Taking MTAC to Task: What Are They Hiding?
(This article by former APWU President Wiliam Burrus was first published in the July/August 2007 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
On May 30, 2007, the American Postal Workers Union filed suit in United States District Court in an attempt to achieve membership in and gain access to the records of the Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee. The APWU initiated the legal action because MTAC refused to permit an APWU representative to observe its meetings or obtain minutes of the proceedings. APWU was joined in the lawsuit by the Consumer Alliance for Postal Services (CAPS), a coalition representing consumers and nonprofit mailers.
The Mailers’ Technical Advisory Committee (MTAC) is an advisory panel representing “a joint effort between mailers and the U.S. Postal Service to share technical information, advice and recommendations on matters concerning mail-related products and service.” The committee meets at least quarterly at postal headquarters in Washington , which is also MTAC’s mailing address. In effect, the committee serves as an adjunct to Postal Service management, with extensive participation in the review and implementation of decisions affecting workers and the public.
On May 15, 2006 , the Consumer Alliance for Postal Services applied for membership in MTAC but its application was rejected. In November, the APWU requested information about MTAC, its workgroups, and areas of study, and sought to make arrangements to attend meetings. The USPS rejected the request for information, and rebuffed APWU efforts to attend MTAC meetings, stating that, “Attendance at MTAC General Session and individual work group meetings is restricted to MTAC members.”
These responses prompt a simple question: What do they have to hide?
Structured Behind Closed Doors
MTAC was created in 1965. Its charter says that it will be composed of USPS officials, mailers, mailer associations, and other organizations “related to the mail industry.”
MTAC is a “full committee” that functions through work groups, which are formed by the MTAC Steering Committee. The work groups propose actions and submit reports back to the full committee.
The Deputy Postmaster General serves as an MTAC co-chair, and other high-ranking USPS managers participate in an official capacity. The bylaws state that “meetings of the membership without a representative of the Postal Service or the approval of the Postal Service Co-Chair may not be construed as official meetings of MTAC.”
It is clear that MTAC has been incorporated into the decision-making structure of the United States Postal Service. Many of the decisions affecting the working conditions, locations of employment, and service to American citizens are being conceived and acted upon behind closed doors in official gatherings of postal officials and representatives of the large mailers, but without the input of the general public or the voices of postal employees.
The American Postal Workers Union is demanding inclusion into these closed meetings and “access to minutes that include a description of the matters discussed, any conclusions reached, presentation materials and copies of all reports received, issued, or approved by the Committee.”
A Reasonable Rule; A Federal Violation
The APWU lawsuit alleges a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires that “the records, reports, transcripts, minutes, appendixes, working papers, drafts, studies, agenda, or other documents which were made available to or prepared for or by each advisory committee shall be available for public inspection and copying at a single location in the offices of the advisory committee or the agency to which the advisory committee reports until the advisory committee ceases to exist.”
In addition, the Act requires that “interested persons shall be permitted to attend, appear before, or file statements with any advisory committee, subject to such reasonable rules or regulations as the Administrator may prescribe.”
When CAPS’ request for membership and the APWU’s request to inspect records of the committee were denied,we initiated a lawsuit.
We expect that the Postal Service and MTAC will defend their refusal to grant membership to the union on the grounds that the United States Postal Service is not a “federal agency,” at least as defined by the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
We do not think the USPS will prevail on this point, but merely raising this technicality is spurious: Even if it were not covered by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, why would officials of a government agency refuse to comply with a law intended to provide the public with the opportunity to know the activities of a committee charged with making recommendations about the operations of a government agency? What do they have to hide?
An Inconvenient Transparency
The United States Postal Service is a government institution intended to serve every American citizen, every day. Why would MTAC conduct business in private without the knowledge of and participation of the citizens who will be affected? Postal critics and watchdogs from Congress and the Government Accountability Office to Ralph Nader — even the Bush-appointed Presidential Commission — have called for greater transparency in postal operations.
The legal underpinnings of the Postal Service are found in the U.S. Constitution, and were preserved in the Postal Reorganization Act of 1971, as well as the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which provide that, “The United States Post Office shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people.”
The clear intent is that the government will continue to provide postal services “to the people” and would be supported “by the people.” Yet, in direct contradiction to both the U.S. Constitution and recent laws, postal management has shifted the focus of the U.S. Mail, replacing service “to the people” with service “to the business community.”
It is just as clear that the objectives of large mailers are being embraced by the top ranks of USPS management. MTAC is just one example of how representatives of the mailing industry are allowed unfettered access to the internal functioning and strategies of this basic government service. The business model that calls for shaping the Postal Service based on the needs and objectives of large mailers has, by design, excluded “the people” for whom the service is intended.
Through the creation of an organization such as MTAC, large mailers act in concert with postal management to develop and follow through on plans to reconfigure the Postal Service to better serve their corporate interest, while excluding the American people, as well as those who fulfill the Postal Service’s constitutional mandate — the nation’s postal workers.
In addition to being the union representing postal employees in the Clerk, Maintenance, and Motor Vehicle Crafts, the American Postal Workers Union is a large mailer, spending more than $3 million per year for postal services. Should the Postal Service be allowed to engage in meetings at which a mailer of that size is denied participation?
We shall vigorously pursue this lawsuit in order to achieve inclusion in these secret meetings. We deserve the right to speak on behalf of individual and small mailers, as well as to the concerns of postal workers.
Democracy requires inclusion and sunshine. As a government institution, the United States Postal Service should offer no less.
And it should hide no more.