U.S. Postal Workers vs. Staples

Last week, postal workers across the country rallied in opposition to their bosses’ decision to authorize Staples stores to operate limited-services postal counters. At these counters, Staples employees will sell stamps and accept packages for shipping.

The Curmudgeon, who generally has a high regard for the U. S. Postal Service, has a few thoughts about this.

For starters, and this isn’t the real issue, postal workers shouldn’t urge people to boycott Staples. The issue here is about what postal service executives decided to do, not about Staples. If Staples hadn’t gone for this deal someone else certainly would have, and in this dispute between postal workers and postal service executives, Staples is practically an innocent bystander.

They also shouldn’t act as if this is the first time anyone’s ever sought to involve private businesses in the delivery of postal services. Staples has been selling stamps for years; the cashiers have them under their drawers (their cash drawers, not the other kind). So have others, including many supermarkets and drug stores. In fact, The Curmudgeon walked to his neighborhood Staples last Sunday to buy stamps.

And let’s not forget Sam Drucker running the post office out of his general store on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

Authorizing businesses to provide some postal services is about enhancing access to those services for customers, not breaking unions.

And The Curmudgeon can tell you about access.

With a father living across the country and in need of a reliable pipeline of Tastykakes, Dubble Bubble, Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, Wilbur Buds, cheap cowboy paperbacks, and other things he couldn’t find in the Los Angeles area, The Curmudgeon has long been a frequent post office user. Back when he worked in Philadelphia’s central business district and took public transportation to work he would have to bring his packages with him to work so he could mail them on the way to the office or at lunch time because the neighborhood post office was never open when he was home. The subway on which he commuted was always packed with passengers standing nose to nose (this is where The Curmudgeon, not a coffee drinker, first encountered that delightful phenomenon known as coffee breath), and he often drew withering stares from fellow passengers because of the extra space his parcels occupied.

When he moved to his current home and worked at home his access to postal services was better: he could drive to the post office during his lunch hour. Of course, so did everyone else who worked in the general area because it was the only time of the day when there was a confluence between their freedom to do so and the post office’s business hours, and the result was large numbers of people descending on the post office in the same narrow 12:00 to 12:30 time-frame. With long lines and fewer service windows open because postal workers have a right to a lunch break, too, he sometimes struggled to complete his business and get back to work on time. Even with the advantage of working at home, going to the post office remained a real inconvenience.

And then something wonderful happened: a few years after he moved to New Jersey a card shop open in a shopping center that was a three-minute drive from his home and it had something he had never seen in such a place before: a postal mini-station where – surprise, surprise – it sold stamps and accepted packages for delivery. He knew it wasn’t going to last because he could quickly see that the card shop had no customers and was going to fail, but for about two years, The Curmudgeon loved it: closer to home than the post office, fewer people in line, friendlier clerks, and better, more convenient hours. When the card store finally closed (not because of The Curmudgeon: he bought all of his greeting cards there and more chocolate than he should have been eating) it was back to the regular post office and the challenge of completing his business on his time instead of his employer’s.

The Curmudgeon imagines that he’s not the only person frustrated by the post office’s continuing inconvenience. The postal service is a service business, but like so many service businesses, it’s not very service-oriented and not very customer-friendly. In general, its hours are ordinary business hours – the very times when most people cannot use its services. In fact, it might be argued that only in the past few years has the post office even begun to view the people who come through its doors as customers.

And that’s what this business about using Staples to enhance access to postal services seems to be all about.

But the postal service’s employees are responding the wrong way. Instead of protesting what their bosses are trying to do, they should be challenging those bosses to deliver the same level of service Staples will be offering. If postal workers are serious about fighting off this challenge, they and their union leaders should go to their bosses and suggest that the post office match Staples’ hours: open until nine on weekdays, open all day and not just for a few hours on Saturday, and open all day on Sundays. They should do this, moreover, for regular pay, not for overtime pay, because evening, Saturday, and Sunday hours can hardly be viewed as above and beyond the call of duty when the competition is prepared to do business during those same hours. (Actually, if The Curmudgeon had his druthers, most businesses would be closed on Sundays. Requiring people to work on Sunday was just another battle in the war against working people, waged by people who never work on Sundays, but that battle was lost long ago and The Curmudgeon has no intention of attempting to refight it on this issue.)

Together, the post office and its employees have dug their own grave on this one, but they have the tools to dig their way out. Whether they will do so is entirely up to them.

But The Curmudgeon isn’t holding his breath.

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