Letter-writing and phone calls haven’t worked; conventional lobbying hasn’t worked. So, starting this morning, 10 active and retired U.S. Postal Service employees are resorting to a more dramatic tactic: A hunger strike intended to prod lawmakers into dropping a requirement for the beleaguered mail carrier to “pre-fund” a retiree health care benefits fund.
“We’re trying to turn up the heat on Congress, which is stuck on stupid,” Jamie Partridge, a recently retired city letter carrier from Oregon who’s participating in the strike, said in a phone interview from outside a House office building.
After a news conference this morning with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the group plans a march on the Capitol tomorrow and on Thursday afternoon will take its grievances directly to USPS headquarters at 475 L’Enfant Plaza. The four-day fast is part of a broader effort by a labor-backed organization called Communities and Postal Workers United, which is also seeking a refund on surplus USPS pension contributions. Just for the Federal Employees Retirement System, that excess amounted to $11.4 billion as of the end of last September, according to a recently updated tally by the Postal Service’s inspector general.
Of course, USPS leaders are also pushing for relief from the pre-funding mandate contained in the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, not to mention a refund on the surplus pension contributions. Under that act, the Postal Service has to pay about $5.5 billion into the health care fund at the end of each September to ensure coverage for future retirees. The pros and cons of this debate have been repeatedly rehashed, so FedLine won’t go into them here. Suffice it to say that the Postal Service no longer has the wherewithal to meet the requirement.
Last year, Congress averted what would have been at least a symbolically embarrassing default by deferring the September 2011 payment until this August. But with that new deadline barely a month away, the Postal Service appears no more able to cover the expense. Besides which, this September’s payment is looming. Anyone got $11 billion to spare?
Postal workers have a separate bone to pick, however, with Postmaster General Pat Donahoe, who has launched a two-pronged cost-cutting drive that will eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in the next couple of years.
Starting next week, the Postal Service plans to begin closing or consolidating several dozen mail processing plants as part of a longer-term push that could eventually halve the size of its network. At the same time, postal officials intend to cut customer service “window” hours at about 13,000 low-traffic post offices, and eventually replace most of the full-time postmasters in those offices with part-timers.
By Donahoe’s telling, steadily sinking mail volume leaves him no choice. But Partridge said the postmaster general could instead refuse to make the payments into the retiree health care and pension funds as a way of avoiding cuts “that are going to send the Postal Service into a death spiral.”
It’s no secret that there are a lot fewer postal workers than there used to be; the size of the agency’s total career workforce plunged 26 percent between 2000 and 2010, from about 787,500 to 583,900. But which crafts took the biggest hit? The agency’s inspector general put together some figures recently and found that a steep drop in the number of clerks accounted for almost two-thirds of that shrinkage.
From 2000 to 2010, the ranks of clerks—a category that also includes nurses and motor vehicle operators–nosedived from 291,494 to 164,581. By itself, that’s a 44 percent tumble. Do a little more math and you’ll see that clerks absorbed about 62 percent of the total job cuts in the USPS career work force during that time.
The next two hardest-hit employee classes, though, may come as a surprise: The ranks of supervisors and managers fell 28 percent while a more nebulous category described as “headquarters/other” dropped 24 percent. The number of city carriers and mail handlers was down 20 percent, postmasters, 12 percent, and maintenance employees, 11 percent. The only craft to show an increase was that of rural carriers, which rose 17 percent. Anyone have any thoughts on why that was?