By Josh Eidelson
Following union-backed boycotts and an adverse labor board ruling, the United States Postal Service has agreed to curb a controversial arrangement allowing private employees to provide its services at Staples Inc. stores.
USPS spokeswoman Darlene Casey told Bloomberg that the Postal Service would end its relationship with Staples in order to comply with a National Labor Relations Board judge’s ruling.
The cancellation is a coup for the Postal Service’s largest union, which mounted a three-year, multipronged campaign against the arrangement, fighting Staples’ failed attempt to merge with Office Depot Inc., and leafleting outside stores urging customers to boycott the company, according to Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union.
“Had we not drawn the line in the sand and launched these protests," Dimondstein said, all Staples stores "would have had full-blown post offices, not staffed by postal employees but rather Staples employees, and the Post Office also would have used that model to spread to other major retailers.”
Dimondstein says he received a commitment in writing from USPS that sales of postal services at Staples will cease within the next two months.
Staples spokeswoman Carrie McElwee confirmed that more than 500 of its stores would be dropped from the program. She said Staples customers will still be able to ship goods through the company’s relationship with the United Parcel Service Inc.
Announced in November 2013, the USPS collaboration with Staples began as a pilot program to place mini post offices in 82 stores, staffed by Staples’s non-union employees providing services including Priority Mail. While USPS promoted the arrangement as a way to provide convenience for customers, it was denounced as privatization by APWU leaders such as Dimondstein, who had just ousted APWU’s incumbent president by promising to more aggressively resist concessions to management.
In July 2014, days after the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution urging its members and the public not to do their back-to-school shopping at Staples, USPS announced it was shutting down the mini post offices. Instead, it would include Staples stores in its decade-old Approved Shipper Program, which authorizes certain sites around the country to provide some USPS services such as mailing packages, alongside those of other shippers. That wasn’t enough to satisfy APWU, or union allies like the AFT and the AFL-CIO, which continued to back the boycott.
In his 2015 farewell address, outgoing postmaster general Patrick Donahoe said those efforts were unfortunately making it “tougher for us to find retail partners,” and that trying to restrict postal services to post offices wasn’t good for customers or for the agency’s business model. “It’s an example of the narrow, near-sighted view winning over the broader, long-term strategy,” he told a National Press Club audience. “Attitudes have to change –- and I hope they will.”
But the agency’s Office of Inspector General took note of the union’s complaints. In May 2016, the IG announced that it had conducted an audit of Approved Shipper Program locations, including Staples and the three other main participants in the program, Office Depot, PostNet, and The UPS Store.
The audit found that the Postal Service lost revenue due to participants incorrectly accepting boxes with insufficient postage, that clerks at the private retailers often didn’t complete certified mail forms correctly, and that “shippers are still not complying with mail security requirements.”
The Postal Service’s handling of the Staples situation also drew rebukes from National Labor Relations Board officials. In June 2016, the NLRB ruled 3-0 that USPS had violated federal labor law by refusing to provide APWU with information it had requested about the mini post office pilot. Five months later, an NLRB administrative law judge ruled that USPS had failed to meet its obligation to bargain with the union over the ongoing Staples arrangement, and issued a recommended order that would require USPS, if APWU requested it, to rescind its arrangement with Staples.
Among the evidence he cited was an internal USPS report from 2012, which hadn’t been shared with the union at the time, stating that the aims of its partnerships included “migrating [the] majority of volume to retail partners (new & existing) and stamp partners [thereby] lowering cost to serve…”
USPS could have appealed that ruling, but instead committed to drop Staples from the Approved Shipper Program, according to the APWU. Cutting off Staples defuses an ongoing controversy for USPS just before Republicans take unified control of the federal government, which will come with the chance to fill nine empty seats on the agency’s board of governors and to pass their favored solutions for its long-time funding woes.
Read more from Bloomberg.