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There’s Hidden Union Busting in Congressman Issa’s Postal Reform Bill

Act Would Essentially Eliminate Collective Bargaining

SOURCE: AP/Harry Hamburg

Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) new postal reform bill uses a similar strategy to a law recently passed in Michigan that establishes emergency managers who can modify, reject, or terminate collective bargaining agreements.

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Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) recently introduced postal reform bill closely follows the strategy of Republican governors who are using budget problems to attack collective bargaining rights and weaken political opponents. This strategy ignores alternative methods of closing budget shortfalls and instead insists that public employee pay is the cause of budget gaps and that collective bargaining must go.

Rep. Issa’s proposed Postal Reform Act isn’t the frontal assault on collective bargaining being pushed by Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio but instead closely adheres to the strategy of Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to empower “emergency” managers to unilaterally modify collective bargaining agreements. Such powers effectively end any real ability for workers to bargain collectively.

Rep. Issa’s bill would create a Solvency Authority that can “after meeting and conferring with the appropriate bargaining representative … reject, modify, or terminate 1 or more terms or conditions of an existing collective bargaining agreement.” That’s virtually identical language to the Michigan law that allows the emergency manager to “after meeting and conferring with the appropriate bargaining representative … reject, modify, or terminate 1 or more terms and conditions of an existing collective bargaining agreement.”

The Michigan law, which passed in March, is already being used to attack collective bargaining rights. The emergency fiscal manager of the Detroit Public Schools, Robert Bobb, issued layoff notices to all teachers in the public school system in April. Bobb then immediately moved to renegotiate the union’s contract. The emergency fiscal management powers granted to Bobb require him to only “meet and confer” with representatives from the public unions, not bargain in good faith—which is required for collective bargaining to have any meaning.

To be sure, the U.S. Postal Service faces significant budget challenges that need to be addressed.[1] USPS reported that it will exhaust its borrowing authority in fiscal year 2011 and be unable to make a mandatory $5.5 billion Retiree Health Benefits Fund payment on September 30, 2011. Collective bargaining isn’t the cause of the problem, however. And there are other viable solutions that don’t require undermining basic rights for workers.

The USPS, a normally self-funding agency of the federal government, has run deficits since FY 2007 due to a provision in the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 that requires the USPS to prefund retiree health benefits. The private sector and virtually all other government agencies use the “pay-as-you-go” method to account for retiree health benefits.[2] It isn’t exactly fair to blame collective bargaining for the USPS using a different accounting standard than its competitors, especially since the USPS is required by law to “maintain compensation and benefits for all officers and employees on a standard of comparability to the compensation and benefits paid for comparable levels of work in the private sector.”

The Congressional Research Service determined that without the prefunding provision of the PAEA, the Post Office wouldn’t have had an operating deficit until FY 2009 and only a very small one after that.[3] The U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General and the Postal Regulatory Commission argue that the prefunding of retiree health benefits should be reexamined to possibly reduce payments to the Civil Service Retirement System.[4] Other alternatives to bring USPS back into the black include increasing postal rates and expanding the retail operations of USPS.[5]

But instead of considering these alternatives, Rep. Issa appears motivated by an antilabor ideology. The congressman went so far as to call a hearing to criticize the postmaster general for negotiating a contract with a USPS union that saved “only” $3.8 billion over the next four-and-a-half years. Rep. Issa thought the contract should have included even more concessions from the union, arguing that “costs must be reduced to align them with falling mail volume and declining revenue projections.”

Rep. Issa appears to relish scrapping the collective bargaining process and drastically slashing employee benefits. He thinks Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker has the right approach to dealing with budget problems, stating “Governor Walker’s actions to cut spending and address over-compensation of public employees are putting his state government in a stronger financial position.”

Moreover, he rejected the approach of the other prominent Republican bill on this topic—introduced in February by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)—that addresses the Postal Service’s underlying financial issues without giving emergency managers the power to overturn collective bargaining.

Another example of Rep. Issa’s political agenda is that he chose to intervene in an ongoing case by the National Labor Relations Board before the agency reaches a decision. The NLRB is judging whether Boeing Corp. broke the law when company officials stated they moved an airplane production line to a nonunion plant in South Carolina because employees struck at their Washington facility. Companies have the right to locate plants wherever they want but it’s illegal to retaliate against workers who exercise legally protected rights such as the right to strike.

Rep. Issa held a hearing on June 17, 2011, on the Boeing case and compelled the agency’s general counsel to testify about the ongoing case. Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote in a letter to Rep. Issa that the hearing has “a serious potential for improper interference with a pending case involving private parties and a disturbing disregard for what that interference could mean for the due process rights of those parties.” At the hearing, Rep. Issa clearly laid out his intimidation agenda by warning that Congress "could eliminate the NLRB or take the premise and statutorily change it."

Rep. Issa’s targeting of postal employees shows that the war on workers’ rights is not just in state capitols but is also at the post office. Any bill that Congress passes to address budget issues at the USPS needs to strip out these nasty and unnecessary attacks on workers. The Postal Service needs real reform and not political maneuvering from the right-wing playbook.

David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Zane Farr is an intern with CAPAF.

Endnotes

[1]. Kevin R. Kosar, "The U.S. Postal Service’s Financial Condition: Overview and Issues for Congress" (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2011).

[2]. Kevin R. Kosar, " The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act: Overview and Issues for Congress" (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2010).

[3]. Kosar, "The U.S. Postal Service’s Financial Condition."

[4]. U.S. Postal Service Inspector General, "Final Management Advisory Report—Estimates of Postal Service Liability for Retiree Health Care Benefits, Report No. ESS-MA-09-001(R)" (2009), available at http://www.uspsoig.gov/foia_files/ESS-MA-09-001R.pdf; Postal Regulatory Commission, "Postal Regulatory Commission Review of Retiree Health Benefit Fund Liability as Calculated by Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General" (2009), available at http://www.prc.gov/Docs/63/63987/Retiree%20Health%20Fund%20Study_109.pdf.

[5]. Kosar, "The U.S. Postal Service’s Financial Condition."

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