Activist victory in the APWU

November 7, 2013

Postal worker Frank Couget and postal retiree Jamie Partridge report on the election of a reform leadership slate in the American Postal Workers Union.

STARTING ON November 12, the 196,000-member American Postal Workers Union (APWU) will have a newly elected team of national officers to tackle the worst attacks on postal workers and services in a generation.

In the APWU's first national election with full retiree voting rights, the "Members First" slate won seven of nine national offices, including Mark Dimondstein as president and Debby Szeredy as executive vice president. Their victory comes as a sign of hope for many "Save America's Postal Service" activists struggling with lobbying-focused postal union officials who were unwilling to consistently mobilize members in defense of U.S. Postal Service (USPS) jobs and services.

Despite a low turnout, with only 25 percent of members casting ballots, Dimondstein defeated "Leadership Team" incumbent President Cliff Guffey by a 12 percent margin, with nearly 27,000 votes. This was despite heavy support for Guffey from officers in locals nationwide.

The vote seems to express rank-and-file discontent with the incumbent Leadership Team's continued endorsement of the 2010 contract that decimated the compensation and benefits for new hires while degrading conditions for current ones with few improvements.

The APWU's new President Mark Dimondstein
The APWU's new President Mark Dimondstein

The Guffey team accepted this devil's bargain, justified by a manufactured USPS financial crisis. Half of the membership voted, with 75 percent in favor of ratifying. The contract violated the strong APWU legacy of preserving family-wage jobs for the next generation, and set a pattern for bargaining that hurt the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU), National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), and National Rural Letter Carriers' Association (NRLCA) in arbitration. Concessions included a two-year wage freeze, cutting compensation for new hires, cutting benefits and shrinking the definition of full-time work to as little as 30 hours a week.

Postal workers and customers are suffering unprecedented cuts, closures and privatization. The Postmaster General (PMG) closed –or "consolidated"--half of the nation's mail processing plants in the last year. One-third of the postal offices, mostly rural, took between 25 to 75 percent reductions in retail hours. Ten percent of post offices are up for sale. Trucking, mail processing and mail handling are being subcontracted. Close to 200,000 jobs have been eliminated in the past five years. Overnight, first class mail has disappeared in many parts of the country.

THE MEMBERS' First team includes talented organizers with grassroots experience fighting cuts and closures.

Dimondstein led successful APWU organizing in private mail trucking and mail processing before the program was defunded. Szeredy's Mid-Hudson local has been fighting their plant closure with innovative tactics involving multi-union Postal Regulatory Commission challenges, local media appeals to customers experiencing delayed mail, and enlisting local legislators to confront postal managers.

Szeredy and Clerk Craft Director-elect Clint Burelson also participated in a 2012 hunger strike to save the postal service, organized by the grassroots network Communities and Postal Workers United. Newly elected Political Director John Marcotte organized a local coalition that stopped the consolidation of his Michigan plant.

Burelson is the author of a groundbreaking study "The Battle for the Post Office and Democracy," which exposes the corporate agenda behind the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. That act forces the Postal Service to pre-fund retiree health benefits 75 years in advance--which no other federal agency is required to do--and has put the Postal Service tens of billions of dollars in debt. The USPS now has a surplus of close to $50 billion in its retiree health fund, plus an additional $100 billion that has been overpaid into two pension funds.

President-elect Dimondstein called out this Wall Street agenda in a recent speech to APWU presidents, saying the surplus fattens up the USPS for sale to Pitney Bowes or some other corporate giant, setting up privatization with no legacy liability. He pointed to the recent privatization of Britain's profitable Royal Mail, warning that this is the future of the USPS if we don't win this fight.

Calling for a "grand alliance" of the American people and postal workers, Dimondstein said he will call on national organizations--representing seniors, veterans, civil rights activists, rural communities and business organizations--to join with postal workers in defending the people's Postal Service.

"Not so much for our jobs, but for their service. We need an alliance from rural towns to the inner city. Pressure from the people, that's what moves Congress," he stated.

Unity among the postal unions is a high priority for the new APWU administration. Dimondstein's campaign had criticized the incumbents for ignoring the PMG's threat to six-day and door-to-door delivery, and pledged to lock arms with the letter carriers' union (NALC), expecting the carriers in turn to join in the fight to save plants and post offices. The president-elect endorsed the work of CPWU as an example of multi-union solidarity in action to save the USPS.

THE NEXT phase of attacks on postal workers and their communities is a wave of more than 50 plant closures scheduled to begin in February. Service standards will be relaxed further and some major metropolitan facilities will be "consolidated."

Despite long odds and a short timeline, Dimondstein pledged to bring organizers into the fight with a nationally coordinated fightback. "We're not afraid of the streets. We're not in the streets enough. We need to picket, march, sit-in--not leave it to lobbying or one-on-one negotiations," he said. "We're not going to 'grieve' our way out of this."

The CPWU network has employed just such tactics in local efforts to save plants and offices, including sit-ins, blockades, occupations and tent cities. The rank-and-file network was represented at the recent APWU presidents' conference and looks forward to an infusion of inspiration and collaboration from their new leadership.

Dimondstein further pledged to fight the "race to the bottom" in the next contract negotiations. He blasted cuts in hours for full-time workers and the creation of a two- and three-tier workforce. "We will not turn the next generation into 'Walmartized' postal workers."

While he did not say how the fight would be waged--federal law criminalizes postal workers who exercise their right to strike (although this did not stop their monumental wildcat victory in 1970)--Dimondstein alluded to a "cultural shift from a service model to an organizing model of unionism."

"People are disengaged not because they don't care but because they see their union dues as a premium to an insurance company or as lawyer's fees," he stated. "We need to retool, to retrain people to see the union as themselves. We need to encourage workers to take their grievances directly to the boss, in groups, not just file paperwork and wait for union officials to service them. We need more of a movement, a sense of connection to the larger community which will give postal workers hope and confidence."

Dimondstein pointed to the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 as an example of how quickly a movement can build. He mentioned the Chicago teachers' struggle as a model of labor and community partnership--and a mobilization of 1,500 postal workers and allies in Cincinnati which saved a postal processing plant.

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