(July 10, 2014) For the last nineteen nights, Mike Zint, 47, has been sleeping sitting up in a chair in front of the Staples store at 2352 Shattuck Ave. He has set up vigil in downtown Berkeley to protest the “privatization” of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as chronic homelessness in the United States.
Zint is part of a small group of homeless activists that has established a camp of sorts on the sidewalk. During the day, they pass out leaflets protesting the seven-month old deal allowing Staples to run satellite postal operations in 82 stores across the country, including the one in Berkeley. They have a table piled with leaflets talking about the deal, as well as information about the U.S. Post Office’s plan to sell the Main Post office on Allston Way.
The encampment is “drug and alcohol free,” according to Zint. It is also kind. The activists have adopted a spindly tree right next to their information table. They named it Fred and have been watering it regularly.
“We are doing intense outreach,” said Zint. “We are encouraging a boycott of Staples. We are definitely having an effect on business.”
The Berkeley protest is one of dozens happening around the country as unions and activists battle for the future of the U.S. Postal Service. Under federal pressure to cut costs – and to pre-fund a workers’ pension plan — the postal service has been selling off many of its historic post offices, shuttering rural and less-used post offices, and outsourcing some of its postal operations.
In December 2013, the U.S. Postal Service announced that it was setting up a pilot program with Staples to sell stamps, accept packages for delivery, and offer other services. The Staples post office branches would be staffed by Staples employees, not unionized post-office employees.
The American Postal Workers Union, which represents letter carriers, immediately criticized the partnership. Union officials said it was part of the push to privatize the post office by outsourcing jobs. Staples workers are paid around $9 an hour compared to the $15 to $25 an hour unionized postal workers receive.
As proof of this, the union released an internal U.S. Post Office document that it had obtained during a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board.
“The pilot will be used to determine if lower costs can be realized with retail partner labor instead of the labor traditionally associated with retail windows at post offices,” post office officials wrote, according to leaked document.
The Postmaster General, Patrick R. Donahoe, has denied that he wants to privatize the service. The Staples partnership is just part of an attempt to enhance customer service and offer longer hours in more locations.
“Partnerships like this are not new and are all about growing our business,” Richard Maher, a Postal Service spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. “The unions’ privatization issue is a ruse, we have no interest in privatizing the Postal Service.”
While the encampment on Shattuck Avenue is staffed by homeless activists, they are working in conjunction with the postal workers union on its “Don’t Buy Staples” campaign. Earlier this week, a large contingent of Bay Area postal workers protested outside the Shattuck Avenue store.
“The union is asking supporters to sign a postcard addressed to Staples CEO Ronald L. Sargent, telling him that, until his stores staff their postal counters with USPS employees, they will take their business elsewhere,” according to an article on the union’s website.
While the union has designed a no-frills postcard to send to the management of Staples, Berkeley Post Office Defense, another local group protesting the sale of the Allston Way post office, is handing out colorful retro postcards that portray the Staples deal like a Martian invasion.
The manager of the Staples store on Shattuck said she could not comment on the protests. A call to the press office at Staples’ headquarters in Massachusetts was not returned.
Other unions have joined in the call for a boycott of Staples. The AFL-CIO, which represents 52 unions with 12.5 million members, has joined the boycott. So has the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with 2 million members. The American Federation of Teachers will vote on a boycott this week at their annual convention, held, ironically enough, at the Staples Pavilion in Los Angeles.
Zint has been joined in the 24/7 action by Carmen Bear, 53, and a handful of others. Zint said they are part of the Occupy Movement and spent nine months outside the Federal Reserve building in San Francisco last year.
“It’s all about taking from the people and putting it into the hands of the wealthy,” said Zint. “It’s got to stop.”