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The U.S. Postal Service's top negotiator during the last round of contract talks three years ago will be in Buffalo this September when talks begin with its three unions over a new contract.

Thomas J. Fritsch will be at his desk in the main post office on William Street where, as general manager of a postal region stretching as far west as Elmira, he oversees the work of 10,000 employees in 360 post offices.

In terms of the number of employees involved, the coming negotiations overshadow even this summer's talks between the Big Three U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers Union. The Postal Service has 760,000 union workers, versus about half a million for the automakers.

"The Postal Service is in a state of flux," Fritsch said in a recent interview. "We're moving from hand and mechanical operations to automation. Job security for the first time in a long time will be the main issue. Both sides have to deal with change."

The average worker, he said, can sort 700 to 800 pieces of mail an hour by hand. With machines he can sort up to 12,000 pieces an hour. Now new automation has come along that can sort 30,000 pieces an hour.

That's possible because of longer ZIP codes and bar codes, like those on supermarket items, being put on business mail, which now comprises 80 percent of the mail. Right now, letter carriers spend nearly half their time sorting the mail on their routes before they can deliver it. But soon, Fritsch said, automation will deliver the mail to them on a tray already sorted according to street and house number.

By 1995, most of the mail for the smaller post offices will be sorted in in huge facilities like the William Street post office or the main post office in Rochester.

Fritsch said the new equipment will result in "enormous savings, but it creates a big labor relations issue. If I hire someone today, it's a 20- or 30-year decision. If I put in equipment in five years which eliminates their job, it creates a big problem."

Postal rates are scheduled to go up in February. When that happens, Fritsch said, experience has shown there will be a big drop in the volume of mail, which will further reduce the amount of manpower needed. He plans to hire part-time help, if needed, to handle the high volume of mail later this year.

Because fewer postal workers will be needed as the system continues to automate and to contract out work, Fritsch ordered a hiring freeze shortly after becoming Buffalo postmaster a little more than a year ago. By not replacing workers who have quit or retired, the number of full-time postal workers in Western New York has been reduced by 300. The number of part-timers is down by 150. He expects a similar reduction in the next 12 months.

"We're going to continue to downsize, so unions have to be concerned with job security," he said.

But union leaders like Russell J. Barbera, president of the 1,200-member Branch 3 of the Letter Carriers Union here, oppose the use of more part-time help and want their union to curtail it at the bargaining table in September. So does Frank Resetarits, who heads the Postal Worker Union here.

Resetarits said he expects the postal service will try to double the number of temporary employees it can hire under the current contract. Right now, the contract limits the number of temporary help to 5 percent of the work force.

For Arthur S. Vallone, president of Local 309 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union here, the biggest concern is the increasing amount of work the Postal Service wants to farm out to private, usually non-union contractors. The union currently is conducting a campaign of demonstrations, picketing, letter writing and publicity against a regional mail distribution center in Binghamton whose operation has been contracted out to a private company paying non-union workers considerably less than union wages.

Since the Postal Service became a semi-public agency in 1970, negotiations have been done under the National Labor Relations Board's regulations, which cover bargaining in the private sector. There is one important difference: by law, postal workers are forbidden to strike. Instead, disputes must be settled by binding arbitration.

Local union leaders think the issues of jobs and contracting work out are too big to be solved short of arbitration. Fritsch, who has played a major role for management in the last three negotiations, doesn't like the idea of an outside arbitrator deciding the postal contract. "It's very dangerous to turn things over to a third party," he said.

"You're talking about someone who knows very little about this business, and listening to two weeks of very complicated hearings and trying to turn all that information into something everybody will accept. When you're talking about billions of dollars, that's difficult."

The Postal Service is the largest civilian employer in the country. The sums of money involved in even a small economic issue are enormous.

"We think the negotiations are successful if the wage increase amounts to only $5 billion," Fritsch said with a laugh.

To emphasize that point he told a story. "I remember a training session held by an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association. He said he had just left a negotiation session where the two sides were $120 million apart. Nobody gasped, as he expected. He repeated, 'We were $120 million apart! What would you have in the Postal Service if you were $120 million apart?' Some guy in back yelled: 'A deal!' "

Although Fritsch's father was a union plasterer here, the postmaster's first experience as a union member came after transferring to Canisius College as a business major. Working his way through college, he was at various times a member of the Teamsters Union and the Meat Packers while working at part-time jobs in area supermarkets and a warehouse.

Standing 6 feet, 3 inches and weighing 235 pounds, Fritsch was an all-Western New York Catholic tackle for Canisius High School in 1963. He won a football scholarship to Xavier University in Cincinnati but left after his freshman year when "it became apparent to me that I could either graduate from college or play football."

Upon graduation from Canisius College in 1970, he was hired as an apprentice labor relations specialist for Penn Central. Two years later, he was hired by the CSEA as a field representative in its Olean office, where he represented public employees in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegheny counties.

"That's where I learned the collective bargaining business," he said. "I learned the nuts and bolts of it."

In 1973, Fritsch began his postal career as a labor representative for management. It wasn't difficult to switch to the other side of the table. "If you're successful in collective bargaining, you have to see the other person's position," he said. "If you're too one-sided, you're going to have trouble because you let all this ideology get in the way of the practical matters of the business."

After a series of rapid promotions, in 1981 at age 34 he became director of employee relations in the Chicago Post Office and assistant to the Postal Service's top negotiator in the national labor negotiations that year.

He held a similar role in the 1984 national negotiations. At the time he also was working toward his MBA from the University of Chicago. He recalls exhausting weeks of negotiating all week in Washington, D.C., then flying back to attend weekend classes at the university.

In 1985, he became assistant postmaster general for labor relations and, as such, the service's top negotiator in the the 1987 national negotiations.

The following year, Fritsch moved over to become assistant postmaster general in charge of general delivery. Last year, at age 42, he was planning to leave the postal service to become a private consultant when, two weeks before he was to leave, he was offered the job as Buffalo postmaster.

The job pays the same $85,000 salary as that of assistant postmaster general.

"I thought it would be nice to get back to Western New York and oversee all the functions of a post office," he said. "You go from managing one function to managing a range of functions and have total responsibility . . . What the future holds, I don't know. Sometime in the future I plan to get into labor consulting."

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