Not just to be critical, but to exercise critical thinking - that, I believe, is our obligation as we consider the tentative agreement that is about to be mailed for ratification of the membership.
My first note must be in regard to the single most important agreement reached in the negotiation of the National Agreement. And that is the concession to the Service on the employment of casuals, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding beginning on page 162 of the APWU version of the tentative agreement. This is not my field of expertise. Having been engaged for the past eleven years in the job of Maintenance Craft NBA, I have had only a few casual-in-lieu grievances to handle. However, I have observed the progress - significant progress - made by the Clerk Craft on this issue over recent years. And one cannot easily ignore the very large monetary settlements achieved on the casual-in-lieu issue. It has seemed to me that the Union "turned the corner" on this issue and had gained the upper hand. What has been done in the new MOU is to give that away.
We all should understand that concession is a necessary element of negotiation. Each side may make some concession in order to achieve some other gain. However, I seriously doubt that the gains reflected in the terms of this MOU tally in the Union's overall benefit here. Primarily, we should all have strenuous objection to granting the Employer an 11% casual workforce in large installations - that is, a casual workforce equivalent to 11% of the clerk complement in the office. That casual workforce will be a permanent, full-time workforce subject to virtually no challenge whatsoever. Our primary gain in return would appear to be the conversion of present part-time flexible schedule employees in large installations to full-time regular status. This, of course, is highly significant to those employees presently affected. But it must be gauged against trading off to the Employer career, bargaining unit flexible employees for non-career, non-bargaining unit employees - who, by the way, will never pay Union dues in exchange for their terms of employment and will never enjoy career employment benefits. This agreement is regressive as viewed in the context of the broader objectives of labor.
What is also troubling about the negotiation of this MOU is what it has not done. And this brings up the issue of whether the members will be voting on a contract or voting on concepts of a contract. What was not done in negotiation of the casual-PTFS memorandum was to negotiate actual contract language. No changes have been made to Article 7 nor to Article 8 of the National Agreement to embody the concepts of the MOU. Yet the membership is being presented with a ratification process to vote on whether to accept a new, four-year "contract" with major conceptual changes to the make up of the workforce. And this problem goes further.
We ought to be increasingly concerned that our collective bargaining agreement has become increasingly cluttered with memorandums of understanding. The terms of the National Agreement itself have seen few changes, in spite of the parties' willingness to create layer upon layer of memorandum terms. This tentative agreement is far worse than prior agreements in this regard.
First, we ought to note the prefatory comments introducing to our members what the document represents:
"In preparing this APWU edition of the 2006 contract, we have made changes to the National Agreement as agreed to by the parties. However, the official text of the 2006-2010 National Agreement will not be finalized until the completion of a jointly conducted review and agreement between the APWU and the USPS."
"This copy of the National Agreement is provided for the information of members of the APWU and does not prejudice the rights of the APWU or the USPS as to its content or omissions. A jointly agreed upon contract will be printed and made available after the parties finalize their review of the agreement. That later edition will be the "official" version of the contract."
While it is true that each time a "tentative agreement" is printed a similar disclaimer appears, in this contract there is a deeper significance. The parties have long recognized that a unilateral printing may contain some errors that will require correction. However, the disclaimer here accompanies a document that, by its own terms, does not represent the actual agreement of the parties. Actual contract language - terms by which the parties will be governed for, at least, the next four years - has not yet been formulated. In this regard, you must note the conclusion of the casual/PTFS MOU:
"The parties agree to meet and develop the appropriate contract language and implementation guidelines and instructions."
This is reinforced by the prefatory remark,
"In accordance with the "Supplemental Workforce; Conversion of Clerk Craft PTFs" memo on page 162 of the tentative agreement, the parties have agreed to make changes to appropriate provisions of the collective bargaining agreement to reflect the principles agreed to in the memorandum. However the revised language has not been written yet. To see what will change, please read the memo on page 162."
So, what will the members vote to ratify? Clearly, it cannot be the terms of contract language. That will not be developed until . . . well, sometime in the future . . . sometime after the members ratify the "contract", such as it is.
But there is more. This "contract" finds several areas in which MOU's were negotiated without the parties taking the time to improve, revise or otherwise change the language of controlling contract articles. And MOU's do not necessarily have the same status as contract language. MOU's are, by their own terms, either self surviving or not. In other words, any particular MOU will continue as if it were contract language or it will expire at the end of the present National Agreement, depending upon how it is composed. For example, because the MOU on casuals and PTFS conversion fails to state an expiration, it would appear to be self surviving. The MOU on PTFS conversion by transfer to a larger installation is, by its terms (see page 167 of the tentative agreement), not self surviving.
Several MOU's affect leave - pages 164 through 167 - for annual leave exchange, bereavement leave, donor leave, dependent care leave and leave sharing. The MOU for annual leave exchange still is not self surviving. The MOU on bereavement leave, new to the National Agreement, seems to be self surviving; the MOU on administrative leave for bone marrow, stem cell, etc. donors also appears to be self surviving. Yet neither of these concepts have been memorialized in terms of Article 10 of the National Agreement. And the dependent care and leave sharing MOU's remain just that - memos - not self surviving, still subject to discontinuance by simple declination of the Service in the next round of negotiations.
We have a new MOU connected to Article 13, apparently self surviving, but not contract language. Similarly, a new memo for Article 14; a couple for Article 15; an amended memo for Articles 17 and 31; and a new one for Article 21. All without benefit of the negotiation of actual contract language.
So, just what is it that the membership will be asked to ratify? Perhaps, just as important is the question, what on earth did the rank and file committee endorse? Does the term "pig in a poke" mean anything? "A pig in lipstick is still a pig." - Bill Burrus
It is time for the membership to take some responsibility for this Union and to vote 'NO'. Vote to reject the unknown. And, thereby, vote to send the negotiator-in-chief back to the bargaining table to finalize the terms of this contract before expecting the membership to endorse it.
(First published in December 2006)