USPS Testing New Machine to Automate Craft Work

March 1, 2017

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(This article first appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

By Maintenance Craft Directors 

The new year certainly started with a bang! while we are, of course, very proud of the efforts of the Maintenance members involved, all the members of all American Postal Workers Union (APWU) bargaining units are deserving of praise and congratulations for a hard won success on the Staples issue. Everyone, regardless of craft, came together to press for what was right.

Whether you actively walked a picket line, talked with family, friends, etc., or just supported the effort by simply respecting the boycott, this was a significant event demonstrating that the force of the APWU is with the membership.

USPS Management Meets R2D2

Around Oct. 16, 2016, we received notification that the USPS will be testing two different robots from two different manufacturers at two different locations in 2017. 

An example of a Postal Service idea for a new custodian.

The proposed test sites are Margaret Sellers Processing & Distribution Center (P&DC) in San Diego, CA and Phoenix, AZ P&DC. Postal management gave the APWU only a few days notice, and the Maintenance Officers were unable to make the site visit in San Diego, although the local union did participate.

In mid-December, Assistant Maintenance Craft Director A Idowu Balogun was dispatched to Phoenix for the site visit with management to view this recent attempt by USPS to automate our work. National Business Agent Jimmie Waldon and members of the Phoenix Metro Area Local were also in attendance.

The equipment being tested are robotic cleaners, approximately the size of R2D2, the famed droid from the Star Wars movies. The Postal Service looked into robotic cleaners before and none measured up.

The robots are programmed to automatically clean the perimeters of the workroom floor, based on mapped memory or historical data memory from a previous assignment. They have dozens of sensors all around them and will stop in a matter of micro seconds if and when they are obstructed. Then the robots will try to find a way around the fixed obstacle.

They also will have the ability to call and ask for help if unable to proceed, according to the Postal Service’s presentation to the APWU.

The Postal Service and vendor representatives were quizzed by Maintenance representatives about safety issues and work performance. The concerns raised by the union ranged from how deaf/hard of hearing employees will be aware a machine is approaching (or around the corner) to how they can complete the cleaning required after maneuvering. We thank the Phoenix Area Local representatives for their invaluable assistance.

The actual experiment in Phoenix started on January 30 and is planned to end about 45 days later, on March 10. The USPS was not prepared to provide us with what their criteria might be for objectively rating this concept. They did, as usual, want to use the employees to assist in evaluating the performance. We are sure very few are interested in evaluating how to eliminate their work.

Critically, when asked about impact on the bargaining unit, the Postal Service stated it was yet to be determined. Obviously, your Maintenance Officers believe the Postal Service would not engage in any kind of experiment unless the end result is a reduction of employees. For them to give such a non-responsive answer for what their goals and real intentions are, is unfortunately, all too typical nowadays.

Contracting Out Hearing

Briefs were submitted at the end of January on case Q00C-4Q-C 04003182. The issue in this matter is whether the Postal Service violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) when it subcontracted the upgrade of local area wiring networks in 62 mail processing plants. Since the grievance was filed, this subcontracting action was subsequently expanded from the 62 Phase I sites to include 122 Phase II sites and finally another 170 locations in Phase III.

The evidence presented established that the installation for upgrading the Mail Processing Infrastructure (MPI) wiring at these sites would be performed by a contractor. The Postal Service once again asserted in their Step 4 denial that this was not bargaining unit work.

At the hearing, your employer put into the record, through testimony, that postal Maintenance employees (including “network technicians or technicians at the sites”) could not have installed this MPI network upgrade. The Postal Service statements made it clear they believed the overwhelming majority of the Maintenance staff did not possess the knowledge, skill or demonstrated experience to install the network upgrade. They also were of the opinion that we did not have the skills to be able to test copper terminations to Cat 6 MPI gigabit standards. Then the Postal Service used their same old, tired complaint that time was of the essence (even though this project ended up taking several years) and that we had other work to do.

Your Maintenance Officers believe it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to try to justify stealing our work by claiming we do not have enough people when it is management who is causing the unnecessary staffing reductions and involuntary reassignments in the first place.

Not to mention it is categorically not true that our bargaining unit members could not perform this work. We proved it. We presented testimony from two current Electronic Technician (ET)-10s, Wayne Greenside (Boston Metro Area Local) and Judy Stocker (Chattanooga, TN Area Local) and one, now retired, ET-11, George Potts (Northern VA Area Local).

We acknowledge the dedication and professionalism of these fine members. They represented you well. The Postal Service scrambled by offering their belief these skilled members were not representative of the ET population at large. The USPS presenters should be ashamed of themselves. Besmirching all members of the Maintenance Craft did nothing for their case or position.

With the case put to rest, it is in the hands of Arbitrator Das.

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