Postal panel tackles collective bargaining, pay

The Postal Service should have the authority to negotiate retiree pension and health care benefits that are different from those offered under existing federal plans, a nine-member commission appointed to study postal reform said Wednesday.

At its ninth and final public meeting, the Commission on the U.S. Postal Service voted to include this, and 17 additional recommendations related to the agency's personnel practices and use of technology, in a formal report to President Bush. The commission met last week to vote on suggestions for improving the Postal Service's business model and interaction with the private sector. Members agreed unanimously that the agency should not be privatized, but should have the flexibility to operate, in many ways, like a company. In addition, the commission last week suggested that the Postal Service consolidate its facilities and consider outsourcing tasks "incidental" to delivering the mail.

All 35 recommendations adopted at these two meetings will appear in more detail in the commission's formal report, due to the president by July 31.

Commission members conceded that Wednesday's suggestion on collective bargaining of benefits could encounter some pitfalls. They cautioned that federal retirement and health benefit programs might be hurt if the Postal Service negotiated separate plans with union members. Postal Service officials should study this issue more closely and consult with the Treasury Department and the Office of Personnel Management before fully implementing this particular recommendation, the commission suggested.

Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, was the only commission member who did not endorse the idea that the Postal Service would benefit from the right to collectively bargain pension and retiree health benefits. He also cast the lone dissenting vote on recommendations designed to make the Postal Service's existing collective bargaining process more efficient and encourage the agency to consider a pay-for-performance system that would encompass both management personnel and union-represented postal workers.

The Postal Service should take steps to make sure that arbitration awards are granted in a reasonable time, should parties fail to reach negotiated settlements in the collective bargaining process, all commission members except Seabrook agreed. A recommendation accepted by the majority would set time limits on mediation and arbitration occurring during collective bargaining.

If the Postal Service adopts the commission's suggested collective bargaining guidelines, it could cut the time spent on arbitration from as many as 17 months to 180 days at the most, said workforce subcommittee Chair Carolyn Gallagher. Gallagher is currently an investor and advisor to several businesses.

The subcommittee's proposal that the Postal Service "undertake a careful study of performance-based compensation programs for both management and represented employees," spurred some debate. Under the recommendation, the agency would consult with unions to design a pay-for-performance program that is "meaningful to Postal Service employees and assists the [agency] in meeting its productivity and service quality goals."

But Seabrook said that in his experience, pay-for-performance systems do not work in union settings. Unions negotiate contracts that cover all members. By singling out some union employees for praise and salary raises based on performance, the Postal Service would cause "confusion in the workshop," he said. Employees who are doing a good job, but "don't make any noise" are often overlooked under pay-for-performance systems, he added. Others might receive undeserved salary raises because they are buddies with their boss, he argued.

William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, pledged that he would work to ensure that this recommendation does not "see the light of day." He said he is not aware of any private sector enterprises the size of the Postal Service that pay union workers based on performance.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who recently introduced the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (S. 1285), expressed concern over some of the commission's latest recommendations. Carper's legislation mirrors some of the commission's workforce recommendations but differs on collective bargaining issues.

"I am disappointed that the commission has advocated using postal reform as an excuse to roll back the benefits and protections postal employees have fought for over the past three decades," Carper said. "Postal employees should be seen as an asset, not a liability."

The majority of commission members supported the idea of pay-for-performance, with the qualification that the system would need to be properly designed. If the Postal Service were to choose performance metrics carefully and ensure that all employees were measured against a standard set of specific criteria, the system would work well and would provide incentives for employees to go above and beyond what is expected of them, said commission member Joseph Wright. Wright is president and CEO of PanAmSat Corp., a company that provides global video and data broadcasting services via satellite.

In addition to these recommendations, the commission proposed that the Postal Service consider standardizing technology at mail processing facilities to improve efficiency and allow workers to transfer from one facility to another easily without requiring training on new equipment. The agency might also consider offering new products made possible by recent technology, such as "personalized stamps," the commission said. These stamps would incorporate a concept similar to vanity license plates, allowing people to design and purchase stamps with pictures of their choosing, such as photos of family members.

Technology is also available to help the Postal Service address security issues, the commission said. The agency should explore technology that would allow it to identify the sender of every piece of mail. Such technology is "fairly straightforward" to install, but might pose concerns about privacy, said commission Chairman Harry Pearce, who heads Hughes Electronics Corp.

Accordingly, the commission suggested that the Postal Service coordinate with the Homeland Security Department if it chooses to implement this recommendation.

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