USPS Management’s Grievance Strategy: Defer and Delay

Burrus Update 09-2010, July 8, 2010

This has been an extremely busy year, as we respond to the postal policies and decisions triggered by the recent decline in mail volume.

Despite a modest improvement in the economy, advertising mail has not yet rebounded. Coupled with the diversion to electronic messages, the recession has reduced mail volume to 1994 levels.

The geniuses who supported the provision of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) that requires the Postal Service to pre-fund future health care liabilities ignored the gyrations of business cycles. During this period of low mail volume, the pre-funding obligation threatens the solvency of the Postal Service. Efforts are underway to provide relief from the payments, which exceed $5 billion annually for 10 years.

A recent independent actuarial report [PDF] released by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) concluded that the Postal Service has overpaid the Civil Service Retirement System in the amount of $50 to $55 billion, and suggested an “adjustment” in favor of the USPS. If approved by OPM, this adjustment could relieve most of the financial pressure on the Postal Service.

The APWU Legislative and Political Department, in concert with other postal unions and the mailing industry, is making the case that this overpayment should be used to offset the pre-funding obligation and relieve the Postal Service from the annual payment.

In the meantime, postal management’s response to the financial challenges has been facility consolidations, the closure of stations and branches, excessing, and computerized scheduling — all causing major disruptions in the lives of employees. Tens of thousands of employees have been excessed from their installations and crafts, and any semblance of job stability is a distant memory.

Despite the protection against layoffs and the 8-hour guarantee found in the Collective Bargaining Agreement [PDF], the impact on APWU members has been devastating. Employees have been faced with a most difficult choice: They must decide whether or not to continue employment when doing so would mean uprooting their families and disrupting their lives.

In years past, when we were confronted with changes of this magnitude, there were opportunities to mitigate the effect on employees through union-management cooperation. Unfortunately, it seems those opportunities no longer exist: The Postal Service’s Labor Relations Department has been relegated into a forum for preparing cases for arbitration — not settlement.

It seems management has no interest in reaching agreements on contract interpretation and application, so the union’s only option has been to initiate grievances for a growing list of disputes. Postal management appears to have made a conscious decision to apply the most draconian interpretation of contractual terms and to await the decision of an arbitrator years in the future.

An example of management’s policy is the dispute that arose over the Annual Leave Exchange program that was negotiated in the 1998 National Agreement. Management interpreted the agreement as excluding PTFs; the union grieved the exclusion, and in 2009 we prevailed in arbitration. The arbitrator referred the remedy to the parties, and after discussions failed to result in a settlement, the remedy has been sent back to the arbitrator. Eleven years after the contract was violated, affected employees will receive a remedy when an arbitrator rules later this year. In anticipation that the arbitrator will provide monetary relief, locals are requested to research their records to identify employees who were affected.

The scheduling of national interpretive cases for arbitration will be an important issue in upcoming contract negotiations. The union will demand modifications of the process so that when the Postal Service initiates major changes, disputes can be adjudicated in a timely manner.

Unlike most workers in the public and private sectors, APWU-represented employees have access to a grievance-arbitration procedure, which mean an arbitrator can be called upon to interpret the contract. This right is undermined, however, by the Postal Service’s strategy of “defer and delay” — deferring all important issues to arbitration, and delaying the day of reckoning. Management is making no serious attempt to limit the traumatic impact of life-changing events on employees.

Notwithstanding the frustration caused by USPS stonewalling, the union continues to challenge improper management decisions, and is awaiting final decisions on a number of issues that are important to our members. A partial list of issues awaiting final decision is as follows:

  • Severance Pay for employees who retired through early-outs in 2008 and 2009 – The contract requires that “Before implementation of reassignment under this Article or, if necessary, layoff and reduction in force of excess employees …the Employer shall solicit volunteers from among employees in the same craft within the installation to terminate their employment with the Employer. Employees who elect to terminate their employment will receive a lump sum severance payment in the amount provided by Part 435 of the Employee and Labor Relations Manual…”
  • Tour 2 Initiative – Management eliminated Tour 2 in all mail processing facilities without satisfying its obligation to bargain in good faith.
  • Pitney Bowes – Management violated its obligation to meet, discuss, and consider union proposals on the transfer of bargaining unit work to Pitney Bowes from the New Jersey International Mail Distribution Center.
  • 90-Day Notice – The Postal Service failed to give the union at the Regional level proper notice prior to excessing employees from the craft or installation as required by Article 12 of the National Agreement, the Joint Contract Interpretation Manual, and numerous memoranda on excessing.
  • 60-Day Notice – The Postal Service has failed to give proper notice to employees of its intent to reassign them outside their craft or installation. (The notice must include the office to which the employees are reassigned.)
  • Restrictions on the Increase of Casual and Part-Time Flexible Employees and Hours – Management has violated the prohibition against increasing casual/PTF hours before excessed employees have exhausted their retreat rights.
  • Obligation to Reduce Part-Time Flexible Hours – Management has failed to limit PTF hours in order to minimize the impact on the regular workforce when it is intended to excess employees from their craft or installation.
  • Obligation to Separate All Casuals – Management has failed to maximize the available hours — by limiting the hours worked by casuals — in order to minimize the impact on full-time employees who elect to convert to PTR and remain within the installation in lieu of reassignment outside the installation.

These disputes await final disposition through the grievance-arbitration procedure. In each case, the union’s claim is supported by clear contractual language. In the past, circumstances such as these would have led to serious discussions and possible settlements. With the change in management philosophy, however, each issue will now be deferred to arbitration, requiring the passage of time before final disposition. We shall remain resolute for however long it takes to prevail.

William Burrus