Representing Members in Small Offices
Size Not a Factor – Nor Is Location
(This article by former APWU President Wiliam Burrus first appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
This issue of The American Postal Worker will be of special interest to a special segment of our bargaining unit — those who work in small offices. Unfortunately, many employees in the thousands of offices where there are no local unions feel isolated from their union brothers and sisters.
Their isolation is the natural result of the fact that the union is structured through affiliates located within defined geographic areas. The USPS has a presence in virtually every community and operates a vast structure that is not duplicated anywhere else. As a result, the challenge of combining postal employees into local entities is almost insurmountable. Scattered across 39,000 facilities are 250,000 employees — and we represent them all.
In larger facilities, postal employees who are union members form locals and, in effect, represent themselves. Contrary to the belief that the “union” represents employees, the reality is that the “members” represent their fellow workers — through the union structure.
APWU state organizations try to fill the void for employees in small offices, but oftentimes the distances that must be traveled to attend training and other activities are significant, and no local funds are available to reimburse members for expenses and lost time. In many areas, the lack of regular contact leads to a loose relationship between the union and employees.
The Contract Rules
Because the APWU is the certified bargaining agent for all employees in the Clerk, Maintenance, and Motor Vehicle Crafts, the National Agreement governs the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all of the quarter-million employees, whether or not they choose to affiliate with the union. Once the labor agreement has been negotiated, its terms are to be applied equally to employees in offices large and small, no matter how remote they may be. The challenge for the APWU is that many employees are prevented by physical distance from interaction with the very entity responsible for every positive aspect of their employment.
Without the union, employees in small offices would not receive the pay increases, Cost Of Living Adjustments, health and life insurance, leave, and other negotiated benefits they enjoy — despite their distant locations.
However, contract enforcement on many other issues must be carried out at the local level. And, in the absence of a local union structure, such enforcement is spotty at best. In many instances, it is even unwelcome: Because of the personal relationships that often develop in small communities and small workplaces, it frequently is easier for employees to acquiesce to management’s wishes than to challenge decisions made contrary to contractual language.
In small offices, subjects such as discipline, leave, holiday scheduling and the application of seniority are frequently administered through local relationships: They are often enforced by overbearing postmasters who enjoy unchallenged authority. These relationships are often influenced by the fact that a clerk is designated as a Postal Operations Administrator (POA) to cover a manager’s absence. Thus, contractual issues such as the transfer of clerk work to supervisors, postmasters, PMRs and Rural Carriers goes largely unchallenged.
One common complaint from employees in small offices concerns the ratio of full-time to part-time employment, which is lower than in larger offices. However, the differences do not reflect a union bias; rather they reveal an inability by the union to persuade management to create full-time assignments where there is not sufficient full-time work.
Slashing Clerk Hours
The Postal Service’s recent financial difficulties and the lack of a union presence in many of these small offices have resulted in severe hardship for the employees: Clerk work hours have been slashed to levels that make postal employment virtually meaningless — except for making workers eligible for continued health benefits.
These work-hour reductions violate the National Agreement because non-APWU-represented employees are doing what little work remains — but few grievances have been initiated protesting these contractual violations.
The National Agreement specifically limits management’s right to unilaterally shift work from clerks to other employees, and during 38 years of postal collective bargaining, the union has repeatedly challenged in arbitration the Postal Service’s practice of transferring work. A 1993 national-level arbitration decision set forth clear limitations, but management continues to violate this and other rulings.
We have initiated a series of national-level grievances seeking to have the work returned and to make affected employees “whole.” If we are successful, and individual employees are compensated for all hours denied through the improper transfer of work, the payments could total millions of dollars.
Some employees have had hours reduced to two hours per week; others have been forced to travel to distant offices; many have surrendered — and terminated their employment. In most instances, these reductions should not have taken place.
While the APWU-USPS contact recognizes the right of supervisors and postmasters to perform bargaining-unit work in small offices, arbitrators have repeatedly concluded that supervisory work cannot increase at the expense of work for clerks. But the Postal Service persists in violating prohibitions on increasing the workload of postmasters, postmaster-reliefs, and other supervisors at the same time that clerk hours are being reduced. The union and management have agreed that Rural Letter Carriers cannot perform clerk work (including when they are on light duty), but management often violates this ban as well.
We All Need to Know
To determine the specific damages experienced by clerks whose hours have been reduced, the union will need information detailing the individual impact. In the pages of this issue of the magazine is a form requesting information about the transfer of work.
Affected employees — including those who have not joined the APWU — should complete the form, outlining the hours historically available and how reductions have impacted clerks. If documentation for the change in the number of hours of work was provided, please include that as well.
We are concerned with work from 1993 to the present . We will need brief descriptions of the specific work performed by the supervisor — e.g., box sortation, sortation for delivery, window work, custodial, etc.
The information is not essential for processing the grievance at this stage of the procedure, but the responses will add depth to our understanding of the magnitude of lost hours.
The assignment of work is at the very heart of the union agreement. Management is not free to assign clearly defined bargaining-unit work to supervisors at a time when it is reducing hours for bargaining-unit employees.
Though I have offered managers the opportunity to resolve the dispute through direct payment to affected employees, I expect that they will take the more expensive route and proceed to arbitration, as we were forced to do when management repeatedly violated limitations on casuals. The intransigence on casuals cost management more than $500 million. We think we will prevail on this issue as well, whether we do it the hard way or the easy way. I am determined that the protections afforded by the contract are enforced for all APWU-represented employees.