A Visionary Leader
(A portion of this article was first published in the September/October 2010 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
For more than five decades, APWU President William Burrus dedicated himself to improving the lives of postal workers. When he retired in mid-November 2010, he ended an extraordinary career.
Burrus began working at the post office in 1958, when he was hired as a distribution clerk in Cleveland after a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. He took part in the Great Postal Strike of 1970, and from 1974 to 1980 served as president of the Cleveland Area Local.
In 1980, he joined forces with the irrepressible Moe Biller to run for the union’s highest offices. With Biller serving as national president and Burrus serving as vice president, the two reshaped the union — putting the “fight” back in the organization, professionalizing representation, and placing the union on a firm financial footing. Their partnership lasted more than two decades.
As vice president, Burrus was instrumental in negotiating many of the union’s most important achievements, including the “maximization clause,” which resulted in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of part-time flexible employees to fulltime; the return to the USPS of Priority Mail, which had been subcontracted; the application of the Family & Medical Leave Act; lifetime “saved grade” for thousands of LSM operators, and much, much more.
Through it all, he never lost sight of the membership: He understood that the right to wear headphones and tennis shoes on the work floor also would improve working conditions — and he won those rights as well.
A Steady Leader From the Start
In the fall of 2001, as Biller prepared to retire and Burrus was elected president, the postal workplace was awash with fear: Anthrax in the mail killed two APWU members and sickened others.
As the crisis unfolded, Burrus worked around the clock to protect employees and to restore the public’s confidence in the mail system. He met with management and federal safety officials on a daily basis and held frequent conference calls with union members across the country.
His goal was to allay the fears of APWU members and the nation; but at the same time, he warned management, “We will take whatever action is necessary to protect the health and safety of those we represent.”
The anthrax crisis would have tested the mettle of any leader, but, true to form, Burrus didn’t flinch.
Looking Forward, Always
Throughout his presidency, Burrus was always a formidable intellectual force, a skillful leader, and an articulate spokesman.
Early in his tenure, he concluded that major mailers had hijacked the postage rate-setting process, robbing the Postal Service of desperately needed revenue through excessive “worksharing” discounts. Burrus understood that the discounts undermined the financial integrity of the Postal Service and circumvented the legal requirement of “universal service at uniform rates.”
And he never missed a chance to say so. In frequent testimony before Congress, as well as in scores of media interviews and editorials, Burrus routinely exposed excessive USPS postage discounts for what they are: “A Ponzi-like scheme” hatched by the mailing industry that “Bernie Madoff would be proud of.”
Postal ‘Reform’ Takes Center Stage
Burrus also recognized the dangers inherent in postal “reform” and in the Postal Service’s frequent restructuring proposals.
He was harshly critical of the USPS “Transformation Plan” in April 2002, which called for the closure of small post offices; plant consolidations, and increased worksharing opportunities for large mailers. “Postal officials have been brainwashed into believing that the concerns of the major mailers and the direct mail firms are superior to the financial stability of the Postal Service itself,” Burrus said at the time. “We cannot permit these cannibals to dismantle the best postal system in the world.”
In 2003, he denounced the formation of a commission handpicked by then-president George W. Bush, which was established to propose structural changes to the USPS. He predicted that the panel would produce “a reform scheme that pleases major mailers and conservative ideologues.”
When the commission released a report to Congress six months later, it proposed to cut workers’ wages and benefits; end no-layoff protection; derail union bargaining rights; close postal facilities; end Saturday delivery, and privatize many aspects of the postal system.
Anticipating that the future of the USPS would be decided by Congress, Burrus launched an aggressive campaign to increase the union’s grassroots lobbying efforts and fundraising for the Committee on Political Action (COPA). As a result, the APWU was an important force in congressional deliberations, and the commission’s most objectionable proposals were dead-on-arrival on Capitol Hill.
Attempts to “reform” the Postal Service continued, however, and the APWU was a persistent but lonely voice of opposition. Burrus had been an outspoken critic of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006, because it placed unfair financial burdens on the USPS. In doing so, the PAEA jeopardizes the future of the Postal Service.
Under Burrus’ leadership, during the last round of contract negotiations in 2006, the union made significant advances: The part-time flexible category was eliminated from large offices and thousands of PTFs were converted to full-time; all APWU-represented employees were upgraded; the Transitional Employee category was eliminated from mail processing and customer services; restrictions were placed on the number of casuals that could be employed, along with other improvements.
In 2008, in keeping with his determination to raise the APWU’s profile in the political sphere, Burrus led the union to become one of the first in the AFL-CIO to endorse the candidacy of Barack Obama for president.
Despite these major contributions, Burrus believes that his most enduring achievement came before he was elected to national office.
In 1978, as Chairman of the Rank and File Bargaining Advisory Committee, Burrus led opposition to a tentative agreement negotiated by the presidents of the three major postal unions that included a $160 cap on cost-of-living increases. He knew that an artificial limit on wages would leave postal workers vulnerable to inflation, and led a successful campaign among union members to reject the agreement.
Subsequent arbitration resulted in an uncapped COLA for the past 32 years, to the great benefit of postal employees.
Determined to remain committed to the membership until his final day in office, Burrus prepared himself to be fully engaged in contract negotiations, as well as efforts to pass critical legislation to fix USPS finances, fight the elimination of Saturday delivery, prevent the dismantling of the consolidation of the mail processing network, and stop the closure of stations and branches.