Michelle Ochs Windmueller was eating lunch with her new co-workers in 2004 when someone asked: “How long has everyone worked for the Postal Service?”
Windmueller ’95, ’98 JD knew her tenure at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) — three months — would be among the shortest. But she hadn’t anticipated her co-workers’ answers: “26 years,” “37 years,” “19 years.” Most employees, it seemed, had been with the organization for well over a decade.
“It was unfathomable to me that people had been there so long,” she says.
Today, as the USPS’ chief counsel for labor law, Windmueller can confidently say she gets it. In her 19 years in the law department, Windmueller has had a lively career. She has argued a wide range of cases — including First Amendment, employment discrimination, real estate, government contracts, torts (personal injury) and more — before panels of federal judges. And she has traveled the country to educate other Postal Service attorneys about employment laws that impact their work.
“I am repeatedly, consistently impressed with the scope of what the Postal Service accomplishes and how it’s always seeking to improve,” she says. “It’s a massive operation,” which means employees have ample opportunities to try out new roles within the USPS. “But one of the things I particularly like about [my] position is that [almost everything the organization does has a labor component]. So I get to hear about everything that’s happening [here].”
Based at the USPS headquarters in Washington, D.C., Windmueller serves as a principal adviser to the USPS headquarters’ labor relations unit, which acts as a liaison between the organization and the union leadership that represents the Postal Service’s estimated 600,000 bargaining unit employees. In addition, Windmueller and her team handle national rights arbitration cases.
Union-employer relations in the United States aren’t always friendly — corporations including Starbucks and Amazon have recently challenged organized labor movements. These corporate crackdowns on employees’ attempts to unionize are the biggest issue in labor law today, Windmueller says.
“[But] it’s not [an issue] we have [at the USPS], because we have unions baked into our model and we work side by side with union representatives to help each other,” she says. “Unions provide necessary checks and balances [as well as] a set of expectations that both sides know they need to meet.”
Windmueller and her team help resolve high-level disputes regarding the interpretation of employees’ collective bargaining agreements — contracts that dictate conditions of employment, such as wages, working conditions and work hours. Disputes have included issues such as rural postal couriers requesting compensation for increased package deliveries during the pandemic and discussions around whether certain tasks should be handled in-house or subcontracted out.
Windmueller finds the work engaging and meaningful. But building a career in labor law initially came as a surprise to her. In fact, she applied to law school because an undergraduate course on law and society sparked a deep interest in First Amendment cases. After graduating from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law as a Wigmore Scholar, she spent two years clerking for a federal district judge, where she gravitated toward labor and employment cases.
“I love those cases because … I can [see] how [my work is] impacting real people’s lives,” she says. “And I get to work with and alongside people on a daily basis to solve problems and [also to] anticipate issues so that we can create solutions before any problems arise.”
Now Windmueller is one of the USPS longtimers. And after nearly two decades, she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.