The Challenges We Will Meet In Collective Bargaining

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(This article appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Greg Bell, Director Industrial Relations

The APWU will officially open negotiations for a new National Agreement with the Postal Service sometime in August, approximately 90 days prior to the current contract’s expiration on Nov. 20, 2010, and just days after the conclusion of our 20th biennial national convention. It is essential that at the convention in Detroit we – members, stewards, and officers of the American Postal Workers Union – are united in the struggle.

In this round of contract negotiations, we will face some of our toughest challenges ever: Some of the issues that threatened us yesterday are threatening us again; and we will have to fight to retain some of the gains we achieved in the past.

Notwithstanding the major improvements we have won in previous contracts, we anticipate that next year’s contract negotiations will be tough; even tougher than the last round. And if the parties are unable to reach agreement by the expiration date of the contract, we can expect that interest arbitration will be tougher still – especially given the state of the economy and the Postal Service’s financial situation.

We expect management to challenge our protection against layoffs and the cost-of-living allowance, and we anticipate that the Postal Service will seek even greater flexibility in assignments.

The Postal Service and the forces of privatization are taking full advantage of the uncertain economic situation, with proposals to close hundreds of stations and branches, to reduce deliveries to five days per week, and to consolidate mail processing and distribution centers.

Furthermore, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA) requires the USPS to pre-fund future retirees’ health benefits. The USPS is the only agency required to make such payments and this is a major contributor to the USPS deficit, which was expected to be approximately $7 billion in 2009.

We were heartened by passage of legislation that relieved the USPS of the requirement to pre-fund the retiree healthcare benefits for Fiscal Year 2009. Unfortunately, it does not preclude further consideration of a Senate bill (S. 1507) introduced by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE).An amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee provides that arbitrators “shall consider the financial condition of the Postal Service” during contract arbitration. Although arbitrators routinely consider USPS financial circumstances along with other factors, this provision would effectively elevate the financial health of the Postal Service the primary factor and would unfairly enhance the Postal Service’s position in negotiations. With a Democratic White House, Senate, and House of Representatives, only time will tell what the final outcome of this much-needed legislation will be.

Management Manipulation

The Postal Service has historically managed (or mismanaged) its operations in a way that benefits them during contract negotiations. We recognize the current economic situation nationwide, including the Postal Service’s financial situation. However, that does not give the Postal Service a free pass to violate our contract as they implement new cost-cutting measures. Nor does it justify management’s attempts to manipulate the process to enhance its position in next year’s contract negotiations.

Violations of our rights and benefits under the contract – such as disregarding prescribed contractual notification requirements when excessing occurs – should not go unchallenged. An example would be the Postal Service’s abuse of “stand-by” time (hours recorded when there is insufficient work).

We have received complaints from the field that management is improperly placing employees on stand-by time, even though work is available: We have been advised that in some cases employees are even being placed on stand-by time while they are working! Whether the Postal Service’s action is intended to encourage employees to resign or retire, or to lay the groundwork for negotiations aimed at eliminating the no-layoff clause – as many of us believe – it is still a violation of our rights and benefits under the current contract.

Without a doubt, it is more critical than ever that we face these threats together, as a union, and take the necessary action to promote unity. This is not an option; it simply must be done if we are to be successful in gaining a satisfactory contract.

Individual Retirement Counseling

The APWU and Postal Service reached a settlement on Sept. 21 reaffirming management’s responsibility to provide individual retirement counseling to APWU-represented employees. In 2007, the Postal Service centralized its retirement counseling process, with specialists at the Human Resources Shared Services Center (HRSSC) providing counseling, primarily by phone. Management said the change was made so that postal employees across the country would receive consistent information.

The settlement stipulates that local management must arrange reasonably private space for employees who wish to receive individual retirement counseling on the clock. Employees are permitted to have their spouse and/or advisor present during counseling.

Employees who cannot obtain counseling from HRSSC without assistance will be offered help from local management. Whether an employee is unable to start or complete the retirement counseling without assistance will be determined jointly by local management and the union on a case-by-case basis.

Non-Bargaining Unit Reassignments

The APWU has initiated a national-level dispute concerning the violation of the National Agreement that occurs when there is a planned reduction of bargaining-unit employees within the installation or craft and the Postal Service reassigns non-bargaining unit employees to the bargaining unit. The dispute has been appealed to arbitration.

It is the APWU’s position that when the Postal Service plans to reduce the number of bargaining-unit employees in an installation or craft, and bargaining-unit positions are being withheld for placement of reassigned/relocated bargaining- unit employees in accordance with applicable provisions of Article 12, the Postal Service may not reassign non-bargaining unit employees to bargaining-unit positions in:

  • Any installation or craft subject to the reduction of bargaining-unit positions;
  • Any installation with a designated area where vacant bargaining-unit positions are being withheld and/or captured to be filled by reassigned/relocated bargaining- unit employees; and
  • Any bargaining-unit positions at an installation for which bargaining-unit employees were involuntary reassigned from and have retreat rights or other contractual rights under the National Agreement.

Where violations occur, grievances should be filed.

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