WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Fighting Schemes to Privatize the USPS

Feb 26, 2014

In an effort to protect good jobs and community service against privatization schemes on Capitol Hill and the marketplace, Postal Workers this month called for a boycott of Staples office-supply stores.

Specifically accusing Republicans of trying to privatize mail processing and delivery to enhance profits for their campaign contributors by destabilizing the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) is demanding that Staples stop operating postal retail units staffed by non-postal employees.

Bill Knight

The scheme – launched at 82 pilot sites in California, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, out of the nationwide chain’s 1,600 U.S. stores – will lead not only to the demise of the Postal Service but to the loss of thousands of good jobs from coast to coast, the APWU says. The Staples experiment would have the corporation take part in many of the most popular (profitable) services that union workers provide at Post Offices, such as stamp sales, first-class domestic and international mail, and priority and express mail. Other services won’t be offered, such as media mail, money orders and Post Office boxes.

Bob Gunter, president of the Illinois Postal Workers Union said, “We’re calling for a nationwide boycott. We hope to build the idea of a ‘Grand Alliance’ with consumers, teachers and others who shop [there].”

Staples has area locations in Burlington, Galesburg, Jacksonville, Quincy and Pekin.

Gunter said, “Staples pays workers minimum wage, maybe a little more, without benefits. If there’s Postal Service work done at Staples or anywhere else, it should be done by postal employees,” Gunter adds.

Unlike the Post Office, the big-box retailer can close any of its sites at any time at will – as it has, shutting down dozens of locations last year. Another Staples management policy would cut part-time workers’ hours to fewer than 25 a week, making those employees ineligible for health insurance.

But resistance can work. In 1988, a similar scheme was offered – and defeated – at Sears.

In Washington, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this month approved S1486, written by Sens. Tom Coburn (the ranking Oklahoma Republican), and Thomas Carper (the Democratic committee chair). The bill purportedly addresses a request by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, who said he needs drastic changes – including firing workers, cutting days of service and door-to-door delivery – to trim losses. Indeed, the measure would cut 100,000 jobs, weaken workers’ comp, create a two-tiered workforce, let customers carry concealed guns in Post Office parking lots – and do nothing about USPS’s financial problems, unions say.

An open letter signed by national presidents of the American Postal Workers, Letter Carriers, Mail Handlers, and National Rural Letter Carriers said, “We regret a more-limited, less-damaging bill is not being considered. The committee should focus on addressing the principal causes of the Postal Service’s fiscal problems, not reducing service and targeting postal employees’ benefits.”

Labor says the financial shortfall at the Postal Service mostly stems from a situation the GOP created in 2006 during the Bush administration: requiring the USPS – unlike any other entity, private or public – to pre-fund 75 years of retiree benefits in 10 years. Indeed, the Senate bill ignores the fact that the Post Office earned $623 million last year and is projected to earn almost twice that this year – before pre-funding future retirees’ health care, which cost the Post Office $5.5 billion this year.

Illinois’ Gunter said, “It’s crazy to require us to pre-fund 75 years of retirees’ health care. That’s taking money away from operations for people who aren’t employees – or who haven’t even been born yet.”

Elsewhere, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (the California Republican) has sponsored a bill that would prohibit the Post Office and unions from negotiating protections against layoffs. Also, however, there is other legislation in the Senate that could address the actual problems the USPS faces. The Postal Service Protection Act of 2013, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (the Independent from Vermont) recognizes that diversifying Post Office services, like other countries’ mail agencies have done, would help. If Congress would have let the Post Office do so a decade ago, it would’ve generated an additional $74 billion from 2003 to 2008, according to a 2011 study from Accenture, commissioned by the agency, not the unions.

Meanwhile, labor’s proposed enrolling current and future postal retirees in Medicare and refunding pension-account surpluses so the Post Office could pay off debts and invest in upgrading its fleet and infrastructure.  

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.