How the American Postal Workers Union Scored One of its Biggest Wins Ever

Bruce Vail January 18, 2017

APWU President President Mark Dimondstein credits the success of the campaign to the thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer work by union members, and also to impressive demonstrations of solidarity by other unions, particularly teachers unions. (American Postal Workers Union)

Mem­bers of one of the largest labor unions for post office work­ers are cel­e­brat­ing the suc­cess of a three-year cam­paign to roll back a com­mer­cial alliance between the U.S. Postal Ser­vice (USPS) and office sup­plies retail­er Sta­ples that threat­ened a major advance in the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the nation­al mail sys­tem. Com­ing just before the acces­sion of Don­ald Trump to the White House, the vic­to­ry marks one of the most suc­cess­ful cor­po­rate cam­paigns by any labor union dur­ing the Oba­ma era.

The suc­cess also marks the reju­ve­na­tion of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union (APWU) under the lead­er­ship of Mark Dimond­stein. First elect­ed as pres­i­dent in 2013, Dimond­stein promised union mem­bers a more aggres­sive attack on USPS pri­va­ti­za­tion ini­tia­tives and a more pro­gres­sive union over­all. He deliv­ered on those promis­es with the Sta­ples cam­paign, and stood out in 2016 as one of the few union lead­ers to back insur­gent Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign for the White House.

In an inter­view with In These Times, the union leader cred­its the suc­cess of the cam­paign to the thou­sands of hours of unpaid vol­un­teer work by union mem­bers, and also to impres­sive demon­stra­tions of sol­i­dar­i­ty by oth­er unions, par­tic­u­lar­ly teach­ers unions. Launched in 2014, the cam­paign gained ear­ly momen­tum, he says, and land­ed some of its most effec­tive blows in mid-2014 and ear­ly 2015. Over the course of 2016, exec­u­tives at USPS and Sta­ples were in a slow retreat and for­mal­ly caved in a let­ter to the union announc­ing the can­cel­la­tion of the pri­va­ti­za­tion effort ear­li­er this month.

Union mem­bers were imme­di­ate­ly gal­va­nized in oppo­si­tion when the USPS-Sta­ples deal was announced as a pilot pro­gram” in 2013. The pilot called for Sta­ples to open postal coun­ters” in its exist­ing retail stores where most stan­dard post office ser­vices would be avail­able. Such coun­ters would be intro­duced in a num­ber of select test mar­kets, and grad­u­al­ly expand­ed to more than 1,000 Sta­ples out­lets nation­wide. The work­ers at these coun­ters would be non-union Sta­ples employ­ees, effec­tive­ly replac­ing APWU members.

It was obvi­ous from the start that they were not being hon­est about the inten­tions of this pro­gram. If these Sta­ples out­lets were suc­cess­ful, then the next step would have been to close the reg­u­lar post offices in those mar­kets, and elim­i­nate the union work­ers. It was a back­door pri­va­ti­za­tion. Our mem­bers are not stu­pid, and they saw it for what it was right from the begin­ning,” Dimond­stein says.

The first order of busi­ness for the cor­po­rate cam­paign against USPS-Sta­ples was to ener­gize oth­er unions, Dia­mond­stein says, and this ulti­mate­ly proved crit­i­cal. Oher postal unions — notably the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Let­ter Car­ri­ers and the Nation­al Postal Mail Han­dlers Union—were eager part­ners, he reports. Their call for a nation­al boy­cott of Sta­ples was endorsed by AFL-CIO in June 2014.

But the act of sol­i­dar­i­ty that car­ried the most pow­er­ful punch was the deci­sion by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) to sup­port the boy­cott. Accord­ing to Dimond­stein, There are 3 or 4 mil­lion teach­ers in this coun­try, and in a lot of cities and towns the teach­ers are giv­en the pow­er to go out and buy school sup­plies. For Sta­ples, these are cus­tomers who come back year after year. This is mar­ket pow­er that has real mean­ing to cor­po­ra­tions like Staples.”

AFT Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten even encour­aged the APWU to stage a pub­lic demon­stra­tion against Sta­ples at the same time as the AFT’s 2014 con­ven­tion in Los Ange­les. Wein­garten per­son­al­ly led a large group of teach­ers from the con­ven­tion to an APWU ral­ly, held at the Sta­ples Cen­ter sports are­na, and deliv­ered a fiery speech in sup­port of the postal work­ers. She backed up the rhetoric, accord­ing to Dimond­stein, with active efforts to get AFT affil­i­ates to back the boy­cott nationwide.

It was at that moment,” that the bal­ance of pow­er shift­ed in favor of the union, says Dimond­stein. Oth­er ele­ments of the cor­po­rate cam­paign—pub­lic demon­stra­tions, a legal attack at the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, nation­wide pub­lic­i­ty efforts, etc. — were begin­ning have an effect, but the teach­ers’ efforts seemed to pull it all togeth­er in the pub­lic mind, the union leader says.

Even so, it would take mas­sive over­reach by the cor­po­rate man­agers of Sta­ples to dri­ve a final stake through the heart of the USPS-Sta­ples deal. In Feb­ru­ary 2015, Sta­ples announced it would buy retail com­peti­tor Office Depot in a deal val­ued at $6.3 bil­lion. But the com­bi­na­tion of the two large office sup­ply retail­ers raised obvi­ous anti-trust issues. (A sim­i­lar merg­er was blocked in 1997 by the Fed­er­al Trade Commission.)

The APWU jumped into action to oppose the merg­er, mobi­liz­ing oth­er poten­tial oppo­nents and meet­ing with anti-trust reg­u­la­tors at the trade commission.

Our research team did a just fan­tas­tic job. It’s hard for me to see how the merg­er could pos­si­bly have ever been approved after look­ing at their work,” Dimond­stein says.

Sure enough, the trade com­mis­sion ruled against the Sta­ples-Office Depot deal, embar­rass­ing Sta­ples CEO Ronald Sar­gent and lat­er cost­ing him his job. The com­pa­ny was also forced to pay Office Depot about $250 mil­lion in a break-up fee” for the failed merg­er, Dimond­stein says.

We opposed the merg­er and that put us square­ly on the side of the con­sumer. As a union, we always want to be on the side of the con­sumer and that dri­ves a lot what we do,” the APWU leader says.

Asked about the cost of the cam­paign, Dimond­stein declines to answer direct­ly. He insists, how­ev­er, that the union spent less than $5 mil­lion and much of the cost was borne by unpaid vol­un­teers from the membership.

We were will­ing to spend what­ev­er it took. But it doesn’t take as much as you’d think when you have a unit­ed mem­ber­ship will­ing to pitch in. We put in sub­stan­tial resources, but our feel­ing [is] that this is pre­cise­ly the kind of thing that union dues are for,” he says.

If the cam­paign presents a sin­gle over­rid­ing les­son, then it is the impor­tance of labor union sol­i­dar­i­ty, Dimond­stein con­cludes. With­in USPS, there are mul­ti­ple unions so it is always divide and con­quer with them.” But APWU was able to spear­head an effec­tive coali­tion with oth­er unions and also enlist the AFL-CIO in the boycott.

The stay­ing pow­er of our own mem­bers is real­ly what car­ried us and our allies for­ward,” Dimond­stein says. They had the con­fi­dence that work­ers can win — and will win.”

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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