Postal workers stage second hunger strike as House-Senate talks on legislation continue

December 18, 2012

(Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

As Senate-House negotiations continue for a possible year-end deal to help the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service, a small band of protesters plan  to launch their second hunger strike in six months on Tuesday.

The six former and current postal workers, who call themselves Communities and Postal Workers United, have set up an encampment on the Mall at Ninth Street NW. They say they are protesting an offer by Senate negotiators to put five-day mail delivery on the table, a change that could eliminate as many as 25,000 letter carrier jobs.  

“We’re declaring an emergency postal hunger strike to head off five-day delivery,” said Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier from Portland, Ore. “If we can turn up the pressure and prevent the lame-duck session from passing postal legislation, we will, because it’s bound to be a bad bill.” He said the hunger strike will continue until late Saturday.

 House and Senate leaders have been unable in the 112th Congress to agree on legislation to help put the postal service, which is losing billions of dollars a year, on a path toward financial stability. A bill passed by the Senate last spring would put off a switch to five-day service for two years, transfer billions of dollars from a pension fund to allow the agency to offer buyouts to worker,s and extend the payment schedule for benefits the postal service must set aside for future retirees. 

A House bill proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) would give the agency more latitude to cut services, eliminating six-day service now, for example. It would put a panel in charge of overseeing postal finances and prohibit labor contracts that prevent layoffs, among other provisions.

 But Issa did not have the votes to bring it to the floor, and an overhaul seemed unlikely to pass this year.

In November, retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, offered to get talks moving by giving up Saturday delivery for letters, a change the postal service has sought for years but which has generated opposition in both parties. 

However, sticking points remain, say aides on House and Senate committees involved in the talks. The Senate still opposes Issa’s proposal to restrict the postal service’s ability to negotiate labor agreements, and there is disagreement over how much payment for future health benefits should be reduced.

House and Senate aides said that lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill continue discussing the possibility of striking a deal, possibly as part of the broader plan to avert the “fiscal cliff.”  It’s expected that any deal would include changes to the mail delivery schedule and account for the postal service’s pension payment schedule, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak for attribution.

Any bill would likely be tacked onto legislation resolving the budget debate over taxes, spending and the federal deficit now consuming Congress. 

  “If action isn’t taken soon, the postal service will go off its own fiscal cliff,” Emily Spain, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Carper. said.

Partridge was one of 10 activists who held a five-day hunger strike in Washington in June, declaring that Congress was “starving” the postal service by requiring the agency to set aside health payments. They met with Capitol Hill staffers but were turned back from a face-to-face meeting with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. Their highest-profile supporter is former representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a champion of labor who is retiring from Congress.

In a statement, postal service spokesman David Partenheimer said, “We respect the right of our employees to engage in lawful public dialogue regarding postal issues.”

He said, however, that “it is critical for Congress to pass comprehensive postal reform legislation” before adjourning this year.

-Ed O’Keefe contributed to this story.

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Eric Yoder | December 18, 2012