Postal service on a rampage
against the workers

By Postal Observer
(CV #43, June 2009)

Management's onslaught at ground level in Detroit
The capitulation of the postal union leaders
The need for rank-and-file resistance
The rank-and-file stand on the postal budget crisis

. The capitalist economic crisis is bringing a new wave of attacks against the workers. Unemployment across the country has approached double digits as the capitalist corporations seek to rescue their profits through layoffs and decimating wages and benefits. Sections of the working class that had traditionally had better conditions are disappearing or being driven down toward minimum-wage status. The auto workers, once the standard-bearer of better living conditions for the workers, are a widely-known example of this process. But it is going on everywhere, in more or less dramatic forms.

. The US Postal Service, the nation's third largest employer, is no exception. Though it is a governmental agency, it is self-financing and operates much like other capitalist corporations. It seeks to balance its budget just like the other capitalists -- by decimating its employees. Just as the auto capitalists steadily eroded the gains of the auto workers for decades before crushing them in the last couple of years, so the USPS management has steadily chipped away at postal worker gains for many years in preparation for the brazen attacks it is launching today. Largely through attrition, automation and big increases in individual workloads, management has whittled away at the workforce, even through years of increasing mail volume and profits. Now, with the general economic collapse, postal management has been slashing the workforce at breakneck speed.

. To do this, the USPS bosses are resorting to ever harsher measures, seeing how far they can get away with sidestepping and ignoring whatever employee protections exist. Thus, for example, they have ripped up their obligations to provide suitable work for workers injured on the job. They are finding ways to tap-dance around contractual restrictions on layoffs. They are petitioning Congress to cut delivery of mail from six days per week to five. Last year alone, over 24,000 jobs were eliminated, and management is aiming to cut another 50,000 this year. All told, since 1999, the career workforce has been cut by about 23%. But this is not all. Management's latest attacks are also preparations for an all-out assault on postal workers' livelihoods when contracts with most of the workforce expire in 2010-11.

. The postal service is able to get away with this not because workers agree with this, but because they are disorganized. Four separate craft unions exist but their leaderships have done little to get in the way of the onslaught. (1) The union leaderships keep a leash on the workers' anger. They bow to the no-strike laws enslaving postal workers. They are reluctant to have any sort of legal mass protests, lest they embarrass management. For decades they have been offering piecemeal contract concessions under the guise that if the postal service makes more money, this will preserve workers' jobs. They confine the struggle to a grievance procedure stacked in favor of management and an occasional legal challenge in the capitalist courts. Since they offer no serious resistance, management feels no compulsion to stop attacking workers or even obeying the contract. In this regard, too, the postal workers face a situation similar to that of the auto workers. For decades, the UAW leaders promoted concessions and "labor-management cooperation" as the saving grace for the workers. This policy didn't placate management ­ it helped them decimate the auto workers. Yet, the leadership of the postal unions continues along the same bankrupt path.

. But no matter how much the union leaderships collaborate with management, the rank-and-file workers can never be reconciled to them. The never-ending onslaught against them is a constant source of anger. A good section of the workers is disenchanted with the union sellouts as well. The task ahead is for the rank and file to use their own initiative and build new, fighting organizations that can mobilize them for a real struggle against management. Today, the level of organized resistance is weak and scattered. The decades of passivity imposed by the sellout union bureaucrats are still far from overcome. But there are examples, however small, of resistance. Supporters of the Communist Voice Organization have been active in helping promote independent motion among the rank and file. It is these examples, however small, that will help inspire and guide wider groups of workers who will be thrown into the fray by the escalating onslaught of the postal bosses.

Management's onslaught at ground level in Detroit

. To get an idea of how postal management is squeezing the workers, it's instructive to see how its national policies are playing out on the shop floor at postal facilities in the Detroit area.

. In the past year or so, national postal management has escalated what it calls the National Reassessment Program (NRP). This program, in the works well before the present economic crisis, is a massive attack on the rights of injured postal workers. Postal work, whether moving mail in processing plants, machine-tending sorting machines, or carrying the mail, is quite strenuous and results in some 37,000 workers presently suffering long-term work-related injuries. In the past, the postal service has accepted responsibility under contractual agreements to provide work for those injured on the job. Even then, injured workers were harassed by management as well as the federal Workers' Compensation agency. Still, many injured workers were able to remain on the payroll and provided with work commensurate with their physical restrictions.

. With the NRP management renounced its responsibility to those workers it injured. Postal management now claims that the work previously offered to injured workers is no longer "necessary work", which is a lie as most of this work has simply been added to the burden of uninjured workers. Once injured workers are "reassessed" they are displaced from their previous work assignments. They are offered jobs in far-away places, jobs with greatly reduced hours, jobs that violate their restrictions, or no jobs at all. Indeed, according to management's "2007 Comprehensive Statement on Postal Operations", as many as 2,361 injured workers nationally had already been forced out of the postal service.

. Injured workers removed from the postal service will be able to collect Workers' Compensation for a while. But Workers' Comp can then force the worker to accept employment with a new private employer. Here the worker will start out making the same wages as before, since the USPS has to make up the difference between the wages paid by the new employer and the previous postal wage rate. But the workers' postal pension fund will not continue to build up to levels needed to retire, and health and life insurance benefits will be lost. Moreover, they are likely to work in a non-union workplace with no protections. There is nothing to stop the new employer from firing the ex-postal employee on any whim. And if that happens, Workers' Comp is not required to find work. The end of the road for the injured worker could well be the unemployment line.

. How the NRP operates can be seen in various Detroit facilities where about 250 injured workers are potential victims of reassignments. At a Customer Care Center (CCC) several dozen injured workers, mainly letter carriers, work answering phone calls from the public. The whole workforce there is subject to "reassignment" under NRP. These reassignments are not viable job offers. Some assignments only provide a few hours work a day. Some are 50 miles away. Others don't account for the actual medical restrictions of the workers. CCC workers may be able to continue to work at their present assignments, but those assignments are merely "details", temporary assignments that can be abolished any time. If that happens, they'll be forced into their "reassignment" job that reduces them to part-time work or forces them to retire.

. This policy not only means hardship for those with work-related injuries today, it means that in the future, workers injured on the job will also find themselves ruined.

. As the economic crisis has deepened, management nationally has been stepping up efforts to reduce the work force in many other ways. In Detroit and elsewhere, letter carrier routes are being eliminated faster than ever, despite the existence of more delivery points. The remaining routes keep getting longer, placing a tremendous burden on the letter carriers, and moving them ever nearer to entering the ranks of the injured.

. Meanwhile at the large mail processing center in downtown Detroit, the G.W. Young Center (GWY), management work-reduction tactics have become bizarre. Sections of workers there were ordered to sit in a break area for six hours a day and do nothing. Management calls this "stand-by" status. About 60 clerks and letter carriers were later put on a similar "stand-by" at the suburban Redford station. The irony of paying people to do nothing at a time when management is singing the blues about their budget crisis is evident. But there is a method to the madness. Management aims to eliminate the jobs these workers were doing and to remove a number of these displaced workers from the postal service itself.

. Management has also forced hundreds of workers at the GWY and clerks at the neighborhood post offices in Detroit and vicinity to re-bid on jobs. Shifting to other jobs was a hardship for many workers. Worse, the number of jobs available was cut so there was nothing to bid on for many workers. These "excess" workers might be shuffled to stand-by status or offered jobs that might be 100 miles away.

. Clearly management considers the contractual protections against layoffs to be not much of an obstacle. They have announced they are going to remove tens of thousands of "excess" workers' jobs, and they don't much care about the carnage to the workers.

The capitulation of the postal union leaders

. In the face of postal management's attacks, what has been the stand of the postal union leaders? It has ranged from doing nothing, to filing grievances that can only delay job cuts a bit, to inciting squabbles between different crafts over which craft should be entitled to the ever-shrinking number of jobs. As well, they oppose militant workers who have demanded mass action.

. Let's look at the stand of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

. With respect to the National Reassessment Program, and its attacks on injured workers, it has filed a national class-action grievance. But its not pressing for resolution of the grievance; it has been on hold for years. The Detroit branch of the NALC has heard complaints in union meetings about the lack of action. But it too is afraid of action, and of offending the national leadership, so it passively accepts whatever garbage is fed to it by the NALC national officers.

. Both the national and local NALC leadership push "labor-management cooperation", according to which, if the workers sacrifice to help management solve its budget woes, this will somehow save the workers jobs. Just how bankrupt "labor-management cooperation" is can be seen by the open assistance the NALC national leaders are giving to management's efforts to eliminate carrier routes. The NALC has agreed to an almost constant reevaluation of routes, and each time routes are evaluated, more are eliminated and the remaining routes are made longer. After agreeing to this constant reevaluation, the national and local union officials instruct the shop stewards (who actually carry mail themselves unlike the higher union officers) to make sure management doesn't go "too far" in cutting routes. Weeks and months are spent bickering with management over the statistics produced by the route evaluations. But the bickering is nearly always over how many routes should be cut, not that routes should be added to cover the ever-growing number of delivery points. The idea that the burden on over-worked letter carriers should be eased, which would provide more jobs and earlier delivery times for the public, is not considered, just the financial needs of the postal bosses.

. Recently, the Detroit branch of the NALC went so far as to turn over a good amount of time at two union meetings to Detroit district postal management so that they could tell letter carriers how lucky they were to be working for the post office while other workers are losing their jobs. Of course these are the same managers who are working night and day to eliminate jobs.

. The clerks' union -- the American Postal Workers Union -- has pretensions to be more pro-active than the NALC. But it too is taking a flabby stand as the crisis deepens. Last fall, when management's plan to eliminate certain day shift jobs at mail processing centers across the country became known, the APWU national leadership filed a grievance and brought charges before the National Labor Relations Board. The Detroit APWU, filed similar charges. After several months, the Detroit case was supposed to come up before an arbitrator in April. But the case was postponed, at management's request, until May. All management had to do was pay $5,000 to cover the costs of a delay. By that time, the job reassignments challenged in the case had already become a fait accompli. But that's not all. The grievances and legal maneuvers both at the national and local level, even if won, would only cause a delay in management going ahead with their job-cutting plans. As well, grievances can drag on for years while the job-cutting goes ahead. And there's no guarantee the arbitrator will oppose management. In fact, the arbitrators come from the same well-off strata as higher postal officials and are detached from the workers.

. One pernicious tactic of the Detroit APWU leadership has been to blame injured carriers for the loss of jobs by clerks and to push for these carriers to be deprived of work altogether. An injured letter carrier naturally cannot carry mail all day, so whatever alternate work they are provided will, naturally, be indoor work that would, in other circumstances, be "clerk work." The Detroit APWU president filed a grievance demanding that only clerks should be entitled to work at the local Customer Care Center, where most workers are injured letter carriers. But the carriers at the CCC, as described above, are already under severe threat of job loss and this grievance only helps management get rid of them. Such tactics turn worker against worker, helping management get rid of workers of both crafts.

. The flip side of the union leaderships' cooperation with management is their hostility to building serious collective resistance to management. At various meetings of the Detroit NALC and APWU, militant workers have called for mass protests. But to date the Detroit union leadership has failed to call a single protest. Instead they offer one excuse after another to avoid doing so.

. The same union leaders conducted major campaigns to mobilize workers to campaign to get Obama elected. Supposedly this would be the key thing protecting postal workers. But management continues to slash jobs. Indeed, while Obama is not an open reactionary, like Bush, he too is on the side of the corporations, not the workers. Thus, he forks over trillions of dollars to the banking executives, but demands massive job cuts and other worker concessions as a condition for his auto bailout. But while the union leaders mobilize workers and spend millions of dollars in union dues to elect the pro-capitalist Democrats, they fear a serious mobilization of the rank and file against management.

The need for rank-and-file resistance

. The fate of the postal workers cannot be entrusted to management, the union leaders, or the capitalist politicians. The rank and file must mobilize in their own defense.

. In Detroit, the recent management attacks have led to some initial stirrings among the workers. At the downtown Detroit processing plant, a group of workers collected 124 signatures opposing management's plan to make workers re-bid for jobs. A worker presented the petition to the union leadership at an APWU meeting, while he and another worker argued for mass picketing as opposed to the quiet response of the union leadership. When the local union president, Dwight Boudreaux, said that picketing would not get any support from the public because postal workers have "better jobs" , a militant worker shot back "So, should we wait till we have nothing before taking action."? These workers pointed out how rank and file pickets in the 1990s had been effective in fighting management's abuse of injured workers back then. A letter carrier militant has raised similar demands and exposed the union leaders cowardly position at Detroit NALC meetings.

. There have also been modest steps forward in building rank-and-file organization. Several meetings have been organized. They were called as joint meetings across all crafts in order to help overcome the divisions sown by the union officials. Attendance was small, but there was lively discussion denouncing management and the union leaders and what sorts of things the rank and file could do to defend itself. There have also been some instances of workers distributing leaflets at several facilities. Right now the workers have not yet been able to move to wide-scale actions. But the humble steps forward show that rank and file organization is possible.

. Our group, the Communist Voice Organization (CVO), and its supporters in Detroit who publish Detroit Workers' Voice leaflets, have been helping to push this motion forward. The CVO has also heard from a number of postal workers around the country. They express appreciation for our stand against management and the union misleaders and ask what can be done.

. We have put forward various ideas on organizing the rank-and-file struggle in the current circumstances. Among our suggestions are the following:

There is also the question of what types of protest would move things ahead at this time.

The rank-and-file stand on the postal budget crisis

. Another issue that comes up in this period is what attitude to have to the budget crisis that the post office is in. Many workers who oppose management are nonetheless wondering what alternative there is to driving down the workers to balance the budget.

. But the fact that the postal service has a budget crisis does not mean the crisis should be resolved on the backs of the workers. First, it should be noted that were it not for the Postal Reform Act of 2006, and its requirements that the postal service pay an extraordinary new increase of $5 billion plus per year into funds for future retiree benefits, the postal service would have actually made a handsome profit in 2008. No doubt it is good to have adequate funding for retirees, but this need not have required this type of sudden increase or that the sole source should be funds generated by postal employees. (2) The repeal of that act would erase a good section of the present deficits. As well, there has long been outrageous subsidies provided by the USPS to big bulk mailers as well and this is another factor that feeds the deficits. This too would help balance the postal budget, which is required by law to break even over a period of time. Of course the overall crash of the capitalist economy has led to much of the recent budget problems. But the workers were not responsible for this, and should not be the ones who have to pay for the damage.

. But even should various measures be taken that reduce or eliminate the budget deficits, this does not mean that management will stop attacking the workers. Management was eliminating jobs for many years before the present economic crisis. And in the wake of the crisis, they will keep their foot on the necks of the workers, lest they encounter future budget deficits.

. If the postal bosses claim it is necessary that they attack the workers to solve their budget woes, workers must reply that they have an economic necessity to defend themselves. In short the needs of management and the workers can never be reconciled. And whether the workers will manage to fend off the attacks of management depends on how strong their struggle is. This holds whether the postal budget produces profits or not. Even if the post office operates at a deficit, a strong workers' movement can greatly affect the outcome on workers. It can force what funds exist to meet more of the workers' needs. As well, the struggle can also result in other resources aiding the workers. If trillions of government dollars can be handed over to insure that the banking capitalists can continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the working masses, this means that serious aid could be offered to postal workers and other workers and poor. Whether this aid finances jobs or replaces the present tattered social safety net with a much more extensive system of unemployment and other benefits, such things can and should be demanded. Whether the working masses get the aid they need to survive these tough times or whether they are wiped out depends on one thing ­ how strong a struggle can they put up.

. The issue facing postal workers is similar to that facing other workers. Everywhere the bosses are trying to solve the economic crisis by ruining the workers. In the post office this means a relentless effort to cut jobs, intensify workloads, punish injured workers, tear up contractual obligations, etc. The economic crisis is sharpening all the conflicts that have existed between workers and management. The need for mass action will grow. That is why even the tiny steps toward establishing a fighting rank and file movement are of the utmost importance.


(1) The four postal unions are the American Postal Workers Union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association. (Return to text)

(2) It was not the workers who clamored for the Postal Reform Act, but management and the union leaders. Management liked the Postal Reform because it allowed them to change prices more easily, which, they thought, would lead to more profits. The union leadership liked it because they believed in the bankrupt idea that more profits means more jobs and wages would trickle-down to the workers. (Text)

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