Postal reform bill talks stall over labor costs

Negotiations have stalled over House and Senate legislation to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service following a meeting with White House officials, mailing insiders said.

At issue is the Postal Service's labor costs, which consume 80 percent of the agency's budget. In the most recent negotiating meeting last week, White House officials called on Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., to "bring [Postal Service] labor costs more in line with the federal government," said Ben Cooper, who represents direct mailers at Williams & Jensen.

Cooper said that proposal could be possible through negotiated service agreements or an expansion of work sharing, but he added that political considerations make such a move unlikely.

"Postal Service employees make up a third of the workforce and are in every congressional district," he said. "It's an awkward and difficult time right now."

Cooper, who also chairs the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, said the Postal Service offers better benefits packages than other unionized companies, and he noted that President Bush's commission that studied overhauling the Postal Service recommended cutting labor costs, in its 2003 final report.

Gene Del Polito, president of the Association for Postal Commerce, also said White House advisers, headed by Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan, are pushing for a final bill to include Senate language that would require all labor negotiations to go through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Currently, contract agreements are negotiated among three representatives -- one from labor, one from the Postal Service and one neutral negotiator hired by both sides. Under the Senate measure, the arbitrators would have to take into account the Postal Service's financial status when considering bargaining agreements, which Del Polito said could weigh heavily against labor unions.

Bob Levi, a spokesman for the National Association of Postmasters of the United States, said, "if the White House is pushing any provision that would undermine labor's collective bargaining, the bill goes down." William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union, said he is "outraged" at the White House proposal on mediation, calling it a "hijacking of the legislative process."

The House and Senate have passed versions of postal overhaul; the Senate has named conferees and is negotiating with the House and administration as part of the pre-conferencing efforts.

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