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US Postal Servise/The last monopoly. On one hand, a friendly letter-carrier and a mailbox full of letters. On the other, a $385 million deficit, pay cuts for top management, talk of another rate increase. Will the real United States Postal Service please stand up? ...To bind the nation together

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 1985



Washington

The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. -- Title 39, Section 101(a),

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United States Code It's the nation's largest purchaser of rubber bands -- 6,145,850 pounds last year.

Its $28 billion budget outranks all but one of the Fortune 500 service companies.

It's the largest employer in the nation, whose 746,000 paid workers constitute 25.6 percent of all nonmilitary federal employees.

And it is now entering what many observers feel may be the most perplexing and difficult decades of its existence.

Fifteen years after President Nixon signed into law the Postal Reorganization Act on Aug. 12, 1970, this unruly teen-ager known as the United States Postal Service (USPS) is still growing up. Gone are the days of the old tax-supported and patronage-laden Post Office Department, with its cabinet-level postmaster general and its cadres of political appointees turning over with every new administration.

Now, as the result of one of the most comprehensive and controversial changes ever to touch the executive branch of American government, the USPS is a quasi-governmental corporation designed to operate like a business and pay its own way. Is it working?

``I see this time in the Postal Service as being one of the most exciting and challenging times in the history of our organization,'' says Deputy Postmaster General Jackie A. Strange, the organization's chief operating officer. She also sees it as one of the ``most difficult periods.''

``In every way I can think of,'' she adds, ``we're going through a dynamic change.''

For many Americans, of course, the 210-year-old institution continues to do a sound job of collecting, sorting, and delivering a steadily increasing volume of mail -- some 131.5 billion pieces of it in 1984. Most of it arrives on schedule. Very little gets lost. According to a 1984 Roper survey, 80 percent of the general public were favorably impressed by the post office -- despite the then-pending increase of postage, which on Feb. 17, 1985, jumped from 20 to 22 cents for a first-class stamp.

``Overall, the Postal Service is doing a pretty good job delivering the mail,'' says Richard A. Barton, senior vice-president for governmental affairs of the 2,500-member Direct Marketing Association. ``We complain [about it] like we complain about a brother or sister.''

``The next time you fly into Los Angeles at night,'' says A. Lee Fritschler, director of the Advanced Study Program at the Brookings Institution and former chairman of the Postal Rate Commission, ``just think that every light you see out there represents three or four postal addresses. It's kind of a miracle that this stuff gets delivered anything like on time.'' He adds, however, that ``the Postal Service really has a split personality. People love it and they hate it -- they hate the Postal Service bu t love their postman.''

And although ``hate'' may be too strong a word for many observers, most of those who study the behemoth operation, both from outside and within its ranks, agree that it faces major challenges.

Its costs are widely thought to be out of control. After three years of modest surpluses, postal management foresees as much as a $500 million deficit this year. Earlier this month Postmaster General Paul N. Carlin took steps to contain the overrun -- announcing, among other measures, a 3.5 percent pay cut for senior managers.

It is feeling severe pressures of competition from private companies engaged in express mailing, time-sensitive courier services, parcel-post delivery, and even letter-sorting.