“Shock and disappointment” as Potter steps down at difficult time for USPS

Tributes have been paid to the longest-serving US postmaster-general since 1814, John Potter, who is to retire on December 3. But, as Potter was praised for achievements made during his nine years as postmaster-general and 32 years with the US Postal Service, US lawmakers said successor Patrick Donahoe would have his work cut out to put the USPS back on a sound financial footing.

And, postal union leaders have expressed concern about the reasons behind Potter’s early retirement, and whether his successor will be as supportive of USPS workers during a “pivotal period”.

Potter had set the USPS on a 10-year recovery plan back in March, but has already faced opposition from Congress and in particular from the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Next month’s Congressional mid-terms are not expected to make life any easier for a Postal Service that has said it will run out of money by September 2011 unless key reforms are made.

And, the PRC has so far refused attempts to raise postal rates in order to help alleviate some of the $6bn in annual USPS losses, a key part of the 10-year recovery plan.

Senator Susan Collins, ranking member of the US Senate committee that oversees the USPS, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said yesterday that Potter had been a “dedicated” leader of the Postal Service through “some of its most trying times”.

The Republican Senator from Maine said: “The next postmaster general must strengthen the Postal Service by cutting costs, enticing more customers, and putting this vital institution on a sound financial footing.”

Tom Carper, the Democrat Senator from Delaware, said the outgoing postmaster general had “served admirably” in his role, with accomplishments including “streamlining postal operations, eliminating billions of dollars in expenses, and utilising technology to increase efficiency and productivity”.

Senator Carper congratulated the deputy postmaster general, Donahoe, on his promotion to the top USPS job, adding: “I look forward to working with him as we continue our efforts to build a stronger Postal Service for the 21st Century.”

In his new role, Donahoe will also have to lead negotiations with union leaders as he attempts to reduce losses in an organisation in which 80% of costs come in the form of salaries.

William Burrus, the president of the American Postal Workers’ Union, which is currently in the middle of talks with the USPS leadership, said Potter’s retirement came “with shock and disappointment”.

Lauding Potter for achievements including the signing of the “most progressive Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated in the history of the Postal Service” in 2006, Burrus said in a statement yesterday that Potter had “always considered the impact his decisions would have on postal employees”.

However, he voiced suspicions that the USPS Board of Governors may have applied pressure Potter to step down, despite Potter’s insistence yesterday that he had always planned to retire at age 55.

Burrus said: “I have no inside information about the reason for Potter’s decision, and no reason to believe that his retirement was demanded by the Board of Governors; but if it was, the Board has made a terrible mistake.

“The Postal Service is at a crossroads, and its relevance in American society is being questioned. The U.S. Postal Service needs a leader like John Potter to ensure its continued viability.”

In his statement, Burrus warned that in the current negotiations, it was “highly unlikely” the outgoing postmaster general would commit his successor to terms that would be acceptable to the union.

The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), which begins negotiations with the USPS next year, said that despite the “profound strategic differences” it had with the postmaster general in recent years, “he was an honourable partner in collective bargaining and served his country well during a very difficult period in the history of the Postal Service”.

Congratulating Donohoe on behalf of his 284,000 members, NALC president, Frederic Rolando, said: “We welcome the selection of a career postal employee who is committed to working with the postal unions to ensure that the Postal Service continues to provide high-quality and affordable service to America’s mailers and citizens.”

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