Supporting Postal Workers in Turbulent Times

Interview with William Burrus

American Postal Workers Union

by Stephen Losey

Federal Times

May 12, 2003

As the U.S. Postal Service faces many challenges ó declining first-class mail volume, threats of bioterrorism and sweeping reforms that could arise from a presidential commission ó American Postal Workers Union President William Burrus must make sure the 370,000 clerks, maintenance workers and drivers his organization represents are not left behind.

Burrus expressed concern in a recent interview over the delay in offering union members early retirement, which the union had negotiated in a December contract extension. The early outs had been scheduled to begin April 1, but the Office of Personnel Management has not yet given its approval.

ďIt appears the Postal Service is trying to change their commitment after the fact,Ē Burrus said. ďThey want to limit [retirements] to geographical areas.Ē

Postal Service spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp said the proposal to offer the first early outs to workers in overstaffed areas was a way to begin the early outs before the new regulations are published and would not have precluded retirements of workers in regions not initially designated.

On April 4, Burrus posted a letter on the APWU Web site saying OPM cannot approve the early outs until new regulations are published in the Federal Register. The new regulations had not been published at press time.

Burrus, who began his postal career in 1958 as a distribution clerk, was elected APWU president in November 2001. He had been the unionís executive vice president for 21 years. He is the first African American to be directly elected president by the members of a national union in the United States and was named one of Ebony magazineís Most Influential Black Americans in May 2002.

Burrus spoke of APWUís relationship with the Postal Service and his concerns about the presidentís commission in an interview with Federal Times Staff Writer Stephen Losey at APWU headquarters in Washington, D.C. Following are edited excerpts of that interview:


Federal Times: When the presidentís commission was created in December, you were concerned it would dismantle the Postal Service and eliminate programs such as universal service. Do you still feel that way?


Burrus: Yes, absolutely. Even stronger. The presidential commission cannot achieve its stated objective. Itís a political approach to resolving what they state as the problem of technology eroding first-class mail. Thereís nothing they can do to increase first-class mail. We think first-class mail is temporarily declining as a result of a bad economy, more so than electronic diversion.

But I think itís a political approach to the underlying attempt to privatize the Postal Service. Thatís [the Bush administrationís] ultimate goal. I donít think theyíll achieve that, now, but it gives the right wing the opportunity theyíve been seeking for years to privatize the Postal Service. I think the presidential commission is just a mask of that effort to change the very nature of government services. Now that theyíre two months into their study, I think the record is fairly clear, who they are entertaining as witnesses, who has had the opportunity to submit testimony. Theyíre not looking to extend that to the average citizens of this country, those that are the recipients of all mail in this country, or most mail in this country. The evidence and the data thatís been submitted to the commission has been one-sided.


FT: Who would you recommend testify to give that other side?


Burrus: You have many organizations that represent consumers, average citizens. You have the [Ralph] Nader group [Public Citizen], you have Jesse Jacksonís group [the Rainbow Coalition], you have retireesí associations, you have those organizations that have membership of individual citizens. Those organizations have not been requested to testify. They have not been given the opportunity to express their views of the value of mail services, universal service, uniform rates.


FT: Do you think anything positive can come out of this commission?


Burrus: I donít think anything more than has been tried in the past. They can and probably will make recommendations that will be positive for the Postal Service. You donít need a presidential commission to recommend, perhaps, changing the pricing mechanisms, or the Board of Governors, or the Postal Rate Commission. And while this commission may make recommendations in that regard, they are standard recommendations. So they will not be reinventing the wheel. Itís already there.


FT: Are you concerned the commission will encourage the abolishment of collective bargaining or binding arbitration?


Burrus: Yes, absolutely Iím concerned about that. One would believe that in a free society, any presidential commission that hopes to support the Constitution would recognize the rights of its citizens to collectively engage in activities, and thatís the heart of collective bargaining. It would be a means of the right wing to reduce the opportunities of workers to have some say in their conditions of employment. We would oppose with all the strength at our disposal [any effort] to take away from postal employees the rights they achieved over the past 32 years, having some say in their own fate, their wages.


FT: The APWU maintains that the discounts offered to bulk mailers for work sharing far exceed the savings to the Postal Service. Have you had any luck focusing attention on this issue?


Burrus: The General Accounting Office is presently conducting an investigation [requested by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.] into the rate discount. I do not expect any major revelations from their report. Our position, as we expressed in the testimony I gave to the postal commission March 18, was that we just want it to be cost avoided [discounts should not exceed the amount mailers save the Postal Service through services such as presorting or affixing bar codes to envelopes]. It should be embarrassing for the mailing community to receive up to 9 cents for fixing a bar code on a letter. That is way beyond the cost avoided. They have turned the Postal Service into their cash cow. If they can do it cheaper than the Postal Service, APWUís position is they should be able to do the work. But only if they can do it cheaper.


FT: Do you agree with the concept and tactics of work-force reduction? And how small a work force is too small?


Burrus: Whatever it takes to perform the service we perform for the American public. Certainly, as a labor union, weíd like to have as large a union as we possibly can. We understand competition and the need to control an increase in rates, so if that means our work force is reduced, thatís capitalism. We understand that. But it should be a level playing field if theyíre going to perform collection, transportation, processing and delivery. Whoeverís going to do it should do that at the cheapest possible price. So if we can do it cheaper than others, we ought to get the work.


FT: Whatís your top-priority issue for this year?


Burrus: Our top issue would be to get some stability. We are going through the throes of realignment of the operations that the employees that we represent work. And thatís putting the lives of those individual employees in constant flux. They donít know where theyíre going to be working a day from now, a week from now, a year from now. We have a continuing desire to have a better working relationship with the Postal Service. Thatís always an objective.


FT: How would you rate postal and labor relations right now?


Burrus: Itís bad. We have decent personal relationships; thereís no personal animosity. But in terms of the institutions, itís bad. The Postal Service does not see the need to convince their subordinates to comply with our contracts. We have agreements, no different than the one you just raised about early-out retirements. We have agreements ó comply with them. Donít make up the game as you go along and you have different needs.


FT: What are your thoughts on the Postal Serviceís intention to consolidate facilities?


Burrus: I think the Postal Service should have as efficient an operation as it possibly can. If that results in consolidation, so be it. Thatís normal business.

Weíve been waiting for consolidation plans for the last six months. They committed to providing us a copy of that plan in our contract extension no later than the end of December, and weíre now in April and theyíve not been forthcoming. So Iím disappointed. Once again, they canít live up to their agreement that says they will provide us with a consolidation plan.


FT: What role do you see the union having in the Postal Service in the future?


Burrus: Weíll have the right to collective bargaining and we will represent the employees, no matter what the configuration of the Postal Service will be. There will be workers. And those workers have the right to be represented by a union, and the union will be representing their interests.