Globalization Goes Postal: How Free Trade Deals Could Mandate Postal Privatization

International trade no longer means just manufactured goods. Globalization is going postal.

As the Bush administration targets universal public service at the Post Office with its Transformation Plan and prepares for an assault on collective bargaining rights won in the great Postal Strike of 1970, already embattled postal workers seek to mobilize against further attacks expected to flow from the new generation of trade deals in the global economy.

TRADING SERVICES

Last fall in Seattle, the National Presidents’ Conference (NPC) began a series of educational seminars on globalization and the new round of trade deals that spell big trouble for public and postal sector workers. The NPC is a historic, open caucus within the American Postal Workers Union consisting of local and state union presidents who convene three times a year to discuss and act upon emerging issues.

On March 29 in St. Louis, the NPC conducted a day-long seminar keynoted by Larry Weiss, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, who outlined how globalization, in the form of free trade deals, could mandate privatization of public and postal services.

The focus of new free trade deals is on services, including services now provided by governments. There are two major trade deals currently being negotiated that could hurt public sector workers. First, there is the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) which is part of the World Trade Organization system. It covers 144 countries, including the United States. Second, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would expand NAFTA (which currently covers the United States, Mexico, and Canada) to 31 additional countries in North and South America. Both deals are expected to be completed by the end of 2004 and to be considered by Congress in 2005.

TARGETING THE POST OFFICE

Weiss believes GATS and FTAA will require many government-provided services at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels to be opened to bidding by foreign private companies. To see which services are likely to be covered under GATS, Weiss suggests we look at what the most powerful players in the negotiations-Europe and the United States-are seeking to include.

Both the European Union and the United States are specifically targeting “postal services.”

In a broad sweep, Europe intends to include the handling of addressed written communications on any kind of physical medium, which would include most, if not all, letters and packages. The U.S. position-at least what has been revealed so far, since everything is done in secret-is to include “express delivery services”.

We won’t know exactly which postal services will be included in the new GATS until negotiations are completed in 2004. However, with the United States and the Europeans being the biggest players, it seems clear that at least a significant part of USPS services will be covered under GATS rules.

CONFRONTING GATS

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At this point, whether the current postal reform or the next round of trade deals mounts the more serious challenge is open to conjecture. However, a larger question remains on the strategies necessary to fight back on both the national and international fronts.

A major part of the recent NPC conference included workshops on developing organizing strategies and techniques to educate and mobilize APWU members in legislative efforts at the local level as well as in Washington, D.C.

Since globalization can be difficult to understand, the NPC, with the help of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition and the Labor Education Service, University of Minnesota, is developing a train-the-trainer program that will be completed early this summer.

The NPC believes there must be a strong linkage between membership education and action strategy to take on the U.S. government’s would-be privatizers as well as the global pirates.

The NPC is hoping to widen and deepen APWU members’ understanding of globalization/privatization while developing organizing methods and coalition building to meet the challenge, to think globally while organizing locally. A key element to the training is to provide members at the local level the opportunity to develop creative responses and explore strategic options such as legislative action, international solidarity, public education and direct action.

THE NEW ROBBER BARONS

In getting the rank and file to grapple with globalization, Weiss makes the historical connection to the robber barons of the early 20th century who ran roughshod over workers, farmers, and other citizens. He notes, “There was no national regulation of corporate behavior. Unions were violently repressed, there was no minimum wage, child labor was rampant, and many politicians were in the pocket of corporate interests.”

Much of the history of the early twentieth century was about citizens fighting to bring the robber barons under some level of regulation. Eventually child labor was outlawed, organizing unions became legal, a minimum wage was established, and President Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of the “malefactors of great wealth,” embraced a public, political role for the government in “anti-trust”: controlling, curbing and breaking up large private concentrations of economic power.

Now, as national economies have given way to a global economy, Weiss warns, “global corporations have outrun the reach of national regulations, and a new robber-baron era has developed.”

So here we go again. But can we learn the lessons of the past, build coalitions with labor here and across borders, faith-based movements, farming communities, environmentalists, and concerned citizens to take on these new robber barons and their well-heeled apologists in Congress? Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The members of the NPC appear to be moving in the right direction.

Greg Poferl is a national business agent for the American Postal Workers Union in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.