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Rain, snow, or night may not, but a strike could tie up US mail system

By Barbara Ann BradleySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 1981



The current negotiations between postal workers and the US Postal Service are livelier than a beehive, and just as sticky. Postal union contracts expire July 20. The two largest unions -- the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers, which combined include 74 percent of the postal work force -- are bargaining together. The unions presented their economic package, prepared by Joel Popkin, former senior staff economist on the Council of Economic Advisers, on July 9.

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Dr. Popkin argues that postal wages have not increased much faster than wages for other large unions: a 163.3 percent increase since 1969 compared with a 161. 6 percent increase for other unions of at least 1,000 members. He proposes an annual wage increase of 5 percent for the next three years and an additional 2.7 percent "catch up" increase during the first year to make up for inflation. He also recommends a new cost-of-living formula.

Responding to the economic package, Postmaster General William F. Bolger remarked, "The two union leaders have said they wish to be realistic, but that has not been the case to date. The excessively high demands already on the table would have devastating effects on mailers and on the ability of the Postal Service to survive as a workable institution."

The Postal Service is in a tight fiscal pinch in part because it is a government agency that is supposed to "behave in a business-like way." In 1970, the Postal Reorganization Act shifted authority over its operations from Congress to a board of governors and Postal Service executives.

"The Postal Service is moving toward the private sector in its philosophy, planning, and fiscal accountability," a staff member of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee observed. "Ten years ago it received 10 percent of its operating budget from the federal government. Today that figure is 2.5 percent."

Like a business, the Postal Service now determines its own rates and engages in collective bargaining. But unlike a business, it cannot put it rates into effect without the approval of the Postal Rate Commission. The Postal Service has petitioned for a 20- cent first-class stamp three times, but recently was granted an increase to 18 cents.

Mr. Bolger noted on a UPI Audio program that the lower level of revenue will affect how much of a wage increase the service can afford. "I already know that with the 18-cent rate vs. the 20-cent rate, I have a billion-dollar-a-year shortfall," he said.

Postal Service analysts argue that total compensation (wages and benefits) under the union proposal would rise from the current average of $23,300 a year to $47,700 by Dec. 1, 1983, a 44.3 percent annual increase. Because the postal payroll accounts for 86 percent of postal costs, expenditures on wages would more than double. The additional $20.5 billion would force the Postal Service to raise the cost of a first-class stamp to 40 cents by the end of 1983, if such an increase were granted.

Resistance to the union proposal is not strictly financial in nature, however. "Other union demands would virtually destroy management's ability to meet its legal mandate to provide the public with prompt, efficient mail service ," a Postal Service response stated.

Union demands, in the eyes of the Postal Service, would reduce productivity by slowing mechanization and swelling the work force. For example, unions could block or greatly delay the installation of new equipment (much of which would replace workers) or changes in operation and organization. The new contract would eliminate subcontracting and part-time workers. "The payroll would be bloated with thousands of employees who would not have enough work to do," the response concludes.

It is illegal for government employees to strike, and Postmaster General Bolger has warned that he will dismiss anyone who interrupts postal operations.

If an illegal strike did occur, Bolger says that he would consider suspending the Private Express Statutes, which give the Postal Service exclusive right to deliver first-class mail. Private carriers could then legally take up mail routes, although it is doubtful that they could handle the average 349.7 million pieces of daily mail.

The Postal Service settlement may not be based solely on fiscal considerations, however, and this is in the unions' favor.

Such a strike would delay government mailings, such as welfare checks. It would hurt business in general, but especially small companies that need a consistent cash flow to meet payroll and other expenses. It would force senders to use private carriers, whose rates are prohibitively high: To send a letter costs at least $9.50 by Federal Express; or, for slower service, $1.47 by United Parcel Service. And it is unlikely that the Reagan administration wants a repeat of the performance of 1970, when President Nixon had to call in troops to deliver mail.