For beleaguered Postal Service it's contract time

Postal labor negotiations are beginning in Washington this week with a contract deadline just five weeks off and under what the US Postal Service complains are "unworkable bargaining conditions."

The Postal Service considers the 1981 labor situation the most critical of current problems, which include a steady erosion of funding, a strong public reaction against its fifth rate increase in the past 11 years, and congressional resistance to a proposed nine-digit ZIP code sought for greater efficiency and cost savings.

Postmaster General William F. Bolger said that the labor talks are "the immediate mountain in our path." Although strikes by postal workers are barred by federal law, scattered walkouts occurred in recent rounds of contract talks. With the major unions now under more militant leadership, disruptions of service are possible in late July if there is no settlement.

When the 1981 agreement comes, it is certain to be expensive and is likely to bring another Postal Service request for a first-class rate increase -- probably to 20 cents, although 23 cents has been mentioned. The latest rate increase, to 18 cents, will leave the agency in the red by as much as $2 billion in 1981-82 if wages and benefits rise substantially.

Negotiations originally were scheduled to start April 22 but were delayed because of bitter intramural feuding among the four unions representing 600,000 Postal Service employees.The postmaster general said then that negotiations appeared impossible because of the "chaos" of the labor situation.

The Postal Service asked the National Labor Relations Board to set formal ground rules for orderly negotiations. The NLRB dismissed the request June 11. Expressing disappointment, Mr. Bolger announced that the Postal Service would begin talks immediately with its four unions.

"I believe that we should be able to achieve settlements," Mr. Bolger said, "by the expiration dates of contracts July 20."

All four unions are pressing the Postal Service for wage and cost-of-living increases, job security, and safer work conditions.

Wages would appear to be less of a problem than job security and safety. The Postal Service is reconciled to giving raises -- although not as substantial increases as the unions are demanding -- but the agency opposes a liberalized cost-of-living formula. Unions complain that their present plan offse ts only two-thirds of living cost increases since 1978.

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