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Staples Deal Still a Secret — But Hearing Reveals Disturbing Truths

Web News Article #: 
061-2014
04/07/2014 -

The Postal Service and Staples are working overtime to keep the details of their sweetheart deal a secret, but a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board — and documents the USPS was forced to provide to the APWU — have revealed some disturbing truths.

“Staples and postal management are perpetrating a fraud on the American people,” said Clint Burelson, APWU Clerk Craft director. “They are promoting the deal as though taking your mail to Staples is the same as taking it to the Post Office.

“It’s not,” he said.

The 58-page agreement between the USPS and Staples [PDF], which management provided to the APWU in response to the union’s Unfair Labor Practice charge [PDF], exposes some of the risk to customers, he said.

“But it hides more than it illuminates. The secret deal is still a secret.” Most of the significant details in the Approved Postal Provider Pilot Agreement are redacted.

“The Postal Service belongs to the people of the country,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “What are they hiding? And how can they justify operating in the dark?”

‘Thoroughly Dishonest’

The hearing exposed how thoroughly dishonest Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been about the purpose of the deal, said Burelson, who testified at the hearing about the union’s request for information about the program.

In a Jan. 19 Associated Press article, Donahoe rejected the union’s claim that the program constitutes privatization. He is quoted as saying, “The privatization discussion is a ruse. We have no interest in privatizing the Postal Service.”

But a December 2012 internal USPS document [PDF] that was presented at the hearing shows that management is indeed seeking to privatize window clerk duties. The Approved Shipper Plus Pilot Program Memo says,

“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…

“Transferring USPS product and service transactions to retail partner locations should allow USPS to cut costs associated with window labor time and credit card transaction fees. Initial analysis suggests that Retail Partners can sell USPS products and services at a projected cost-to-serve of $0.16 per revenue dollar, which is less than a third of the cost-to-serve observed at traditional Post Offices.”

Smoking Gun

“That’s the smoking gun,” Burelson said. “Clear away the ‘management-speak’ and the message is clear: The Staples deal is intended to sidestep USPS labor costs by transferring window duties to private businesses. Management’s internal document admits it.

“That’s privatization,” he said.

“I hope every postal worker understands exactly how serious the threat is – to our jobs and to the United States Postal Service as a public institution,” President Dimondstein added. “We have to make sure the American people understand as well.”

The Staples “pilot program” is just the beginning, he pointed out. The Jan. 19 Associated Press article also quotes Donahoe as saying he’d like to see post office counters in every Staples store “as soon as possible.”

And it’s not just Staples. The Approved Shipper program “aims to establish USPS customer access points in leading national and regional retailer’s store locations nationwide.”

Following a Pattern

At the hearing, USPS witness Brian Code testified that the Retail Partner Expansion Program, which Staples is part of, had been in development at least since 2011, when he joined the Retail Alliances Department.

According to Code, postal executives studied postal retail trends in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Australia, Canada and other countries, and used them as models for the program.

What do those countries’ mail systems have in common? Their retail operations are largely privatized. According to a 2011 report [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), postal retail operations were privately owned and operated, as shown below.

Germany 98%
Sweden 88
Australia 81
Canada 39

(Great Britain’s Royal Mail, which is mostly privatized, was not included in the GAO study. A March 25 article in the Huffington Post reported that the British mail agency has eliminated 1,600 jobs; increased the price of stamps by 35 percent; sold postal data into private hands, and granted the company’s boss a pay raise of 1.5 million pounds.)

A Rude Awakening

Some of the more startling admissions at the hearing should make customers think twice before turning over their mail to Staples, Burelson said. “Customers who take their mail to Staples stores are putting it in jeopardy.”

Packages dropped off at Staples stores will be placed in unsecured containers, he pointed out, and, as the Approved Postal Provider Agreement notes, packages and letters at Staples stores are not considered “mail” until they are picked up by the Postal Service. “That means they don’t enjoy the protection of the U.S. Mail,” Burelson said.

The 58-page agreement reveals Staples is getting a discount on postal products, he pointed out, but customers will pay full price. The amount of the discount is redacted.

Code testified that Staples’ low-wage employees get just four hours of “classroom” training for postal retail duties, Burelson noted.

Postal retail clerks receive 32 hours of intense classroom training, followed by 40 hours of on-the-job training alongside experienced window clerks. And postal workers must pass a test before they are considered qualified to work the window, he said.

“It takes a long time to learn all the intricacies necessary to provide expert customer service: the postage needed for various classes of mail and for mail of various sizes and shapes; how quickly letters and packages can be expected to arrive at their destination; how to screen for hazardous material that shouldn’t be mailed, etc.,” he said.

“Management claims this program is about customer convenience,” Burelson said. “If that were true, they would insist on staffing the postal counters at Staples with highly-trained, experienced window clerks, who have sworn an oath and are accountable to the people. If it were about customer convenience, the Postal Service would keep existing post offices open longer and would staff post offices with enough employees to avoid long lines.”

The April 1 hearing was the result an Unfair Labor Practice charge filed by the APWU when postal management refused to provide information about the deal that established “postal” counters in more than 80 Staples stores — staffed with low-wages Staples employees.

Administrative Law Judge Eric M Fine, who presided over the hearing, set May 5 as the deadline for the union and management to submit briefs.