“Keeping politics out of postal bargaining has served the parties, the American people and the mailing public very well for 40 years”
April 7, 2011: This week’s unprecedented congressional hearing on a negotiated agreement between the U.S. Postal Service and one of its craft unions shows just what letter carriers and the rest of the postal workforce are up against in the 112th Congress.
On Tuesday, the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing called “Are Postal Workforce Costs Sustainable?” – aimed at scrutinizing the tentative pact recently hammered out between USPS and the American Postal Workers Union. Though the pact has yet to be voted on by the union’s members, some legislators were eager to voice their opinions of it – with several anti-labor committee members contending that it didn’t go far enough in reducing postal costs.
Such negotiations have traditionally been left to the parties involved, and the president of the APWU as well as the Postmaster General testified about their satisfaction with the agreement they had reached. That didn’t stop some legislators from offering their criticism of various aspects of the agreement and, more broadly, of a process they claimed – without offering any proof – is biased toward labor.
Three of the four witnesses spoke in clear terms about the value of the USPS to our country and its residents, about the ways that good labor-management relations have helped lead to increased productivity and customer satisfaction, and about the give-and-take that produced the tentative agreement. A good number of legislators also voiced strong support for the Postal Service and its employees.
But they did so in the context of a hearing clearly aimed at discrediting the agreement and raising doubts about the collective-bargaining process itself – an effort that will not surprise those who live in Wisconsin, Ohio or other states where local officials have sought to vilify the notion of public employees engaging in bargaining.
“What we saw in Tuesday’s hearing was nothing short of a kangaroo court,” NALC President Fredric V. Rolando said. “We thought that Congress had gotten out of the business of interfering with the collective-bargaining agreements of government workers, but it turns out that some clearly want back in.
“Keeping politics out of postal bargaining has served the parties, the American people and the mailing public very well for 40 years – we have decent jobs, the mailers get high-quality service at very affordable rates and the taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill,” Rolando said.
“This type of congressional interference,” he added, “makes the results of next year’s elections all the more important, and the need to begin preparing now for those contests all the more urgent.”
What really matters
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) focused on the tentative contract.
“We have deep concerns that some of the provisions of the [APWU] contract may in fact be the wrong direction,” Issa said, “to less flexibility, less ability to trim the workforce and less ability to in the future make the kinds of investments we need to make.” Rep. John Mica (R-FL) repeatedly referred to the Postal Service as a dinosaur in the age of the Internet.
At the same time, the hearing was replete with positive comments about the USPS and employees who for six consecutive years have been named by the public as the country’s most-trusted federal workers. The central role the Postal Service and its employees play in America was a constant theme, as was the high proportion of veterans and other groups that form the Service’s workforce.
The real financial situation at the Postal Service also was frequently mentioned, as several representatives and witnesses pointed to the fact that the agency’s fiscal problems have nothing to do with labor costs and everything to do with the 2006 congressional mandate that the USPS pre-fund future retiree health benefits to the tune of $5.5 billion a year. Without that requirement, which no other agency or company faces, the Postal Service would have been profitable the past four years – even with the worst recession in 80 years and even with competition from the Internet.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, one of the four witnesses called to testify at the hearing, repeatedly pointed out that reforming the retiree health benefits pre-funding mandate and gaining access to USPS surpluses in the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System are key pieces of the financial puzzle.
“What we need is your help on these big issues that are beyond our control,” Donahoe told the committee. “We have excellent relations with our employee unions and management associations. Take care of those things and you’ll never see us again.”
Several committee members, including ranking member Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), praised the work of all postal employees – letter carriers as well as clerks and mail handlers – and congratulated the Postal Service and the APWU for arriving at a negotiated agreement that includes some gains and some losses for both sides. Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) called the new pact “one of the best labor-management agreements I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
The fight ahead
But for every instance where Donahoe or Democrats made their case, anti-labor members of the committee just as often returned to criticism of the APWU-USPS agreement. Many appeared to favor ideas that tipped bargaining scales in the Service’s favor and that would reduce workers’ benefits and wages.
Also called to testify were APWU President Cliff Guffey as well as Postal Board of Governors Chairman Louis Giuliano and member James Miller. Although Miller acknowledged that the Board had unanimously approved of the APWU-USPS deal, most of his comments during the hearing – which he stated were made solely on his own behalf – served largely to agree with Issa’s unfounded complaints about postal pay and benefits.
Miller, appointed by George W. Bush and a former Board of Governors chairman, has made no secret of his interest in privatizing the Postal Service and nullifying its collective bargaining agreements with its craft unions.
Rolando put the session in a broader context.
“We letter carriers are fooling ourselves if we believe that we are going to get a pass from these anti-labor forces that are unfairly targeting firefighters and police, nurses and teachers, and are doing so with little regard for the facts,” he said.
“And in this atmosphere, it won’t be impossible to get our legislative agenda passed, but it will be extremely difficult. It will take all of us standing together, and working with our allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.”