The Organized Attack on Public Employees:
What Does It Mean for Postal Workers?
(This article was first published in the July/August 2011 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
Millions of teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public employees across the nation are facing devastating attacks on their right to engage in collective bargaining. And anti-worker politicians have set their sights on postal workers as well. Powerful lawmakers claim that labor costs are to blame for the Postal Service’s financial deficit, and are proposing legislation that would weaken postal unions.
On April 5, President Cliff Guffey stood up for postal workers and the APWU-USPS contract at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — but the inquiry into the Collective Bargaining Agreement — just days before the ratification vote got underway — set a troubling precedent.
The hearing, led by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), was called to examine the “affordability of the postal workforce, in light of the USPS’s looming insolvency and poor financial outlook.” Contract renewals present the best chance for the Postal Service to find savings, Issa said, but the new contract “falls short of that goal.”
The hearing marked the first time the union and management have been called before Congress to justify a negotiated contract, and the message was clear: The committee’s inquiry marked an attempt to undermine the process that has served the Postal Service — and the nation — well for 40 years.
Guffey defended the agreement, saying, “Our recent negotiations prove that collective bargaining works, even in difficult economic and political circumstances.”
The hearing was not Issa’s first incursion into the APWU’s collective bargaining process. In September 2010, as contract negotiations began, Issa wrote in a guest editorial in the Washington Times that “No union has or ever will lobby for a layoff, so it’s up to USPS management and Congress to demand concessions.”
“This is clearly an attack on collective bargaining,” Guffey said after testifying. “The union and management reached an agreement that will benefit both sides — and now antiunion politicians are attempting to knock down our hard-won rights.”
An Anti-Union Agenda
At the hearing, Republican legislators said that the agreement was too favorable to workers, and suggested the new contract would contribute to the demise of the Postal Service. They repeatedly criticized Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and members of the USPS Board of Governors for acquiescing to the union’s demand to retain protection against layoffs.
Management’s representatives defended the decision to sign-off on the agreement, but repeatedly said it was “the best we could get under current law.”
It was apparent that the Republican majority on the panel — and postal management — had an agenda: To change the law that governs postal bargaining to strengthen management’s position and weaken postal unions during contract negotiations. They also said the Postal Service needs more freedom to close postal facilities and cut the workforce, blaming labor costs for USPS financial difficulties.
But the anti-labor lawmakers gave short shrift to the primary cause of USPS financial difficulties. “As we have pointed out many times, the requirement to pre-fund future retiree healthcare liabilities is pushing the Postal Service toward insolvency,” Guffey said.
This unique mandate of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) costs the Postal Service more than $5.5 billion annually, and no other government agency or private company is forced to make these payments. Witnesses from both the union and management repeatedly urged Congress to repeal this provision at the hearing.
By the close of the hearing, Chairman Issa reluctantly agreed to consider the pre-funding requirement – but not without implying that the “postal lobby” would seek a “bailout” of the USPS.
“The Postal Service does not need a bailout, and no one has requested one,” Guffey said. “In truth, the USPS is bailing out the federal government.” The union president pointed out that the Postal Service is not supported by taxpayers; the agency is funded solely by stamp sales and other products and services. The pre-funding requirement is essentially a congressional budgeting gimmick that forces postal rate-payers to subsidize the U.S. Treasury.
Fortunately, pro-worker lawmakers defended the collective bargaining process at the April 5 hearing. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said:
“While it is appropriate for this Committee to conduct oversight of the Postal Service, we must be very, very sensitive to criticism that we are using today’s hearing to improperly shape the outcome of the impending vote [on ratification]. Both management and the union have negotiated in good faith, and we should allow workers to consider this tentative agreement without undue congressional intervention.”
Members of Congress have also introduced legislation that could help solve the Postal Service’s financial problems. The best of these bills is H.R. 1351, submitted by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), which would address the USPS financial crisis and correct the methodology used by the Office of Personnel Management for computing the Postal Service’s pension liabilities. (Click here for more information about pending legislation that affects postal workers, see pages 26-27.)
“With the USPS facing insolvency, and with anti-labor legislators targeting the rights of postal workers, it is more important than ever that APWU members get actively involved in legislative affairs,” Guffey said. “I encourage APWU members to visit their congressmen and ask them to support bills that will strengthen the Postal Service for the future.”
Who Was that Guy?
In addition to APWU President Cliff Guffey, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, and USPS Board of Governors Chairman Louis J. Giuliano, a fourth witness was called to testify at the April 5 hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: James C. Miller III, a member of the Board of Governors who is known as an ardent advocate of privatizing the Postal Service.
Miller’s presence was unusual — other than the chairman, members of the Board of Governors rarely testify — but it was clear Miller was invited to provide the answers Republican committee members wanted to hear. They redirected their questions to Miller on six separate occasions when they didn’t get the answers they wanted from Donahoe or Giuliano.
Miller, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2003, also sits on the board of directors of many corporations and anti-labor “think tanks.” He currently serves on the four-person board of directors of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that spends big money to help elect anti-worker politicians. The group, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and numerous anonymous donors, helped finance the campaign of Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, who launched an attack on the state’s public workers earlier this year.
Miller has said that postal workers “are paid far more than is necessary to retain their services,” and that USPS costs “are significantly higher than they should be because the incentive to hold down costs — most notably, labor costs — is limited.” ( End the Postal Monopoly for the conservative Cato Institute’s journal, 1985.)
In his written testimony, Miller stated that he was disappointed “that we did not accomplish more in negotiations,” and that the reason management agreed to the proposed contract “is that the current law governing our labor negotiations is biased against management and in favor of labor” — yet he failed to offer any evidence to support his claim.