Our nation’s year-round celebration of former military service by 19 million Americans reaches its apex every Veterans Day. On that occasion, there is no louder “thank you for your service” heard throughout the land than the expressions of gratitude that emanate from businesses, large and small.
Men and women who enlisted in the military—or were draftees before conscription was suspended after the Vietnam War—suddenly become eligible for all kinds of special consumer discounts. As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, a military historian, observes, “corporate virtue signaling” on November 11 takes the form of “an abundance of good deals: free coffee, free doughnuts, free pizza, free car washes, and as much as 30 percent off on assorted retail purchases.”
Conspicuously missing from this annual display of appreciation is what military veterans need far more than a less expensive day at the mall. And that is wider understanding of and greater support for their role as providers of essential public services at the local, state, and federal level.
Two of the biggest employers of men and women who served in the military are the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which serves 9 million patients in the nation’s largest public health care system, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which delivers mail to 163 million homes and businesses. Both of these federal agencies have long been the target of Republican-backed efforts to reduce their staff, downsize their operations, and outsource their functions to favored private firms.
Under President Trump, privatization got a big push from top-level political appointees at the VA and the USPS who were overtly hostile to the official mission of their own agency. Unfortunately, President Biden has yet to make necessary changes in the pro-privatization policies or management personnel his administration inherited from Trump.
As a result, federal workers—many veterans among them—are still mobilizing at both the VA and the USPS to defend jobs and services that benefit all Americans. Their ongoing alliances with other labor and community groups are key to defeating bipartisan assaults on two bastions of public provision in little need of replacement by private sector alternatives.
A CULTURE OF SOLIDARITY
At VA hospitals and clinics around the country, about one-third of the 300,000 unionized staff members are veterans themselves, including many health care professionals, clerical workers, custodians, and other support personnel. As we describe in a new book called Our Veterans, this creates a unique culture of empathy and solidarity between providers and patients, whose service-related physical and mental health conditions often require highly specialized treatment.
Despite his 2020 presidential campaign pledge never to “defund” or “dismantle” this high-quality health care system, Joe Biden appointed a VA Secretary, Denis McDonough, who has deviated little from the path of his Republican predecessor.
Despite appeals from VA union members, McDonough won’t restrict outsourcing that may soon divert half of his agency’s $100 billion-a-year health care budget to reimbursement of for-profit hospital chains and medical practices. Earlier this year, he even recommended that scores of VA facilities be closed and their patients treated, at greater public expense, by the private health care industry instead.
This proposal triggered strong grassroots resistance from VA caregivers, their patients, some veterans’ groups, and elected officials in cities and states threatened with a reduction in medical services. Members of the American Federation of Government Employees, National Nurses United, and other VA unions organized rallies, press conferences, and picket lines which demanded improvements in VA staffing and infrastructure, not layoffs and its dismantling.
Responding to constituent pressure, both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee refused to confirm White House nominees to a VA facility closing commission that was poised to rubber-stamp McDonough’s pro-privatization proposals.
Veterans who belong to the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers hope to have similar success derailing the latest postal service restructuring scheme unveiled by Louis DeJoy, a controversial holdover from the Trump Administration. DeJoy is a right-wing businessman from North Carolina, worth $110 million, who left his logistics company to become Postmaster General after donating millions to Trump and other conservative Republicans.
Postal workers have been jousting with DeJoy since he received his marching orders from a White House task force created by Trump. That Republican body called for massive contracting out of USPS services, closing many post offices, reducing delivery days, increasing prices, and eliminating collective bargaining by a workforce that is nearly one-quarter African American and includes more than 110,000 military veterans.
The Trump Administration’s goal was to force the USPS into bankruptcy so it could be auctioned off to private companies, putting 500,000 jobs at risk, while conveniently disrupting census-taking and mail-ballot voting for president.
NEW THREAT TO LETTER CARRIERS
Coming together as the Save the Post Office Coalition, members of 300 advocacy groups mounted successful protests against DeJoy’s attempt to cut service and slow election year mail delivery. After Democrats regained control of the White House and the Senate, Congress passed the Postal Service Reform Act, which has put the agency on a sounder financial footing.
But the USPS is formally independent of the executive branch, so its top official serves at the pleasure of a nine-member board of governors and cannot be sacked by the president like a cabinet member. Despite mounting calls for DeJoy’s resignation, he’s still on the job under the Biden administration, which has yet to fill board vacancies with enough appointees (or the right kind) to fire the Trump appointee by majority vote.
In the meantime, the latest manifestation of DeJoy’s 10-year consolidation plan is a massive change in mail sorting and delivery that will be rolled out in February and initially impact 200 facilities nationwide. Instead of sorting mail in neighborhood post offices, tens of thousands of mail carriers will be forced to drive back and forth to large centralized regional sorting centers, located far away from their current delivery routes.
Labor critics point out that bad working conditions, like understaffing and long hours, are already causing many letter carriers to take early retirement; the retention rate for new hires is 30 percent, a number likely to drop further if the job soon entails lengthier and more costly commutes. Post offices that lose their “back-end” delivery units will inevitably have fewer clerks and shorter retail hours, and then become candidates for closure. The jobs affected will be among the 50,000 positions DeJoy is seeking to eliminate.
PUBLIC MEETING THIS THURSDAY
An activist network called Communities and Postal Workers United is urging all postal service supporters to sign petitions protesting mail carrier removal, organize town hall meetings against it, and speak out at the Postal Board of Governors’ next national meeting on November 10. (To make virtual or in-person comments about DeJoy’s plan, sign up here.)
Many speakers will no doubt emphasize the adverse economic impact on postal workers and the communities they serve, particularly in rural areas. On the eve of Veterans Day, some will also remind the board that military veterans, now wearing the uniform of the postal service, will be among the first casualties of yet another public service restructuring scheme inherited from Trump but still unfolding on Joe Biden’s watch, like the parallel undermining of the VA.
Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon are NewsGuild/CWA members and authors of Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs. Published by Duke University Press, the book describes the parallel labor-community campaigns against privatization of veterans’ health care and U.S. mail delivery. They can be reached at Lsupport[at]aol[dot]com.