January 19, 2014

AP’s Hananel Weakly Covers Union’s Threats Against USPS-Staples Retail Partnership

Presumed union member (the News Media Guild) and Associated Press reporter Sam Hananel’s Sunday morning coverage of union threats against a pilot partnership between the U.S. Postal Service and Staples Inc. fails to deliver on at least three counts.

First, while noting that American Postal Workers Union (APWU) boycott threats ended a similar effort at Sears stores in the late-1980s, Hananel “somehow” forgot to note its aftermath, which resulted in even wider distribution of USPS products by non-union workers. Second, Hananel ignored the fact that USPS’s main competitors, UPS and Fedex, both already have large networks of relatively convenient nonunion retail shipping outlets – compared to most post offices, which are separate-trip, standalone locations. Third, and most critically, he fails to note that the APWU’s demand to have its members staff the Staples counters, even ignoring the wage differential, would be an extraordinarily counterproductive waste of labor. Excerpts from his coverage follow the jump (bolds are mine):

Postal Service, union wrangle over Staples outlets


The opening of Postal Service retail centers in dozens of Staples stores around the country is being met with threats of protests and boycotts by the agency’s unions.

The new outlets are staffed by Staples employees, not postal workers, and labor officials say that move replaces good-paying union jobs with low-wage, nonunion workers.

“It’s a direct assault on our jobs and on public postal services,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union.

The dispute comes as the financially struggling Postal Service continues to form partnerships with private companies, and looks to cut costs and boost revenues. The deal with Staples began as a pilot program in November at 84 stores in California, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as a way make it easier for customers to buy stamps, send packages or use Priority and certified mail.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said the program has nothing to do with privatization and everything to do with customer service and driving up demand for the agency’s products.

“The privatization discussion is a ruse,” Donahoe said in an interview.

I suspect that many customers who use Staples for UPS shipping would be interested in having the less costly USPS alternative available for less urgent packages. Thus, its presence at Staples should be a USPS revenue booster, and increased package volume would have the potential to increase employment at USPS distribution centers.

Postal service jokes are easy, but I should also note that USPS has greatly improved its package tracking capabilities in the past several years, and that past worries customers would have had about packages disappearing into the wilderness have largely disappeared.


… Union leaders fear that if the Staples program is successful, the Postal Service will want to expand it to more than 1,500 of the company’s other stores. That could siphon work and customers away from nearby brick-and-mortar post offices, taking jobs from postal workers and even leading traditional post offices to close.

The union plans to hold “sustained” protests this month at Staples stores in the San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., area that would be expanded elsewhere. Union officials also are considering how they can exert pressure on Staples shareholders.

“If Staples insists on continuing to refuse to staff those stores with postal workers, we’re going to urge people to take their business elsewhere,” Dimondstein said.

What if Staples buckled, and allowed postal workers union members to staff the stores? They would have nothing to do for most of their shifts.

The Staples employees responsible for the USPS counters aren’t standing there all day long waiting for customers to walk in. I haven’t been in one of the pilot stores, so I can’t know for sure, but my guess is that Copy Center employees who already have UPS shipping duties will be responsible for the USPS counters. Such employees currently spend no more than 90 minutes during a typical 8-hour shift handling UPS customers, and might eventually spend a similar amount of time with those who wish to use USPS. The more effective Staples employees will also make sure that customers are aware of potential other products and services they may wish to purchase while they’re in the store.

If unionized postal workers occupied the Staples in-store USPS counters, they wouldn’t be able to do any other work in their stores, and as a result would usually be sitting on their hands at least six hours of each 8-hour shift. They also would be far less effective at promoting the store’s other products and services. It would be a lose-lose situation, and it won’t happen.

Presumed union member Hananel at AP didn’t make the obvious point, either because he doesn’t understand it himself, or because he knew it would get in the way of a story which will seem compelling to business-ignorant readers.

Hananel also didn’t note that the USPS’s retail efforts didn’t end with the late-1980s Sears shutdown. Instead, it moved “to negotiate deals with individual mall outlets rather than with such national chains as Sears.”

Most readers also know that the USPS has vastly expanded its stamps-only efforts into grocery stores and other retail outlets. Some of these are staffed by the APWU’s supposed “brothers and sisters” who are members of other unions.

It hasn’t been that long since USPS had a very close brush with bankruptcy, and its finances are still not in anything resembling good shape. The APWU’s best hope is that its employer can build its package business with greater retailer presence and at best slow down its member attrition. It’s living in a dream world which may include the AP’s Hananel if it thinks retailers are going to let unionized postal workers occupy portions of their stores.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


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