Difficult union talks begin for US mail carriers and handlers

The US Postal Service officially began talks with two unions this week, seeking new collective bargaining agreements following on from the deal ratified by the American Postal Workers’ Union back in May. The negotiations with National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU) are seeking successor labour deals to those currently due to expire this November.

NALC – the union for urban-based mail carriers – represents 200,000 Postal Service employees, while the NPMHU represents about 47,000 employees who work in mail-processing plants and post offices.

Members of the NALC union account for $15bn in annual wages and benefits, while the NPMHU union members took home $3bn in wages and benefits.

For the USPS, it will use the successor contracts as part of its strategy to respond to the 20% drop in overall mail volumes since 2006.

As with the APWU, the Postal Service will be seeking stronger allowances to make use of flexible part-time and temporary workers in order to help reduce its operating costs in the light of the $9bn loss predicted for 2011.

Lay-offs

Unlike the APWU, the negotiations with NALC and the NPMHU will not see the offering of lay-off protections for union members.

Just days ago the Postal Service revealed it is looking to trim its workforce by 220,000 career roles by 2014, around half through attrition. Even the APWU with its previously-agreed labour deal will not escape – USPS intends to seek help from Congress to break lay-off clauses in existing union agreements.

“The labour unions are irritated by this, but we would like to reach the same flexibility levels as we did with the other unions,” said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on Wednesday at the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee meeting at USPS headquarters in Washington DC.

“If we do that, it means lower costs – career people leave, more non-careers come in. Much of that will be attrition, but I don’t know if we can do that fast enough,” Donahoe said, although he noted that 157,000 staff at the Postal Service are already eligible to retire at the moment.

For the mail handlers’ union, it will focus on job cuts associated with the USPS plans to reduce area mail processing capacity from 508 plants down to less than 200, and its review of 3,700 post offices for possible closure. Dave Williams, USPS vice president of network operations, told reporters yesterday that the AMP closure plans would directly affect 30,000 to 35,000 workers.

Delivery consolidation

Negotiations with NALC will also focus on efforts to consolidate delivery routes, with USPS chief financial officer Joe Corbett telling mailers this week that more than half of USPS workhours are spent, and therefore cuts had to be made.

Use of new flats sequencing machines is already allowing many mail delivery routes to be consolidated around the country, but USPS also remains confident that Congress will eventually allow it to abandon Saturday deliveries – something that will see further reductions.

Corbett told MTAC that even ignoring the move to five-day deliveries, there will be a big effort at “getting the service as tight as possible – to get 20,000 delivery routes out”.

Also important within the union negotiations will also be the USPS proposals to make major cutbacks in benefits, particularly if Congress allows the Postal Service to set up its own healthcare system.

If the unions do not agree to the USPS terms, however, it is likely that the negotiations will go to arbitration, as is the case with the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, which held out against the deal offered to it this time last year.

Federal workers in the United States do not have the legal powers to go on strike, but in the case of NALC and the NPMHU, their chief weapon could be time – the Postal Service cannot afford for labour negotiations to drag on as they did with the APWU for eight months.

Every single day that the USPS does not put into practice the planned Network Optimisation initiative will cost the Postal Service $10m according to executives’ calculations.

“We need to have very successful negotiations with the craft employees and/or arbitration on the union contracts in order order to reduce the cost of these contracts and increase the flexibility,” Corbett said.

“Regressive and destructive”

NALC president Frederic V Rolando called the Postal Service plans to make major workforce reductions “regressive and destructive”, and insisted that the key to tackling USPS financial problems remained dealing with its Retiree Health Benefit Fund pre-funding arrangements.

“We need to strengthen our nation’s only truly universal communications network, not dismantle it,” said Rolando.

However, the NALC president to indicate that his union would be prepared to make some concessions to help with the USPS financial cause.

“Even as we press Congress and the administration to reform the crushing retiree health pre-funding mandate that accounts for 100% of the Postal Service losses over the past four years, we are ready to roll up our sleeves at the bargaining table to creatively negotiate a contract that helps the USPS better serve the American people and the $1.2 trillion industry it supports,” said Rolando.

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