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Firm contracted to make Postal Service trucks plans to do it at a non-union facility

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Postal Service needs new trucks and lots of them. Like many car buyers, it's facing a decision over whether to stay with traditional gas-powered vehicles or switch to electric ones. Congress and labor unions are among those pressuring the Postal Service on how to move forward. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: The Postal Service delivers to 163 million addresses, using nearly 200,000 vehicles. Those boxy-looking red, white and blue small trucks and vans comprise the federal government's largest civilian fleet. But Postal Service executive Victoria Stephen says most of the vehicles have been on the road since the 1990s.

VICTORIA STEPHEN: And they lack basic safety features and ergonomic features, including air conditioning, airbags, anti-lock brakes.

QUIRMBACH: So last year, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a controversial Trump appointee, signed off on a deal worth up to $6 billion with the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corporation, a longtime maker of military vehicles. The company will build up to 165,000 new delivery vans over the next decade. The Biden administration wants most to be electric. And the Postal Service has agreed for 20% of the first 50,000 to be battery powered. It says it can't afford more because of the higher sticker price and cost-of-charging infrastructure. But that isn't going over well for some in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROLYN MALONEY: It's clear that the post office needs to go back to the drawing board.

QUIRMBACH: That's House Oversight Committee chairwoman Carolyn Maloney at a congressional hearing last week. At that hearing, government analysts raised questions about the Postal Service's gas price and vehicle maintenance calculations. Maloney wants it to conduct a new environmental impact study and cost estimate and possibly negotiate a better purchase price on electric vehicles. But some congressional Republicans are defending the Postal Service's go-slow approach. James Comer represents Western Kentucky, where he says, like many nonurban communities, there's a lack of charging stations.

JAMES COMER: We just don't believe that those rural areas are ready and have the infrastructure for the postal fleet to be electrified.

QUIRMBACH: The postal deal is also controversial because Oshkosh Corporation plans to build the vehicles at what may be a nonunion facility the company is developing in South Carolina instead of at Oshkosh's longtime unionized plant in Wisconsin.

At a recent rally outside Oshkosh's corporate headquarters, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Stephanie Bloomingdale led the chanting.

STEPHANIE BLOOMINGDALE: Make it here.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Make it here.

BLOOMINGDALE: Make it here.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Make it here.

BLOOMINGDALE: And make it union.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Make it union.

QUIRMBACH: Robert Lynk heads the United Auto Workers local at the Wisconsin plant and says the Postal Service chose Oshkosh because of its skilled union employees.

ROBERT LYNK: Our good workmanship, quality of work, over 84 years being unionized here - and going to keep fighting until we get some of it done.

QUIRMBACH: The fight over postal vehicles has also become an issue in Wisconsin's high-profile Senate election this year, where Republican incumbent Ron Johnson defends the company's plans to build the postal vehicles, gas or electric, outside his home state.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUTAKA HIRASAKA'S "AFTERWARDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.