Postal Service, Union to Take Their Differences to Arbitration

Letter carrier Kent Jasperson abandoned his postal truck to deliver mail on foot in Albert Lea, Minn., during a snowstorm last month.
Letter carrier Kent Jasperson abandoned his postal truck to deliver mail on foot in Albert Lea, Minn., during a snowstorm last month. (By Adam Hammer -- Albert Lea Tribune Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The U.S. Postal Service and one of its largest unions, the National Association of Letter Carriers, have broken off contract talks and will take their differences to arbitration.

William H. Young, president of the letter carriers group, said outsourcing was the main issue preventing an agreement. In an e-mail to union members, he said the Postal Service "has signaled its intention" to use contractors for "existing city carrier work," such as delivering mail to homes and businesses in the nation's metropolitan areas.

A spokesman for the Postal Service said he could not comment on specific issues but said the agency had tried "in good faith" to reach an agreement with the letter carriers.

Contract talks continue with three other unions -- the American Postal Workers Union, the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. Contracts for all the unions expired Nov. 30.

The American Postal Workers Union posted a notice on its Web site yesterday afternoon reporting "substantial progress" in its contract talks. "We are cautiously optimistic" about a possible deal, the union's president, William Burrus, said in the notice. The union has asked rank-and-file union advisers on the talks to come to Washington for a meeting Wednesday, he said.

Labor costs account for 78 percent of the Postal Service budget, and postal officials often try to avoid having contract disputes decided by a third party. The arbitration process typically takes six months or longer, and the rulings usually give unions some or much of what they sought at the negotiating table, according to Bush administration officials.

More than 616,700 postal employees are covered by union contracts; about 270,640 are represented by the American Postal Workers Union, and about 224,775 are represented by the letter carriers union.

Controlling the cost of mail delivery is a key management issue for the Postal Service, according to the agency's inspector general. Mail is delivered to more than 144 million homes, business and other places in the nation, primarily by city and rural letter carriers. The Postal Service rarely uses contractors to deliver city mail but has more than 6,000 contractors who deliver to mailboxes on highway routes, according to the inspector general.

Young said that the letter carriers union had offered to restructure mail delivery in cities and to help the post office address soaring employee and retiree health-care costs but that postal officials, in exchange, would not agree to protect work performed by letter carriers from outsourcing.

In an apparent reference to the union's lobbying strength on Capitol Hill, Young said the Postal Service had put at risk "a cooperative strategic partnership with NALC in pursuit of an outsourcing strategy that is politically unattainable."

Early Outs at Labor

It's time for another round of early outs at the Labor Department.

Labor, which has offered early retirement to employees eight times in the past 10 years, will offer the option next year, from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30.

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