Hypocrisy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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"I am often amazed at the hypocrisy found in political debate when large sums of money are at stake. And, in the debate over postal reform legislation, some major mailers have taken hypocrisy to new heights."

So wrote American Postal Workers Union president William Burrus in a communication to his membership in mid-March.

The gist of his communication involved the long history of the APWU's opposition to postal work-sharing discounts. These postage discounts are provided for work done by mailers when they sort, barcode and/or drop ship their mail in a manner that saves the U.S. Postal Service money through avoided handling costs. The USPS and Postal Rate Commission have studied the issue and concluded that these discounts have saved billions of dollars.

Yet the APWU feels that many of these discounts should be done away with. Left unsaid by the union is that eliminating these discounts undoubtedly would lead to hiring more postal workers, most of whom would become APWU members. The greatest effect of automation and work sharing on the APWU has been to reduce its membership. Some might say it's just a tad hypocritical for Burrus to have left out this little fact.

The second hypocrisy involves an element of the so-called postal reform legislation. The authors of this legislation claim it will reform the USPS and let it compete in the 21st century and continue to serve the American people. Well, let's see. The fastest-growing element of postal costs, unsurprisingly, is healthcare. Healthcare coverage accounts for more than $6 billion of annual postal costs and reportedly is growing at more than 10 percent yearly. But the legislation continues the hypocrisy of not permitting healthcare costs to be subject to the collective bargaining process.

According to a recent New York Times headline, GM workers appear ready to "give an inch" on healthcare costs. This year, for example, the auto union agreed to let Chrysler start imposing healthcare deductibles on workers' healthcare costs. Congress apparently thinks the USPS can survive without a solution to this looming healthcare cost disaster, or perhaps it is choosing the ostrich solution.

The biggest problem that the USPS and mailing community have with Congress is its oft-repeated propensity to put its hand into the postal service's wallet and extract huge sums of cash, usually with the administration's (both Democratic and Republican) approval. It has done so with a variety of rationales, usually provided with a straight-faced explanation, of why the postal service really owes the money to the Treasury.

The latest example occurred the last time Congress tried to "help" the postal service. Instead of letting the USPS reduce its payments into its overfunded pension program, Congress offered an escrow account as a temporary solution. The price for this favor was a congressionally mandated requirement, no doubt with a nudge from the administration, to pay the pension obligations of postal employees earned when they served in the military. As the saying goes, "with friends like this who needs enemies?"

While many hope Congress will pass meaningful reform, I would be very concerned that there isn't an expensive "virus" lurking in the bowels of the legislation or, perhaps more likely, soon to be added in the dead of night.

Let's switch gears to discuss address quality and Priority Mail. The USPS keeps telling us how much money it spends processing, forwarding, returning or discarding mail that is improperly addressed. There's an obvious remedy for much of the almost $2 billion in expense to handle this mail. Why not begin charging for it?

I suggest that, as a start, any First-Class mail that gets automation discounts be surcharged for additional handling that results from improper addressing. This can be done by keeping track of mail that is processed at centralized forwarding sites. The USPS should be able to do the accounting at minimal expense. It should be able to reduce the price for automated First-Class mail while charging for the additional services. Money is a great motivational way to improve list quality and reduce postal expense.

Regarding Priority Mail, the postal service provided copies of the new Domestic Mail Manual to all attendees at the recent Postal Forum. As a perk, and a way to get attendees into the exhibition hall, free Priority Mail postage ($7.70) was given to the first 1,000 into the hall so they could ship the two-pound package back home. I took advantage of the offer.

Upon my return from the forum, I eagerly awaited the Priority Mail package. But it took from Monday, March 21 to Thursday, March 31 for it to arrive at my P.O. box. I'm also aware of a prominent publishing industry executive who never received his shipment, and has asked the postal service for a replacement. Even if these were isolated events, two miscues in such a high-profile situation were clearly two too many.

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