October 2020 Update
Ok, here we go. I’m going to let it roll a little bit here. So, this month’s column comes with some words of warning: If this gets lengthy, you knew I was Jeff when you started reading.
We’re definitely in the midst of several difficult situations. We haven’t seen the COVID-19 pandemic subside. If anything, we’re seeing an increase in infections as well as exposures. The impact to the workforce is being amplified by those increases. This impact hasn’t been limited to operations. Most of our Branches have experienced Representatives who were infected or required to quarantine. This has required the remaining Representatives to pick up an additional workload and I can’t commend them enough for rising to the challenge. Our Representatives have clearly demonstrated their commitment to the Membership of their Branches.
The Postal Service remains under a national spotlight due to the mailing of ballots during the election. I suspect that the Postal Service will remain under a national spotlight even after the election, although in a different context. Suffice it to say that I believe the Postal Service would be criticized even if it were to achieve absolute perfection in delivering the mail. But that’s a topic for another day. The National Unions along with Postal Headquarters established an election mail task force to identify obstacles or bottlenecks in mail processing. The National Union asked me to identify Representative to participate in this process from all of our Branches. Our Officers and Representatives are continuing this participation. I didn’t relish the idea of putting additional responsibilities on our Representatives at this time; yet I couldn’t hesitate to recognize the importance of participating. In fact, I didn’t just throw them into the deep end of pool, I jumped in with them; and I’m continuing to participate in the process at my level. While I can only speak to the local situation, I will say that many people on both sides of the table are focused on ensuring the successful processing or election mail.
We continue to be involved in the preparations for peak season and the operation of the peak season annex. We’ve all experienced reporting to move the mail on Thanksgiving, Christmas eve, and even Christmas day, while our families enjoy the holidays; we’ve all experienced numerous hours of unwanted overtime; and, we’re all familiar with the burnout. All Mail Handlers understand that this comes with the territory and no further explanation is necessary. In addition, the Local Union is currently ramping up to market the Mail Handlers Benefit Plan and the Local 323 Dental Program during open season and a pandemic. We’ll see how that goes.
In sum, we have a pandemic with an increasing impact on operations and representation, the election mail and the election mail task forces, preparations for peak season and the operation of the peak season annex, we’re ramping up to market health and dental insurance in an open season held during a pandemic, and all of this is on top of our usual workload. So, with all of this going on, what does your Local President decide to do? He decides to open Local Negotiations in our two largest Branches, the NDC Branch, and the St. Paul Branch, which covers the St. Paul P&DC and the Twin Cities L&DC. Why? Because opportunity doesn’t always knock at opportune times.
Our opportunity to conduct Local Negotiations follows the completion of each National Agreement. The National parties identify a window of opportunity for either party at the local level to invoke “local implementation procedures.” That is usually the Union because there are always some annoying Union Representatives (like me) who are never satisfied and who never stops looking for areas where improvements can be made. In any case, Article 30 of the National Agreement identifies the timeframe, topics of bargaining, and the procedures to follow in the case of impasse. The specific topics can be found on page 115 of the National Agreement. The local parties must conduct negotiations during a period of thirty-day consecutive days. If neither party opens, the current Local Memorandum of Understanding (LMOU) remains in effect and the parties are unable to negotiate over its terms until the next National Agreement sets a window of opportunity. The creation of a local implementation procedure results from a recognition by the National parties that the needs of facilities with hundreds of Mail Handlers differ from those of facilities with only a handful. It is impossible for any National Agreement to provide adequate specificity to cover every facility. That responsibility has been given to the Local Unions and management at each installation.
The decision to open Local Negotiations in any Branch is always difficult. It involves assessing the potential gains and determining what current benefits we’re putting at risk. These calculations must be made for each Branch when an opportunity to open Local Negotiations exists. If there’s one thing I can’t emphasize strongly enough, it’s that every Branch is unique. There is no competition among Branches to see who can come up with the best LMOU. The objective is to secure the best LMOU for the Mail Handlers of each Branch. Those Representative who provide representation to multiple Branches understand this; and it’s something I learned as Vice President negotiating LMOU’s in North Dakota following the 1996 National Agreement. Each Branch has a different culture, different concerns, a different bargaining history, a different relationship with management, and the Mail Handlers have different ideas as to which issue should be prioritized. This produces varied results, and the size of the Branch impacts the individual provisions. There are provisions in the LMOU’s of our smaller Branches which would cause absolute pandemonium in the metro Branches and provisions in the LMOU’s of the metro Branches which would be far too restrictive in our smaller Branches. The LMOU of every Branch has something I consider a quirky provision. But, if the Mail Handlers and Representatives want it, and it doesn’t violate the National Agreement, and management is willing to agree, I’ll sign on the dotted line every time. Still, it’s these quirky provisions which really identify just how uniquely tailored a LMOU can be for its Branch.
Ironically, the decision not to open Local Negotiations is equally difficult. I personally struggle with this decision more than the decision to open. Fortunately, we have several seasoned Representatives who have conducted Local Negotiations themselves, who understand the dynamics involved, and who can help me make an informed decision. Is good enough really good enough? We have many LMOU’s with some very good provisions in our Branches. Of course, after close to 50 years of local bargaining we should. Yet, there is no LMOU which is perfect, and which couldn’t be improved. The true problem I have with saying that a LMOU is good enough is that it’s too easy. Imagine the National Union producing a National Agreement with no general wages increases because someone thought that Mail Handler wages were good enough. Certainly, the circumstances are distinguishable, the National Union doesn’t have the luxury of allowing the National Agreement to continue in perpetuity, and any negotiated National Agreement is subject to a ratification vote by the Membership. A Branch LMOU on the other hand can continue in perpetuity and is not subject to a ratification vote by the Branch Membership. The Membership’s right to vote on their LMOU’s happens at the next Local election. That’s where they have a right to judge the propriety of our actions or inactions.