Postmasters, Unions Make Their Case

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Postal union leaders and officials from two postmasters organizations defended their members' interests last week to lawmakers reviewing the recommendations of the presidential postal commission.


Union leaders argued against changes to the collective bargaining process suggested by the commission, while leaders of the postmasters groups urged senators not to make closures of financially struggling post offices part of the postal reform packages currently under consideration.


The hearings took place before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Feb. 4 in Washington and the House Government Reform Committee's Special Panel on Postal Reform yesterday in Chicago. A third hearing before the Senate committee had been scheduled for Feb. 3 but was canceled after the discovery of a substance containing the deadly poison ricin at the Dirksen Senate office building in Washington where the meeting was to be held.


In Chicago, postal labor leaders urged panel members not to change the arbitration and bargaining process that has determined employees' pay and benefits for the past 30 years. The postal reform commission issued recommendations that would do away with tripartite arbitration in which both sides pick a neutral arbitrator, would impose a strict timetable for mediation and institute a "last best and final offer" procedure.


The reform commission also suggested a system under which postal management negotiates benefits directly with unions, rather than the present practice of including postal workers under federal benefits programs. Such changes are "unnecessary and counterproductive," testified William Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.


Other labor leaders who spoke at the hearing included William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, who has been critical of the reform commission's recommendations regarding labor issues. His testimony was not available as of press time.


At the earlier hearing in Washington, the two postmasters representatives argued against recommendations of the reform commission that would give the U.S. Postal Service more power to close post offices. The reform commission has proposed an approach similar to that used by the federal base-closing commission that determined military facility closures in the early 1990s.


Postmaster leaders made the case that small post offices were vital to their communities, especially in rural areas. They also said that small post offices make up a tiny part of the USPS budget -- the 10,000 smallest offices account for 1 percent of the total budget -- so shutting them would show minimal returns.


"The postal network is not the sum of its parts," said Wally Olihovik, president of the National Association of Postmasters of the United States. "It is an integrated system that relies on even the smallest of its components."


The postmasters groups stand in opposition to postal management on this issue.


In rural areas, post offices provide more than just mail, said Steve LeNoir, president of the National League of Postmasters, which represents many rural postmasters. The offices provide rural consumers with access to government documents, help with the census and assistance with tasks such as obtaining money orders.


In his hometown of Horatio, SC, LeNoir set up a copying machine in his post office, providing residents a service they previously had to travel 20 miles to reach. Such ideas can help rural post offices generate more revenue, he said.


"I don't think we fully utilize these post offices," LeNoir said. "I think a lot of things could be done without stepping on the toes of the private sector to bring these post offices closer to profitability."


Ted Keating, executive vice president of the National Association of Postal Supervisors, told senators that postal headquarters needs more power over post office closings if it is to meet its financial challenges.


Rather than use a base-closing commission approach, Congress should give the USPS direct authority over post office closures and repeal the law that prohibits the postal service from closing offices strictly for economic reasons, he said.


The Senate hearing where postmaster leaders spoke was held at the Rayburn building in Washington, where the House Government Reform Committee usually meets, instead of the Dirksen building, also due to the ricin incident. The Feb. 2 discovery in the building of a powder containing the poison led to the shutdown of all Senate offices along with the V Street postal facility in Washington that handles government mail. The V Street facility reopened Feb. 4, and mail delivery was not affected.


In an apparently unrelated incident, a clerk at the Southern Connecticut Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford, CT, reported that a granular substance was leaking from a letter sorted there Feb. 2. The area was isolated and employees reassigned to other locations in the building. Test results for ricin were negative.


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