Postal Workers Deliver A Message, Not Mail
Postal workers may make their livelihood through the mail, but they fight for it on foot. On Tuesday afternoon, postal unions held 492 rallies in all of the nation's congressional districts to persuade their representatives to save the U.S. Postal Service without slashing 20 percent of its workforce.
Under federal law, the postal service needs to pay $5.5 billion into a retiree health care fund by Friday in order to avoid default. The postal service, however, is plagued with a deficit of nearly $10 billion this fiscal year.
The Senate passed a stop-gap measure Monday night which would postpone this payment until Nov. 18. Congress is expected to pass it also. While the extra six weeks would buy some time, significant restructuring is necessary if the postal service is to survive past next summer.
Postal unions want the American public to know that their employer is profitable. While mail volume has dropped by 22 percent since 2006, the agency made $226 million in the first quarter of this year, funded entirely through stamps, not taxpayer money.
The reason for the deficit, they say, is a 2006 mandate that the postal service pre-fund 75-years of pension in a 10-year window, at a rate of $5.5 billion annually. Two independent actuaries have said that the post office has overpaid $50 billion into this fund.
The postal service's proposal: House Resolution 1351 introduced by U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), which would allow the transfer of these overpayments into the health care fund, where they currently owe money. The bill currently has 216 congressional sponsors.
"That's money that's withheld from the workers," American Postal Workers Union President Cliff Guffey said on "The Ed Show" on Tuesday. If that money was released from the pension fund, he claims, the post office could pay off its debt and have some operating cash.
Lay Off 120,000?
Congress is resistant to this plan, according to Guffy, because that money is being used to pay the retirement for other agencies that are underfunded. Releasing the money would expose the delinquency of Congress' fiscal management.
To rescue the post office from default, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe asked Congress for permission to violate union contracts and fire 120,000 employees, close thousands of post offices, and cut Saturday delivery.
Postal unions feel like this is punishing workers, many of whom are veterans, for a mandate that they see as unjustly burdensome. Such extensive layoffs would also, they fear, eliminate first class service. Many Democrats see it as a ploy to weaken organized labor, like the stand Wisconsin took to state employees' unions.
The White House has offered its own plan, which rejects Donahoe's request to void union contracts. Obama's proposal would allow the postal service to use some of its overfunded pension, indefinitely postpone the pension payment, and make healthcare payments on an as-needed basis. There are also some frugal measures in the administration's plan, like a hike in stamp prices and slashing Saturday service.
Republicans Would Allow A Takeover
Republicans have countered with their own bill, H.R. 2309, sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), to permit an independent committee to take over the postal service's finances and renegotiate existing contracts -- if the agency is more than a month late in paying up. Another committee would decide which facilities to consolidate or close, and therefore what employees would lose their jobs. The bill would not allow the postal service to grab back any pension overpayments. H.R. 2309 recently passed a House subcommittee.
While some postal agents have accused the bill of union-busting, others have usurped traditionally conservative rhetoric by arguing that the Republicans are proposing more regulations and bureaucracy, and treating the postal service less like a business and instead tangling it in more congressional red tape.
Thus one of the country's most vital services, one of the few jobs given mention in the U.S. Constitution, is caught up in a bipartisan tug-of-war. The public seems to be leaning more to the postal workers' side.
"The postal service is respected by 80 percent of the public," said Guffey. "Congress 20 percent."
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