Panel weighs expanded collective bargaining at Postal Service

A debate over collective bargaining was at the center Wednesday of a Senate Governmental Affairs hearing on workforce issues in the United States Postal Service.

The hearing was the Senate committee's third since the President's Commission on the Postal Service released a report in August suggesting changes for the mail service. In its report, the commission recommended, among other changes, that postal workers' health and retirement benefits be subject to collective bargaining, as wages for most postal employees already are.

Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said Wednesday that including benefits in the process would not be beneficial to employees. National Association of Postal Supervisors Vice President Ted Keating, one of three postal managers' representatives who testified before the committee Wednesday, echoed Carper's opinion.

"Subjecting Postal Service pension and post-retirement health benefits to collective bargaining could significantly impact the vitality of the entire federal pension and health benefits programs," Keating said.

But Michael Wachter, a labor economics expert from the University of Pennsylvania, said the postal commission's recommendation is "both appropriate and necessary." He based his statement on his findings that postal workers currently receive a compensation premium. "A substantial wage premium exists," Wachter said, "and an extended period of moderate restraint is needed to close the gap between postal workers and their private-sector counterparts."

Other workforce issues discussed at Wednesday's hearing included the commission's recommendations that the collective bargaining process include a mandatory mediation process; that the postal service be given greater rate-setting flexibility; and that the service be given greater authority to close low-performing post offices.

National Association of Postmasters President Wally Olihovik said closing post offices simply because they fail to turn a profit "would be a dreadful and misguided strategy [that] would have a devastating effect on many communities, yet have little effect on postal finances." Olihovik noted that closing the 10,000 smallest post offices in the country would net a savings of $567 million -- less than one percent of the Postal Service's operating budget.

Postal reorganization continues to be a major focus of the Senate Governmental Affairs and House Government Reform committees. The chairmen of both committees have said they hope to enact legislation this year.

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