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Postal Workers: The Last Union
by: Allison Kilkenny
Truthout | News Analysis
8 September 2011
http://www.truth-out.org/last-union/1315492298

The recent attacks against the United States Postal
Service (USPS) are more than signs of desperate times -
a natural sunset moment for a service rendered archaic
by FedEx and UPS. Rather, the Postal Service has been
under constant, vicious assault for years from the
right, who views this as an epic battle with the goal of
finally taking down the strongest union in the country,
the second largest employer in the United States (second
only to Wal-Mart,) and a means to roll the country ever
closer toward the abyss of privatization.

The Postal Service, which is older than the Constitution
itself, stands at a precipice. If this great
institution, which provides one of the oldest, most
reliable services in the country, is permitted to fall
and Congress kills its great union, then truly no
collective bargaining rights, no worker contract, no
union will be safe within the United States.

As the USPS spirals toward default, the historically
uncontroversial mail service system has suddenly become
a hot-button issue. It's an unlikely organization to
inspire such hysteria. The Postal Service isn't paid for
by taxpayer dollars, but rather fully funded by the sale
of stamps. It's easy to forget what a marvel this is -
that today, in 2011, one can still mail a letter clear
across the country for less than 50 cents. And if the
impressiveness of that feat still hasn't sunk in,
attempt this brain exercise: consider what else you can
buy for $0.44.

It was only a few years ago that the USPS was considered
not only stable, but thriving. The biggest volume in
pieces of mail handled by the Postal Service in its 236-
year history was in 2006. The second and third busiest
years were in 2005 and 2007, respectively. But it was
two events: one crafted during the Bush years and
another supervised by House Oversight Committee Chairman
Darrell Issa, that would cripple this once great
institution.

Perhaps it was its booming history that first drew
Congress' attention to the Postal Service in 2006 when
it passed the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act
(PAEA), which mandated that the Postal Service would
have to fully fund retiree health benefits for future
retirees. That's right. Congress was demanding universal
health care coverage.

But it even went beyond that. Congress was mandating
coverage for future human beings.

"It's almost hard to comprehend what they're talking
about, but basically they said that the Postal Service
would have to fully fund future retirees' health
benefits for the next 75 years and they would have to do
it within a ten-year window," says Chuck Zlatkin,
political director of the New York Metro Area Postal
Union.

It was an impossible order, and strangely, a task
unshared by any other government service, agency,
corporation or organization within the United States.
The act meant that every September 30th, the USPS had to
cough up $5.5 billion to the Treasury for the pre-
funding of future retirees' health benefits, meaning the
Postal Service pays for employees 75 years into the
future. The USPS is funding the retirement packages of
people who haven't even been born yet.

The hopeless task was made even more daunting when Wall
Street blew up the world's economies. It was this, and
not the invention of email, that became the Postal
Service's death knell. Zlatkin finds the whole "blame it
on the Internet" excuse amusing. The Internet had
already existed for quite a while in 2006, the USPS's
busiest year, not to mention that every item purchased
on Amazon and eBay - every piece of information
addressed to stockholders and bank customers - still
needs to be snail mailed, which is enough volume to keep
the Postal Service prosperous.

"I've yet to figure out a way to mail a shirt through a
computer," he chuckles.

When Wall Street's derivatives gamble blew up the
country, businesses slowed their operations during the
recession and, as such, the Postal Service was no longer
handling historically high volumes of mail. The boom was
over and the death spiral began.

At the same time, the USPS was bleeding money by
overpaying into worker pension funds. An audit done by
the Postal Service's Office of Inspector General came up
with the figure of $75 billion in pension overpayments.
Then, the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent
agency that actually received more autonomous power
under PAEA, commissioned its own independent audit. The
commission placed the overpayment at $50 billion.

Taking these figures into consideration, the projected
$9 billion deficit the USPS now faces seems like chump
change that could easily be corrected with some minor
accounting tweaks.

"You could actually transfer over payment from the
pension funds to the healthcare retirement funds," says
Zlatkin. "And it wouldn't cost taxpayers a single
penny."

H.R. 1351, the United States Postal Service Pension
Obligation Recalculation and Restoration Act of 2011, is
a piece of legislation sponsored by Massachusetts
Congressman Stephen Lynch. The act calls for the Office
of Personal Management to do the definitive audit, come
up with the actual figure of overpayment and then apply
that to the ridiculous system of prepayment funding
expenses. The Postal Service would then have that $5.5
billion a year to use for running its services and
improving mail delivery.

This would eliminate the need to terminate Saturday mail
delivery service, close down mail processing centers and
there would be no need to lay off 120,000 workers (the
Postal Service work force has already been reduced
through attrition by over 100,000 employees over the
last four years).

But there are political opponents that have no desire to
see the USPS survive what is, for all intents and
purposes, a stupid accounting maneuver. Namely, the GOP
and moderate Democrats were the players behind the PAEA,
and are now the same forces peddling the narrative that
the Postal Service is broke, the union too demanding and
the only solution is cuts, cuts and, oh yes, more cuts.

Zlatkin says the name "Darrell Issa" like he just
smelled something seriously foul. He had his first
encounter with the Congressman in May soon after the
American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the Postal
Service reached a collective bargaining agreement. The
agreement, through givebacks that the union offered,
guaranteed the Postal Service over $4 billion in cost
savings on employees over the life of a contract. At the
time, Postmaster Patrick Donahoe hailed this as a
victory for the Postal Service, its employees and the
people they serve.

However, as the union was preparing to vote on the
agreement, Issa called a hearing on the contract. The
move was completely unprecedented. Here was a Republican
chair of the Oversight Committee grilling the postmaster
general about an agreement (Issa called the contract too
generous) upon which a union was currently voting. "Talk
about tampering with elections," says Zlatkin.

For Zlatkin, the only other name that inspires as much
contempt is Dennis Ross (R-Florida), another member of
the Oversight Committee. "Issa's henchman," as Zlatkin
calls him, went after the postmaster for settling on the
agreement, demanding to know why he didn't negotiate the
contract.

"The bigger issue is really the longer-term changes we
need to make to the Postal Service in terms of its
viability," Ross said to Donahoe. "I hope we can empower
you to do more."

Side note: It's interesting to hear the GOP refer to the
Postal Service as if it's a business rather than an
entity that provides a public service. The Postal
Service is not designed to churn profits.

What empower meant was to starve the Postal Service and
its union. Since that day, Donahoe has abdicated his
responsibility as the postmaster general, according to
Zlatkin. The APWU's collective bargaining agreements in
the past have included layoff protections, which Donahoe
immediately offered up as sacrifice to his Republican
masters when he asked to bypass worker protection so he
might obliterate 220,000 career positions from the
workforce by 2015.

"All he's trying to do is appease that committee. He's
violated a contract he's signed. He's violated labor
law. From my understanding, by going to Congress and
having them change the laws to change our contracts,
he's violating the Constitution of the United States."

In fact, Zlatkin says his local union chapter is so
disillusioned with the postmaster's behavior that
they're putting out a press release to call for his
resignation or termination. "He is either a well-meaning
incompetent or a duplicitous front man for the people
who want to privatize the postal service," says Zlatkin.

Soon after meeting with Donahoe, Issa introduced the
Postal Reform Act to Congress, a bill that Zlatkin says
would "Wisconsin" the Postal Service. "[The bill would]
give them the kinds of powers that the Super Committee
is having to just go in there temporarily and do what
has to be done: rip into the contracts, close post
offices without hearings. It's basically the Postal
Service Destruction Act." The bill has one co-sponsor:
Dennis Ross. And both men just happen to be in charge of
the House Oversight Committee. Between the "Save The
Postal Service" H.R. 1351 and the Postal Service
Destruction Act, Zlatkin asks rhetorically, "which is
gonna come to a vote?"

It makes sense that the Postal Service has become the
target of rich, overwhelmingly white politicians. As
former Deputy Assistant and Deputy Press Secretary to
former President George W. Bush, Tony Fratto so
eloquently tweeted: "Over the past 10 yrs I might have
visited a post office 10 times, total."

When you can hand off parcels to your assistant who then
ships it off at FedEx's higher rates, then yeah, the
post office might not be for you. But as Marcy Wheeler
explains, there are still tons of people who need the
USPS's services: poorer people, people using a post
office box, rural people who live outside delivery
areas, eBay-type entrepreneurs, immigrants sending care
packages to people from their country of origin and
nonprofits.

"It's part of the class war and it's against the poor
and it's a class war against working people," says
Zlatkin. Of the 34 post offices the USPS is considering
closing in New York City, 17 are in the Bronx. The South
Bronx district ranks as the poorest Congressional
district in America.

"Any time a post office is rumored to be closing, it's
devastating to the neighborhood that it's in," says
Zlatkin, "what happens when we get involved with elected
officials and community people to try and keep a post
office open, it's always the same people who turn out:
elderly people, disabled people, poor people and small
business owners. They're the people who are the ones who
that depend on the postal service that they can't really
afford or have access to alternatives."

UPS and FedEx aren't required to do what the Postal
Service does and that is deliver the mail to every
place, even if the recipient is located in hard-to-reach
rural terrain, or an inner-city neighborhood deemed too
"dangerous" for other services, like taxi cabs, in which
to travel. If the USPS falls, it will be another strike
in the class war where poor people are yet again cut off
from a service that used to belong to everyone.

So, here we have a service that caters primarily to the
economically disadvantaged and employs over 574,000
union members. No wonder it became such a mouth-watering
target for the GOP. It would be quite a feather in the
cap of Darrell "the liberal hunter" Issa to take out one
of the largest unions in the country and simultaneously
give the US a nudge in the direction of total
privatization by crippling one of the last great public
services.

"Obama is gonna have a job talk for the country," says
Zlatkin. "Is he gonna talk about the necessity for
maintaining the 120,000 postal jobs, or is he going to
ignore it? I would guess he would ignore it. We were the
second union to endorse Obama, the APWU and since that
time, he hasn't been a, what we call, good friend to the
postal workers, or the people they work for."

___________________________________________

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