cut labor costs in half--and prosper. Seminars are regularly held along the beltway around Washington to help you work it out.

President Bush once said he wouldn't allow defense contractors to "beat their swords into pork barrels," but those firms are in the front rank of privatization. Former Postmaster General Paul Carlin now heads Business Mail Express, which is associated with the defense contractor, DynCorp. DynCorp got nearly $3.9 million in public money to open a remote postal coding facility in York, Penn., to handle a postal services contract the company won. The people who worked there got $6.12 an hour.

The Postmaster General and a nine-member Board of Governors, all appointed by the president and accountable to him and the Congress, are chartered to represent the public interest and operate the post office as a public service. Every outside member of the Board of Governors represents corporate interests. Nearly all private sector members of key postal task forces are large-scale mailers, primarily direct marketers.

What this means is that junk mailers who pre-sort get whopping rate breaks. Journals that don't meet those requirements don't. Magazines too small to print regional editions don't. Periodicals heavy in editorial content over advertising don't.

But doesn't junk mail subsidize the cost of regular mail? No, it doesn't. Sarah Ryan, vice president of the postal workers union in Seattle, provides these numbers. You pay 32 cents for first class. A mass mailer who presorts first class rather than have postal workers do it pays as little as 23 cents. That's nine cents or $90 per thousand. The U.S. Post Office itself says it costs $4 per thousand pieces to sort mail on automated equipment. That's a $90 discount on a $4 operation. Who's paying for whom?

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