Editorial: Battle Stations

Everyone knew what the battle lines would be before President Bush formed his commission to look at how the U.S. Postal Service operates. On one side would be those wanting changes to ensure the USPS’ viability for the foreseeable future. On the other side would be the unions, complaining about collective bargaining, closing facilities, automation and everything else they’ve been complaining about for years. And stuck in the middle? Congress. Let’s see if the commission’s recommendations can ease the political pressures and get some legislation passed this year.

Reform is needed. The commission painted an uncertain future for the agency if things stay as they are. Thanks to e-mail and shrinking mail volume, the postal service must change how it operates. However, the commission didn’t set out to re-create a postal service that will last a millennium, or even 30 years. Instead, it aims for 15-20 years, building more flexibility so the USPS can adapt in a timely fashion. Interesting that the only immediate opposition to the commission’s recommendations came from the postal unions. “The recommendations are intended to serve only the needs of the big advertising mailers,” said American Postal Workers Union’s William Burrus. What report was he reading?

The commission knew Congress won’t find many of its recommendations palatable. That’s why it named its report “Making the Tough Choices to Preserve Universal Mail Service.” Most of the recommendations make sense. Among them, creating a strong, experienced board of directors distanced from any political influence and an independent Postal Regulatory Board with power to move faster on setting rates and keeping the USPS in line. The commission even recommended keeping open small, unprofitable post offices that fulfill the universal service obligation. One of the most contentious issues, however, is right-sizing the postal service’s work force. The commission points out that this can be done primarily without layoffs as 47 percent of current career employees are eligible for retirement by 2010.

The USPS’ future will be decided by a political process. A common tactic of labor unions is to constantly mention how many members they have and their economic value and influence. People in this industry – individual voices as well as a collective one – must do the same by making themselves known to their elected officials. It’s too important to just leave it to the associations.

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