WASHINGTON - As negotiations continue between the Senate and the House on a possible year-end deal to help the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service, a small band of protesters launched its second hunger strike in six months on Tuesday.
The six former and current postal workers, who call themselves Communities and Postal Workers United, have set up an encampment on the National Mall in Washington. They say they are protesting an offer by Senate negotiators to put five-day mail delivery on the table, a change that could eliminate as many as 25,000 letter-carrier jobs.
"We're declaring an emergency postal hunger strike to head off five-day delivery," said Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier from Portland, Ore. "If we can turn up the pressure and prevent the lame-duck session from passing postal legislation, we will, because it's bound to be a bad bill."
He said the hunger strike will continue until late Saturday.
During the 112th Congress, House and Senate leaders have been unable to agree on legislation to help stabilize the Postal Service, which is losing billions of dollars a year. A bill the Senate passed last spring would put off a switch to five-day service for two years, transfer billions of dollars from a pension fund to allow the agency to offer buyouts to workers and extend the payment schedule for benefits the Postal Service must set aside for future retirees.
A bill proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would give the agency more latitude to cut services, for example, eliminating six-day service now. It would put a panel in charge of overseeing postal finances and prohibit labor contracts that prevent layoffs, among other provisions.
But Issa did not have the votes to bring it to the floor, and an overhaul seemed unlikely to pass this year.
In November, retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, offered to get talks moving by giving up Saturday delivery for letters, a change the Postal Service has sought for years but which has generated opposition in both parties.
But sticking points remain, say aides on committees involved in the talks. The Senate still opposes Issa's proposal to restrict the Postal Service's ability to negotiate labor agreements, and there is disagreement over how much payments for future health benefits should be reduced.
Any bill would likely be tacked onto legislation resolving the budget debate over taxes, spending and the federal deficit now consuming Congress.
"If action isn't taken soon, the Postal Service will go off its own fiscal cliff," said Emily Spain, a spokeswoman for Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.
Partridge was one of 10 activists who held a five-day hunger strike in Washington in June, declaring that Congress was "starving" the Postal Service by requiring the agency to set aside health payments. They met with Capitol Hill staffers but were turned back from a meeting with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe. Their highest-profile supporter is Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a labor champion who is leaving Congress.
In a statement, Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said, "We respect the right of our employees to engage in lawful public dialogue regarding postal issues." He added, however, that "it is critical for Congress to pass comprehensive postal reform legislation" before adjourning this year.