Labor Update: Staples Boycott

From Blog for Iowa

June 30, 2014 | Author

It’s hard to fathom the cavalcade of minutia encountered when mailing a package at the post office. The question has been “can a lowly paid worker at Staples do the same work for less?” The postal unions have said no, and the AFL-CIO supported them with its “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott launched earlier this month. In Iowa, the land that puts one to sleep, there has been a little action, but not much. What is going on?

“Office-supply giant Staples has been struggling recently due to the secular decline of major categories like PCs, ink, and paper,” wrote Adam Levine-Weinberg for The Motley Fool. “North American comparable-store sales declined four percent last year. With sales falling, Staples has found that it has far too much space in its stores, and it is therefore looking to downsize to smaller formats.” To use some of the newly created space, Staples struck a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to offer mini-post offices in some of their stores. Staples sells stamps, Priority Mail and other postal services during normal business hours. What and how they do it is outside consideration of union contracts, and hence the rub with union members.

In April the postal worker protests of the Staples-USPS deal made a splash, but Staples and the USPS may have broader problems than a boycott by the small minority of union worker that exist in post-Reagan America. Like with many advocacy efforts against businesses, economics will be a key driver of whether Staples stays in business trying to deal with what the Fool suggests is a problem with the economics of their business model– namely the thrill is gone with regard to visiting specialty retailers like Staples to buy office supplies.

As a former union member, I empathize with Iowa postal workers. In recent months a cavalcade of ever changing rural delivery operators, presumably all non-union, has been delivering mail to our home. Our local post office downsized, with the long-time postmaster retiring, and a different face at the counter every time we go in to buy stamps. Speaking of the latter, the number of stamps our household purchases has decreased significantly as we now pay most bills on line because of the convenience and predictability of payments.

The USPS has problems with its relationship with its union workers, but the lack of Congressional action to properly fund it, combined with changing consumer patterns put the postal service in a no-win situation.

“Labor problems do not exist in a vacuum,” wrote Donald Woolf in an article titled, Labor Problems in the Post Office. Woolf’s article suggests that operational issues like plant obsolescence, the changing nature of the USPS labor force, union representation and bargaining structure, inter-union rivalries and other factors may play a more significant role in postal worker disgruntlement than the USPS-Staples deal. The Staples deal is just more visible than all the wonkiness Woolf refers to.

While it may feel good to have a specific targeted action like the “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott, closer to the truth is feeling good isn’t good enough.

A solution? Elections matter, so get informed and get involved with politics. Electing candidates like Staci Appel, Jim Mowrer, Pat Murphy, Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley may not solve the problems at the USPS, but would go a long way toward getting an empathetic ear in the Congress on the significant challenges that are today’s USPS.

Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t hurt to boycott Staples and let them know it. However, the market will likely take care of Staples.

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