Postal reform is urgent but time remains for Congress, labor and postal management to design the solutions that will make the U.S. Postal Service viable for the next two decades, a member of the presidential reform commission told lawmakers yesterday.
James A. Johnson, who co-chaired the commission with Harry Pearce, spoke before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee at a hearing in which lawmakers addressed postal reform for the first time since the reform commission issued its recommendations in July.
Members of the mail community hope for quick congressional action but issues such as appropriations bills, the U.S. military presence in Iraq and energy policy may delay a postal reform bill.
Johnson reiterated his commission's conclusion that postal reform is needed and that Congress must act. However, thanks largely to a bill this year that reduced the postal service's liability to the Civil Service retirement fund, and also in part to the USPS transformation plan, the postal service is in better shape financially than it was just a year ago, he said.
“My belief is that we have not a long time to get it straight and give it our best effort,” he said. “But it's not a fire.”
Nevertheless, budding financial problems before the USPS will grow unless reform is enacted, Johnson said. The reform commission's recommendations represent best practices that can be put into place regardless of future developments.
“The short-term, medium-term, three-year answer is that things are better than they were,” he said. “I have no doubt that in the somewhat longer time horizon, every one of the challenges present a year ago will be again front and center.”
Pearce did not attend the hearing due to an illness. The hearing originally was scheduled for Sept. 3 but postponed due to Pearce's illness.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee, said she was relieved that the reform commission had not suggested that the USPS privatize or that it relinquish its mission of universal mail delivery. But she noted that in its report the reform commission said that incremental changes wouldn't save the USPS.
“That is a very strong statement, one that challenges both the postal service and Congress to embrace far-reaching reform,” Collins said.
Democratic senators focused many of their statements and questions on collective bargaining and labor reform. The commission's recommendations of changes to the collective bargaining process as well as the institution of comparable-pay policies, in which postal worker pay is pegged to the salaries of workers in comparable private industries, and pay-for-performance incentives have drawn union criticism.
Johnson stood by those suggestions in his statements to the senators. However, responding to a question by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-IL, about the high rate of grievances filed by postal workers, Johnson said postal management shared some of the blame for labor problems.
According to Durbin, union members filed more than 180,000 grievances last year. That represents nearly one grievance for every four of the roughly 750,000 postal employees, whereas American Airlines with 100,000 employees reformed its dispute-resolution procedures after receiving 800 grievances in one year, Durbin said.
The rate is too high and indicates a lack of trust between labor and management, Johnson said. Labor issues should be among the first that postal reformers address, he said.
“There was no feeling that this was primarily a labor problem,” Johnson said. “The feeling was that this was indicative of a substantial shortfall on management's part.”
Senators also addressed the controversial subject of post office closures. Last week, Collins issued a letter to the USPS questioning cutbacks on rural post offices' hours in her home state.
The reform commission had recommended giving the USPS more power to close unprofitable post offices, but Johnson said that the USPS should investigate compromises, such as moving post offices to existing municipal buildings or granting ownership of closed postal facilities to local governments. Johnson acknowledged that the subject of closures was a “hot potato” but stressed that offices essential to mail service would not be threatened.
“If this is part of getting the job done and there is not a reasonable alternative, it should stay open,” he said. “Universal service should come first.”