Postal storm abates with 3-year pact

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Americans could take carefree daily trips to their mail boxes this week, knowing that the letters, checks, publications, and usual junk mail would still be arriving. Strike clouds have been blown away by a tentative after-deadline agreement with postal workers.

"There is no question about it."We'll get it ratified," said a relieved, if weary, spokesman for the American Postal Workers Union, after a marathon 30-hour talk session produced a new three-year pact costing an estimated $4.8 billion.

The long and often-tense negotiations have been seen as a major test of the power of the unions in dealing with the federal government. The postal negotiations are by far the biggest labor talks this year and involve more than 600,000 workers.

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Although postal workers have had the right to bargain since 1971, federal law forbids them to strike. The Postal Service sent out stern warnings that any worker who struck would be fired first, asked questions later.

When the union members rejected a contract offer in 1978, workers in some areas walked off the job, and about 100 were fired permanently for striking. The contract dispute was finally ended by arbitration.

Despite threats of a strike that persisted until the final hours of the talks this week, the two biggest postal unions agreed to a settlement that comes close to the one that expired July 20.

For the workers, the new settlement falls short of original union demands, but it also failed to include the Postal Service proposal to "freeze" wage levels and put a cap on cost-of- living adjustments.

The package would boost each worker's salary by $5,700 during the next years, if inflation rates match those of the past three years. The average postal employee now earns an annual salary of about $19,915.

If the settlement pleases the members when they vote on ratification, probably next month, it will be a boost for collective bargaining. Dan Discoll, the spokesman for the American Postal Workers Union, said of the new contract, "We did it ourselves," compared with three years ago when a third party had to arbitrate.

The settlement also saves the union from having to test its strike power in the face of threats of dismissal, although Discoll maintained that "We would have struck" if necessary.

For Postmaster General William F. Bolger, the new contract can be expected to provide new ammunition for his battle for a 20-cent first-class letter and for the new nine-digit ZIP code.

Payroll costs make up the lion's share of the Postal Service budget, which last year reached almost $20 billion to deliver 106 billion pieces of mail. Any increase in payroll costs must be paid for by mailer fees since Congress already has begun reducing postal subsidies in a move to make the service self-sufficient.

So far, however, the Postmaster General has failed to convince the Postal Rate Commission to allow him to raise the first-class stamp from 18 cents to 20 cents.

The controversial nine-digit ZIP code may not promise immediate relief, but the Postal Service asserts that by 1986 it could save $887 million a year. Notices went out last month offering to provide mass mailers with computer tapes that list the new codes -- which include the five existing digits plus four new ones.

The four additional digits, which would allow for more automated letter handling, have come under fire in Congress, which has been considering banning them. Unless Congress takes direct action, however, the Postal Service will proceed with plans that predict that five years from now, 90 percent of first-class mail will have nine-number codes.

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