Saturday, February 8, 2014

Staples Plucks Postal Jobs!

Staples Plucks Postal Jobs | Labor Notes


of three postal unions and community supporters gathered outside a
Bronx post office slated for closure. The laid-off workers may be
replaced by Staples workers. Photo: Alexandra Bradbury.

latest ad slogan is “What the L?” That sounds like what postal workers
said when they found out the retail chain planned to steal their work.

The Long Island, New York, local of the American Postal Workers Union
didn’t waste any time after the news broke in November. Members voted
to boycott Staples and ask their friends and neighbors to do the same.

“The ball started rolling then,” said President Pete Furgiuele—and APWU soon launched a national campaign.

Across the country, local delegations visited Staples stores in
January to threaten a boycott unless the retailer’s new “postal units”
are staffed by actual postal employees.

The pilot program opened postal counters inside 82 Staples stores in
California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, staffed non-union
by the big-box retailer. They offer many of the “most popular” (that is,
most profitable) services APWU members provide at post office windows,
including stamp sales, first-class domestic and international mail, and
priority and express mail. Other services aren’t offered—money orders,
media mail, and P.O. boxes, for instance.

The union doesn’t oppose making postal services available in more
places and for longer hours. In fact, APWU and the other postal unions
are in an ongoing battle to stop USPS from closing down post offices and
cutting back hours at the ones that remain.

At one time, “we had, in almost any city of any size, air mail units
that were open 24 hours a day,” said new APWU President Mark
Dimondstein. “Those have been pretty much shut down.” In Greensboro,
North Carolina, where he previously worked, a post office located in a
mall used to be open seven days a week until 9 p.m.—staffed by postal
union members.

Europe’s Cautionary Tale

The Inspector General’s report heaps praise on postal privatization
in Europe. But a new report from unionists there tells a different

According to UNI Europa Post and Logistics, 15 years of privatization have produced “overwhelmingly negative” results
for both workers and the public in the European Union, where any
private company can now compete with the public postal service.

“The post office network has been drastically reduced and replaced
with private partners such as grocery stores or gas stations, offering a
reduced range of services,” wrote report author Christoph Hermann.

Public postal services in several countries are now “struggling to
break even because of decreasing letter volumes and market losses to new
competitors.” In Germany and the Netherlands, they’ve given up

“With few exceptions, the new competitors emerging from the
liberalized market never opened post offices or installed letter boxes,”
Hermann found. “Instead they pick-up mail directly at the premises of
their mostly large corporate customers.

“As for mail delivery, they typically deliver only two or three days a week and only in highly populated areas.”

Postal prices have gone down for big corporate customers such as
banks, phone companies, and online retailers—but up for regular

And workers have endured massive job loss (up to 50 percent in some
countries), part-time-ization, wage cuts, and the breaking up of their
collective bargaining power.

That’s the key. Workers say the new jobs have to be union and live up to the standards in their contract, not undermine them.


The Postal Service is known for providing stable union jobs, a good
salary and benefits, a hiring preference for veterans, and strong
protections against discrimination. It was a job you could make a

Though standards have eroded in recent years, they’re still much better than what you’ll find at Staples.

A recent online petition by a Staples employee calling herself “Sue
Whistleblower” garnered more than 200,000 signatures protesting a new
company policy to cut part-time workers to fewer than 25 hours per week
so they won’t qualify for health insurance.

Is that the future of postal work? USPS management’s “constant
refrain,” said Dimondstein, “is that the post office has to be
competitive—which means, from their point of view, it has to engage in
the race to the bottom for minimum-wage work.

“My answer is, why don’t we just put the children back into the
textile mills and skip the in-between steps? That’s where this race to
the bottom is going to end up.”

There’s also the matter of whether you want to trust Staples with your mail.


“Staples doesn’t care about the mail; they care about selling
computers and pens,” said LeRoy Moyer, president of the Charlotte, North
Carolina, local. “The person at Staples could be selling you a pen one
minute, then trying to tell you how to send your package to a location
overseas the next.

“It may be convenient, but if you give it to them and it doesn’t go
where it’s supposed to go, it wasn’t too con-venient, was it?”

“We take pride in our work,” said steward Venus Abaoag, a member of
Moyer’s local. “A Staples employee would not be held to the same
standards that we are.”

She joined the delegation that visited three Charlotte-area Staples
stores January 14. A store manager said they’d been warned to expect
the union—one sign the message is getting through to corporate.

APWU aimed to complete a few hundred such visits by mid-January. If
the retailer doesn’t back off, the next step will be a national day of
protests at Staples stores, likely followed by “sustained activity” such
as leafleting at the pilot sites and asking other unions to join a
boycott, said Dimondstein.

He and the Members First Team swept into leadership of the APWU in November, promising a grassroots fight against concessions, closures, and service cuts. This looks like their first skirmish.


An ominous report from the USPS Office of Inspector General last summer recommended cutting costs through “public-private partnerships.” One area it called ripe for expansion: retail.

USPS was already on the case, having asked 80 retail chains in 2012
whether they’d be interested in offering postal services. Apparently
Staples was first to bite.

Private franchisees also offer certain postal services at 500
“Village Post Offices” and 3,300 “Contract Postal Units,” often located
inside gas stations or grocery stores in small towns. Though these
aren’t a big hit with the postal unions either, they’re seen as small

But it’s easy to see how the scope of outsourcing could swell if
Staples expands its program from the 82 pilots to its 1,600 locations
nationwide—and if its competitors start getting into the game too.

Make no mistake: the point is to substitute Staples counters for
brick-and-mortar post offices, not supplement them. That’s how the plan
reduces costs: by closing post offices and subcontracting unionized
postal jobs to low-wage retail employers.

The Inspector General’s report was blunt about this. “The Postal
Service has attempted several times to rationalize its retail
infrastructure with mixed results,” it said. “Stakeholder opposition and
regulatory hurdles have prevented aggressive consolidation.”

Got that? For “stakeholder opposition” read “community protest.”


Franchising would kill two birds, the report said, bringing down both
labor costs and the “fixed costs of owning retail facilities.”

What are these “regulatory hurdles”? For one, the closure of a post
office can be appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission. But a bill
being pushed by Representative Darrell Issa—postal workers’ biggest foe
in Congress—would nix the appeal if the post office were located within
two miles of a contract postal unit.

An astute map put together by Save the Post Office
blogger Steve Hutkins shows that 1,200 of the nation’s 31,000 post
offices are within two miles of a Staples—exposing them to heightened
risk of closure without appeal.

Staples can, of course, close stores whenever it suits the business plan. The company axed about 40 last year. It’s repositioning itself to focus less on retailing office supplies and more on competing with Amazon in e-commerce.

In contrast to the new Staples counters, the post office in a small
town often serves as a “central meeting point,” Furgiuele said. “Part of
people’s daily routine is to go to the luncheonette, stop by the local
post office, and get the news.”

When he was a clerk working the post office box section in
Farmingdale, New York, “I knew kids from the time they were born, to the
time they got married and they had kids,” he said. “I would have a
standing height measure on the side of the door and would measure them
for years.

“Staples could never provide—or wish to provide—that.”


The New York Metro local visited Staples stores in Manhattan, New
Jersey, and the Bronx—where it’s also fighting the impending closure of
the Bronx General Post Office. WPA-era murals grace the walls there,
celebrating laborers in various industries. Developers envision a
big-box store or restaurant.

Chuck Zlatkin, the local’s legislative and political director, said
90 percent of customers at the Bronx GPO are African American or Latino.
“You can’t escape the impact of racism on this situation,” he said.
“You have to understand what the postal service has meant historically
for people of color, in terms of the opportunity to get decent jobs, to
get into the middle class, to be able to buy homes and send their kids
to college—and also the people who are served by it.

“At these hearings, the people who show up are the people most
dependent on the post office: elderly people, disabled people, poor

A similar fight is raging over a historic Berkeley post office—less
than a mile from one of the Staples pilots. Activists who maintained a
tent city on the post office steps for 33 days last summer are pushing
for a city zoning change that would prevent its being sold for private

Concessions Didn’t Stave Off Cuts

Even the serious concessions APWU made in its 2010 contract haven’t slowed management’s rush to close post offices.

“We gave them cheaper employees, a lower wage scale,” said LeRoy
Moyer. “We’ve done everything we can do to let them make the postal
service less expensive—and they’re still looking for that extra nickel.”

Developers and business association people want to put a high-rise
hotel or mall there. “Berkeley has more than its share of boutiques,”
said retired letter carrier Dave Welsh. “We don’t need any more! We need
a public space.”

A well-connected real estate firm called the CBRE Group has the
exclusive contract to sell off post offices like these; more than 600
are already earmarked. CBRE’s board chair, Richard Blum, is married to
Senator Dianne Feinstein. Its CEO, Robert Sulentic, sits on the board of


The Staples battle looks like a re-run of one the union fought—and won—25 years ago. In 1988 Sears announced a similar pilot program at 11 stores.

Union members sent the corporation thousands of protest letters. Some
cut up their Sears credit cards and sent in the plastic shreds. The
company backed off, abandoning the program.

“Sears perceived, ‘we’re losing all this business for something
peripheral to our main mission,’ and threw in the towel,” said David
Yao, vice president of the Greater Seattle Area local.

“Think about it, if Sears had become the post office,” Dimondstein
said. “Sears was the thriving retailer that had the reach into more
cities and towns in the country—but Sears is basically gone now. The
post office would have gone with it.”

He’s confident the public will take the postal workers’ side against
Staples, too. “This is a time when the demand for a living wage has
captured the imagination of the people,” he said. “I don’t think people
are going to want their postal services performed by people forced to
make $8.25 an hour.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #419, February 2014

Alexandra Bradbury is a staff writer with Labor Notes.

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