What the U.S. Postal Service can’t win at the bargaining table, it hopes to get in the halls of Congress. If it is successful, it would set a new stage in labor relations that would send shivers through labor organizations far removed from the post office.

Even as the USPS is negotiating with its unions, it has unveiled a proposal to have Congress eliminate no-layoff provisions in postal union contracts. Postal negotiators raised that provision during talks that concluded this spring with the American Postal Workers Union, but APWU President Cliff Guffey said the union compromised in other areas to keep the no-layoff provision intact.

Now, postal officials “want to walk away from things they gave up,” he said.

The layoff clause will probably come up again during negotiations with the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), which began last week, and during discussions with the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, which begin next week. Talks between USPS and the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association are going to arbitration.

For the Postal Service to release its proposal “the week before you’re going to shake hands and start negotiations, that was really insulting to my members, ” said NALC President Fredric V. Rolando.

The Postal Service presented what it called “an extraordinary request” this month in a draft document called “Workforce Optimization.”

“Unfortunately, the existing no-layoff protections in the collective bargaining agreements will not allow us to reduce the workforce as quickly as is now clearly needed,” the document says. “The Postal Service needs the ability to right size its workforce without being limited by the layoff protections in the collective bargaining agreements.”

USPS is in critical financial condition because of drastic drops in mail volume. It has lost $20 billion over four years, including an $8.5 billion loss in fiscal 2010. Postal officials say they need to eliminate 220,000 career positions by 2015. They expect attrition to take care of about 100,000. Many of the remaining 120,000 people could be laid off if USPS persuades Congress to abrogate contracts.

Union leaders say the Postal Service doesn’t need to cut staff by circumventing agreements because it has thousands of career and non-career employees who are not covered by the no-layoff provisions. A spokesman for the letter carriers said his union alone has between 17,000 and 30,000 career employee members who are not covered.

If Congress does the Postal Service’s bidding, “it would set an alarming precedent,” said Matthew Biggs, political and legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. The federation has civilian members in the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers and NASA.

“It’s not the Congress’s job to cirvcumvent a labor contract,” Biggs added.

Union leaders fear that a Postal Service victory could lead to congressional meddling in other areas of the federal labor-management relationship. “If they’re successful in being able to repudiate that agreement, theoretically that opens the door to do that with any language they don’t like and that’s unacceptable,” said National Federation of Federal Employees President William R. Dougan.

Postal officials have taken a number of cost-cutting measures and have long pressed Congress for legislation that would place them on a sound financial footing. Officials want Congress to change a requirement that USPS pre-fund retiree health benefits, refund overpayments to pension accounts and allow five day delivery.

Yet while all of these issues are still under consideration, the USPS launched this controversial new set of plans, which includes withdrawing from federal employee health and retirement programs, that requires legislative approval and has taken the spotlight from its other plans. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing on the postal proposals Sept. 6.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, who doesn’t know how much support he has on Capitol Hill, said he decided to take this new approach “because I want to get this thing resolved, right now, in this congressional session. And I also want to get it resolved not in the short term, but the long term.”

Donahoe began his postal career as a clerk on the afternoon shift 36 years ago in Pittsburgh, where he was a member of the APWU.

“My goal, believe me, is not to strike any kind of blow to the unions. I have no interest in that,” he said.

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