Postal workers elect new leaders who pledge to build a movement
By Alexandra Bradbury, Labor Notes
A diverse slate of local leaders pledging to take a firmer hand with management, increase transparency about contract details, collaborate with other postal unions and community groups, and mobilize members has just won national leadership of the American Postal Workers Union.
The Members First Team, headed by now President-Elect Mark Dimondstein, won seven of the nine seats it contested, the APWU announced Tuesday night.
The stakes couldn't be higher for postal workers, who are battling wave after wave of attacks -- post offices and sorting plants closing, work privatizing, delivery standards eroding. The latest nasty bill pending in Congress would kill Saturday letter delivery, replace door-to-door with curbside and neighborhood "cluster box" service, and ban workers' time-honored no-layoff clause from future contracts.
"We're at a crossroads," said Dimondstein before the election. "At the core of this whole struggle is whether the post office is going to be decisively privatized and turned over to profit-making entities and low-paid, non-union jobs -- or remain a public entity that serves all the people and maintains good-paying union jobs."
Along with Dimondstein, winning members of the slate were Debby Szeredy for executive vice president, Tony McKinnon for industrial relations director, John Marcotte for legislative/political director, Anna Smith for organization director, Kennith Beasley for Southern region coordinator, and Clint Burelson for clerk division director. Their three-year term begins November 12.
"We have not seen anybody at this point able to stop the postmaster general," said Szeredy, a local president in Mid-Hudson Valley, New York, who has organized other local leaders to oppose plant closures.
Plus, the union made dramatic concessions in 2010 -- including a three-tier system that funnels new hires into low-paid, perma-temp positions.
"It's a regressive contract that takes us back 30 or 40 years," said McKinnon, a local president in Fayetteville, North Carolina. "We have to try to stop the bleeding." The new team will bargain the 2015 contract.
Dimondstein was president of his Greensboro, North Carolina, local for 12 years and an APWU lead organizer for a decade. More recently he co-founded an area Jobs with Justice chapter and a local community-postal worker coalition.
APWU's members include nearly 200,000 maintenance workers, truck drivers, and clerks, whose jobs range from processing mail in plants to selling stamps in post offices. Three other unions represent the rest of the workforce, including letter carriers and mail handlers.
Unlike in many unions, APWU's rank and file directly elects national officers via mail ballots. Twenty-five percent of eligible members and retirees voted.
Temp workers, now called "postal support employees," were finally made union members in the last contract, but their jobs are still bad -- low wages, weak benefits, little job security -- and their ranks grew to about 16 percent of the APWU workforce. All new hires must now come in that way, at $12 to $15.85 per hour.
The federal hiring preference traditionally made USPS a place for veterans to find decent, unionized work. But the PSE track makes that option less desirable. Even in Fayetteville, home to Fort Bragg, a recent orientation of 120 included only four or five vets, McKinnon said.
The new middle tier lowered wages for career employees. A full-timer at Level 6 used to start at over $40,000 a year; that fell to $35,000, assuming a 40-hour week. And 30 hours can now be considered "nontraditional full time" (a way around caps on the numbers of part-timers) -- so a "full-time" hire could start at just over $26,000.
Still, outgoing President Cliff Guffey said the contract "made progress" on the top issues: maintaining benefits and layoff protections, and winning modest raises for existing members. "It may not seem like much," he wrote on the incumbents' campaign website, but workers in other industries have less.
After APWU agreed to the three tiers, the Postal Service went after the other three other postal unions for the same concessions -- but the Letter Carriers and Mail Handlers fought it to arbitration. In the end arbitrators imposed a version of two-tier, but both unions got better deals than APWU: new hires start lower than current letter carriers and mail handlers, but their top pay is the same.
"The union should never be selling short the coming generation," Dimondstein said. "We should always be looking to uplift and advance."
The people move Congress
For now, there aren't many new career positions to be had, anyway -- as plants and post offices close (or "consolidate") and displaced members bump into available slots. The Members First Team argued national leaders haven't been doing enough to help locals fight.
"I think they've given up," Szeredy said. "We can't just sit back and say it's over."
Szeredy's plant is one of 55 on the chopping block this round. The cuts don't even make sense financially, she said: USPS is "spending money like water" on renovations to prepare for the shuffle. Trucking mail farther will create a domino effect of delays and pile up overtime costs.
She contacted union leaders at the other targeted plants, filed a complaint with the Postal Regulatory Commission, and brought her congressman to testify.
But despite Szeredy's efforts and other pockets of resistance around the country -- a tent city in Berkeley, a plant sit-in in Salem, Oregon -- the cuts are mostly steamrolling ahead.
Putting the brakes on will require congressional action, since USPS's supposed financial woes are Congress's fault. They're an accounting fiction, the result of a 2006 law requiring retiree health benefits to be funded 75 years ahead.
Fix-it bills languish in committee. APWU leaders' drumbeat message: lobby. Guffey touted the union's "unparalleled media campaign -- complete with T.V. ads."
'Cause some trouble'
Dimondstein wants to unite "retirees, seniors, even business organizations, civil rights organizations, veterans' groups, and so on, to build a movement to defend the post office -- because we think Congress moves when the people move."
Such an alliance should defend not only good jobs, but also the democratic mission of the Postal Service, said Burelson, a local president in Olympia, Washington. It could demand that USPS reduce onerous postage rates for small and nonprofit mailers and offer secure, affordable email access to the public.
Despite calls from member activists, the four postal unions haven't staged national action together since 2011. Guffey has "openly abdicated the fight to save six-day delivery," seeing it as a letter carriers' issue, Dimondstein said. "The idea that we have different fights, it's the classic divide and conquer."
Slate members, all officers in state or local APWU chapters, traveled the country on their own dime to talk to members at plant gates.
Past President William Burrus, who retired in 2010, endorsed them. Burrus has been publicly critical of the contract his successor negotiated, especially the reduced wages for the next generation of career employees.
Retirees made up about 20 percent of eligible voters. Vital issues facing them, Dimondstein said, include a looming assault on the federal employee health plan and "defending six-day delivery -- which all of us need as customers, and the older we get the more we need it."
"We always talk about what we want, but how are we going to get it?" Burelson said. "Historically you get it by causing trouble in some way."
Labor Notes is a media and organizing project that has been the voice of union activists since 1979.