When the dust settles, the Postal Service will have reduced the employee complement from over one million employees to around 500,000, and falling. This will be a reduction of one half million good paying jobs with benefits, including health care and retirement. This is not the fault of any specific union administration but the impact of technology and computer staffing and scheduling that has occurred over a 40 year period. The initial transformation from manual sortation has evolved over time and with technology two employees can now equal the production of 20 employees in the past. The introduction of technologies has similarly affected numerous other industries, including auto, steel, coal and other manual occupations. These occupations have been the backbone of the labor movement and their diminishment has mirrored the reduction in union density. Any future resurgence will require a major shift in objectives.
As civilization progresses and it will, the response by workers must be with increased union density that the new technologies generate equal job opportunities, wages and benefits. Over the past decades of reduced postal complement, communications have magnified but the increased communications have gravitated to other forms. People communicate many times more in 2013 than they did 50 years ago but the union employees facilitating those communications have been reduced dramatically. Go to any public gathering and observe how many people are communicating as compared to 40 years ago when such exchanges were limited to a land line phone and mail. Communications have grown while the number of postal and telephone workers has declined.
The unions of tomorrow must have a vision beyond the specific activity performed by specific workers and focus on the broader activity. Over time, most of the functions that we engage in will be performed more efficiently with computer related efficiencies. Mail is merely a means of communicating and while hard copy will continue far into the future, its share of the market will progressively diminish as a share of the total exchanges.
Discussions within the union among the technicians, stewards and officers’ focus on problems of the moment, the resolution of issues of today, but long range focus must receive equal attention. Seniority grievances or other issues of contract enforcement pale in comparison to the structure of the communication industry 10 years from now. An APWU of 80,000 members cannot and will not represent as effectively.
Some will suggest that in an effort to broaden the base, the union chase the remaining segments of hard copy processing and delivery but those segments will also in time fall victim to technology. There will not be sufficient numbers of manual activities remaining in total to return to the pre computer complements so focus must expand beyond the specific tasks now performed.
Andy Stern, former president of SEIU, had a vision of segmenting unions along functional lines, but became frustrated in convincing fellow union presidents and withdrew from the AFL to form a separate entity that has floundered and failed to pursue his vision. The mindset of union officials must expand beyond the narrow confines of activities that will not survive the innovative changes of the future. It can be expected that there will be resistance because the issues of the day are here and now and demand attention but there is no alternative. Union memberships that rely on physical activity that can be modified by technology will continue to suffer losses similar to the Postal Service and APWU. We must do more than fight yesterday’s battles because technology is eating our lunch.
We tried in the late 1980s to address the impact of technology with the organization and retreat of all national officers to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. The agenda was to look into the future and project changes necessary to remain viable as a labor union. The union mindset at the time, as now, was contract interpretation and enforcement and we were unsuccessful in changing the focus even though we invited the postmaster general, President AFL and other decision makers who knew the future plans of employment. We did succeed in establishing a ‘Committee of The Future’ that met periodically over the following years but we were unable to change the focus from now, today, to tomorrow. From that period forward, we have ridden the horse of representation to the point of continuous erosion and the result has been a membership base that has dwindled from 300,000 to 150,000 and dropping.
There will be cries for worker solidarity to stop change but there is not sufficient appetite for revolution and a revolution for what? To do what, put workers in charge to stop change? Such a strategy is doomed to failure because change will happen and those ill prepared will suffer the consequences. With its ever expanding officer and staff structure, APWU has baked into its future tens of millions of dollars in legacy costs factored on a membership base of 200,000 members so there is no alternative except to shape the future. Restructuring at this late date will not relieve the vesting obligations to retired and eligible recipients. Exclusively focusing on the problem of the day will not leave time for preparation for tomorrow, and tomorrow will come. It’s just a matter of time.