Analysis: House Hearing Sets Troubling Precedent
APWU members across the country cheered when President Cliff Guffey stood up for postal workers at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 5, but the inquiry into the union’s tentative Collective Bargaining Agreement set a troubling precedent nonetheless.
With governors and state legislatures across the country chipping away at the rights of teachers, nurses, and firefighters to engage in collective bargaining, the committee’s decision to examine the APWU’s proposed contract took on an ominous tone.
Throughout the hearing, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and other Republicans on the panel said the agreement was too generous to workers and suggested it would contribute to the demise of the Postal Service. They repeatedly criticized Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and members of the USPS Board of Governors for acquiescing to the union’s demand to retain protection against layoffs.
Some took potshots at APWU President Cliff Guffey, too. (Watch video of a testy exchange.)
Undermining Collective Bargaining
But the significance of the hearing was bigger than the current Tentative Agreement [PDF-members only]. The committee’s intervention in postal collective bargaining was a brazen attempt to undermine the process that has served the nation well for 40 years. (In 1970, following the Great Postal Strike, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act, which transformed the Post Office Department into the U.S. Postal Service and established collective bargaining.)
Clearly, the Republican majority on the panel had an agenda: To change the law that governs postal bargaining in order to strengthen management’s position and weaken postal unions.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe defended management’s decision to sign-off on the tentative agreement, as did Louis J. Guiliano, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors. But every time a congressman criticized the proposed contract, management’s explanation was the same:
“This was the best we could get under current law.” Republicans on the panel also took swipes at the “current law.” (Watch a video excerpt to see how many times!)
All of the witnesses — both union and management — agreed that a unique mandate of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) [PDF] has bludgeoned the agency, and they repeatedly urged Congress to rectify the provision, which requires the USPS to pre-fund the healthcare benefits of future retirees. No other government agency or private company is required to make these payments, which cost the USPS more than $5.5 billion per year.
By the close of the hearing, Chairman Issa reluctantly agreed to consider the pre-funding requirement. But clearly, the panel had more on its mind than liberating the Postal Service from the unreasonable and unfair mandate. And so did postal management.
Committee Republicans directed most of their questions about the proposed contract to Donahoe, Guiliano and USPS Governor James F. Miller III. But the timing of the hearing, just days before a ratification vote by APWU members got underway, seemed designed to spook union members.
Several Democrats on the committee expressed concern about interfering in the collective bargaining process. Prior to the advent of labor-management negotiations in the Postal Service in 1970, congressionally-set wages left postal workers in poverty and rendered the highly politicized Post Office Department mired in inefficiency.
Perhaps Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it best:
“While it is appropriate for this Committee to conduct oversight of the Postal Service, we must be very, very sensitive to criticism that we are using today’s hearing to improperly shape the outcome of the impending vote [on ratification]. Both management and the union have negotiated in good faith, and we should allow workers to consider this Tentative Agreement without undue congressional intervention.”
A Few Choice Words…
Legislators on both sides of the aisle voiced opinions about the Tentative Agreement, the collective bargaining process, and the Postal Service at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on April 5.
Here’s what they had to say, in their own words:
On the Tentative Agreement…
“We have deep concerns that some of the provisions of the contract may in fact be the wrong direction — to less flexibility, less ability to trim the workforce.”
— Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
“Is it true that during your negotiations with the American Postal Workers Union is it true that you extended your policy not to lay off workers […]I’ve heard you say that is the best deal you could get under current law. Have you asked the committee for changes to the current law so you could strike a better deal with the union?”
— Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL)
On Workforce Costs…
“At 80 cents on every dollar, workforce costs make up a disproportionate share of Postal Service costs. These costs must be addressed head-on as part of any serious reform effort.”
— Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) Chairman, Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy Subcommittee
“According to Committee calculations, the average employee cost for the USPS is close to $45 per hour…Do you think that’s generally a fair amount in terms of trying to keep the Postal Service running?”
— Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN)
“I thank you for the service you provide, but we also have to understand that we have to make it work for the taxpayer too… Please explain how the Tentative Agreement, that in-sources at least 4,000 jobs, will help attain fiscal responsibility?”
— Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI)
On the Viability of the Postal Service…
“What you have to do is adapt, and the Postal Service has become a dinosaur that will soon be extinct […] and that’s why I use FedEx and UPS.”
— Rep. John Mica (R-FL)
“I feel strongly that our Committee should focus not only on stemming recent loses at the Postal Service, but on pursuing options to create a healthy and profitable Postal Service for the future. And a key component of this new organization must be a reasonable and livable wage for these devoted and trustworthy public servants.”
— Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Ranking Minority Member, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee
“I am very interested in the concept of offering additional services other than mail delivery as a means of creating a strong revenue source…the Postal Service needs to adapt to the changing times in order to remain financially viable in the future.”
— Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY)
On the Tentative Agreement…
“The Tentative Agreement […] is the latest example of postal management and its employees working together to ensure the future viability [of the USPS].”
— Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), Ranking Minority Member, Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Labor Policy Subcommittee
On the Collective Bargaining Process…
“I think that it is one of the most positive labor-management movements I’ve seen in a long time. And I know that there are efforts on the parts of some people in our country to diminish the role of unions…But this is a win-win situation for the American public.”
— Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL)
“I think that the way you collaboratively worked toward a Tentative Agreement is to be commended. I think that is what the collective bargaining process is all about […] in essence, that is what the American people expect out of public service employees and employers when they go to negotiations.
— Rep. John Tierney (D-MA)
“This Congress in 1970 voted to take politics out of the Postal Service and to give workers collective bargaining rights and I’m afraid that some here today are seeking to return politics back to the Postal Service and perhaps strip those rights.”
— Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO)
On Postal Wages…
“Postal wages are competitive…Postal letter carriers start at $15.85 an hour, while the starting pay for a UPS driver and a FedEx carrier are roughly $16 and $14, respectively.”
— Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)
“There’s actually an attack on the idea of universal service. Once you privatize, you can legitimatize knocking down wages and benefits, cutting service.”
— Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)
“Mr. Mica said he likes to rely on FedEx and UPS, but I went back and checked, and the least he can spend to mail anything or deliver anything with UPS is $5.17, and the least FedEx will deliver anything for is $7.22. What do you think would be the impact on American service […] if the least you could spend is $5.17?”
— Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY)
On Postal Workforce…
“I am very impressed with the fact that…unlike many federal agencies, the Postal Service has done an extraordinary job of employing veterans…. and I’m trying to figure out why my friends on the other side of the aisle want to add to our unemployment problem by firing veterans, by firing women, by firing minorities that make up a large percentage of the Postal Service workforce.”
— Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA)
“I don’t think we should be coming at this trying to take away wages and benefits…I don’t think they should be attacked by trying to take away delivery services that Americans have really come to rely on.”
— Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT)