Union leaders warn of effort to privatize the postal service

 

A top postal union is trying to derail a deal between the U.S. Postal Service and retailer Staples, with protests in 27 states planned for Thursday.

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The American Postal Workers Union members and other activists who plan protests at more than 50 Staples locations in all say that the partnership is bad for both postal customers and workers and would essentially privatize some USPS operations.

The APWU, which has seen a decline in membership in recent years, is also leaning on other friends in the labor movement to put added pressure on Staples.

Mark Dimondstein, the APWU’s president, already has met with officials from the American Federation for Teachers. The California Federation for Teachers, for instance, will vote this month on whether to advise its members to boycott Staples when buying school supplies.

“If all the post office work can be handled in an office supply store, then over time you're going to see post offices close down,” Sally Davidow, an APWU spokeswoman, told The Hill.

The protests center on a pilot program currently in operation at 82 Staples stores that are allowed to provide postal services and sell stamps and other postal products — in effect, operating as tiny post offices.

Staples employees, who often make much less than Postal Service clerks, are in charge of staffing those postal retail centers.

The APWU has said, based on comments from Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, that it’s concerned the agency will expand the program to 1,500 Staples locations.

Donahoe has dubbed the union’s privatization charge “a ruse,” and insisted that the partnership with Staples is an effort to grow, not shrink, the USPS’s reach.

In a video posted on the agency’s website, Donahoe said the deal with Staples is just one of several ways the Postal Service is looking to grow its business, after it racked up some $25 billion in losses over a three-year span.

Most of the USPS’s losses in recent years stem from defaults on required prepayments for future retirees’ healthcare. The agency has seen first-class mail volume decline, but also a rise in the use of its package services. 

In recent months, the Postal Service has started partnering with Amazon to deliver on Sundays in certain locations, and Donahoe said that the Staples partnership would be a win for customers.

“We have no interest in privatizing the postal service,” Donahoe said. “By expanding access to more of our products and services, the Postal Service can provide a greater convenience to current customers and attract new customers.”

Postal officials have also noted that the agency has more than 65,000 partners in the retail field, though many of those simply sell stamps. The USPS already puts so-called village postal offices in convenience stores, libraries and other businesses in rural communities that are not staffed by postal clerks.

Staples declined to comment on Thursday’s protests and on the pilot program with the USPS. But Mark Cautela, a spokesman for the office supply giant, said “Staples continually tests new products and services to better meet the needs of our customers.”

The APWU said Wednesday it expects Thursday’s protests to be the first part of a nationwide campaign against what they see as “a serious threat” to their members, and even say they’ll try to tap into the energy among liberals for battling income inequality.

Union officials have pointed to a Postal Service memo that says the pilot program with Staples could test the agency’s ability to cut labor costs as proof that Donahoe and the postal brass are employing privatization measures.

“The Staples deal is designed to avoid USPS labor costs by transferring window duties to private businesses. That’s privatization,” Dimondstein said.

Dimondstein and APWU officials also note that postal clerks receive much more training than the Staples employees that would be manning the postal retail centers, and that there are questions about the security of mail dropped off at the store.

Plus, they add, Staples is getting a deal on postal products from the USPS, and has announced it will close some 225 stores next year.

“Staples and USPS management are perpetrating a fraud on the people of this country,” says Dimondstein. “They are promoting the deal as though taking your mail to Staples is the same as taking it to the Post Office. It’s not.”