Into the NAACP vs the Postal Service
Louis Dejoy: Thank you, Chairman Johnson, for calling this hearing. On June 15th, I became America's 75th postmaster general. I did so because I believe the Postal Service plays a tremendously positive role in the lives of the America public and the life of the nation.
Trymaine Lee: This November, in the face a pandemic, voters are expecting to rely heavily on vote by mail. On Friday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy tried to ease the nerves of lawmakers and the American public.
Dejoy: I want to assure this committee and the American public that the Postal Service is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation's election mail securely and on time.
Lee: In a virtual hearing in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, DeJoy said the United States Postal Service is ready.
Dejoy: This sacred duty is my number one priority between now and Election Day.
Lee: Today, he made the same argument before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Dejoy: To be clear, we will do everything we can to handle and deliver election mail in a manner consistent with the proven processes and procedures that we have rel-- relied upon for years.
Lee: The fact that DeJoy is testifying before Congress in the middle of August, when members are typically on recess, is unusual. These emergency hearings were called out of concern that DeJoy, a top donor to President Trump, had been trying to interfere with the election.
In the two months that he's been in the role, DeJoy has reorganized and, in some cases, gotten rid of leadership posts at the USPS. He's eliminated employee overtime, removed mail sorting machines, and taken letter collection boxes off the streets. DeJoy says he's working to make the financially struggling institution more solvent. But the changes have caused stress for workers, disruption to service, and prompted a national outcry.
Dejoy: After 240 years of patriotic service delivering the mail, how can one person screw this up in just a few weeks?
Female Legislator: In all of our districts, we are hearing from constituents about significant delays in the delivery of mail, medicines, food, and other supplies.
Kamala Harris: I cannot believe that, in the midst of a global pandemic and an economic crisis, that we are having to exert energy to preserve the United States Postal Service.
Male Legislator: You have ended a once proud tradition.
Lee: In response, DeJoy agreed to suspend additional moves until after the election.
Dejoy: I'd like to emphasize that there has been no changes in any policies with regard to election mail for the 2020 election.
Lee: But Democrats are calling on him to go a step further and reverse his changes. As the battle continues in Washington, a handful of states and organizations have filed or plan to file lawsuits against the USPS, among them is the NAACP.
Male Legislator: We have a long history in this country of manipulating the outcomes of elections, particularly when it comes to African Americans. There's always been an effort to suppress the Black vote, and to overall subvert democracy.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, how the fight over the fundamental of the U.S. Postal Service is impacting Black Americans. For generations, the USPS has been a stepping stone into the middle class for Black families. And this year, it's gonna be a crucial voting tool for many more. We'll look at how workers are handling the pressure of cuts and service changes, and what's being done to make sure every vote is counted this November.
Jay Thurmond has spent 25 years working for the post office in Chicago. He's a mail handler. He spends his days sorting letters and packages, loading and unloading trucks, that kinda thing. One of our producers gave him a call on Friday. He told her that working in the post office is basically the family business.
Jay Thurmond: Both of my parents worked for the Postal Service, my grandfather, my family worked for the post office on my dad's side, my grandmother worked for the post office. I have aunts that work for the post office, you name it. So pretty much my whole family. Either you're a nurse or a postal worker. (LAUGH)
Lee: Jay's story isn't uncommon. The USPS has been a crucial employer for Black people for more than 100 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Black men and women sought out the Postal Service for stable, long-term work. Today, more than 20% of post office workers are Black.
Thurmond: They pay well, but you definitely work for your money. So where I'm working at is a 24-hour, 7-day, 365-days operation. It's always open and you're always workin' inside of the plant. Our motto is always that we deliver. The time restraints that we have and the pressure to get that mail out, we live it. You learn how to work under pressure very well when you work at the post office.
Lee: That pressure reaches a whole different level when it comes to what is called political mail: absentee ballots, mail-in ballots. That's all part of political mail, and it's high priority.
Thurmond: When that mail comes in, and it's tagged political mail, you start hearin' these calls. You're hearin', "Political mail," "Political mail," you know. They start making calls. What I'm trying to say is the political mail is priority. I don't care what mail anybody is touchin', when that political mail comes in, that's the first thing that everybody gravitates towards.
When it's comin' off the dock, when it's coming or headed towards detail three, they pullin' it up, they linin' it up. You have tractors or what have you lined up. The supervisors are standin' there. They like, "This is political mail. We need you to take this, you know, to the south end of the buildin'."
So you bring it over there to the south end of the buildin'. No matter how much mail, no matter what's goin' on, that political mail is worked first. It just passes from hand to hand until it goes to where it has to go. The way it's ran is literally like the military.
Lee: Typically, the USPS relies on high volume sorting machines to get through all that mail. And if one of the machines breaks down, they don't waste any time getting things up and running again.
Thurmond: So if anything goes wrong with those machines, they call a mechanic over there. And I'm not exaggeratin' this at all: They look like NASCAR, those guys on NASCAR that take the tires off and fix the car when they come through the pit stops. That's what they look like.
Lee: This summer, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ordered more than 600 of those sorting machines be disconnected and removed, citing a decline in mail volume. DeJoy recently put this plan on hold, but it's unclear whether the machines that had already been stopped will be revived.
Jay Thurmond is aware of the funding crisis that's unfolding at the highest levels of the post office, especially move to cut back on overtime. While he doesn't like to get political, what he's hearing from the top has him worried, and it's affecting his job.
Thurmond: It's always scary when, you know, they gonna make a change and you don't know what's going to happen. When they say no overtime, and they were sayin', "Well, we're not doin' any overtime, then we have to turn around and we have to get this mail out," that's even more pressure. It's like you can cut it with a knife. You feel like you can just cut it because it's so, "Go-go-go, go-go-go. Let's go," you know?
Lee: So there's obstacle after obstacle. But despite it all, Jay is sure that he and his coworkers can pull this off.
Thurmond: The U.S. Postal Service is responsible for deliverin' mail all over this world. You have soldiers that are being deployed, combat zones, high conflict areas. And all over America, you have these family members, you have sweet grandmothers, you have moms, wives, and loved ones send packages over into a war zone, and it's delivered.
And it's been like that for years. And to come now and, you know, ask, "Can you deliver political mail?" You know, I'm sorry, but it almost feels like it's a slap in the face 'cause it's like we can deliver a package over to Afghanistan and then you question the post office and ask if there'd be a problem if you'd deliver a first-class letter to Iowa.
Lee: While Jay Thurmond may be confident, a lot of other people are concerned about a mail-in election and what feels like a threat to democracy itself, including the NAACP. Last week the civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against Postmaster General DeJoy, accusing him of sabotaging his own United States Postal Service. The lawsuit calls it, quote, "a blatant attempt to disenfranchise voters of color." After the break, we talk to NAACP President Derrick Johnson about that lawsuit. Stick with us.
Lee: NAACP President Derrick Johnson is leading his organization's lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service. It's a position he probably never imagined he would be in decades ago, growing up in Detroit, where mail carriers were such a central part of life in the neighborhood.
Johnson: I grew up in somewhat of a rough neighborhood in Detroit. And so the mailman, actually, we had two I can remember growin' up, 'cause one retired, another replaced him. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. And I remember the older guy before he retired, he had to make sure that he delivered the mail early enough before he sat down with the neighborhood and got distracted.
Lee: (LAUGH) Right.
Johnson: But it was a part of the community. And how he functioned, everybody in the neighborhood knew him, respected him, liked him.
Lee: Walk me through this lawsuit that the NAACP is filing against the USPS because you use some pretty strong language here. You say that Postmaster General DeJoy's policies are, quote, "willful and blatant attempt to obstruct the mail system, and are a direct threat to the people of this nation's right to vote." What are you seeing that really concerns you that points to that-- that blatant obstruction and disenfranchisement you're talkin' about?
Johnson: Well, when you make the decision to take away the postal worker's ability to deliver the mail, timely, in the midst of a upcoming election where mail-in voting would be the preferred method by a large number of citizens across the country, especially African Americans, when you look at the Wisconsin primary election in June and the horrific scene of individuals standing in line, putting at risk their health so they can exercise their right to vote. That should never be a choice for a citizen to have to make, whether or not they're gonna vote or their health.
And what this postmaster general has done with dismantling the high-capacity machines, with eliminating overtime work for postal workers to ensure mail get out timely, in the midst of what will perhaps be a heightened mail-in voting election season, I think the questions of motivations are very clear. And we should not, as citizens, definitely not as African Americans, stand by and do nothing.
Lee: When you think about motivation here, you know, there are a lotta people who would point to the same old playbook from years ago, the voter suppression efforts that disenfranchise Black folks and dislodged us from our rights to vote. Do you think this is, like, pointedly an attempt to suppress the votes of Black and brown and other marginalized people?
Johnson: We have a long history in this country of manipulating the outcomes of election, particularly when it comes to African Americans. There's always been an effort to suppress the Black vote, and to overall subvert democracy. I don't think there's a significant part of our population who do not appreciate the fact that we are full citizens, that we have equal protection under the law, that there is a constitutional guarantee to our participation in all facets of life.
And so this is no different. Whether it's poll tax, whether it's literacy tests, whether it's moving of precincts, all of these things line up consistent with our history of suppressing the Black vote to subvert democracy. We cannot be a representative government if there is a consistent state-sanctioned effort to suppress Black votes.
Lee: We talked to a Black postal worker in Chicago who said, you know what, he understands the media frenzy around what's goin' on. But he believes that the USPS is still, you know, in prime position to make sure that everyone gets their ballots. Do you think though, if things remain as they are at this moment, that it could have a real impact on the high-stakes 2020 presidential election?
Johnson: It's a game of inches not miles. So it's not about the 99.9% of the mail getting there timely. It is that fraction of a percent which can make a difference in outcome of any election. I always use this example. 28,000 people voted in the City of Detroit in 2016, and they skipped the top of the ticket, an 80% Black city.
But Michigan was lost by less than 11,000. The outcome was buried in people who actually voted but, for whatever reason, they skipped the top of the ticket. We have to be very clear: The loss of any vote is a threat to our democracy, and we should not accept it as a norm, "Oh, it's gonna be okay." It is not okay.
Lee: You know, Donald Trump has said that, you know, if you expand, you know, vote by mail that the Republicans may not win another election. Do you think mail-in voting should be expanded? Or are there actual concerns that, the more you expand it, that there could be, you know, some foul play involved?
Johnson: Well, in the midst of that statement is the problem. We should not fold our election process to meet the interests of a political party. The political party must be the interests of the voters. If your message and if your platforms are strong enough then they should attract people, but people should not be routed based on them agreein' with you, and if they don't then you put up barriers for their participation.
Political parties are nothing but vehicles for agendas. And if the agendas that are makin' up the platform of the party in this moment is inadequate to attract the necessary support of the voting public then the public is not the problem, the agenda is the problem.
Lee: You know, obviously President Trump's fingerprints are all over what we've been seein' happen. He's waged this war-- against the post office-- you know, in-- in part because the-- the Amazon connection. He wants them to charge more because he has, you know-- a vendetta (LAUGH) against-- Jeff Bezos.
But then again, the post office has had a tangle of financial difficulties over the years, partly because of the way they have to fund up front the pensions and everything. It's kind of a mess out there. Is there any chance that this is just purely bad optics, right? No nefarious politics involved, just DeJoy tryin' to align the post office's financial state. Is there any chance at all?
Johnson: I think it is a power grab for the current election to ensure that certain ballots will be slowed or prevented from being considered. I also think it's a long-term play around a set of private entities who seek to privatize as much of government as possible.
Even DeJoy owns interest in a company that was doin' business with the post office. If you look at the whole funding model and their structure, Congress have tampered with the functions of the post office for years, basically crippling its ability to grow and develop. And yet, it has persevered because it's such a durable American institution.
And what's interesting about the post office, it's not bein' funded by our tax dollars. It's actually running off the fees it generate from the services. And so if you believe in a business model, allow the model that works for this agency to continue to grow and work, and stop putting in place barriers to handicap its ability to service the American citizens.
Lee: You know, Derrick, for all the reasons you mention, there's great concern about how Black voters will be impacted by the changes made at the Postal Service. But the Postal Service also employs a bunch of Black folks, right? Historically, the USPS has been a ladder into the middle class for so many Black people and Black families. Is there any sense of how DeJoy's changes, in terms of cutting overtime and all the other things he's done, will impact Black postal workers?
Johnson: You know, the post office, outside of this, they've been under a consistent attack by many in the conservative movement. It is a governmental function that has been successful as an American institution but for the legislative bodies taking the resources out of the post office and forcing the post office to operate on a shoestring.
And yet, they still have been consistently productive. It is a true ladder to middle class for African Americans. You know, I recall comin' outta high school and people were aggressively seeking a job at the post office as they were considering how to navigate through college.
And most people who got the job at the post office recognized that they would have steady employment, good benefits, and the ability to secure health insurance. You know, between the post office and the military, those were the ladders for impoverished communities, particularly African American communities, to really eke out a good livin' for their family, and build out their communities.
Lee: So as the NAACP pushes forward with this lawsuit against the USPS, early last week, DeJoy agreed to suspend all cost-cutting measures. And on Friday, while testifying to Congress, he made it clear that the Postal Service will prioritize ballots over all other mail. But as you push forward, what else are you lookin' for, for the USPS to do, that they haven't already conceded? Is there somethin' else?
Johnson: Well, absolutely. Well, the harm that was caused must be restored. You have to repair. You have to put those machines back in place. You need to have a plan of execution to ensure mail is delivered timely. And this is not just about the election, these are about individuals who depend on delivery of the postal service for their medications, and veterans, and others.
And so it goes beyond the mail-in ballot; it goes through the quality of life that people have grown accustomed to. And some of that is based on the timely delivery of their mail. That's why, in recent polling, you see upwards of 70, 80% of people support the post office. And some of the changes that has been done probably will be detrimental to all those who are responsible.
Lee: So as you consider the history of the Postal Service, and you consider just how important their role actually is every single day, even when we're not in an election year, is the fight you are waging on behalf of voters about, you know, more than just 2020? What are you actually fighting for?
Johnson: We're fighting for access to voting. We don't want people to have to make a decision between their life, their health, and their right to vote. We want as many options on the table. But I think what has happened also has opened up the longer term conversation around the Postal Service, that the systemic attacks on the Postal Service over the last 20 years has now come to light.
So I think this is step one. And we're gonna be successful in this. The fact that the House went in on a Saturday in the midst of this pandemic, after they had already left for their recess, to come back and vote for a $25 billion package, that speaks volumes. I hope that, after this cycle's over, we take it out of the partisan consideration and we have a system that people have unfettered access to polling. We must be a representative democracy. We cannot spread this message of freedom abroad if we're not practicin' it at home.
Lee: That was NAACP President Derrick Johnson, along with veteran mail handler Jay Thurmond. We reached out to the U.S. Postal Service for comment on the NAACP's lawsuit but didn't hear back in time for publication. A special thanks to NBC, BLK editor Michelle Garcia and reporter Curtis Bund (PH) for help with today's story.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.