Postal Workers Elect New Leaders Who Pledge to Build a Movement

A newly-elected slate of local leaders pledges to change APWU’s direction. Till now, while pockets of postal workers have been marching and even sitting in, the national union has focused on lobbying. Photo: Adam Souza.

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 last 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.

THREE-TIER CONTRACT

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.”

Alexandra Bradbury is co-editor of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org

Comments

MPK | 10/29/13

Having had the opportunity and privilege to have been able to attend conferences and seminars during the course of these past years and in the most recent past, it was and is my observation that the key members of the Leadership Team had too much respect for the ability of the members to think critically and that a large amount of their time was involved in matters concerning our survival and in enforcing the contract that they did not have the time to devote to making personal appearances at the large locals/plants and took it for granted that the membership would understand and appreciate the work that they were doing on our behalf. Further, they could not campaign on the union clock and this placed a huge restriction on them, as well.

It took “a while” for me to appreciate this contract and how progressive and farsighted it was and is. For most of the mules in the traces with blinders on – it was beyond their comprehension as, like with most Americans, they are unable to see beyond their own immediate want or perceived need and they are the victims of propaganda and the last voice they hear. Who cares if we were getting small raises in pay over the preceding 10 years while thousands of our jobs were being eliminated and we were expected to pick up the extra load – that is what you get paid for right? In the preceding 10 years of the previous administration our working conditions significantly deteriorated while we got small raises – but, at least, we got something. In the meantime during that administration, more and more of our work was transferred wholesale to the private sector or contracted out – and, lest we forget, the financial loss debacle to the APWU Retirement Plan due to bad investments and the exodus of the Secretary-Treasurer and his “main man” going into USPS management to get his “High Three” and, of course, the PAEA of 2006. It is, also, interesting to note that during this time a large amount of the history of the APWU was destroyed – but we do have the APWU according to Bill Burrus to fall back on and he has demonstrated that he is capable of anything to preserve his legacy.

He had an agenda for the 2010 contract negotiations and part of that was to put the FEHB on the table and we were to trust him. Would we get another piece of silver in exchange for that – you know the line about a union never trading ”this for that” – well, it would seem that Guffey, Morris, Bell, and the others stood up for the members at the convention and stopped him cold. Does anyone not think that the unique union-management relationship during those 10 years did not include serving up our health benefits via the FEHB? And he was played out of the convention with the prophetic Marvelettes tune, “Don’t Mess with Bill.”

The changing of administrations took place as contract was entering negotiations and Mr. Burrus was gone. He was then replaced on the AFL-CIO Board and this was another perceived slight on him and his legacy. Needless to say, Cliff Guffey was not his idea of a potential successor and this dates from before the time that Cliff as the candidate from the Membership Team usurped his “Leadership Team” candidate for Vice-president as did others from that slate usurped others of his team (i.e.; Steve Raymer and Sue Carney). And during those 10 years, Executive Vice-president Cliff Guffey was relegated to reducing office expenses and little else in an effort to keep him out of the way.

The union and the issues confronting it that Cliff Guffey, Mike Morris, Greg Bell, Rob Strunk and the others inherited when they took office was akin to the Labors of Hercules complete with 40 years of bull dung in the barn. The close collaborationist relationship of Jack(Potter) and Bill (Burrus) that eased us out of business ended and left us faced with the prospect of near extinction with Pitney-Bowes, FedEx, and the other privatization interests about to set the table for a feast.

As misunderstood as it was, this contract bought us time and gave us some hope for the future. Of course, you had someone from their membership funded estate railing with outrage planting seeds and spreading manure to discredit the Guffey Administration. There were the outlandish and false charges of financial impropriety launched by a self-serving patsy from mysterious sources right before the 2012 National Convention that were disproved before the entire convention – but this does not mean that there were not lingering doubts and whispers. And, then, there was the assault on the measures taken in this contract to save us from extinction in real time and assured us a future – the second wage level tier, the elimination of casual employees who were not paid a living wage, did not have any rights to representation, and did not have health insurance that were replaced with increased numbers of PSEs who did, the NTFT positions, the deferred Colas, the limitations of Postmasters doing clerk work in small offices, and just about anything else that could be conjured up to throw at the members who were enduring the world left behind as legacy of the previous administration of Bill Burrus. But the mules in the traces with blinders on pulling the plow only understand the moment and cannot see beyond that.

Unlike pandering to the large locals concentrated in the large urban centers for votes as had been done in the past, the Guffey Administration demonstrated that it was more interested in fighting the fight in Congress to save our jobs and health benefits, bringing arbitrations forward in unprecedented numbers, and representing the interests of the membership at every level. They had our business to conduct and probably, as so many of us do, thought that their actions on behalf of and/or their exemplary service to the membership would be noticed and that the members of this union actually care and that they can think critically about quality versus the railings of a bitter old man, the false accusations of patsies, and the well-funded campaigning of people who were minimally qualified for National Office that were running against them - to say nothing, about some former and/or retired union officers that took this time to “settle old scores” at the expense of the membership in the name of “unionism.”

If you want to understand what this election was all about, there is a film entitled “The Oxbow Incident” – it is a film about a lynching of innocent men by a mob. It is as simple as that. When you do wake up to what you participated in – it will be too late.

jimmgabe | 10/10/13

Throwing out an entire slate of Leaders was a bad idea. A very bad idea. Does Mr. Dimondstein plan to take postal workers hostage and hold a gun to management’s head until he gets what he wants? It didn’t work in Iraq, it isn’t working for Republicans in Congress, and it won’t work for postal workers. Exactly how does Mr. Dimondstein plan to get Congress to “move” when only 25% of APWU members bothered to vote? The only thing more “regressive” than the last contract is Mr. Dimondstein’s strategy for dealing with it: Back To The Future. Anti-war protesters helped us get us out of Vietnam—after spending 10 years in and out of jail. Does Mr. Dimondstein and his anti-Guffey revolutionaries have that long to get Congress out of the postal business?

Phil Perspective | 10/09/13

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.

really what you want to be selling? No wonder they kicked Cliff Guffey out.