Tag: john potter

The Postal Service’s Union Problem

Comments from members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a recent hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s woes indicate they don’t appreciate the USPS’s union problem. Postmaster General John Potter went before the committee to make his case for restructuring the postal operation, including greater labor flexibility.

From GovExec.com:

“You have to find people meaningful work, or no matter how compassionate you are, you’re not doing them any favors,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, criticizing holding rooms where underemployed postal workers wait until there are tasks for them to perform. “How many billions of dollars would have been saved if you’d aggressively right-sized the force before you came to us and said you want to go from six days [of mail delivery] to five?”

Congressman Issa should be informed that it is union rules that prevent postal management from laying off underemployed postal workers and having to put them in holding rooms.

Issa told Potter during his opening statement that the Postal Service has “more or less a third more people than you need,” but he said it “is not really acceptable” to convert full-time jobs to part-time positions, unless applicants are looking specifically for part-time work or part-time positions that lead to full-time work. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said she was concerned that part-time workers might not be treated fairly or could be excluded from collective bargaining agreements.

Lawmakers insisted repeatedly that even as the Postal Service confronts harsh financial realities, the agency must take into consideration the jobs of postal workers. “I’m hopeful this committee will find a way to deal with it that preserves the good faith that the people who serve the U.S. Postal Service have a right to expect,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

These members might want to read the Government Accountability Office’s latest report on the USPS, which called the mail monopoly’s business model “not viable.” Union labor is part of the problem. The average postal employee earns $83,000 a year in total compensation and 85 percent of its workforce is covered by collective bargaining agreements. Labor accounts for 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure.

The GAO cites the following as reasons why USPS labor costs are so high:

  • The USPS covers a higher proportion of employee premiums for health care and life insurance than most other federal agencies, which is impressive because it’s hard to be more generous than federal agencies.
  • USPS workers participate in the federal workers’ compensation program, which generally provides larger benefits than the private sector. And instead of retiring when eligible, USPS workers can stay on the “more generous” workers’ compensation rolls.
  • Collective bargaining agreements limit the amount of part-time and contract workers the USPS can use to fit its workload needs, and they limit managers from assigning work to employees outside of their crafts. The latter explains why you get stuck waiting in line at the post office while other postal employees seemingly oblivious to customers’ needs go about doing less important tasks.
  • Most postal employees are protected by “no-layoff” provisions, and the USPS must let go lower-cost part-time and temporary employees before it can lay off a full-time worker not covered by a no-layoff provision.
  • If the collective bargaining process reaches binding arbitration, there is no statutory requirement for the USPS’s financial condition to be considered. This is like making the decision whether or not to go fishing, but not taking into consideration the fact that the boat has holes in its bottom.

The fact that Postmaster Potter has to go to Congress to plead for help to make business decisions points to a fundamental problem. Government-run businesses are necessarily hamstrung by the whims of politicians, who often only have a vague understanding of economics and business. If FedEx or UPS had to get congressional permission to manage its workforce, both would collapse. As mail volume falls, that’s where the USPS is headed unless we privatize it and deregulate postal markets.

Postmaster Indicates Need for Privatization

A recent Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the U.S. Postal Service’s dire financial prospects found little enthusiasm for the USPS’s idea to eliminate Saturday mail service. Financial Services subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) said “serious questions need to be asked and answered,” and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) expressed concern that it would send the USPS into “a death spiral.”

The USPS is already in a death spiral due to changes in technology, high labor costs, and costly congressional mandates that have left it facing a projected $238 billion in losses over the next ten years. The USPS says dropping Saturday service would save the USPS $3 billion a year. However, the Postal Regulatory Commission believes the savings would be significantly smaller. Regardless, if the USPS stops Saturday service then private firms should be allowed to provide Saturday mail service.

Better yet, the USPS monopoly should be completely repealed and private firms allowed to deliver mail every day of the week. Interestingly, Postmaster General John Potter’s testimony inadvertently makes a case for privatizing the USPS.

Potter notes that when private businesses are losing money, they sell off assets, close locations, and reduce employment. He cites Sears, L.L. Bean, and Starbucks as recent examples of companies making cost cutting moves in the face of declining revenues. The Government Accountability Office’s testimony noted that the USPS has more retail outlets (36,500) than McDonalds, Starbucks, and Walgreens combined. Yet, its post offices average 600 visits per week, which is only 10 percent of Walgreen’s average weekly traffic.

In his testimony, Potter states:

If the Postal Service were provided with the flexibilities used by businesses in the marketplace to streamline their operations and reduce costs, we would become a more efficient and effective organization. Such a change would also allow us to more quickly adapt to meet the evolving needs, demands, and activities of our customers, now and in the future.

This is precisely why the USPS needs to be privatized and subjected to the demands of the market and not the whims of Congress. Members of congress always raise a fuss when the USPS targets postal outlets for closure in their districts.

Potter wants Congress to suspend a requirement that the USPS pre-fund its retiree health benefits. He argues that the trust fund for these payments has a $35 billion balance, which he says is enough to pay the health premiums for its 500,000 retirees through their lifetimes.

The more fundamental problem is the existence of this generous benefit to begin with. Potter notes that private companies aren’t subject to a pre-funding mandate. But the vast majority of private companies don’t even offer retiree health benefits. The GAO also points out that the USPS retiree benefits are generous even by government standards:

USPS pays a higher percentage of employee health benefit premiums than other federal agencies (80 percent versus 72 percent, respectively). In addition, USPS pays 100 percent of employee life insurance premiums, while other federal agencies pay about 33 percent.

Potter naturally wants more flexibility in dealing with the USPS’s excessive labor costs. The average postal employee receives $83,000 a year in total compensation. Employee pay and benefits constitute 80 percent of the USPS’s cost structure, which despite increased automation has remained the same since the 1960s. But so long as the USPS remains a government enterprise, it’s hard to imagine Congress standing up to the postal unions and giving management the labor flexibility it desires.

Finally, Potter wants the USPS to have more freedom when it comes to pricing and getting into new lines of business:

We also need the ability to expand our products and services, and ensure prices for our Market-Dominant products are based on the demand and cost of each individual product.

“Market-Dominant” is an Orwellian way of saying “Government Granted Monopoly.” Again, if the Postmaster wants mail prices to have an economic rationale, then the USPS needs to be privatized so that the market can efficiently set prices. Further, the USPS has a poor track record when it comes to expanding into services not protected by its monopoly. Plus it would be competing against the private sector on advantageous terms due to its status as a government enterprise.

What Potter wants – and needs – is something that only the private sector can provide. If the Senate hearing is any indication, Congress has no present plans to relinquish its control over the dying government monopoly. Instead, the USPS will likely continue to bleed red until policymakers run out of band-aids and are finally confronted with the choice of either privatization or direct taxpayer funding.