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Where’s Our Contract? Embattled NALC Leadership Lashes Out Against Open Bargaining

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Tyler Vasseur is an elected shop steward in NALC Branch 9, writing in personal capacity.

Letter carriers at USPS have been working for a year without a new contract — which means a year without raises — and union leadership have put forward no fighting plan to win gains at the bargaining table. As of December 2023 prices for goods were on average 19% higher than in 2019, and from the grocery store to the gas pump, workers are feeling the impact of inflation everywhere. At the same time letter carriers’ working conditions have come increasingly under attack. Management works harder and harder to come up with dangerous new policies like “one hour office time”, “twenty-two minute load time”, and “stationary events”, arbitrary metrics being pushed onto carriers to make them work faster with no regard to the workload or weather conditions on any given day.

This is happening as the regime of National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) President Brian Renfroe is increasingly exposed. There were credible charges against him of “Neglect of Duty”, “Circulating False or Misleading Statements about an Officer”, “Conduct. Impaired driving after hours in an NALC owned vehicle”, and “Abandoned Position and Dereliction/Neglect of Duty”, brought forward by members of the NALC Executive Council. After a months long investigation, the majority of the Executive Council, all of whom make six figure salaries, dismissed all the charges but one, giving Renfroe a slap on the wrist (not being allowed to drive an NALC-owned vehicle for a year).

The national contract is likely going to binding interest arbitration, where a panel of three arbitrators (one appointed by USPS, one by NALC, and one “neutral”) hear “evidence” from both sides and decide the terms of the contract. Binding arbitration means NALC members can’t vote on our own contract! This undemocratic tactic is designed to ice-out membership. Conservative labor leaders implemented it as a way to avoid strikes, and has only been used 6 times out of the 13 contracts since collective bargaining was first implemented following the 1970 postal wildcat strike.

After decades of watching billionaires getting richer, and banks getting bailed out, workers are fighting back. 2023 was a year of high profile strikes and contract campaigns, most notably the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Big Three automakers in the Fall, that resulted in 25% wage gains for workers and helped kickstart a drive to unionize the southern auto plants.

In this context of raised expectations, support for a resolution demanding open and transparent bargaining in NALC is spreading like wildfire among rank-and-file workers and even some local leaderships who realize it’s time to fight. The Open Bargaining resolution is calling for a process that would combine more transparency and regular bargaining updates, with the mobilization and activation of the membership through public rallies, centered around strong demands like a $30/hr starting wage and immediate $5/hr raise for all letter carriers. So far 27 NALC branches, and one NALC state association have passed the resolution, and hundreds of NALC members are getting organized in national “Build a Fighting NALC” Zoom meetings. A real fight for the future of NALC is brewing going into the National Convention this August.

National Leadership Opposes Open Bargaining

NALC President Renfroe’s regime is more comfortable cutting deals with management than they are mobilizing workers to fight. Not surprisingly, they have started a campaign to oppose Open Bargaining, vigorously defending their closed door “Secret Bargaining” strategy at regional union trainings, state conventions, and local union meetings. Let’s debunk the Renfroe regime’s misleading arguments one by one.

The Renfroe regime claims: “We’ve always conducted negotiations in private.”

This is false, and only highlights the mentality of union leaders like Renfroe who prefer meeting with bosses over mobilizing workers. NALC and the other postal unions have a long history of public contract campaigns, including joint public demonstrations and rallies in Washington DC and around the country, like the Postal Solidarity Day rallies held by the NALC and APWU when they bargained together. Before the internet, NALC had a phone number members could call that would give them daily updates on contract negotiations. More recently we have the examples of the “US Mail Not For Sale” rallies, the fight to maintain 6-day delivery, and the “Stop Staples” campaign, the public fight against the outsourcing of jobs to Staples, as examples of NALC and other postal unions using public actions to fight for our jobs and win the public over to our side.

They tell us: “We can’t show our hand before negotiations begin”.

Demands are not promises, they are clear goals that state what the union is fighting for. Demands need to be democratically discussed, and linked to a plan to win them. We should be unapologetic about what we need in front of the boss. After coming up with demands and developing a broader program, we need to mobilize NALC members behind them in the negotiating room, and in the streets with public rallies, drawing on support from the broader labor movement, and explain our demands to the public and win them over to our side in order to build leverage points and put pressure on USPS. This will allow our negotiating team to walk into the room in a position of strength, knowing they have the active support of hundreds of thousands of letter carrier behind them, it will also help to engage the vast majority of members who are not currently active in the union, and will help to build members’ confidence in the union as a whole. Unions are not a service organization, where members elect leaders who then do everything on our behalf, unions are organizations by and for the workers they represent, and we need to find every way possible to engage and mobilize all NALC members for maximum strength and unity.

“This would backfire; the public wouldn’t support us calling for higher wages.”

Unions are much more popular than either of the corporate political parties in this country. UAW had incredible support across the country during their strike and had wide-ranging and bold demands like a 40% raise, a 32-hour work week, an end to the two-tier pay scale, and more. The widespread support was because of their bold demands, not in spite of them. Working people everywhere can empathize with us, because they are facing the same issues we are: high cost of living/inflation, poor wages, and bosses who make work even less tolerable every day with arbitrary rules and harassment on the workroom floor.

“If letter carriers fight too hard, Congress will privatize the post office and attack the postal unions.

The postal service, and postal workers, are one of the most trusted and well liked federal workers in the country. NALC has members that deliver to every corner and every community in the country, we are an integral part of public life for millions of people. If NALC built a well organized, public contract campaign, that educated the public about our issues, and mobilized them and the broader labor movement to support us we could garner incredible support and build pressure on USPS to meet our demands. 

Sections of the political establishment, and private delivery companies have been at the forefront of attacks on USPS as a public institution, from pushing for the 2006 “Pre-Funding Mandate”, which caused years of financial crisis for USPS, to attempts to push for privatization and more. Workers will not be able to fend off these attacks, maintain a public, reliable, and affordable postal service, win gains in wages and working conditions, and build a stronger union, unless we get organized around a program and actually put up a fight. 

“This could work in a moment like now when support for unions is high, but what if a recession hits and we are locked into this process?”

We need to build a fighting NALC that is against concessions, period. Working class people are not responsible for the crises of capitalism, and we should not have to pay for them. The 2008 financial crisis was caused by the big banks and rich corporations. Wall Street got bailed out, the rest of us got sold out. A whole generation of labor leaders accepted concessionary contracts because they accepted the capitalist notion that workers and the bosses have the same interests. Workers did want to fight back. Occupy Wall Street’s slogan of the 99% versus the 1% brought basic class struggle politics back into the mainstream, and Bernie’s call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” mobilized millions more who were fed up with corporate politicians. When another recession hits, the labor movement needs to be at the forefront of fighting back, not on the sidelines.

Conservative labor leaders, who would rather collaborate with the boss than confront the boss, often hide behind bureaucratic methods to exclude rank-and-file workers from the contract negotiation process. Demands for more democracy and transparency, like open bargaining, can play a huge role in radicalizing workers, but they need to be included in a wider economic program to improve the lives of workers to actually build a movement to beat the bosses. A wider program can’t ignore broader issues in society either, ranging from confronting discrimination and rising rents, to stopping endless wars, and replacing corporate politicians with genuine fighters for working people.

Broader Program Needed To Transform NALC

NALC members need to get organized to develop a serious economic program. All letter carriers need an immediate $5/hr raise, and a $30/hr starting wage – like what Amazon workers at the $1.5 billion air hub in Kentucky are demanding. Letter carriers work to live, not live to work. We need to end mandatory overtime, and follow UAW President Shawn Fain’s calls for a 32 hour work week without loss of pay. We need to start the discussion now in NALC about the program that is needed to mobilize and fight for what we need.

Management is constantly looking for ways to work us even harder through policies like “one hour office time”, “twenty-two minute load time”, and management harassment of carriers for “stationary events”. Summers are getting hotter, extreme weather is becoming more common, and these attempted speed-ups will be deadly.  In the case of extreme weather, carriers are allowed “comfort stops” to cool down, or warm up. Carriers have physical jobs, and work in all kinds of weather conditions. We need to demand the right to do our jobs safely and free from management harassment.

We all mourned the tragic loss of NALC member Eugene Gates in Dallas, Texas during the heatwave in the Summer of 2023. Brother Gates faced management harassment, receiving a disciplinary letter for “stationary events” just a month before his death. On the day he passed due to heat stroke, the heat-index was at 113 degrees. His death lies directly in the policies and harassment of postal management.

Filing grievances against management when they harass carriers, or break the contract, is essential, but we need to back it up with workplace action. If a carrier is harassed, disciplined, or fired for stationary events or other attacks from management, NALC needs to have at our disposal the ability to organize rallies, or informational pickets outside of stations where these attacks on carriers are happening. We can write a collective letter and get every carrier at a station to sign down, and turn in the letter with a collective walk-in. All of this and more needs to be taken up and discussed in NALC as part of an overall program to fight back against management’s attacks on working conditions.

We Need The “Right to Strike”

The Renfroe regime opposes Open Bargaining, because they would rather hide in the back rooms with management and keep the membership in the dark. We need Open Bargaining so we can be informed about the contract, but we need to be able to act on the information we get. What do we do if Dejoy’s postal management remains intransigent even in the face of nationwide rallies and public pressure? We need demands for a $30/hr starting wage and immediate $5/hr raise, ending mandatory overtime, an end to unsafe speed-ups, and other bullying tactics from management, but we need to be able to back these demands up. We need to fight for the right to strike.

Our union was built through going on strike, and like most examples in history of social progress, what letter carriers did in 1970 was considered illegal. The 1970 postal wildcat strike exploded across the country as letter carriers were suffering from stagnant wages, and rising inflation. Letter carriers were reliant at the time on Congress for raises and changes in working conditions, receiving paltry raises and the specter of a wage freeze, while Congress gave themselves a 41% raise in February 1969. The eight day nationwide walkout resulted in the most significant wage gains postal workers had seen in decades, and set the forces in motion for serious rank and file led reform movements in NALC and APWU that organized and won “one member one vote” for national officers, and other major internal reforms in the years following the strike.

Our leaders should come out in favor of the right to strike for postal workers and all federal workers. We need to fight to take the “no strike” clause out of our contract, and at the same time organize to get the federal ban lifted. This is why beyond lobbying congress, we need to build a public campaign to demand the right to strike, organize with other postal and federal unions, and pull the AFL-CIO and broader labor movement into the fight for the right to strike for all federal workers. We need to be sober that both corporate parties have a long legacy of attacking the post office. Both corporate parties fight for the bosses first, as railroad workers learned in 2022, which is unions need to take initiatives to build a new party that unapologetically fights for working people

The first step in the direction we need to go in as a union is to fight for the Open Bargaining resolution at the NALC National Convention this August in Boston. Winning Open Bargaining would put NALC in a significantly stronger position than we currently are in. We can’t expect to win very much if we don’t put up a fight at all. But ultimately, we need the right to strike. We shouldn’t be afraid, support for unions is at an all time high, and workers going on strike is supported by the vast majority of the country. 

The time is now for us to fight for Open Bargaining, and to start the discussion internally about the need to build a campaign to fight for the right to strike. We need to activate and mobilize the full strength of NALC members and all postal workers, as we fight for higher wages, better working conditions, and dignity and respect on the workroom floor.

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