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Experts Fear Changes At Postal Service May Affect Black Communities

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another story now - the main reason that plans to cut costs at the Postal Service, why they got everyone's attention - the election and concerns about mail-in voting. Well, there is another concern. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's cost-cutting could set the stage for privatizing the Postal Service, something the Trump administration has endorsed. Unions say that could disrupt an important role the Postal Service has played providing generations of African Americans a path into the middle class. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: In North Philadelphia, Garry Simmons is standing outside a large Postal Service mail processing facility.

GARRY SIMMONS: I worked here for 32 years. I was a mail handler. So yeah, this place is near and dear to my heart.

BRADY: Simmons retired three years ago, before he turned 60. He says a career with the Postal Service helped his family have a good life.

SIMMONS: I was able to raise them, help pay for my son's college education, provide a good, middle-class lifestyle for us and to know that I would have my retirement taken care of.

BRADY: The Postal Service has long given African American workers a place to avoid some of the discrimination that exists in the broader employment world. History professor Phil Rubio says that started just after the Civil War, when Congress passed a law that ended the whites-only hiring practice for postal jobs.

PHIL RUBIO: And African Americans, starting with Union Army veterans, abolitionists and others began finding their way into this government job.

BRADY: Rubio says the pay wasn't always good. But the job came with some prestige, and it offered security, benefits and civil service protections that improved over the decades. Today African Americans are 27% of the Postal Service, about twice their share of the overall workforce. Among those who say they benefited from postal careers is actor Danny Glover.

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DANNY GLOVER: My mom and dad worked for the Postal Service for most of their working lives.

BRADY: In this 2015 video, Glover says his sister and brother also worked for the agency. And he worked there as a teenager during Christmas breaks.

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GLOVER: Working for the Postal Service enabled my parents to buy their first home.

BRADY: This video was part of a campaign to protect the Postal Service from privatization. Among the advocates for that is Chris Edwards, an economist with the libertarian Cato Institute.

CHRIS EDWARDS: The postal industry is no longer any kind of natural monopoly. And when you don't have natural monopoly, I think we ought to let entrepreneurs come into this industry and show us how they can improve it.

BRADY: But private sector jobs don't pay as much. Total compensation for the median Postal Service employee last year was just over $96,000. FedEx is about half that, and UPS is in the middle of the two. Privatization likely would bring downward pressure on Postal Service wages and benefits, which would hurt African Americans disproportionately. But Edwards says there's another issue of fairness here.

EDWARDS: People paying for postal services are paying all those benefits. So it seems to me that the government should be reflective somewhat of the private sector.

BRADY: Postal worker unions have been among the loudest opposition voices to privatization.

JUDY BEARD: The Postal Service is not a business. It's a service. It's a service to the American people.

BRADY: Judy Beard is legislative and political director at the American Postal Workers Union. She started at the Postal Service more than 50 years ago to pay her way through college. She says these jobs benefit more than Black postal workers and their families.

BEARD: By shopping in the community, buying gas in the community, going to church in the community - their children are going to school in the community. So all of that just raises the whole community.

BRADY: Meantime, Postmaster General DeJoy has suspended budget-cutting measures put in place this summer until after November's election but says the steps are still needed to bolster the agency's finances.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.