Although the postal unions enjoy collective bargaining rights beyond those of regular federal workers, other unions said the proposal could set an economy-wide example at a time when organized labor is under pressure from cost-cutting governors and employers.
“When you break a contract, basically what you’re saying is that we have left the era of good-faith bargaining and negotiation and entered into employer unilateralism,” said Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Postal workers have made many concessions to lower costs in an age of dwindling mail volume, postal unions said. The service’s real problem, they said, is that Congress in 2006 stuck it with the requirement that it pay, over 10 years, enough to cover the cost of 75 years worth of future retiree benefits — at a cost of more than $5.5 billion a year.
Legislation to lessen that burden, as well as a request to save $3 billion by eliminating Saturday service, is stalled in a divided Congress, leaving the service deep in the red with the next big retiree health payment due in seven weeks.
“Do I hold out hope that Congress can do anything? No,” said Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union, one of four postal unions. “It’s the same group that almost brought this country to collapse over the debt ceiling.”
The Postal Service’s proposal is the latest turn in an increasingly urgent battle over what to do with a storied institution that is struggling with stiff competition, declining demand in a digital age and a conflicted identity.
Since 1970, the Postal Service has operated as a quasi-private monopoly that receives virtually no taxpayer support but is hamstrung in competing with companies like FedEx and UPS because it cannot raise prices above a certain level, must maintain minimum levels of service and must now make the annual retiree payments.
Experts said the proposal to break open labor contracts was probably a negotiating stance to force Congress to take action in loosening the service’s constraints. Agency spokesman David Partenheimer said as much in a statement Friday night.
“The strategy, as explained by the postmaster general, is to act on what is within the Postal Service’s control because we can’t change what’s in Congress’s control,” he said. “Everything is on the table, and Congress has not provided solutions to give the Postal Service a sustainable business model. If we put options and proposals out there, it’s at least a starting point rather than waiting for Congress to come up with proposals.”