The United States Postal Service has the dubious distinction of being the deadliest workplace within the federal government. This year alone seven of our co-workers nationwide have lost their lives in the performance of their postal duties. The USPS has historically been one of the worst agencies in accident and illness prevention. The Portland District, which covers the entire State of Oregon and southwest Washington, is currently one of the most dangerous districts in the nation to work in.
You may or may not have heard of some of the new safety programs that are being pushed out by District management. As part of the latest management fad called “Lean Six Sigma” we have new programs, safety slogans and a new vocabulary to learn. Lean Six Sigma programs originate from Japanese led corporations who showed some success increasing efficiency in the manufacturing sectors a couple of decades ago. That’s why you’ll hear supervisors preening about their new Green Belt or Black Belt certification. You may have been given your White Belt to make you feel part of the team. It’s the Lean Six Sigma program that brought you those “Gemba” boards on some work floors with green and red cards attached.
Obviously we have a stake in any program relating to safety and health in the workplace. We are the one’s suffering the injuries, illnesses and tragically death at times. We want these programs to succeed, we want a safer workplace, and we don’t want to die delivering the mail. So it was with cautious optimism that in my duties as President I appointed members to the new Safety Advocate Teams. It was our hope that they would be provided the training and tools necessary to create a new safety culture within the USPS. It was our hope that our appointees would be able to bring safety concerns to their supervisors and have our supervisor’s cooperation. It was our sincere hope that this would not be another example of empty slogans and half measures.
A breach in trust. Recently a Safety Advocate went to their manager to report a concern over the handling of a potential hazardous materials situation. Instead of cooperating with our Safety Advocate and using the opportunity to show their commitment to the safety of our employees, the manager took offence. He then abused his authority by removing the Safety Advocate by force from the building. Finally, the entire management team decided that wasn’t enough punishment for raising a safety concern, and the Safety Advocate was effectively issued a fine for over two thousand five hundred dollars, in the form of a 14 day suspension without pay.
This breach of trust has serious implications. Upon hearing about the situation and reviewing the statements from management and our representatives, it became clear that every Safety Advocate was in danger. I could not in good conscience put people who I appointed in a position to be disciplined and face the loss of wages and potentially their job because they had the courage to bring a safety issue to their supervisor. This past week I informed management that we were suspending all participation in joint safety committees at all levels and in all facilities represented by the Portland Oregon Area Local until a meeting could be had between the Union and District Management.
Unfortunately in our first meeting with District Management we were greeted with an ultimatum and hostility. It was communicated quite clearly that management would not be badgered over safety. Perhaps this is because they feel that they are above reproach or that they believe that it is their job as managers to give direct orders and our job as employees to blindly obey. This attitude has become more pervasive lately as we have seen an increase in supervisors resorting to giving direct orders to employees and suspending employees without pay when they fail to bow to their demands. We are left with the impression that management has no concern for true employee involvement based on mutual trust and respect. The new programs and slogans seem to be destined for the large trash heap filled with the broken promises and hollow words given by so many of their predecessors.
One promise that will never fail us is the pledge of Solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 82 and National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 315. Upon hearing about our struggle both Jim Falvey, President of Branch 82 of the NALC and Bryan Easley, President of Local 315 NPMHU informed District Management that they were joining with the APWU and reconsidering or suspending their respective Union’s involvement in the safety committees.
“While we would like to continue this joint process, it will be impossible to do so if we have reason to believe our Union leaders, who represent the entire craft, are not truly equal partners in pursuit of a safer work place. To us this means that the creation of a more substantive ‘safety culture’ for all employees includes taking the craft’s perspective, presented by the Union, and regarding it with value. That also extends to the representatives themselves, whom you have asked to help you. As a result, the NPMHU is detaching immediately from all joint safety meetings and committees, at all levels, in solidarity with the APWU.” Bryan Easley, President NPMHU Local 315
Despite our abrupt first meeting with District Management we have agreed to meet again on August 17th. We have to be sure that it wasn’t just posturing or the lack of trust that prevented us from having a productive meeting. Our future involvement in these new safety programs will depend largely on whether or not we can secure agreements that ensure our Safety Advocates will be treated as equal partners who are trained and given the tools to vigorously pursue a safer workplace. It will depend on whether management is open to constructive criticism and yes, sometimes even what they might consider badgering.
Brian Dunsmore, President
Portland Oregon Area Local
American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO