(July 24, 2015) More than 1,000 postal workers and allies gathered in downtown Chicago on Tuesday to promote a boycott against Staples as part of the American Postal Workers Union’s “Stop Staples” campaign. Late last year, the office supply giant set up “mini post offices” inside 82 outlets around the country, provoking anger among workers concerned for their salaries, their jobs, and the integrity of the postal service.
Tuesday’s protest, the largest of its kind since the National Day of Action on April 24, was held in conjunction with this week’s APWU convention. The rally’s temporary stage—erected in front of a Staples store and below Chicago’s elevated train tracks—hosted a pageant of labor leaders who spoke in turn, among them Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO; Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; and Mark Dimondstein, president of the APWU, who told the assembled crowd that “we’re gonna win this fight” against Staples office supply chain.
In November of last year, Staples made a deal with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to launch a Retail Partner Expansion pilot program, privileging Staples with the first nearly full-service postal counters outside of federal post offices. Participating Staples stores can offer a majority of the same products and services found in post offices, from stamps to USPS Tracking and Insurance.
It was the latest move by the USPS to expand its services through cooperation with private companies. “If we have [federal] post offices that are open from 9 to 5,” explains USPS spokesperson Darleen Reid, “we’re going to be looking at retail locations that are open until 9, or retail locations that are open over the weekend.” This would allow customers access to USPS services even when their local post office is closed; the financially troubled organization has said this kind of partnership “allows for the USPS to compete in the marketplace.”
USPS workers, however, say this is not the way to protect the institution. Angered by the fact that Staples staffed these private post offices with its own non-union, less-trained, and lower-paid employees, the APWU denounced the program as “privatization” of the postal service and called on all its members—as well as anyone else in need of office supplies—to shop elsewhere.
The APWU alleges that postal workers are already feeling the harmful effects of the pilot program. According to a May 29 union press release, 21 out of 39 post offices in the San Francisco area—an area with eight postal Staples counters—saw their operating hours reduced by 30 minutes to an hour. “They’ve got a sign on the door that says ‘We’re closed, go to Staples,’” said Dimondstein in the press release. “It couldn’t get much more obvious than that.”
The union sees this transfer of work away from federal post offices as a conscious decision by USPS leadership to save money by replacing unionized postal clerks—whose hourly wages average about $25—with Staples sales associates, who typically make less than half of that.
In addition to advocating for members’ financial security, the union has also cited concerns over the integrity of mail delivery through these services. When a customer drops off a package at Staples, it remains in the custody of Staples employees until they hand it over to the USPS to be delivered—which, the union is quick to claim, means it’s not legally protected.
“The main thing for the public to know,” explains Madison-based mail-processing clerk Christopher Degeyter, who attended Tuesday’s rally, “is that when you drop off your letter at a post office it’s secure. It’s been this way for 100 years.” Like military enlistees, postal workers must pass written and physical examinations and take on oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” before beginning their job. In other words, they pledge to keep the contents of your mail safe to the best of their abilities.
By contrast, Degeyter argues, “When you drop it off at Staples, it’s not considered mail. Therefore, it’s not secure until we get it at the post office or it’s in the hands of a postal employee, such as a letter carrier or a USPS window clerk.”