As early as this week, members of the National Association of Letter Carriers could get the terms of a new contract. Whatever a three-man arbitration panel decides, the outcome is sure to furnish fresh evidence of the painful tradeoffs facing labor as the embattled U.S. Postal Service presses to cut personnel costs.
NALC members “understand that difficult things were necessary,” Jim Sauber, the union’s chief of staff, said in an interview today. “But on the other hand, we also want to reward the people who are working harder and have harder jobs.”
The NALC, for example, is proposing to create a new class of lower-paid, non-career employees dubbed “city carrier assistants” that would replace an existing classification known as transitional employees. Although those carrier assistants would earn less than today’s transitional employees, they would get first shot when it comes to applying for career letter carrier jobs, Sauber said.
Under the NALC’s proposal, “both sides kind of get what they wanted,” Sauber said. “Even though the pay is lower, we think it’s going to be a better result for the people who take these jobs.” But in written testimony to the arbitration panel, union President Fredric Rolando underscored that the organization is only reluctantly pursuing this option. “We trust that the panel will appreciate that, but for the present crisis, the concept of a lower paid, non-career letter carrier workforce would be totally unacceptable to the NALC,” he said.
For the arbitration panel, Sauber said, the key issues are now how many non-career employees to allow and how much to pay them. The Postal Service, he said, wants more such employees with lower compensation than the union has proposed. According to Rolando, the Postal Service also wants to freeze wages, eliminate cost-of-living increases and cut benefits for career employees. All three are “completely unacceptable” to the NALC, he said in his testimony posted on the union’s website.
A USPS spokesman, citing standard policy, declined to discuss labor negotiations.
But the NALC isn’t just up against postal leaders intent on more payroll reductions as the agency continues to hemorrhage red ink. The organization is also battling precedent set by previous contract decisions involving two other postal unions. In 2011, the American Postal Workers Union agreed to a two-tier wage system that pays new career employees less. Last July, the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association had to swallow a similar arrangement under a new contract set by a separate arbitration board.
With about 180,000 employees in its bargaining unit, the NALC is among the largest of the four major postal unions. It has so far successfully fought the Postal Service’s efforts to eliminate most Saturday delivery, a move the agency estimates would save about $2.7 billion a year. But Sauber stressed the union’s work with management to slash the number of routes as mail volume has declined—a step that puts more work on remaining letter carriers.
“We feel like we’ve been a very responsible bargaining partner with the Postal Service,” he said. “We didn’t stick our head in the sand when the crisis hit.” The new contract will replace an agreement that formally expired in November 2011. Rolando’s testimony, incidentally, is noteworthy for the disappointment expressed with the Obama administration, which has endorsed five-day delivery.
The White House, he said, “is like a deer frozen in the headlights on postal issues.” Despite the union’s political support, Obama “has not been of any great help on our critical issues, and we have to own up to that.”