Postal Service commences talks with two unions

The red-ink-stained U.S. Postal Service announced Thursday that it has begun talks with one of two unions still without a long-term contract, and that negotiations with a second union will start Aug. 30 to pursue management's goal of eliminating 220,000 positions by 2015.

The National Association of Letter Carriers, with which the service is meeting Thursday, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union together represent about half the Postal Service's career employees.

USPS leaders stress that they face an $8 billion loss this fiscal year. "If the Postal Service was a private sector business, it would have filed for bankruptcy and utilized the reorganization process to restructure its labor agreements to reflect the new financial reality," Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president, said in a news release.

"Wages and benefits for all employees represent nearly 80 percent of our costs," he said. "To remain solvent, we must negotiate contracts that address our total labor costs and enable us to downsize quickly to adjust to America's changing mailing needs while being fair to our customers and employees."

Officials also point to the decline in mail volume due to digital communication and the recession, noting that 110,000 positions have been eliminated since 2007, at a savings of $12 billion.

In March, USPS reached agreement with the American Postal Workers Union, which includes clerks, mechanics, vehicle drivers, custodians and some administrative positions. Talks with the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association stalemated earlier this year and are in arbitration.

The Postal Service announced last week that it may ask Congress to consider proposals to allow it to establish its own health benefits program, administer its own retirement system and adjust its workforce size to meet modern needs. Lawmakers already are reviewing proposals to give the Postal Service access to Federal Employees Retirement System overpayments and to reduce the frequency of mail delivery.

The two unions entering the new talks reacted negatively to the service's new congressional requests. John Hegarty, national president of the postal handlers union, sent an outraged letter to members on Aug. 12, saying, "With national bargaining over the terms of the 2011 National Agreement about to begin, the Postal Service has publicly announced that management is seeking wholesale changes in its collective bargaining agreements." The unions allege USPS management is trying to bypass them by asking Congress to enact legislation that would impose most of its proposals. "Instead of coming to the bargaining table in good faith, management is looking for two bites of the apple," Hegarty and union Secretary-Treasurer Mark Gardner wrote. "The mentality seems to be: Let's see what we can get through bargaining, and then if we don't like it, we'll go to Congress."

Letter carriers union President Fredric Rolando also blasted the postmaster general's "latest radical legislative proposals." On Aug. 11, he released a statement saying, "Today, city letter carriers across the country received a mandatory stand-up talk from supervisors as part of a concerted campaign by top postal management to convince Congress to slash postal employees' health and pension benefits and override lay-off protection provisions in the postal unions' contracts.

"Just days before we formally open collective bargaining negotiations," he continued, "the Postal Service has sent a clear message: It intends to use the financial crisis caused by the deep recession and the crushing congressional pre-funding mandates to strip postal employees of our bargaining rights."

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