Over the past several months the US Postal Service has launched a pilot initiative to privatize a portion of its services by moving them to the office-supply store Staples. The pilot program allowed 82 stores to provide basic postal services and sell items like stamps to customers. There are plans to expand this program to more of Staples’ 1,500 stores. This initiative is part of an alarming trend of privatizing public services and eroding public sector unions.
Staples workers are not paid the same wage scale as postal employees. Staples workers also do not receive the same training in handling the mail, are not required to take the same sworn oath to public service that postal employees take, and ultimately are not accountable to the American people. This jeopardizes the privacy and security of our mail. Citing the rise in electronic communication and bill payments, the Postal Service has characterized these cut proposals and the partnership with Staples as necessary responses to a changing world. They also cite billions of dollars in losses faced by the Postal Service as a reason for these moves.
Yet, a significant portion of the deficits faced by the post office are due to the fact that Congress has required the U.S. Postal service to pre-fund the entirety of future retiree’s health benefits—a requirement made of no other government agency. This requirement has severely exaggerated the financial plight of the postal service and has served as a justification for privatization.
Such privatization will negatively impact communities. Rural areas, where the post office is an important public space for the fabric of community life, have been targeted for many of the proposed service reductions. Postal service jobs have been an important employment sector for building the middle class, and in particular in building the black middle class. Starting after the Civil War, the postal service allowed entry to African American workers, and over the years the Post Office has become an important place for employment for black veterans. By 1970, when the postal workers were first recognized as a union with collective bargaining rights, black workers comprised one-fifth of the postal service work force. Reduction in public-sector jobs, such as this current movement of living-wage postal service jobs to low-wage Staples jobs, disproportionately impacts black workers.
The Postal Service has claimed that the partnership with Staples is not a move toward privatization, but rather is meant to improve customer convenience. Yet in California, some post offices are already reducing hours and directing patrons to visit Staples stores. Clearly this does not add to customer flexibility, but instead directly replaces a public service with one operated by a private company. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) has been leading the effort to fight back against this privatization, joining with other unions and concerned community members in protests at Staples stores throughout the country. The AFL-CIO has officially boycotted Staples stores and products.
In June these protests came to Champaign-Urbana, at the Staples store on Prospect Avenue. Attendees of the Midwest School for Women Workers, who were in town for a week-long conference, coordinated the June 25th protest. Leaders from the Illinois APUW, members of Central Illinois Jobs with Justice and the Graduate Employees Organization, and the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local joined the protest, chanting “U.S. mail is not for sale!”
“The postal service is the only personal, private communication that exists in the United States,” explained Linda Turney, APUW National Business Agent, Chicago. The Staples-Post Office partnership is bad for communities, bad for mail safety, and bad for the middle class.
To learn more about joining the effort to stop the privatization of the posts office can visit stopstaples.com
Stephanie Seawell is a past member and co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO, 6300). She recently graduated from the University of Illinois with her PhD in History. She is currently working on revising her dissertation, The Black Freedom Movement and Community Planning in Urban Parks in Cleveland, Ohio, 1945-1977, into a monograph. In her research she examines the importance of public space and urban parks to African-American community building and working class environmental activism in Cleveland, Ohio during the post-World War II Black Freedom Movement.