A guest blog by FROM SEA TO SEA
In your latest edition, “Vocal RCA” posted an article condemning the last national convention held by the NRLCA in St. Louis, Missouri. As a delegate that attended, I feel that many of the arguments in “Vocal RCA’s” article are misleading, and would like to offer an opposing view.
Each year our members receive a spring edition of our magazine, calling for any eligible member to put their name on the ballot to be elected as a national delegate for their state. Much like our country’s elected congress, we as members elect delegates from our membership to gather together to conduct the business of our union. This is the heart of our democratic process, and one in which it is an honor to be a part of and that delegates take very seriously. So much so that delegates police themselves during the convention. If a delegate does not attend all the meetings for the entire convention, they are not paid, and an alternate delegate will take their place. Imagine the accountability our Congress would have if they held the same standard. We arrive in the halls at 8:30 AM, sit in uncomfortable chairs and listen to the state of affairs. We voraciously pour over spreadsheets of financials, we attend additional meetings we demand of the national officers to explain finances. Many use our vacation time to travel there. Often I hear of how delegates get paid to attend. Yes, but usually the pay delegates receive barely covers the cost of the hotel, much less meals, parking, travel, etc. Not to mention that many utilize their annual leave to attend while RCAs and others attend in LWOP. For those carriers that work most of the week, this comes at a financial loss to attend. But that is the commitment these carriers give in order to attend, and it is a noble commitment.
At the convention, we ask a million questions and argue our viewpoints. Delegates spend the time meeting each other and learning about the needs in their states and offices. The reality is that what works in rural Chicago is not the same as in rural Nebraska. The impact of seasonal routes may be unheard of in the Midwest, but is critical in Arizona, or Florida, or the northeast. FSS may be unknown in some areas, while devastating in others. So each year the delegates spend lots of time meeting other carriers, discussing their views, listening to their ideas, and debating the issues outside of the convention hours just so we understand the issues as they come up. I have sat in the lobby of the hotel arguing resolutions until midnight, only to wake up and do it on the convention floor the next day with the delegates.
While it is true that our numbers decreased again this year in paid union members, it was made clear that the loss of members was NOT significantly impacted by members withdrawing from the union, as many suggest. The consolidation and elimination of vacant routes is first and foremost. This has been a contractual possibility for many contracts but really was unheard of during our big growth periods that peaked in 2009. In the years since 2009 not only has our membership decreased but so has our employer. From 2009 to 2013 we added 5,366 routes, yet our membership decreased by 10,465 members. We lost 1,806 regulars, 6,380 relief carriers, 2,155 retirees, and over 600 associate members since 2008. Large numbers of relief carriers became regulars but did not remain (or become) union members. Many carriers retired as FSS hit nationwide and did not enroll as retiree members. Many routes were consolidated and altered, curbing the growth that would generally convert most RCAs and prevented those new hires from joining our ranks as in years past. With the buffer zones held as FSS impact offices, auxiliary routes are consolidated or used to rebuild. RCA’s often believe this is unfair. Yet consider the fact that as a regular career employee the cost of benefits and retirement can make a 40k a tough pay cut. It is imperative that we rebuild routes to the highest standard we can to ensure that every regular carrier has a legitimate living wage and benefit package that they can enjoy into their retirement. (I myself catch myself feeling the wait unfair sometimes until I think of how I would support my family once I do become regular) Yes, this is not something anyone likes, but automation is not going away. The fact that it took this long for a piece driven system is astounding. I believe as I am sure most of you readers that the compensation for DPS letters and DPS flats is not fair. This is exactly why we are deeply vested in the engineered study that is presently being undertaken. It shall forever set the benchmarks on the work we perform, so that our entire body of daily work can be given fair compensation, not just the parts the postal service wish to acknowledge at the time.
When “Vocal RCA” complained of the rising cost of union dues, I wonder if s/he considered how much it costs to send in an area steward to an office simply because no one stands up to prevent management from running over their rights in that office. These offices that do not have stewards must be represented as well. Oh, I know the excuses. “Retaliation.” Or “too much time.” Or “no one listens.” You’ve heard it. You may have said it. I know I have. But the reality is that as a union we are federally BOUND to represent everyone in our craft. That Duty to Fair Representation is exactly WHY we all benefit the wages, the insurance, the leave, the retirement, the rules and regulations that limit our employer’s power to fire at will, or change policy without adjusting the impact of the carriers. Is it a perfect system? Absolutely not. It’s not meant to be. It was a system that was NEGOTIATED with our federal government not by the union but by federal labor representatives as well as congressionally appointed panels. It has strengths and it has weaknesses. But I believe that overall it has given us the best job in the postal service. And that will forever be worth fighting for.
Quickly, let’s review some of the issues from the national convention. There are currently 29,564 NON DUES PAYING MEMBERS IN THE RURAL CARRIER CRAFT. Twenty Nine THOUSAND. If each paid dues, that alone would generate over seven MILLION dollars a YEAR. We have 104,717 members. That means that almost one THIRD of your coworkers are not paying for what we all are benefitting. Look to your left and your right. If you are the dues member that means statistically you are carrying the person on each side of you EVERY DAY, EVERY PAYCHECK. Now consider the grievances. Specifically, the removals. We have represented 323 removals so far this year. How many would you think are on trumped up changes by the postal service that deserves good union representation? How many meetings, interviews, and settlements do you think is worth putting you back on your job? Now imagine for each union representative visit it costs an average of $300.00. Now consider that an addition 561 contractual grievances were filed so far this year at step two or higher. No wonder costs are high, and increases are needed. Not for conventions. For the sheer cost of how greatly adversarial our employer has continued to become over the past few years. They are not training management correctly in the rural craft. They continue to try to apply city rules at horrific consequences to our carriers. They coerce and bully and attack and play favorites and ignore rules and handbooks and manuals in every possible effort to curry favor from their superiors or meet some ridiculous new standard or simply because they choose to do so. So while it pained me to vote for a dues increase as an RCA myself, I realized we simply have no choice. Because the grievances will continue. The removals will continue. The discipline will continue. And the Duty to Fair Representation will mandate that each be represented fully and completely. Which means if there is not an increase, other important staff and services will be slashed until we as union go into the same death spiral that our Postmaster is presently steering our USPS towards.
“Vocal RCA” went on to discuss the numbers of Constitutional changes that were passed in the 2013 National Convention. In it, s/he stated that there were five changes that were passed. In addition the resolutions. I’m the first to say that we took each one seriously. We debated. Long into the night we debated. Sometimes the idea was right but the language made the intent not what was presented. Other times the issue would create a bigger problem down the road than the one it fixed. Many were passed, more failed. But each took the careful consideration (and sometimes an over complicated debate) just to get them to a vote. In this point I completely disagree with Vocal RCA. S/he states that the passing of only five constitutional changes meant that the union had lost touch with its members. Oh how I disagree. It is because our delegates CARE about our members that we are so critical of any changes to our constitution. We have been a union since 1903. Imagine the tweaks and changes our constitution has had to take on. We still have routes delivered by mule. We have routes delivered by boat and airplane. We have routes that are over a hundred miles long but only a few hundred deliveries. We have others that are only a few miles long with nearly a thousand or more deliveries. Our blanket constitutional changes must apply to EVERY route, EVERYWHERE. Is five too many? Too few? I think we took each and weighed them to that high standard, and passed the ones that fairly represented changes to all. As for the resolutions? They cannot be amended. So if they were written wrong, they didn’t pass. If they intended one thing but said another, they didn’t pass. If the intent was for a specific issue that unfairly hurt the many while benefitting the few, it didn’t pass. That is the job of the delegates, to make these tough decisions. And I think we all felt we did that task well. Yes, non binding resolutions do not have the power of the Union to implement. They are a wish list that we send to our national board, who try to utilize them when negotiating a national agreement.
This brings me to something many discuss, including “Vocal RCA.” The biennial convention. For the last several years, this has been a growing debate at each national convention. I was there when the national board first proposed it. I heard the arguments for the costs, and times, and attention that it takes to conduct each year. I voted against it then. But not for the reasons Vocal RCA stated. Every other major union has already switched to a biennial convention. The fact is those resolutions we send are only utilized during contract negotiations. And our contracts are usually four or five year terms. Our constitutional changes occur immediately, or as they are written. But few have the need to change instantly that couldn’t wait twelve additional months. Many argue about the program. How there is so much “wasted time” the first day. But let me ask you what to cut. Should we stop having a program for our youth? To try to instill leadership qualities and allow them to be involved in a national program as great as the Juniors and Auxiliary organizations? Do we stop allowing them to get what very well may be the greatest introduction into the election and voting process our country fought for all our citizens to enjoy? What about taking time to remember the dozens of fallen rural letter carriers? Or taking time to honor our veterans, or collecting funds to support a charity that is greatly needed? Perhaps we should eliminate the speeches of congressman and women that are willing to meet us and share their views on rural issues. I sometimes agree that listening to the USPS representatives spin their skewed views on postal reform is nauseating, but at least we get them on our record so that we can refute it later. And more importantly we get to learn what’s in the gameplan so we can fight back. Sure there are obligatory speeches we have to endure for no beneficial reason. The city Mayor, the credit union, the hotel or convention hall manager. But they grant us far more than we lose in that time. The reality is we are there to conduct business, and we do so very efficiently. However, the cost savings to go to a biennial convention really is significant. I believe that if the national board can present a solid plan of utilizing the regional meetings in the off years as a means of disseminating information as well as gathering information from the trenches, a biennial convention is a worthy endeavor.
Finally, the author of the previous article went to great lengths to argue how our union is out of touch with our members. S/he stated that “the union has increasingly sided with management on many of the recent decisions….” And I believe this could not be more wrong. The reality is they are the employer, and we are the employees. They have certain rights as long as they do not go beyond what the contract permits. We as a union can argue against these issues, but as long as no violation occurs, there simply is nothing we can do. Should an employer have the ability to adjust the work of their employees? (Name one that doesn’t) Should an employer be able to change how work is conducted by introducing new more efficient systems to do so? (Ask any coal miner, auto worker, industry manufacturer) Can management alter time schedules and negotiate wages? (consider air traffic controllers as simply one example) Just because we are unionized does not mean we are on the same footing as the employer. We just have greater rights afforded to us to try to negotiate better terms when it affects our craft. The “Vocal RCA” must realize that just because a grievance was settled against the favor of the union does not mean that the union sided with management. It means that we were unsuccessful in winning our argument more than they were in winning theirs.
I have had grievances that I have fought for, or knew of, that I wholeheartedly believe our side was correct and should have won. There are a few that I am still bitter about the decision to withdraw or denied, or not pursued at a higher level. But to a greater extent I understand just what our assistant district representatives, district representatives, and regional representatives do and face on a daily basis. I hear some of their stories, and occasionally get to read some of their reports, and it humbles me. The union stands tall. It fights hard. It does not bend against adversity. It does not yield simply because the fight is difficult. Sometimes it gets cut down. Sometimes it gets beat down. Sometimes the storm is so great that the field is leveled. But just like any crop, even when the storm is at its strongest, roots are still growing. Stalks are still growing. Fruit are still growing. Sometimes a storm comes in which some of the crop is damaged, but it usually regrows. And while the yield sometimes is not as great as we would like, by growing TOGETHER, our crops are GREATER. Our field is HEALTHIER. Our stock is HEARTIER. The Postal Service continues to change. Our jobs continue to change. In 1970 workers feared the introduction of the fax machine. In the 80s it was floppy disks instead of paper. In the 90s it was mobile phones. 2000s brought email. 2010s…..FSS? and what else? Who knows.
Plant a seed. Join YOUR Union. Get to local meetings. Get to regional meetings. Attend state conventions. Attend national conventions. Read the contract. Ask questions. Become a CHAMPION for your career. As for you, “Vocal RCA,” I’m glad you’re vocal. I hope to debate you next year on the floor of the national convention. I’ll promise you this: If you can convince me your argument is valid, I’ll vote yes, even if I was previously going to vote no. So convince me. I dare you.
From Sea to Sea is a Rural Carrier
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