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U.S. postal workers protest step toward ‘privatization’

Protests planned in 27 states against program in which Staples office supply store employees handle mail

Postal workers across the United States on Thursday protested a partnership between the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and office supply chain Staples – a program that would allow nonunion retail employees to help handle mail and packages at Staples stores.

The public-sector American Postal Workers Union (APWU) says the plan is another step toward the privatization of America’s postal system, turning over the covenant of mail sender and mail carrier to underpaid, untrained employees of an office supply chain struggling to keep its doors open.

The program started in October and covers 82 Staples stores during its current pilot period and could expand to 1,500 locations by September. It lets Staples employees handle mail at service counters and keep it until a USPS carrier picks it up daily. The program operates in Staples stores in Massachusetts and in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco, according to the USPS.

Protesters held demonstrations outside Staples stores Thursday, with actions planned in 56 cities in 27 states and organizers hoping to bring thousands of APWU employees and their sympathizers – some of them teachers who shop for school supplies at Staples — out into the streets and parking lots.

“The American people have a right to know that their mail is handled by highly trained uniformed postal employees who have taken an oath to protect the sanctity of the mail and who are accountable to the people of the country — whether it’s at the post office or an office-supply store,” APWU President Mark Dimondstein said in a news release.

“Staples employees, who work for low wages and meager benefits — and who have received minimal training — operate these unsecured postal counters,” the union said in the news release.

Staples confirmed the existence of the pilot program and referred questions to the USPS.

“As a matter of policy, we don’t provide details on our pilot programs or on our agreements with vendors,” Staples representative Kristine Houston wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the APWU, said about 200 people showed up to a demonstration she attended in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a qualitative step down the road to privatization, for no other reason than the scale,” Davidow said of the program. “Staples has more than 1,500 stores nationwide and the postal service has made clear that this is just a first step. They’ll be moving on to other retailers and asking them to develop a similar program.”

About 600,000 people work for the USPS, from mail carriers to management, she said.

The USPS says this kind partnership is nothing new, as customers have been able to purchase stamps and drop off mail at private businesses including FedEx, Office Depot and smaller locations for a decade now. The USPS says such services are available at 65,000 stores across the U.S., and pose no threat to mail carriers’ jobs.

The USPS also says its plan with Staples is not about shuttering postal service stores or cutting workers, but rather about satisfying consumer demand.

“It's not about employees,” said USPS spokeswoman Darleen Reid-DeMeo.

“Really it's about serving the customer and expanding access. It's not about losing postal service workers or closing offices. It's not about privatization. It's about servicing the American public and expanding access,” she said.

But Jamie Horwitz, publicist for the APWU, says the deal was not done with proper transparency. He pointed to a heavily redacted document the union his organization obtained, showing the terms of the agreement between Staples and USPS.

“The reality of it is that it appears that the post office is paying Staples to open these counters. It doesn’t save the post office more or the consumer,” Horwitz told Al Jazeera, alleging that a “sweetheart deal” lead to the USPS choosing Staples as a retail outlet. Reid-DeMeo countered that claim, saying the USPS does not pay Staples for the partnership.

The pilot program comes as both Staples and the USPS struggle to retain competitive footholds in their respective markets. Staples has closed hundreds of stores and is losing out to online retailers, while the postal service has witnessed marked declines in the amount of paper mail because of the prevalence of email and other private mail deliverers.

But APWU publicist Horwitz says that the rise of online retailing means USPS should open more of its own retail locations to capitalize on the surge in packages consumers get from Web-based businesses.

The APWU insists that adding more private workers into the mix compromises the integrity of the way Americans send their mail.

“Staples makes business decisions based on the bottom line, not service to the people of the country,” Dimondstein said.

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