Contract talks began Thursday between the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and a reenergized union that seeks to broaden the field of play well beyond the negotiating room.
Leaders from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) met their USPS counterparts at the Hyatt Regency after a rousing pep rally the night before at the AFL-CIO headquarters. It featured an array of pumped-up speakers, a Danny Glover video and the star himself.
Glover’s appearance wasn’t just a cameo for the movie star. He was at the leaders’ breakfast and the APWU’s news conference shortly before the negotiating session began, then was with the union’s delegation as the talks opened.
While Glover’s star power was a big draw, so is his postal legacy. The video told the story of his postal family. His mother and father, sister and brother were postal workers, as was he during Christmas breaks from school.
“Working for the Postal Service enabled my parents to buy their first home,” Glover says in the film over family photos. “They took great pride in their work.”
But his real message was “the Postal Service belongs to all of us” and needs to be protected because “some people want to bury the Postal Service, shut offices, reduce hours, limit delivery, outsource it, divide it and privatize it.”
This gets to the nitty-gritty of postal negotiations.
The APWU and other unions have strongly opposed Postal Service efforts to consolidate facilities, cut a day of delivery and privatize services to retailers such as Staples. Since taking office in November 2013, APWU President Mark Dimondstein has moved aggressively to make this fight not just the union’s battle but a broader movement that has recruited a wide group of allies into “A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service.”
Launched this month, the 64 national organizations in the alliance include groups of consumers, farmers, civil rights activists and religious people. Rather than contracting, which the Postal Service has done, the alliance says, “We advocate expanded services, such as nonprofit postal banking and other financial services.”
The banking services being pushed by the APWU were specifically rejected by Patrick Donahoe, the postmaster general who retired last month after almost 40 years as a postal employee. At his farewell news conference, Donahoe was asked about establishing postal financial services, as the USPS inspector general has suggested. “The key thing for any successful business is to work within their core,” he said. “We don’t know anything about banking.”
The inspector general, however, called financial services “the single best new opportunity for . . . additional revenue,” projecting $8.9 billion a year.
Postal Service officials declined to say where the new postmaster general, Megan J. Brennan, stands on providing financial services or other issues. Her statement at the opening of negotiations revealed little.
“There is much work to do in the current round of bargaining,” she said. “We still face serious financial challenges and the ongoing erosion of first-class mail volume. We are also adjusting to the highly competitive market for delivery services, which will require new levels of flexibility as we strive to capture more and more of this growing sector, and the dynamic nature of the retail environment. Customers are continually demanding flexibility in where and how they do business with us.”
Everyone can agree on that.
But as Dimondstein said at the news conference, “there are two competing visions” for USPS. “Cutting and slashing” is the way he described Donahoe’s approach. “We have a very different vision of enhancing and expanding services,” he said. “Services that exist already and new services.”
USPS said it ended the first quarter of fiscal 2015, which ran through December 2014, with a 4.3 percent increase in operating revenue compared with the same period last year, but also a 6.4 percent increase in operating expenses and a net loss of $754 million. The operating revenue comes from the sale of products and services, not tax dollars. The loss was driven by mandated prepayments for retiree health care, payments that labor and management have called on Congress to end.
Glover, long a political activist, put the plight and potential of the Postal Service in a larger perspective.
“The post office has always provided a space” for those needing a living wage, he said during the news conference. “If we’re going to talk about rebuilding the middle class, if we’re going to talk about creating and expanding opportunities . . . we have to look at those agencies and those places where that’s possible, and the post office is where that is possible. . . . We have to be imaginative in this way.”
That does take some imagination because USPS has cut its workforce — now about 630,000 — by 212,000 positions since 2006.
But Dimondstein sees a brighter future.
“The post office is a success story,” he said, “and can be going forward as long as we don’t let those forces that want to destroy it bring it down.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.