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Postal Service rejects ‘right to strike’ proposal for unions

CHICAGO—The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday backed off a proposal that would have given unionized workers the right to strike.

CHICAGO-The U.S. Postal Service backed off a proposal that would have given unionized workers the right to strike.

Agency officials Tuesday told a presidential commission on postal reform that allowing workers to strike-and management to exercise lockouts-during contract negotiations would be a "major mistake."

The idea was first floated in a transformation plan released by the Postal Service in April 2002. In that document, and during subsequent public appearances, agency officials suggested that adopting the 1926 Railway Labor Act, which governs both railways and airlines, would give labor and management the leverage they needed to force quick resolutions during contract negotiations.

After meeting with airline executives and union leaders though, Postal Service officials came to believe that the Railway Labor Act is not an appropriate model for the agency, according to Anthony Vegliante, vice president for labor relations at the Postal Service. Agency insiders said that the reference to the Railway Labor Act may have been hastily added to the transformation plan in an attempt to simply say something about labor relations and appease constituents who were looking for bold ideas. Two years ago, congressional oversight committees and the General Accounting Office requested that the Postal Service identify short- and long-term suggestions for reforming the agency.

Like all other federal employees, postal workers never had the right to strike. Yet in 1970, nearly 6,000 workers in this city took to the streets to protest diminishing wages and benefits. Subsequent walkouts occurred at hundreds of postal facilities across the country. The illegal strikes eventually forced Congress and the Nixon administration to come terms over a major overhaul of the agency and enact the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act. The law requires collective bargaining and, failing an agreement, pushes the process into binding arbitration.

Lawmakers understood that the Postal Service was an essential "public service," said Robert Dufek, a partner with the D.C. law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and special counsel on labor relations to the Postal Service. A work stoppage in this day and age would have a crippling effect on the $900 billion mailing industry and the economy overall, he said, adding that the agency would be unable to deal with the resulting stockpile of mail.

All four major postal union presidents, who also appeared before the presidential panel, echoed that sentiment. Although, William Burrus, president of the largest organization, the American Postal Workers Union, said he generally supports the right to strike. Nonetheless, he recognized that it is politically untenable.

Collective bargaining is often criticized by postal observers-and some agency insiders-as being too antagonistic and drawn out. Many commentators have suggested that neither side negotiates in good faith, but wait for an impasse and hope for the best with an arbitrator. Vegliante and the union leaders told a different story, saying that the current process works well.

For instance, since 1970 mail handlers have had 13 rounds of collective bargaining. Eight of those negotiations have resulted in voluntary agreements, including the last three, according to John Hegarty, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union. Burrus cited similar results for his members-34 negotiations, 27 voluntary agreements. Overall he said there have been 85 total negotiations between the Postal Service and its unions, 64 of which have resulted in voluntary agreements.

If anything, Vegliante said the system needs minor tweaking. For instance, he said all benefits should be negotiable. Currently, pensions and retirement health care costs are excluded from collective bargaining. Three arbitrators also urged the panel to leave the process intact. But Stephen Goldberg, a law professor at Northwestern University, suggested a minor change-appoint a mediator early on in hopes of avoiding arbitration.

More than anything, postal officials and the union leaders said they have to foster better relations. That, they all said, cannot be legislated.

While the system may be working for the status quo, Commissioner Robert Walker wondered if it will truly allow the agency to transform, or if it will work in a newly designed Postal Service, whatever that may look like.

The commission must deliver a final report to the president by July 31. At least one more meeting is on tap for late May in Washington.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that postal workers lost the right to strike in 1970. We regret the error.