The Postal Service’s largest union has harsh words for Rep. Darrell Issa, and is raising alarm over a pilot partnership with Staples, which it warns is a stalking horse for privatization – a goal the union alleges draws support or indifference from key Democrats.
“I think Congress and the White House are pretty much working hand in hand,” American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein told Salon prior to Tuesday demonstrations outside Staples stores in San Francisco and San Jose, the first of what he said would be an escalating wave of protests. “There hasn’t been a fight to defend the public good, and there hasn’t been a real fight around good jobs.”
While slamming Democrats, Dimondstein reserved special condemnation for Issa, the Republicans’ leading voice on postal reform. Noting that Issa had proposed eliminating Saturday postal service as part of a bill undoing veterans’ pension cuts, the union president called the congressman “a pure enemy of the Postal Service,” and his proposal “cynical and diabolical.” Asked about such criticism, an Issa spokesperson emailed, “This false claim about privatization is being pushed by entrenched special interests who oppose common sense and bipartisan reforms in both House and Senate postal modernization bills.” APWU also warns that legislation offered by Issa, easing the closing of post offices if services are being offered nearby - at least as originally proposed - could have severe consequences if USPS' Staples pilot program spreads.
The White House and Staples did not respond to requests for comment. Reached over email, a U.S. Postal Service spokesperson defended its Staples pilot program, calling it “the next step in the USPS retail partnership expansion to provide postal products and services where our customers live, work, and shop,” and “a direct response to the changing expectations of customers who demand greater convenience.”
Dimondstein countered that the program represents “A big step to privatization of the retail services that the post office does provide to the people of the country.” The provision of such services, argued Dimondstein, should be the work of “postal employees in uniform, accountable to the people of the country and under oath of office, and fully trained to protect the privacy and the sanctity of the mail of the public.” He warned that postal customers were “not going to get the same service” from Staples employees, and that “potentially, if the postal service has its way, they’ll be in every Staples store.” Dimondstein added that any purported customer service benefits of the new program could instead be offered in existing post offices, but USPS leaders “want to have cheap labor doing all of those things instead.” Asked if APWU had reached out to the Staples employees currently doing the work of the pilot program, he said it hadn’t, but “that may or may not come to pass.”
As I’ve reported, the Postal Service faces a several-billion-dollar deficit, most of it attributable to a unique pre-funding mandate, imposed by Congress in 2006, that requires 75 years of healthcare contributions to be paid for in the space of a decade. Politicians from both parties have pushed to tackle that deficit with cuts to services and workers’ benefits; warning that such moves could spur a “death spiral” for the post office, postal unions and congressional progressives have urged that Congress instead repeal its pre-funding mandate and its restrictions on USPS’s ability to diversify its services.
California is one of four regions in which the new Staples pilot program is underway, and the first target for postal union pushback. While Congress and President Obama have not played a public role in instigating the pilot program, APWU is seeking support from both in stemming the perceived privatization threat. Both of the state’s U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, are Democrats who voted for a 2012 tripartisan postal bill from Sens. Carper, D-Del., Lieberman, I-Conn., and Brown, R-Mass.; neither is listed among the 30 co-sponsors of a union-favored alternative introduced last year by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Dimondstein charged that the California senators “have not been fighters to defend, or advocates to defend, the people’s post office as I think our elected officials should be.” A spokesperson for Boxer did not respond to a request for comment.
Dimondstein was particularly critical of Feinstein, noting that her husband, Richard Blum, chairs the board of the real estate giant CBRE, which holds an exclusive contract to negotiate the sale of Postal Service buildings to private companies. Blum is the co-founder and CEO of Blum Capital Partners, which led a $750 million buyout of CBRE in 2001.
“I can’t get into her mind,” the union president told Salon, “but I would think that the fact that her husband is making so much money off the sale of post offices has to have an influence in the way that she approaches these issues.” While "I'm sure she would say" Blum's business has no influence over her decision-making, said Dimondstein, "I don't see how it couldn't." Dimondstein called it “a tragedy” that postal properties with “WPA murals that are part of our national treasure” were being sold off. He charged that Blum “finds himself at the end of this lucrative deal at the expense of the people of this country.” (Blum’s role also drew Feinstein attention from consumer activist and past presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who urged in a fall letter to the senator that she “remove all doubt of impropriety” by pushing to suspend postal property sales and urging review of CBRE’s contract.)
Asked about Dimondstein’s comments, Feinstein spokesperson Brian Weiss emailed, “To be clear, Congress has no role in choosing which real estate services company is retained by the USPS and no decision making role in which post offices to keep open. I can tell you that Senator Feinstein is not involved with and does not discuss any of her husband’s business decisions with him. Her husband’s holdings are his separate property.” Weiss added that Feinstein’s assets have been in a blind trust since before she entered the Senate.
USPS and CBRE defended their relationship. A Postal Service spokesperson emailed that given the nature of the work involved, “capitalizing on the expertise of a single, nationally-recognized service provider was determined to be a favorable business decision,” that CBRE was assessed to offer “the best overall organization, capability and experience,” and that the “commissions paid for real estate services are commercially reasonable and standard industry practice.”
A CBRE spokesperson emailed that Blum was its “non-executive Chairman” and “plays no role in the day-to-day management of CBRE and has no involvement in our work for USPS.” He said that the real estate company had landed the USPS contract after “an open and extensive [Request for Proposals] process,” that it “undertakes to maximize the value of each asset disposition for USPS,” and that “USPS – not CBRE – makes all decisions concerning which properties to sell and approves all sale prices.” Asked about transactions in which CBRE represents both the seller (USPS) and the buyer, CBRE answered that “It is common practice in our industry for the selling broker to bring buyers to the table,” and “In any instance when we are representing a buyer this fact is disclosed to USPS in advance of executing a contract.”
CBRE CEO Robert Sulentic also serves on the board of Staples. Asked whether he had played a role in the retailer’s USPS pilot program, a USPS spokesperson answered that the program “was solicited publicly through a [Request for Proposals].” CBRE answered, “Mr. Sulentic is not involved in the day-to-day management of Staples,” and referred questions regarding Staples’ programs to Staples.
Dimondstein -- and many of the candidates on his slate – ousted incumbent APWU leaders in an October election, after promising a more aggressive struggle against privatization of postal jobs and services. Asked how that fight would look different under his leadership, Dimondstein answered, “First, that we are going to fight and protest these kinds of deals. And second, that we’re going to unite with other unions … and the people of this country” to keep postal service public. He said to expect “sustained protests,” and efforts to call attention to past Staples scandals like eight-figure settlements over alleged wage theft. Over the next several weeks, APWU plans protests in the other regions where the pilot program is underway, leafleting outside of stores, and a national day of action. The union has also begun outreach to teachers’ unions to discuss buying school supplies from companies other than Staples.
“The people,” said Dimondstein, “will, we think -- and need to -- step up, and say: This is ours, and nobody’s going to take it away from us.”