Midsummer strike by postal unions?

Difficult labor negotiations are just ahead for the US Postal Service and unions representing 570,000 workers. Although it is illegal to strike against the Postal Service, a branch of the federal government, there are rumblings of walkouts around the country this summer if new contracts are not signed by a July 20 deadline.

Negotiations will get under way in April, but lines are already being drawn taut.

Postmaster General William F. Bolger called on unions "to pursue a policy of moderation in this year's collective bargaining." He noted in a Washington National Press Club speech recently that postal workers averaged $19,000 a year in wages -- $22,000 if fringe benefits are added in -- and that "it is no secret that some people consider postal employees overcompensated."

His principal adversary in bargaining, Moe Biller, president of the 250,000 -member American Postal Workers Union, said the unions bargaining with the Postal Service not only want improved wages, including an unlimited cost-of-living adjustment plan, but also must be assured in new contracts that postal workers will be treated with "dignity and respect" on the job.

Meanwhile, a threatened split in union ranks could add to bargaining problems. Mail handlers, in one branch of the Laborers Union, are unhappy about the strike threats and militant stances of the Postal Workers and Letter Carriers and could break away from the solid front usually put together by unions in postal bargaining. If there is a division, negotiating a contract that will satisfy everyone will be difficult.

Again this year, bargaining will be shadowed by public and government dissatisfaction with the operation of the Postal Service. Its efficiency in delivering the mail is under increasing criticism. Its costs have so escalated that first- class stamps may soon go up from 15 cents to 18 cents and Saturday service may be ended.

Mr. Bolger, urging a moderation of demands, says union officials appear "unaware of the financial condition of the Postal Service" and of the harsh realities of the national economy.

The aggressive Mr. Biller, who last year challenged incumbent Emmet Andrews for the presidency of the Postal Workers and won overwhelmingly with a pledge of tougher bargaining, accuses the Postal Service of harassing of workers by supervisors, inadequate concern for the safety of employees in automated operations, productivity changes designed to reduce labor costs by eliminating workers, and "inadequate" compensation.

He says: "I'm not in office to bargain with a chip on my shoulder, but I don't like the antiunion tactics of the present postal administration, and I don't want a repeat of the 1978 contract disaster."

Three years ago the previous union administration settled on contract terms that many postal workers had repudiated as unsatisfactory. Some struck illegally in New Jersey and California and were dismissed. Biller wants them reinstated.

He recently warned that if labor's demands are not met, workers will use their "weapon of last resort" -- strike action. In retort, the postmaster general says, "This nation cannot tolerate a postal work stoppage." If one is scheduled, he adds, he will use all legal means possible to prevent it.

The Postal Service is proposing further automation of mail sorting and other operations. Bolger has forecast savings by 1986 of $500 million a year as a result of automation and has said that he hopes to reduce the postal work force by 60,000 employees before 1990, but through attrition rather than layoffs.

Biller has attacked the planned expansion of automation, including a nine-digit ZIP code, as "phony boondoggles," and he is suggesting to members of the union that they not cooperate with such changes until there are firm assurances that no jobs will be elimin ated.

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