Postal Workers Fight Privatization With Private-Sector Organizing

In March, 350 employees of the Alan Ritchey, Inc. (ARI) Mail Transport Equipment Service Center in Chicopee, Massachusetts voted 205-130 to join Local 497 American Postal Workers Union.

The Chicopee campaign is part of a national effort by the APWU to counteract the privatization of mail services.

"We have come to the understanding that we have to organize as an industry," said APWU Lead Field Organizer Mark Dimondstein. "Privatization forced the issue to the forefront.

"The APWU will not be able to stop contracting, so the best we can do is to organize the industry, so that whatever happens with the postal service, we'll all rise together," he added. "I don't care who is doing the work, as long as it's all union."

APWU committed to private sector organizing with a resolution at its 1996 convention. That year, the union established a $2 million organizing fund through a two-year dues assessment.

Though it began slowly, the campaign has picked up in the last year. It is targeting workers in postal information technology, presort houses, mail freight terminals, mail transport equipment service centers (MTESCs), and customer service call centers.

Greg Poferl, chair of the private sector campaign's national organizing committee, estimates that there are one million nonunion workers in postal-related private industry. He says organizing in private industry is a drastic change for the APWU.

"Our organizing funding has always been internally focused toward non-members in USPS," he said, noting that the Postal Service is an open shop, about 80 to 85 percent organized.

"We have established a $2 million organizing fund, but that still amounts to only two percent of our overall budget," Poferl added. "So, we're trying to move more of our energies toward organizing.

"We're really trying to meld the two--internal organizing with private sector organizing--because it's really a distinction without a difference. Organizing is organizing."

In the last year, the APWU has launched 10 campaigns among mail freight drivers and at MTESCs. The work force in each of these locations is relatively small, ranging from 16 in Lincoln, Nebraska to 350 at Chicopee. The union won seven of these ten campaigns.

The APWU has found that the biggest challenge is at the MTESCs.

One of these is Alan Ritchey, Inc.

'JOB SECURITY BUTTONS'

Alan Ritchey, a Texas Entrepreneur, got lucrative postal contracts in the late 1990s as the Postal Service began soliciting bids for inspection, repair, inventory, and transport of postal equipment.

ARI ran several sites in Long Island, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicopee.

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The Chicopee site opened in last June. Two shifts handle mail bag, tray, and hamper inspections and repairs. The workers faced production quotas and sexual harassment. They were told that wages could only be raised when the Department of Labor reviewed the prevailing wage for the area. Injured workers were forced to work because they had no paid sick time, and repetitive motion injuries were rampant.

The organizing drive began in October, and learned a lot from a defeat at a Minneapolis ARI facility. In Minneapolis, ARI had fired 13 union supporters, replacing them with recent Cambodian immigrants who did not speak English. The union lost that election by 16 votes.

In Chicopee, as organizers worked to get union cards signed, ARI announced that the employees who opted for family health insurance coverage would have to pay an extra $100 a month, bringing their premium up to almost $300. It gave the union another issue.

"The company seemed to have an arrogant attitude, both toward the workers and about the chances of the union being voted in," said Local 497 President Ken Fitzpatrick.

Organizers built an internal committee. Bilingual workers offered to help reach the non-English-speaking workers. Some union supporters transferred to the night shift to reach workers there.

As the election approached, ARI handed out big yellow "vote no" buttons. Many people started to wear them, especially on the night shift, thinking that it would keep management off their backs. They called them "job security buttons."

"Our committee members told us that many of those people were still planning to vote yes," said Fitzpatrick. "We asked the committee members to talk to those people, and get them to realize what a negative message they were sending out to their co-workers. The committee did a good job on that, and the 'No' buttons starting disappearing over the next several days."

A NEW EXPERIENCE

So far, Chicopee is the APWU's only victory at an MTESC. In addition to the Minneapolis defeat, a drive at Dyncorp in Cincinnati lost in a close vote; the NLRB has issued a complaint.

Meanwhile, MTESC workers in Richmond, California voted to join International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Mail freight drivers in Capital Heights, Maryland voted to join the Teamsters.

Poferl said that the APWU's struggle to win MTESCs points to its lack of experience in dealing with employer opposition to unionizing.

"[APWU organizing] has brought out the action of the worst union busters," he said. "ARI has increased wages and benefits at terminals yet to be organized, and we have charges pending. ARI has pulled out all the stops and there are a number of labor law violations. We're now facing a nationwide campaign by the anti-union American Consulting Group. They've been in every city, and they sent their goons out all over.

"The anti-union tactics are scary," Poferl added. "You know it's out there, but to see it is something else. We've just been internally organizing for so long."

Dimondstein believes that the ARI victory in Massachusetts will reinforce APWU's commitment to following postal work into the private sector.

He points out that the union's constitution calls for organizing all postal work "whether performed by employees of the United States Postal Service or any other employer."

"It's a basic, founding principle of the APWU, establishing us as an industrial union," said Dimondstein. "So now, we're starting to act like one."