WASHINGTON – The U.S. Postal Service’s William Street processing center appeared to survive yet another near-death experience Wednesday, but only after a frantic call from Sen. Charles E. Schumer to the postmaster general, who vowed to stick to his original promise of keeping the facility open until 2015 no matter what his underlings are saying.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who said he wanted the postmaster general to commit in writing that he would keep the facility open, especially in light of evidence that the Postal Service is already shipping some of the facility’s equipment to Rochester.
And so ended a bizarre chain of events surrounding the facility’s fate, which started with a leak to The Buffalo News of an email from a Postal Service official to local union leaders indicating that operations at William Street could be curtailed as soon as June 1.
The email, which union officials received last Friday, included an attachment indicating that at least 360 jobs could be eliminated at the Buffalo facility as part of an effort to boost the finances of the Postal Service, which lost $16 billion last year alone.
“I am sure you recognize that the Postal Service is facing tremendous pressure to reduce costs as quickly as possible,” Ken Botknecht, area labor relations specialist for the Postal Service, wrote in his email to Buffalo postal union officials.
But the suggestion that the facility’s operations would be cut back by June 1 directly contradicted a vow that Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe made last May, when he promised that the William Street facility would remain in operation until at least 2015.
Not surprisingly, Botknecht’s email enraged Higgins, who wrote to Donahoe to protest the proposed early shutdown.
Higgins also released an angry statement:
“Now, just months after a reprieve and commitments to the contrary, it appears the USPS management is trying to pull one over on this community with a sneak attack that could turn the lives of local workers and the operations of local businesses completely upside down.”
Higgins, who is traveling overseas on congressional business, could not be reached by phone at that point for further comment.
Enter Schumer, D-N.Y., who extracted Donahoe’s earlier commitment to keep the William Street facility open for three more years.
After seeing Botknecht’s email, Schumer called Donahoe twice and eventually was able to pull him out of a meeting.
“I just spoke to the postmaster, and he reiterated his commitment that Buffalo stays open until 2015,” Schumer said. “I said: Is it unequivocal? ... He said: Absolutely.”
Donahoe was unfamiliar with the memo that once again threatened the Buffalo facility’s future, Schumer said.
“He didn’t know what this memo was,” Schumer said. “If Buffalo’s on the list, it’s a mistake.”
Botknecht did not return a phone call seeking comment, but Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman confirmed that Schumer and Donahoe had talked.
“I just know that the postmaster general gave Sen. Schumer some general assurances regarding the facility in Buffalo, that there are no plans to do anything with it this year,” Stroman said.
But that wasn’t good enough for Higgins, whose staff had received word from postal employees that a flat mail-processing machine at the William Street facility is currently being dismantled in preparation for a move to the USPS facility in Rochester.
The Postal Service proposed a year ago to shutter the William Street facility and transfer its operations to Rochester, a move that drew fire from local lawmakers who eventually forced the agency to back down and commit to keeping the facility open.
Given that the machinery is already being moved to Rochester, Higgins – from his undisclosed location overseas – issued another statement:
“If the postmaster general is still committed to maintaining the Buffalo mail processing facility at full operation levels through at least 2015, then we welcome that communication in writing from him. All recent evidence, including the movement of equipment and formal USPS notices to move staff, point to the contrary.”
For his part, Schumer seemed satisfied with the postmaster general’s verbal commitment.
“He said the commitment stays the same,” Schumer said. “If Buffalo’s on a list for moving up closings, it shouldn’t be, and it won’t.”
Still, Higgins demanded more.
“While I certainly have confidence in Sen. Schumer and know well of his personal commitment to this issue, past history has shown me that the postmaster cannot be relied upon to be a trusted partner,” Higgins said.
In addition, local postal officials have never offered a verbal acknowledgement of Donahoe’s commitment to Schumer that the facility will stay open until 2015, said Frank Resetarits, president of the Buffalo local of the American Postal Workers Union.
That being the case, Resetarits said local postal workers were less than happy with the topsy-turvy tale of the facility’s fate.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for them,” he said. “It’s been very stressful.”
Nevertheless, Resetarits said he was pleased, for now at least, with how the story appears to be ending.
“Today is a great day, because it finally satisfies the commitment level” that the postmaster general has for the Buffalo facility, at least until 2015, he said.