Postal unions under the gun

January 4, 2012

The proposed elimination of 120,000 postal jobs has been delayed--for now. But United States Postal Service executives insist that sweeping reductions in the workforce are needed to cover a $5.5 billion budget gap in retirement benefits--a deficit that was manufactured to justify an attack on postal unions.

Frank Couget, an 11-year mail carrier in New York City and shop steward in Branch 36 of the National Association of Letter Carriers, looks at the truth behind USPS claims.

CONGRESS PASSED an omnibus spending bill December 17 that postpones legislation which could result in the layoffs of tens of thousands of workers at the United States Postal Service--and in the closure of thousands of post offices and mail processing facilities around the country.

The measure puts off a $5.5 billion payment for future retiree health benefits until next August and guarantees the delivery of mail six days a week. This is the third time Congress has issued a moratorium on closures since similar threats were made in 1976.

However, United States Postal Service (USPS) officials announced they remain committed to implementing job and service cuts, and will proceed with closures that were scheduled before December 12, 2011. USPS claims such austerity is necessary for its survival, as it says it will run out of operating revenue next summer.

This past August, Postmaster General and USPS CEO Patrick Donahoe declared that the USPS was bordering on insolvency due to the recession, an Internet-driven decline in first-class mail, and, above all, the pre-funding of 75 years' worth of future retiree health benefits mandated by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006.

Postal workers protest proposed cuts during a nationwide day of action
Postal workers protest proposed cuts during a nationwide day of action (Marilyn Bechtel)

The cuts and threats come amid separate contract negotiations between USPS and four postal unions.

The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) ratified a four-year contract in May that made concessions to preserve a no-layoff clause for current career employees. The National Association of Rural Letter Carriers awaits binding arbitration after coming to a bargaining impasse in November. The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) and National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) agreed to extend contract negotiations until January 20, 2012.

Yet despite the high stakes and the barrage of attacks by USPS, these talks are being conducted behind closed doors, without monitoring by rank-and-file union members. The NALC leadership, for example, announced only that "[w]e are encouraged that progress is still being made"--while the national office of NPMHU expressed appreciation for the "patience and support of the membership."

AT THE heart of the post office's immediate woes are the provisions of the 2006 PAEA legislation. Passed by unanimous consent (no floor vote was recorded) during a lame-duck Congress, the bill was rejected by the APWU, but endorsed by the NPMHU and the NALC.

The PAEA requires that the USPS pre-fund 75 years' worth of future postal retiree health benefits, with annual payments of between $5 and $9 billion into the U.S. Treasury between 2007 and 2016.

These payments are to be made in addition to health care costs for current retirees. Such pre-funding is responsible for $19 billion of the USPS's $20 billion loss over the last four years. The prepayments have exhausted the USPS's credit and erased billions of dollars in profit generated between 2003 and 2008, when the Great Recession drove down mail volume by 9 percent from its historic high in 2006.

As a result, the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefit Fund now has more than $42 billion--enough to cover future retiree health premiums for the next 20 years.

As if this were not enough, numerous audits by federal agencies and corporate firms find that the USPS "overpaid" by between $50 billion and $80 billion into the Civil Service Retirement System since its founding in 1971. USPS has also "overpaid" more than $10 billion into the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Such overcharges have been attributed to actuarial miscalculations of the rate of health care cost inflation. But since the money gets deposited in the U.S. Treasury, many suspect Congress of having used the USPS for decades as a cash cow to hide deficits and escape raising taxes.

There is also the decades-long practice of having the USPS cover the entirety of veterans' pensions, despite the fact that many workers' service is divided between USPS and the military. Nearly one-quarter of postal workers are veterans, and the Department of Defense paid its proportional pension share for every federal agency except the USPS.

Such facts are common knowledge among politicians and USPS executives. Nevertheless, lawmakers like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Cal.,), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, are using this manufactured crisis as an opportunity to break the postal workers' unions and sell off the oldest, most respected federal service in the country.

After last summer's congressional hearings on the USPS crisis, Issa and postal subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) decried any redistribution of USPS funds as a "bailout." They green-lighted a bill appointing a handful of bureaucrats as a "solvency authority" to "reject, modify or terminate" USPS collective-bargaining agreements and seize control of any aspect of postal operations needed to implement billions of dollars in cuts.

According to the Watchdog Institute, 11 Republican members on Issa's committee received financing from Tea Party bankroller and anti-union Koch Industries in the last election. The Koch brothers--who backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his effort to gut public-sector union bargaining in that state--also fund the Cato Institute, which has been advocating for decades to "free the mail" by privatizing the USPS.

Following Issa's lead, Postmaster General Donahoe soon announced the need to slash another 100,000 jobs, cut mail service to five days a week, eliminate door-to-door delivery, further reduce hours, close facilities, seize control of employee pension and health plans, and increase the part-time flexible workforce. He also demanded power from Congress to lay off career employees, just weeks after signing a contract with the APWU that guaranteed such workers would be exempt from layoffs.

This "death by a thousand cuts" can only result in the destruction of the USPS, the end of its universal service obligation, and the eventual privatization of mail services.

ON THE back of every postal employee's paycheck are the words "From our customers." For most postal workers, these words bring to mind the people in the neighborhoods they live and work in.

But for some in Congress, USPS management, the Postal Regulatory Commission and the postal Board of Governors, "customer" means the major mailers. Organizations like the Affordable Mail Alliance advise the USPS to slash jobs and cut worker compensation so that they can fill U.S. mailboxes with junk mail at the lowest possible rate.

There's also advertising mailer, Valpak, which submitted a recent brief recommending cutting a day of delivery, while dismissing postal services in rural America as "inefficient" and "unnecessary." Individual post offices are thus judged by how much revenue they collected.

Aside from the callousness and arrogance of this claim, it ignores the economic fact that those offices deliver mail as well, and that support for six-day universal service is part of the reason why money is collected elsewhere in the system.

The political interests of advertising companies like these, not to mention USPS competitors like FedEx and UPS, are represented in Congress by more than 100 lobbyists with millions of dollars at their disposal. By comparison, the letter carriers' union has one full time lobbyist and contributes about $300,000 to politics.

Under pressure from these private interests, the post office is already advancing the agenda of cutting back service.

For example, USPS is resorting to tricks to avoid its accountability requirements--like "relocating" post offices to smaller locations in Venice and Palo Alto, Calif. Since these are just a "move" and not a "closure," the USPS avoids having to navigate the full discontinuance process that follows a post office shutdown. These "relocations" also risk the loss of countless Works Progress Administration murals created by federally employed artists in the 1930s.

Beyond the cost to service, the rush to close allows officials to cut sweet real estate deals for themselves or their friends. In 2011, the USPS Office of the Inspector General discovered USPS management is leasing 982 properties from current and former employees. This came on the tail of a management kickback scheme involving the USPS vehicle fleet.

The closures are also a way for USPS to do an end run around the recently ratified APWU contract. The postmaster general's "Village Post Office" experiment of moving postal products into supermarkets and convenience stores will replace federally employed, unionized retail clerks with nonunion, minimum-wage workers and kiosks. The APWU contract isn't directly violated; the USPS simply moves union members' work elsewhere.

OVER THE past year, a slew of postal reform bills have been submitted and stalled. Proposals ranged from Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's ridiculous suggestion to revive the art of letter writing to President Obama's approval for cutting a day of mail delivery.

However, activist campaigns to save local Post Offices spread across the summer, and, on occasion, linked up with other unions or Occupy demonstrations.

Although coordination between the four unions against the closures has been lacking, they have run a successful media campaign, backed up by rallying together to "Save America's Postal Service" at all Congressional offices in all 435 districts on June 27.

The unions have also organized a campaign to collect 1 million signatures and present them to the Congressional "super committee" in hopes of having beneficial reforms included in the pending deficit reduction plan. It's important to note, however, that this tactic would have put unions in a serious dilemma if the anti-democratic committee had included needed postal measures in a bill that also attacked our Medicare and Social Security.

The problem is that union leaderships have been endorsing grassroots activism primarily as a means of lobbying Congress, and not as a means of training a militant organized rank and file to defend their jobs.

This timid dance is exemplified by the NALC leadership encouraging its members to join Occupy Wall Street's demonstrations against investment bankers, while deciding to pay an undisclosed amount of its members' dues money to the investment bank Lazard Frères and investment banker-turned-union austerity salesman Ron Bloom.

Lazard is known for being the "king" of bankruptcy and restructuring deals. Bloom is an Obama insider who orchestrated the GM bailout. He has negotiated wage and benefit concessions with the United Steel Workers and the United Auto Workers. His specialty is bartering wage, benefit and job cuts on behalf of unions to help restore the profitability of dying industries--for a fee, of course.

This move by unions has been countered by the USPS's own wasteful hiring of bottom-feeder Roger Altman, a government hit man in the 1980 Chrysler federal bailout that hammered a previous generation of autoworkers. Altman represented GM's interests opposite Bloom in the 2009 auto bailout deal. As co-founder of the Wall Street investment firm Evercore, Altman makes millions when he is not drifting in and out of the Treasury Department.

One high point of resistance to the cuts came December 19, when hundreds of residents across 17 zip codes in Oregon protested the USPS's plan to close 41 rural post offices in the state. The Rural Organizing Project reported that Occupy movement activists carried Christmas cards, cookies and gifts of appreciation to their postal workers, as they sought to raise awareness about the impending closures and collect petition signatures.

"Deadwood won't exist in 10 years without a post office," said Leslie Benscoter, retired schoolteacher in Deadwood, Ore. "That's why I'm an Occupier. I Occupy 97430."

The Corvallis Gazette-Times quoted Amanda Aguilar Shank of the Rural Organizing Project on why the group initiated the protests. "We see the Occupy movement as being about putting people before corporate profits, and the Postal Service is a necessity for many rural Oregonians," she said. "We're occupying post offices because rural America is also part of the 99 percent."

Meanwhile, anger was palpable across the country at the required public hearings on post office closings.

At hearings held recently in the South Bronx and Harlem neighborhoods of New York City, for example, comments emphasized the hardships faced by urban residents, particularly the poor and elderly, when post offices near them are scheduled to close. Eleven-year-old Jyasi Watson told Manhattan Postmaster Bobby Brown that that USPS is "taking advantage of the African American and Latino community."

Brown denied this by equating the closing of courtesy window service in the Midtown's diamond district with forcing local seniors to trek an additional half mile up a hill in a high-crime area to get to the next nearest post office.

Responding to these and other examples of activism, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has proposed the Postal Service Protection Act.

This measure would eliminate the requirement to pre-fund future retiree health benefits; return to the Postal Service federal pension overpayments to the Civil Service Retirement and Federal Employees Retirement System; mandate six-day delivery; allow the USPS to provide non-postal services; prevent the closure of rural post offices; protect first-class mail time standard; and prevent the closure of processing facilities. It is the best reform proposal currently in play and deserves enthusiastic support.

The postal crisis represents last winter's attack on Wisconsin public-sector workers writ large. But we have benefited from the struggle of thousands to take over the Wisconsin state Capitol, and the Occupy movement that followed.

We've been here before. In 1981, some 11,000 striking air traffic controllers were fired by the federal government, breaking their union and dealing U.S. workers a serious blow. Now, with both postal workers and the working people who depend on the mail under attack, we may have to occupy our post offices to save them.

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