The US Postal Service recently announced it would be increasing the share of electric vehicles in its next-gen fleet to 40 percent – a sharp increase from the 10 percent outlined in the agency’s initial contract.
This is a rare example of the Louis DeJoy-era USPS responding to public pressure. Ever since the fleet proposal was released to the public in February, climate advocates have blasted the gasoline-powered trucks’ laughable fuel economy (8.6 miles per gallon with the A/C on!), devastating environmental toll (20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over a 20-year life span), and defiance of Biden’s pledge to electrify the federal government’s fleet by 2035. According to the EPA, had these next-gen gas-guzzlers weighed just .01 percent less, they would be illegal under federal environmental protection laws. Just this past April, 16 state attorneys general and several climate groups sued the Postal Service, arguing the fleet plan and contracting process violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
It seems that all this public backlash has had a positive effect, nudging DeJoy’s USPS in the right direction. But given the devastating scope of the climate crisis, the revised fleet plan just isn’t enough. Here’s why and how the Postal Service can go further.
The New Plan Is Still Not Enough
The first major issue with the updated fleet plan is that electric vehicles will still comprise a minority of the new fleet – 60 percent of the next-gen vehicles will be 8.6 mpg gas-guzzlers.
This means that many neighborhoods across the country – particularly low-income and minority communities where USPS facilities are located – will still suffer the effects of air pollution from gas-powered postal trucks. The Union of Concerned Scientists also finds the new plan “leaves nearly 13 million metric tons of annual greenhouse gas reductions and over $4 billion in cost savings off the table.” Conversely, a fully-electric fleet would be much better for the planet, public health, and USPS’ financial sustainability.
Moving to 100 percent (or as close to 100 percent as America’s road infrastructure permits) is by no means a wild idea. In a report examining DeJoy’s fleet plan, USPS’ independent Inspector General found that 98.5 percent of postal routes could be serviced by an electric delivery truck. That same report also noted a mostly-electric fleet would “generally be cheaper to operate [over time] because energy and maintenance costs are lower for electric vehicles.” This is especially true for longer routes, where electric vehicles would not be affected by high gas prices (a possibility that was all but ignored in DeJoy’s own assessment). Given the precedent set last month, there’s no reason why USPS can’t bump up the EV percentage even higher in response to the public’s demands.
The other major issue with the current plan, and something wholly unaddressed by recent changes, is its use of scab labor. Oshkosh Defense, a Wisconsin company awarded the $10 billion fleet contract with USPS, plans to build the next-gen vehicles not in its eponymous hometown with a decades-long United Auto Workers-organized workforce, but in the notoriously anti-union state of South Carolina.
This relocation of the fleet manufacturing from Wisconsin to South Carolina is at odds with the company’s initial statements to “evaluate which of its [existing] manufacturing locations” in Wisconsin could fulfill the contract. UAW workers in the city of Oshkosh have called it a bait-and-switch, learning only through the news media that the company would outsource fleet manufacturing to South Carolina. Oshkosh Defense, as David Dayen reported, has offered several excuses for their union avoidance that are all directly contradicted by the company’s own workers in Wisconsin. In response to the company’s claims that there were “no viable existing buildings in Wisconsin” for the project, UAW Local 578 president Bob Lynk pointed out that two existing vehicle manufacturing facilities in Oshkosh are “lying empty right now” with a “workforce that’s available and eager to build the truck.” By contrast, the South Carolina facility – a former Rite-Aid warehouse that would need to be retrofitted for auto manufacturing – won’t be converted and ready until Spring 2023.
The use of scab labor to build the next-gen postal fleet remains an ongoing national controversy. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) has written to company leaders demanding to know more about why South Carolina was selected for the contract. The UAW has sued DeJoy for the contract’s use of non-union labor, joining 16 states and four environmental groups in the litigation process. In an April House Oversight Hearing, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushed top USPS official Victoria Stephen to admit that requiring a unionized workforce was “never considered” in the contracting process and that the agency knew Oshkosh Defense would outsource manufacturing to South Carolina “shortly before the public announcement of the contract.”
The contract remains a top political issue in Wisconsin too, where a key Senate seat is in play for Democrats this November. Democratic candidate for Senate Mandela Barnes has stood with UAW workers, rallying with them and calling for a relocation of fleet manufacturing jobs to the city of Oshkosh. His opponent Ron Johnson, a loathsome corporate toadie who married his way into money, has offered a jaw-dropping defense of Oshkosh’s use of out-of-state scab labor: “it’s not like we don’t have enough jobs here in Wisconsin. […] I think when using federal tax dollars, you want to spend those in the most efficient way and if it’s more efficient, more effective to spend those in other states, I don’t have a real problem with that.” This tone-deaf statement by Johnson is completely at odds with actual workers in Oshkosh, who have lamented the loss of good-paying jobs in the city of Oshkosh over the last decade and sharply criticized “corporate greed” for robbing the city of desperately-needed employment.
Given the USPS’ newfound willingness to adjust the environmental components of its fleet contract in response to public pressure and lawsuits, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do the same for its labor provisions. A good contract, at the bare minimum, should require the use of unionized workers to build the fleet.
The Executive Option
Should public pressure and litigation fail to compel further changes to the contract, the Biden administration could intervene. Biden’s EPA could refer DeJoy’s fleet plan to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which would then have the power to assess and potentially block it entirely.
As my colleague Mekedas Belayneh detailed in The New Republic:
“The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which was unanimously passed by the Senate in 1969, mandated that all executive agencies are required to consider and prioritize the environment and climate in policies and projects. Agencies create environmental impact statements or, for smaller projects, environmental assessments, which outline the ramifications of projects that will significantly affect “the quality of the human environment.” If the EPA decides an environmental impact statement is insufficient, it can fall back on a rarely invoked provision in Section 309 of the Clean Air Act that grants the administrator of the EPA the authority to refer any federal agency’s environmentally unsatisfactory legislation, regulation, or project to the White House. […] A referral from the EPA would give the CEQ broad authority to mediate the interagency dispute by holding public hearings and publishing new findings from its review of the agency’s proposal. The last referral, in 2016, halted the Army Corps’s construction of a levee that would have destroyed the New Madrid Floodway, a vital Missouri wildlife wetland.”
Unfortunately, the EPA has largely declined to invoke this power, passing on the chance to apply it to DeJoy’s fleet plan earlier this year in favor of sending “warning letters” to the USPS encouraging a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS). While the USPS has agreed to this demand, it is no guarantee that the contract will be meaningfully revised beyond the now-40 percent EV share. Only a referral to the CEQ can ensure DeJoy’s majority-gas-guzzler fleet plan will not go through and that the postal fleet pursues full electrification.
Earlier this summer, we led over 100 watchdog and environmental groups in calling on EPA Administrator Michael Regan to do just that. He would do well to heed our call.
What About DeJoy?
Louis DeJoy, the architect of the original plan and many other terrible policies, is miraculously still in his job nearly two years into the Biden administration. As I’ve written recently on this blog, this is because DeJoy still has the support of his real bosses: the Postal Board of Governors. Anywhere from five to seven members of the Board still have his back, including four Trump holdovers and some Biden nominees.
This December, two of those DeJoy supporters will leave the Board (assuming Biden doesn’t renominate them) when their terms expire: Trump appointees Lee Moak (D) and William Zollars (R). This gives Biden an opportunity to fill their seats with nominees who will be unapologetic opponents of DeJoy. If he acts quickly, he can get both nominees confirmed before the next Congress is sworn in.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has shown an alarming recent tendency to abandon forward-thinking nominees to right-wing smear campaigns and Senate gridlock. Even if Biden nominates actual reformers to the Board, there is no guarantee he will fight for their confirmations before Mitch McConnell’s potential return as Majority Leader in January.
Worse, Biden might not even nominate reformers to the board, as the President maintains a reflexive devotion to institutionalism and norms that the GOP have already forsaken. Despite pleas from watchdogs last November to replace outgoing DeJoy-backers Ron Bloom and John Barger with aggressive reformers, Biden gave their seats to Derek Kan (a Republican hack hand-picked by Mitch McConnell) and Dan Tangherlini (an ethically-compromised former real estate executive who finalized Trump’s lease of the DC Old Post Office Building). As we’ll likely see during the Board’s meeting next week, Kan and Tangherlini’s additions have done absolutely nothing to change the pro-DeJoy status quo on the board: A golden opportunity utterly wasted.
Now, Biden has one more chance to reshape the Board — potentially the last of his presidency — by filling the Moak and Zollars vacancies. While it is true that adding two reformers now would only increase the Board’s “fire DeJoy” caucus membership to four (one short of the majority needed to oust DeJoy), it would be a crucial and necessary step towards getting him out of office. By giving anti-DeJoy governors Anton Hajjar and Ron Stroman some much-needed backup, they could better translate heated public opposition to DeJoy’s agenda into actionable board resolutions that go somewhere. A solid four-person anti-DeJoy caucus would have a much easier time convincing a fifth Governor to join their ranks than Hajjar and Stroman do currently. And as the Supreme Court has taught us, an unexpected resignation or vacancy in the future could mean that one or two seats make all the difference.
If anything, the fleet contract changes last month have shown us that public pressure works. Having more reform-oriented Governors on the Postal Board who listen to the public will move USPS towards a brighter future and away from DeJoy.