Tag: postal service

Postal Union Wants More

The finances of the U.S. Postal Service are deeply in the red. The agency faces a permanently reduced demand for its services and its labor accounts for almost 80 percent of its costs. Thus it is not a good time for postal employees to get an increase in wages and benefits, right?

According to one postal union, the USPS’s deteriorating condition isn’t relevant. The American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 employees, has recently entered collective bargaining negotiations for a new contract. In an interview with Government Executive, APWU President William Burrus calls a pay increase for his members an “entitlement”:

“More – more control over activities at work, more money, better benefits – we want more,” said Burrus. “We will try to fashion our proposals to reflect the entitlement to more.”

An arbitrator will most likely determine whether APWU workers get their raises. Oddly, according to federal law an arbitrator can’t take the USPS’s financial condition into account when weighing a decision. This is like instructing the captain of a ship that’s struck an iceberg to ignore the gaping hole in the boat when deciding whether or not to abandon it.

USPS management has asked Congress to change the law, which Burrus preposterously calls “antidemocratic”:

Burrus said he resents the idea that an arbitrator should be required to take into account the Postal Service’s financial situation. He called the idea antidemocratic and said it interferes with free collective bargaining.

Having watched the unionized workforces at GM and Chrysler receive preferential treatment from the federal government, there’s little incentive for Burrus and the postal unions to not ask for more. The postal unions are likely betting that in a worst case financial scenario for the USPS, policymakers will tap taxpayers for a bailout. Unfortunately, if recent history is a guide, they’re probably correct.

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.

Congress Is Hurdle to USPS Reforms

National Journal reports that two key policymakers don’t support the U.S. Postal Service’s desire to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose Serrano (D-NY) says he’ll be working with USPS management and the postal unions to avoid service cuts. And House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee ranking member Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced that he too opposes the move.

Chaffetz intends to introduce legislation that would instead eliminate twelve delivery days a year. Twelve days? With the USPS facing $238 billion in losses over the next ten years, it’s hard to understand why the Republican congressman is fiddling around with such small changes.

From the article:

Chaffetz said he is concerned that if the Postal Service cuts Saturday deliveries, it could end up hurting itself in the long run by creating an opening for private delivery companies. “You have got to serve your customers, or somebody else will come in and do it for you,” he said.

What private delivery companies? UPS and FedEx are allowed to compete with the USPS on express mail delivery, but the USPS has a government-granted monopoly on regular mail. In pointing out that the USPS’s reduction in services isn’t good for customers, Chaffetz unintentionally make the cases for opening up the mails to competition from private providers.

“The challenge for the Postal Service is to become more relevant to people’s lives,” he said. “They have been cutting back … and I applaud them for that. The Postal Service is also one of the few things highlighted in U.S. Constitution. They’ve got to figure out ways to cut and make it more relevant.”

Mr. Chaffetz: The Constitution gives the federal government the power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” It doesn’t say the government has to have a monopoly over the provision of mail. Nor does it say that Congress must perform this service. Today, there are better private options.

The reality is that the USPS is bleeding red ink because it is becoming less relevant to people’s lives because of electronic communication. Surely Rep. Chaffetz doesn’t want the government’s mail monopolist involved in electronic correspondence to make it more “relevant”?

A story out of Finland demonstrates why that would be a bad idea. Finland’s state-owned postal service is testing a cost-cutting idea that would have it open mail, scan it, and then send an electronic copy to a digital mailbox. The original mail would then be sealed up and physically delivered, but delivery would only be done twice a week. Fins are rightly concerned about their civil liberties being violated by the government viewing their private correspondence.

The underlying idea behind the Finnish experiment is nonetheless sound. In a competitive market for mail delivery, electronic scanning and transmittal would be a more cost-effective – and thus perhaps profitable – way of getting people their mail. This could be especially appealing for costly-to-deliver rural areas, which proponents of the USPS often cite as a reason why mail privatization is untenable.

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.

Government of Continual Failure

The Washington Post is full of so many stories about government failure these days, it’s hard to keep up.

Today, on page A19 we learn about a Small Business Administration subsidy program that has a 60-percent default rate. On the same page, we learn that the U.S. Postal Service will lose $7 billion this year.

Flipping over to page A20, we learn that former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik is a liar, a tax cheat, and thoroughly corrupt.

Then flip back to A15, and columnist Steve Pearlstein rightly lambastes the latest stimulus scheme from Congress: ”This $10 billion boondoggle is nothing more than a giveaway to the real estate industrial complex.”

Finally, on A14, we’ve got government-owned Fannie Mae losing a colossal $19 billion this year and asking the Treasury for another $15 billion taxpayer hand-out.

The federal government is a mess. Policymakers have no idea what the effects will be when they spend billions on scheme after scheme. Most of them don’t read the legislation, they don’t understand economics, and they never admit mistakes when their schemes almost inevitably fail. Fully 40 percent of the vast federal budget will be debt-fueled this year, but few policymakers seem to care. And public corruption seems never-ending. 

Isn’t it time to give libertarianism a chance?