Many postal workers have jumped to the defense of APWU president William Burrus as a result of my article, Mathematically Challenged: Burrus Proposal Doesn’t Add Up for USPS. But if many of these defenders are correct, they should be angry at Burrus for garbling the message and distracting people from the real issue.
Of the scores of comments submitted to this site and several postal-news sites, many stated that what the union president meant to say is that the U.S. Postal Service can sort un-presorted letters for 1 to 3 cents apiece (depending upon the commenter), while mailers get First Class presort discounts of up to 10.5 cents each. But that’s not even close to what Burrus actually said.
It’s also contrary to the Postal Service’s own data earlier this year estimating that the presorting of First Class letters saves it far more than 3 cents. But some of Burrus' defenders have raised legitimate questions regarding whether those cost estimates match current USPS practices.
One of the best what-he-really-meant-to-say defenses of Burrus came from “uncommonsense”, a commenter who acknowledged that Burrus’ challenge to Postmaster General Jack Potter is “a publicity stunt” with “no serious evaluation of costs/benefits”. (Rather damning praise, I’d say.) Here is uncommonsense’s valuable history lesson:
"In 1999 the OCR machines that the USPS was running had the ability to read about 20% of the letters ran through them. They had a throughput capacity of 30,000 letters per hour and required 2 trips through the machine to sort to the first breakdown and only allowed 94 different breakdowns. Most of the mail that ran through this machine had to have images of it sent to human keyers on terminals at one of 55 REC sites to provide the information to barcode the mail piece.
"Today, because of faster computers and more advanced software, the equipment that the USPS is running is able to read and apply barcodes to about 97% of the letters ran through it and sort the mail pieces to over 200 possible breakdowns, ALL on the first pass @ 40,000 letters per hour. An equivalent breakdown in 1999 would have required 3 passes through the OCR @ 30,000 pieces per hour and many human keyers. So in one hour with 2 operators and a keyer, the USPS can now process what used to take 4 hours 2-3 operators and many keyers. The new equipment is also much less expensive to maintain then the old MLOCR was.
"Now, 3% of letter images are sent to human keyers at one of 2 REC sites. Despite adding Flats and Parcel images to keyer duties, technology has allowed the USPS to eliminate 53 out of 55 REC sites.
Since USPS costs for bar coding and sorting letters has decreased so much since 1999 why have the work share discounts not also decreased?"
An anonymous commenter chimed in with this spot-on observation: “Presort mailers prepare the mail to the exacting specifications of the USPS Domestic Mail Manual in order to claim any worksharing discounts. If there is an issue with the mail handling once received - we are doing what the Postal Service told us to! If it needs to change, it's a Postal Service task.”
Another commenter added, “It's the silly Post Office rules that waste money. I have seen carrier-routed mail returned to the SCF in order to co-mingle it with other mail. Why can't the carrier just case it in? Think of the man-hours, and transportation costs that this takes. All of this is because management has the silly notion of having all the carrier's mail ready to deliver when they arrive in the morning.” (In defense of the Postal Service, using otherwise underutilized mail-sorting operations to do work that takes a burden off the delivery operations might actually make economic sense.)
The picture that emerges from these comments is that, while the size of presort discounts on letters might once have been justified, they are no longer consistent with the Postal Service’s costs. Put another way, the commenters are indicating that automation and excess mail-handling capacity have shrunk the cost difference between handling presorted and un-presorted letters.
I’m not saying they are correct. Some of their cost calculations are clearly wrong – for example, some included only salaries while ignoring benefits, facility costs, etc. But the arguments of “uncommonsense” and some of the other commenters have far more logic and plausibility than Burrus’ vague, ill-conceived proposal.
Burrus muddied the waters by proposing an obvious money loser for the Postal Service – remove First Class presort discounts that average 8.9 cents per letter and pay APWU members 10.4 cents instead to do the sorting. He tried to make his sloppy math more favorable to the Postal Service this week by throwing in a bonus – free sorting of parcels – along with his usual big-mailers-are-vermin bluster.
But the proposal is still too vague to be taken seriously. Among many flaws with the Burrus plan is that it would decrease the demand for First Class mail by raising prices. So with APWU members getting their 10.4 cents on fewer letters but still having to sort parcels for free, would they end up having to take a pay cut?
In an attempt to move the discussion away from character assassination and conspiracy theories, Dead Tree Edition offers these observations and ideas:
• Rather than trying to keep excess employees busy by incenting mailers to mail in a less efficient manner, which is in essence what Burrus is proposing, downsizing the workforce via meaningful early-retirement incentives would be more productive. (See What the Postal Service Left Out of the Early-Retirement Deal.) Presorting address data before a mailing occurs is inherently more efficient than sorting the actual mail pieces.
• Presorted letters are highly profitable for the Postal Service, as evidenced by its eagerness to offer the Summer Sale on Standard mail and the Fall Sale on First Class. USPS’ problem is not that it doesn’t charge enough for letters, it’s that it doesn’t have enough letters to charge for. Anything that would reduce the volume of letter mail, as would Burrus’ proposal, would be counterproductive for the Postal Service and its employees.
• Under current law, any significant reduction in First Class presort discounts would require decreasing the price of un-presorted letters (that is, the 44-cent First Class stamp). Otherwise, the inflation-based price cap on First Class would be violated.
• If indeed presort discounts on First Class letters are larger than justified, there might be a way to shrink them without hurting mailers or driving business away from the Postal Service – dropship discounts. Business mailers get 4.3 cents for dropshipping Standard letters to Sectional Center Facilities but nothing for First Class, even though dropshipping clearly saves the Postal Service money. Introduction of First Class dropship discounts (which would have to clear some legal barriers) could compensate mailers for the shrinkage of presort discounts and cause them to mail in ways that are more efficient for the Postal Service.
• For the record, I am not "speaking on behalf of the Far Right" (Burrus' description this week of those who defend business mailers) and have not made anti-union statements (just criticisms of a specific union official's proposals). If I were part of the Far Right, I never would have written articles like the recent one ridiculing Rush Limbaugh or have published the ghost-written piece, How sleepy is the giant?.
• Maybe “uncommonsense” should replace Burrus as the APWU’s spokesman.