Hundreds protest use of private mail carriers
Beaverton pickets protest outside post office to stir 'court of public opinion'
About 350 union letter carriers showed up Thursday evening in front of Beaverton's Post Office to protest the use of private postal delivery contractors in urban Washington County.
Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 82 in Portland are battling the U.S. Postal Service over a private contract to deliver mail in Bethany's Arbor Parc project.
The 374-dwelling development at the corner of Northwest Laidlaw Road and Bethany Boulevard is sort of a ground zero for the unions' fight against private contract mail delivery in urban Oregon.
Private mail delivery began in the area March 12 under a 120-day Postal Service contract. The fast-growing and developing Bethany area is considered an urban postal route by some, sparking a clash between the letter carriers' union and the Beaverton Post Office, which sought the contract.
Postal Service representatives say the issue is about saving money and being more efficient. Union members say it's about using cut-rate, possibly unreliable and unsafe delivery people to chip away at the postal career culture that the union has fostered for a century.
The contractors are not eligible for Postal Service benefits and usually work for a flat fee.
It's the first time in years that the union has set up informational pickets outside a post office, said L.C. Hansen, president of the 1,800-member Branch 82 union. But the issue of private mail delivery in urban areas is a tough one for the union, partly because its members see an ominous future looming behind the budget efficiencies, Hansen said.
'We want to work in the court of public opinion with the people that we actually serve to ask for their help in this,' she said.
'Our experience is that this is absolutely the first step in the destruction of the post office.'
Destruction of the post office? Not exactly, said Kerry Jeffrey, customer relations coordinator for the main post office in downtown Portland.
'The Postal Service has a mandate to cut costs and provide universal service under our current system,' Jeffrey said. 'Our costs are constantly growing. We have an obligation to keep costs under control and still provide delivery service to every address in the United States. We're trying to use every tool at our disposal.'
One of those tools is the use of private contractors to deliver mail in some areas. Most of the private carriers handle rural routes across the state. In 2002, the Postal Service changed its rules about using private carriers to handle 'highway contract service' where the mail was delivered in 'sparsely populated areas.'
Under altered rules, the Postal Service dropped the 'sparsely populated' requirement, meaning it can contract with private carriers for routes just about anywhere.
About 66,000 mail routes are handled by private contractors across the state. In Washington County, roughly 900 routes are done by private carriers.
That's a small percentage of the nearly 220,000 Washington County residential deliveries made every day, Jeffrey said.
A majority of the routes handled by contract carriers are new developments that have sprung up across the region, he said. No existing urban or rural mail delivery route has been replaced by a private contractor.
'We've always provided contract delivery service in places of all kinds, suburban or rural,' Jeffrey said. 'With the pressure on to cut costs and be more efficient, we had to make a decision on this (the Arbor Parc contract) to save money.'
Hansen said the decision really cuts into the career letter carrier's 'brand' as a reliable, steady and conscientious professional who can be trusted to handle sensitive and important mail.
Private letter carriers could be a step by the Postal Service to create a 'Wal-Mart-type, low-pay jobs with no benefits,' she said.
'The vast majority of letter carriers are career people who are dedicated to this service,' Hansen said.
'The thing that we're worried about is that if the customers can't absolutely trust that their mail is secure, then they're not going to have much faith in the institution. If and when the general public should lose trust in the institution, there's no point to have universal service any longer.'
Jeffrey said the Arbor Parc mail delivery contractor had to go through a criminal background check and be licensed and bonded.
Advertisements for private letter carriers (posted on Craig's List in other parts of the nation) required them to carry thousands of dollars in insurance on their vehicles and themselves.
'They go through the same security and background checks that the Postal Service has for everybody else,' Jeffrey said.
Hansen said her union hoped its protests would head off future urban-area private contracts. Arbor Parc is probably the first private delivery area in the state that is surrounded by routes handled by union letter carriers, she said.
'Across the street from Arbor Parc there's a letter carrier walking the street or driving his vehicle delivering the mail,' Hansen said. 'He could just walk across the street and begin delivering to the new area.'