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By Emilia Rosales, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
A quiet deal between the federal government and a chain discount store threatens to end a venerable public service, squash one of the oldest and largest public employee unions, and expand the ranks of underpaid, uninsured retail workers.
In 2013, the Postal Service handed a no-bid contract to Staples to become an approved shipper of the mails, placing mini-post office counters in more than 82 Staples stores throughout the U.S. The arrangement was met with an uproar by current and retired postal service workers who say it also jeopardizes mail service, post offices and the employment of public workers.
Outraged postal workers and their union have asked the National Labor Relations Board to quash the deal. The labor board issued a complaint alleging that the Postal Service has engaged in illegal subcontracting work to Staples.
If an NLRB administrative law judge sustains the allegations, it will bring Staples mail services to a halt, according to the American Postal Workers Union (http://www.apwu.org/news/web-news-article/nlrb-strikes-major-blow-usps-staples-deal), which represents more than 200,000 workers and retirees.
“It is too early to tell the outcome of any court hearing or ruling. Until then, we will continue to offer our products and services at Staples,” said Augustine Ruiz, spokesperson for the USPS, on Friday, July 24.
Staples employees, including some at the managerial level, said they were instructed not to speak with the media or postal workers about the matter. Corporate spokespersons did not return calls.
The arrangement spurred pickets by outraged postal employees outside Staples stores around the Bay Area. Representatives for the workers said they would not call off the steady stream of protests until the federal agency secured what they call fair and just treatment during what can be the largest shift in the nation’s 240-year-old mail service.
Michael Rodriguez, an assistant clerk craft director with the American Postal Workers Union Oakland Local 78, has been a mail processor with the U.S. Postal Service since 1988.
“(Staples) employees have not been given background checks, they have not been fingerprinted, they are not required to take an oath to protect the security and sanctity of the U.S. mail the way all of us have,” said Rodriguez, as he picketed outside a Staples in Pleasant Hill.
Not so, said a Staple employee who spoke only for a moment on condition of anonymity for fear of job loss. Those working at the mini-counters undergo more extensive training than their peers in other departments. They also must take a standard loyalty oath.
The training that the Staples postal workers receive versus the training Postal Service workers receive is also a major issue to the postal service group. There’s simply no comparison, said Alan Menjivar, the lead organizer of the group. Staples employees working the postal counters are trained for about four hours, and that’s online. Regular postal service employees undergo 40 hours of classroom training and 32 hours of on the job training.
Part-time Staples employees are only allotted 23 hours a week, which means they receive no benefits. If they work longer hours, they (and presumably the person who scheduled them) could be fired, according to Business Insider.
“What they’re doing is attempting to privatize the Postal Service,” said Rodriguez. “It is not good for communities across this country to have had jobs which have allowed people to raise a family, send a kid to college and to buy a house and now (have that job) sent to somebody making minimum wage, with little to no benefits. How can that help our communities?”
By the end of 2013, the Postal Service closed 3,000 local post offices leaving 220,000 of their employees jobless. By 2014, Staples and the USPS expanded the mini-counters to more than 1,500 Staples locations nationwide, according to the Stop Staples website.
At the very least, the protesters want to see trained postal workers operating the mini-counters, though they would prefer that the counters be removed. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) demanded that the mini-post office counters be staffed by USPS workers. This has yet to happen, so the protests continue.
The Postal Service is nearly as old as the nation. In 1792, President George Washington signed legislation to make the United States Post Office a Cabinet-level department, enabling universal, low-cost delivery and access to information around the globe. Express mail service came along with the roads and bridges that were built in the subsequent years.
“It’s not supposed to make a profit,” said Ernest Johnson, a member of the APWU and a retired Postal Service employee who worked for the service for 25 years. “Its number one reason for being in existence is to offer a service.” It was established to be sure families in different locales could communicate, he said.
Workers launched the Stop Staples campaign when the U.S. Postal Service rejected their complaints about the outsourcing, hoping to heighten the public’s awareness of the dangers that come with privatizing the mails.
“We are very optimistic that this fight will end very soon,” said Menjivar.