Postal union seeks members' help promoting changes

By Ed O'Keefe
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

One of the nation's largest postal unions wants its members to do less griping and more to make sure that the U.S. Postal Service secures the changes it needs to stay afloat.

Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said his group needs to stop "acting as a grievance machine" and instead focus on lobbying Congress to enact changes in how the Postal Service pays workers and retirees.

USPS pays about $5 billion annually to pre-fund future retiree health benefits, a unique cost that postal officials and union leaders think is an unfair financial burden on an already cash-strapped agency.

"When unions, mailers and postal management try to rectify this misguided policy, some politicians erroneously characterize it as a 'bailout,' " Guffey wrote in a recent letter to union members.

APWU, which represents about 220,000 active and retired postal workers, and the Postal Service are negotiating a new multiyear contract for postal clerks, custodians, drivers, mechanics and administrative staffers.

Guffey's letter does not signal that the union is ceding ground in the negotiations, spokeswoman Sally Davidow said Tuesday.

"We're not moving away from filing grievances, but we want to get our leaders more involved in the political process," Davidow said. "Our people need to be out there talking to politicians about these changes."

In addition to changing how USPS funds future retiree benefits, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe is pushing for greater flexibility in setting delivery routes and schedules and closing unprofitable branches - a potential savings tactic that is prohibited by federal law. APWU and other unions generally oppose his proposals, believing Congress could rectify the Postal Service's perilous financial condition by allowing it to fund future health-care benefits as workers retire.

In an interview late last week, Donahoe said he appreciates that union leaders understand the need to change how USPS pays retirees.

"They are looking at the challenges that we have with the same 'Oh, my goodness' that everybody else does," Donahoe said. "We've reduced [the] head count by 225,000 people since the year 2000. There are very few labor unions in the world that wouldn't be jumping up and down ranting and raving about that.

"They know what we're facing from a financial perspective," he added. "They know what's going on. They know what we've got on the table with them, and they have to make some decisions."

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