Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Postal workers resist privatization plans

Employees fear outsourcing of mail processing to Staples store counters and potential sale of post office branches

DEARBORN, Michigan — In a recent video message posted to the U.S. Postal Service’s YouTube channel, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe appeared incredulous and indignant about protests that have erupted across the nation over changes he’s instituted. “There’s no interest in privatizing,” he said. “Do not let people get you confused.”

If that message was aimed at soothing the increasing nervousness on the part of postal employee unions, the postmaster failed to deliver. As seen in the simultaneous demonstrations in 27 states last week, as well as the postal employees’ presence at International Workers' Day rallies on Thursday, several decisions by Donahoe have only heightened fears among America’s postal workers.

The most visible sign of union angst is the movement to thwart Donahoe’s aim of putting full-service USPS counters in 1,500 Staples stores, to be staffed with the office supply chain's own, lower-paid employees. Yet that’s just the latest in a string of changes that seem geared toward outsourcing various postal jobs, which include efforts to consolidate processing plants and contract out the trucking of mail from plants to post offices.

The USPS has also indicated it may sell off as many as 200 older post offices, many of them with architecturally significant features.

The driving force for these changes, USPS officials say, is mounting debt that reached $23 billion by the end of 2013. While critics of the post office insist the system is losing money because mail delivery is becoming irrelevant to an increasingly digital world, both Donahoe and the unions have asserted that the biggest challenge is one set forth in 2006 by Congress that requires the USPS to pre-fund the next 75 years of retirement and health benefits for its workers by 2016.

That translates to roughly $5.5 billion the USPS must put away each year, an unusual arrangement not required by any other government department or private company, said Sally Davidow, spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union.

First-class mail volume has dropped as people increasingly send email and pay bills online, but the Internet has also created a surge in demand for package delivery of e-commerce purchases. In the last three months of 2013, for instance, package delivery was up 14.1 percent. In fact, the USPS began a special deal in November to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays in New York and Los Angeles.

The driving force for these changes, USPS officials say, is mounting debt that reached $23 billion by the end of 2013.

Donahoe insisted he’s taking his steps to meet obligations and to avoid privatization such as occurred in the U.K. with the Royal Mail. Even if that’s so, union activists say, the architects of privatization legislation, including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., have been open about wanting to privatize.

“They’re taking it all piece by piece,” said Dan Florkowski, president of the Michigan Association of Letter Carriers, during a recent protest of about 70 supporters outside a Staples in Dearborn. “They want to eliminate six-day delivery, go to five. They want to slash and burn rather than grow the postal service. I believe in my heart that’s what the postmaster general and some of the other people who want to privatize the postal service want.”

In October, the USPS opened counters at 82 Staples stores in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts as a one-year pilot “Retail Partner Expansion Program.” Unlike the 65,000 other stores where stamps or letter drop is available, those Staples counters are full-service. It is the first time non-USPS employees have had such a significant role in receiving and handling mail, Davidow said.

“It’s not officially in the mail stream until it’s picked up by the post office, so it doesn’t enjoy the protections of the U.S. Mail,” she said. “It’s a felony to steal from the mail. It’s not a felony to steal the mail from Staples.”

USPS spokeswoman Darleen Reid-DeMeo disputed that contention, saying, “Customers can rest assured that their mail is safe and you’ll receive high-quality service at U.S. Postal Service partnership sites.”

While no postal clerks have been laid off since the Staples arrangement began, Davidow and others insist that that’s the aim. The Staples in Dearborn, which does not have a postal counter as yet, resides in a strip mall a few doors down from a post office. Activists say that the mail counter inside Staples would cannibalize USPS business.

Reid-DeMeo said the USPS believes the opposite will occur, and that the Staples move is a way of expanding the USPS brand.

“The Staples pilot, if successful, will increase business, because anything mailed or shipped from a Staples location creates revenue for the postal service,” she said. “More revenue from the sale of our products and services sold at any expanded-access location means more work for the USPS. The Staples partnership offers an alternate location for customers to do business with the U.S. Postal Service at a location other than a brick-and-mortar post office.”

A Staples spokeswoman said the company would not comment on its USPS arrangements.

Members of the American Postal Workers Union gather in front of a post office in New York City.
Justin Lane/EPA

In the late 1980s, the USPS tried to install full counters without postal employees at a different retailer, Sears. Employees from both postal and other trade unions threatened a large-scale boycott of the stores, so Sears and the USPS backed down, Davidow said.

The Staples matter hasn’t been the only cause for demonstrations against the USPS of late. In several cities, the postal service has been moving toward contracting with private trucking companies to move the mail between processing plants and post office branches.

Last fall, bicyclists with Occupy Portland in Oregon swarmed a private mail truck leaving a distribution center near Mt. Hood, a protest against the elimination of seven postal trucker jobs that, union officials say, went to nonpostal employees.

Small-scale outsourcing of trucking has succeeded around the nation, but an attempt to contract out virtually all mail trucking services in California was shot down by an arbitrator in March 2013 as a violation of the union contract.

“They’re going to still attempt to shut down motor vehicle services across the whole country,” said Tom Dodge, the East Coast coordinator for Community and Postal Workers United, an advocacy group.

Many of those at the protests were frustrated that these moves are being made by a postmaster general appointed by President Barack Obama, a Democrat who has long enjoyed robust union support.

“Most of the Democrats are with us and behind us,” Florkowski said. “It’s a sad story that the president has been misinformed as far as what the postal service needs and deserves. He needs to sit down with the leaders and take a good look at what’s happening with the postal service and how it can be saved.”

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