CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Postal workers in cities big and small protested in front of Staples stores on Thursday, objecting to the U.S. Postal Service's pilot program to open counters in stores, staffed with retail employees.
Rallies were planned at 50 locations in 27 states. In Concord, more than 100 boisterous workers donned bright blue shirts and lined a busy commercial road near a Staples store.
"Union busting, we say no," they chanted, "the Staples deal has got to go."
In New York, about 100 workers marched from the main office on Eighth Avenue to a Staples store about five blocks away, carrying signs and chanting, while in Washington, D.C., more than 200 people gathered at a Staples, drumming on buckets and holding signs that read: "Stop Staples. The US Mail is Not for Sale."
One of them, postal service maintenance mechanic Robert Black, called the pilot program "a backdoor way of privatizing the post office" and taking away jobs from postal workers.
"It seems as though they are doing whatever they can to break down the union," he said.
Last year, Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Inc. began offering postal services under a pilot program that now includes some 80 stores. The American Postal Workers Union objects, saying well-paid union workers have been replaced by low-wage nonunion workers. A union spokesman said postal workers make $25 an hour on average, far more than retail clerks. The union also worries the program will lead to post office closures.
John Hegarty, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, which represents about 45,000 mail handlers, said the outsourcing endangers the sanctity and security of the mail.
"We are highly trained, skilled postal employees, and they want to give it to employees who really don't know anything about the mail," he said.
Staples customer Jon Lenzner in Washington agreed that security was a concern.
"While the majority of postal workers are honest, it enlarges the pool of people who can take private, personal information," said Lenzner, a prosecutor. "You have, in essence, doubled the pool of people who can steal your mail."
Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, representing 200,000 employees, called the Staples partnership "a dirty deal."
"It represents a shift of good, living-wage jobs to low-wage jobs," Dimondstein said.
Staples spokesman Mark Cautela would not address the workers' concerns, only saying the store is always testing new ways to serve its customers.
The dispute comes as the financially struggling Postal Service looks to cut costs and boost revenues.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said the Staples program has nothing to do with privatization. Rather, it's a "direct response to the changing expectations of customers who demand greater convenience and a one-stop shopping experience." It's also an opportunity "to grow the business," the Postal Service said in a statement Thursday.
Janice Kelble, a 40-year postal service employee and legislative director for the Manchester local of the American Postal Workers union, said the workers are all for convenience as long as the counters are staffed with trained workers.
Aside from Staples, the Postal Service has roughly 65,000 other retail partner locations around the country, such as CVS pharmacies and Wal-Mart stores that sell postal products. The Staples program, however, allows customers to buy stamps, send packages and use Priority and certified mail.
The service lost $5 billion in the 2013 fiscal year and has been trying to get Congress to pass legislation to help with its financial woes, including an end to Saturday mail delivery and reduced payments on retiree health benefits. It lost $15.9 billion in the 2012 budget year.
U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., joined postal workers at a rally in Los Angeles.
"What you want to do is have as efficient an operation as possible but you shouldn't have to sacrifice efficiency and universal service just because somebody says you have to tighten your belt," Becerra said.