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NALC Letter Carriers Fight For Open Bargaining

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Tyler Vasseur is a letter carrier in NALC Branch 9, writing in personal capacity.

Hit by years of inflation, and inspired by examples of working class struggle and strike action by unions in 2023, letter carriers at the United States Postal Service (USPS) are building a movement for Open Bargaining and getting organized to fight. 

The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) has been in contract negotiations for over a year, and members have now been working without a contract for over 10 months, without regular updates from leadership, or a plan to engage or mobilize the membership to win a contract to meet our needs. Open Bargaining would give rank-and-file letter carriers the ability to see and participate in the contract negotiation process, and give us the best platform with which to fight the bosses tooth and nail for better pay and conditions.

Workers are at the end of our rope, and across the country, are getting organized to fight for more. Over 500,000 workers went on strike in the United States in 2023, the highest number of striking workers in decades. It’s clear to a growing section of letter carriers that we need to be a part of rebuilding a militant labor movement.

In November, NALC Branch 9 in Minneapolis passed a resolution for Open Bargaining, calling on national union leadership to organize a public contract campaign, including regular updates for members, and to organize coordinated public rallies across the country with bold demands to mobilize the membership, the broader labor movement, and the public for a strong contract. NALC members have been getting organized with monthly “Build a Fighting NALC” Zoom meetings, which have brought together hundreds of letter carriers from across the country. 

We’re building a real movement, shown by the 21 NALC branches, and one NALC state association, that have passed the Open Bargaining resolution so far. Many more are in the process of discussing the resolution with members, and are planning to bring it forward at upcoming union meetings. NALC members are organizing to fight for a top to bottom transformation of our union’s approach, at the National Convention this August, and beyond.

Where Does The Power Of A Union Come From?

2023 will go down as a turning point for the American labor movement. From Hollywood writers, to healthcare workers, to graduate students, and most notably, auto workers with the United Auto Workers (UAW) – unions went on strike and won the biggest gains we have seen in decades. The keys to their success were bold demands, a willingness to fight, a mobilization of union members to picket lines and rallies, transparency, and regular updates about negotiations. Most notably, UAW President Shawn Fain’s near-daily Facebook live video updates for members during the course of their contract negotiations and strike.

From the beginning, NALC leadership have not been transparent about our contract negotiation process. In the over 13 months since negotiations between NALC and USPS began, NALC members have been kept in the dark, and when updates have been given they have been almost exclusively about the process, with little information about what our leadership is demanding around wages, or working conditions. Wages in particular are the key question many workers have in the era of inflation and instability. Letter carriers need a raise, and we need a real process for organizing around demands, mobilizing the membership, and winning a strong contract. We’re in a new era of the labor movement, and that demands that we have a discussion and debate about how to best meet the moment, and win big for NALC members and all working-class people.

The Open Bargaining resolution is not just about transparency, and the need for openness from union leadership, but also about strengthening our bargaining position by engaging with and activating the membership of NALC throughout the process. A real question we must ask is: where does the power of a union come from? Does it come from having the best arguments at the negotiating table for why we deserve a real raise, and the best team of lawyers and negotiators for our side? Or does our power come from the over 200,000 NALC members across the country?

It is the workers who make USPS run every day, and who in the same turn can shut it down, and are the ones who hold the real power to win concessions in negotiations. At the end of the day, it’s what is done outside the bargaining room that wins a contract, not inside it. NALC members need a contract that meets our needs, and we’re the ones who have the power to win it – but our leadership hasn’t mobilized our power to do so, and we need to build a union that will.

A key part to the Open Bargaining resolution is the call for a complete transformation of NALC’s strategy in contract negotiations. We’re calling for NALC to organize public contract rallies in every city across the country at the beginning of negotiations, and at key times throughout, if USPS stalls, to mobilize our membership around key demands, win public support, and put pressure on USPS to settle a contract with strong gains for letter carriers.

Build A Fighting NALC

NALC represents Letter Carriers at USPS in every part of the United States, which means we need to get organized on a national level. While it only takes one NALC branch passing a resolution for it to go to the convention to be discussed, debated, and voted on, NALC members in Branch 9 (Minneapolis) decided we should put the call out for NALC members across the country to sign on to Open Bargaining by passing it in their branches. By doing this, we have started an important discussion and debate within the union about the best strategy for winning a strong contract, and are going into the convention with supporters for Open Bargaining across the country, and are identifying NALC members who want to get organized to build a fighting union. It’s one thing to put ideas out into the world to see who picks them up, but it’s another to get serious and organize around those ideas.

Coming out of an interview on the Open Bargaining resolution, on the incredibly popular letter carrier podcast, “From A to Arbitration” hosted by Corey Walton, we started organizing national Zoom meetings for NALC members who want to fight for Open Bargaining, which we’re calling “Build a Fighting NALC”. The first meeting was held in late January, and had 104 in attendance, from rank and file members, stewards, and Branch Presidents. The second meeting was held in March, with 150 in attendance, with plans to continue meeting monthly to get organized going into the NALC National Convention in August. 

Organizing For The Convention and Beyond

The August 2024 NALC National Convention in Boston is gearing up to be a battleground of ideas and strategies for the best way forward for our union. Do we keep the status quo, and continue down the current path, which has kept NALC members completely in the dark, and has not produced a strong contract over a year into negotiations? Or do we fight for a new approach in NALC, organize to win the Open Bargaining resolution, and transform our union to meet the moment and win big for our members?

Crucial for our movement will be continuing to build the “Build a Fighting NALC” Zoom organizing meetings, to grow the movement, and to discuss and debate strategy going into the Convention. The National Convention is important, but it is just one arena of battle, and a discussion needs to happen in NALC, and in the broader labor movement, about how to organize beyond conventions or contracts. Organizing for conventions or for contract struggles are important, because they are a time when a larger part of the union membership than normal are paying attention and looking to win material gains in their working conditions and lives, but historically the labor movement has played a bigger role in society than just winning raises for their own members. The labor movement has a crucial role to play in winning gains for working-class people, and uniting the working class behind a banner of struggle to fight back against polarization, inequality, and all forms of oppression in our society. The only way to build a labor movement that is up to the task is to first build a struggle against inequality, oppression, and injustice in the workplace.

It’s clear that we’re in a new era, and we need a new strategy for the entire labor movement. The AFL-CIO, the broader federation of labor unions in the United States (which NALC is a part of), needs to seriously take up organizing new unions in non-union industries. Coming off of the 2023 “Stand Up Strike”, UAW is taking on the non-union auto industry, and workers are fighting for a union at Amazon’s biggest airhub in North America in Northern Kentucky. 

Just as important as organizing new unions is that workers need to get organized to transform the approach of the existing labor movement. This means rejecting the methods of business unionism which is adopted by the majority of the labor movement, which relies on friendly negotiations between the union leaders and the bosses in an attempt to find ’common’ ground. This approach has led to decades of concessions and defeats. Instead, unions need to mobilize their membership to fight behind strong demands for better wages and working conditions. Only this demonstration of power, including a credible threat of an effective strike, can force the bosses to give concessions. Victories won through such methods can give a lead to the broader working class, sparking new organizing efforts in different industries and workplaces. This can spark a revival of the union movement and win material gains for millions of workers.

In the years to come NALC needs to take up a serious approach to fighting back against Postmaster General Louis Dejoy’s destructive 10-Year “Delivering for America” plan. Which includes serious attacks on the USPS’s delivery network, postal workers working conditions, and the public’s access to postal facilities. Current NALC national leadership is in support of Dejoy’s plan, including the implementation of Sorting and Delivery Centers (S&DCs) which would likely close down neighborhood post offices in cities and concentrate carrier and retail operations into a few mega-hubs for each metro area in the suburbs similar to FedEx, UPS, and Amazon. A serious discussion needs to take place within NALC, the other postal unions, the AFL-CIO, and the broader working class about how we can get organized to stop the attacks on service and working conditions coming from the top at USPS.

Workers across the country are radicalizing under the impact of inflation, and the business union approach of the leadership of many of the major unions in this country is showing itself as insufficient to meet the moment where workers have heightened expectations. Letter carriers are getting organized to fight for Open Bargaining, and to build a fighting NALC. 

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