Unions object to House postal reform bill

The relationship the U.S. Postal Service has with its customers and employees would change considerably under legislation a House committee approved Wednesday night.

And the workers, who also are customers, don’t like it.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The legislation, which was voted for along party lines by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, represents the House Republicans’ efforts to stabilize sinking Postal Service finances.

It lost $15.9 billion last year and at one point in October had less than four days worth of cash available for its operations.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), sponsor of the bill, said, “The common-sense reforms in this legislation will restore the United States Postal Service to long-term financial solvency while maintaining high-quality universal service for all Americans.”

Not so, say union leaders. Postal Service officials aren’t sure yet.

“[P]ostal reform legislation should be evaluated on whether it enables $20 billion in savings by 2017,” a Postal Service statement said. “We will evaluate the Postal Reform Act of 2013 to determine whether it meets that goal.”

It certainly doesn’t meet goals of Postal Service employees, at least as voiced by their elected union officials. They object to several provisions, saying they are bad for postal customers, bad for the Postal Service and bad for its employees.

The bill, said National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric V. Rolando, is “another failure by . . . Congress to address the problem that they created.” He was referring to a congressional mandate that the Postal Service pre-fund retiree health benefits, which has been a major drag on Postal Service solvency and an obligation not required of any other federal agency.

Issa’s bill does address pre-funding but does not eliminate it, as union officials would like. The legislation would allow the Postal Service, which does not use tax money for operational purposes, to forget about the two prepayments it missed because it was broke and would eliminate prepayments due for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. The Postal Service says it is going to miss the September payment anyway. Payments would resume in 2015, based on actuarial calculations.

Among its many provisions, the legislation would reduce mail delivery and insert Congress into the Postal Service’s collective-bargaining process. The legislation would:

●Prohibit no-layoff clauses in future Postal Service collective bargaining agreements. “Postal employees would be subject to the same Reduction-in-Force authority as the rest of the federal workforce,” a summary of the legislation said. “Any employees who lose their job due to current restructuring will have preferential hiring status among Postal Service contractors.”

●Require Postal Service employees to pay the same premium for health and life insurance benefits that other federal workers pay. Postal Service workers currently pay less.

●Allow the Postal Service to phase out Saturday delivery of letters, bills and magazines, while continuing six-day delivery of packages and medicine.

●Phase out “to-the-door” mail delivery and make greater use of curbside and cluster-box delivery, the delivery methods used by more than 70 percent of the nation, according to Issa’s office.

●Enable the Postal Service to sell advertising on its trucks and buildings and rent space for state and local services, “such as the sale of fishing licenses,” according to Issa’s office.

With layoffs throughout private industry common and furloughs of other federal employees underway, the no-layoff provisions in postal union contracts are an easy target. And given the perilous state of Postal Service finances, why should employees have a guarantee against layoffs that many workers don’t?

It’s a valid question, but it’s about a straw man.

Many Postal Service employees, including some in unions, are not covered by a no-layoff clause. People in Rolando’s union, for example, are not covered by the provision until they have six years of experience. Yet, the Postal Service has not needed to lay them off. Nor does it seem anxious to use that ax.

Why should it? Postal Service officials, with labor unions’ cooperation, have cut staff without resorting to layoffs.

“Recent contractual agreements with major postal unions,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe told the committee earlier this month, allow for increased use of “lower-cost, non-career employees. The number of career employees decreased by approximately 25,000 in the second quarter and by 46,000 in the last year. These reductions have been accomplished primarily through attrition and separation incentives. The Postal Service now has the lowest number of career employees since 1966.”

Information like that leaves Greg Bell, executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union, with one conclusion about the plan to nix the no-layoff clause: “This is anti-union and anti-worker.”

Union leaders reject congressional interference in the collective bargaining process, which led to the lower premium payments for postal workers. The comparison between Postal Service employees and other federal workers on this point is not valid, Rolando said, because Postal Service staffers are paid by postage fees and not paid by tax dollars.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), a co-sponsor of the bill, has a different view. The bill’s planned cuts are necessary, he said, “in order to protect the interests of those who rely on USPS [and] protect postal employees’ earned benefits.”

No offense, but labor leaders don’t trust him, Issa or other Republicans to protect their benefits or represent their interests.●

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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