Communication Breakdown Cited in Failed Postal Legislation

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's no fun being on the hot seat.

"I feel badly," William H. Young , president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said yesterday about blocking legislation to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service. But he emphasized that his union members were his highest priority, making it impossible for him to accept a provision that would single out injured postal employees for different worker compensation rules than other federal employees.

Young said that he was trying to contact Sen. Susan Collins (R), the chief sponsor of a compromise bill, who is traveling in her home state of Maine, "to determine where our communications failed."

Although the bill has drawn little public attention, it represented a decade-long effort to revamp Postal Service business operations.

Companies that rely on the post office to distribute products are eager for a restructuring that would make increases in mail rates more predictable. Congressional auditors, meanwhile, have warned that the Postal Service needs to rethink its business practices, in part because revenue is being lost as fewer first-class letters are mailed in the Internet age.

The bill pushed by Collins and others would have reshuffled multibillion-dollar pension and health-care costs to ease budgetary pressures on the Postal Service, a change initially opposed by the White House.

During negotiations on the bill, the NALC, which has 300,000 members, created the impression that it would be in Collins's corner. But as Collins tried to move the bill last month, in the hours before Congress recessed for the campaign season, Young announced his opposition.

That earned him a round of finger-pointing by lobbyists in the mailing industry and congressional aides. It also raised questions about why the union would want to take credit for defying Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a Republican who keeps her door open to federal employee groups.

"We are all left scratching our heads," the Alliance for Nonprofit Mailers said in an Oct. 4 newsletter. "Why did the National Association of Letter Carriers use a minor issue to bring down a bill that contained so much good for their members? They had beaten back every attempt to include provisions harmful to their members and won every important legislative battle. They had won the war. So why did they pull the plug?"

In a telephone interview, Young acknowledged that he had not tried to block an earlier version of the bill, which was approved by the Senate without debate, even though it contained the provision he opposes.

The provision would require a three-day waiting period before injured postal workers could begin accruing workers' compensation benefits. Under current practice, they do not face a break in pay when moving to the injury rolls. The proposed change, Young said, would adversely affect about 11,000 letter carriers who are injured every year.

By most accounts, the provision grew out of calls to cut postal labor costs and to mirror how the states provide such benefits. But, Young said, "if this is legislative reform and there is a reason it needs to be done, then it should be done to everyone in the federal workers' compensation program."

Young said he received signals from Postal Service headquarters and from mailers that they did not consider the benefits provision an essential part of the legislation. Postal Service executives were traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

He also denied allegations by critics that he was fronting for postal executives who are uneasy about more rigorous oversight proposed in the bill or that he wanted to see if Democrats could regain power in the November elections and perhaps offer the union a better deal.

Young said he had repeatedly directed union lobbyists to inform members of Congress, including Collins, about NALC's concerns with the legislation. He hopes to figure out how communications broke down when he speaks with Collins, Young said.

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