Business & Tech

Postal Service will end controversial Staples partnership

Unionized Postal Service workers protested outside a Staples store in April 2014.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images/File

Unionized Postal Service workers protested outside a Staples store in April 2014.

The Postal Service is pulling the plug on a partnership with Staples Inc. that sparked years of union protests because it allowed about 500 of the company’s stores to ship packages like a post office.

The American Postal Workers Union had criticized the deal, arguing the Postal Service’s goal was to privatize a government function by shifting work to retailers such as Framingham-based Staples.

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Workers protested and demonstrated outside of stores, and the union successfully argued its case in front of the National Labor Relations Board.

The union said it received a letter from the Postal Service just before Christmas, saying the Staples shipping program would end by March. Its president, Mark Dimondstein, planned to share the news with union members Thursday afternoon.

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“It’s been a three-year battle, and we feel good,” Dimondstein said. “We think we stood up against a wrong and won.”

Staples confirmed that the Postal Service would end the link-up.

“Our customers will continue to have access to shipping services through our relationship with UPS,” spokeswoman Carrie McElwee said in a statement.

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In its statement, the Postal Service via spokeswoman Darlene Casey noted that a Nov. 8 ruling by the labor board required the Postal Service to discontinue its retail relationship with Staples. “The Postal Service intends to comply with that order,” she said.

The board ruled that the Postal Service had violated the union’s collective bargaining rights by implementing the Staples deal, and said it must end the partnership with Staples upon request of the union.

The Postal Service could have appealed the decision, but did not.

Staples and the Postal Service were both floundering when they struck their deal. For Staples, the agreement was intended to draw more foot traffic into stores. The Postal Service, meanwhile, had sought the help of retailers to cut labor costs at post offices, according to internal documents cited in the labor board’s decision.

In May, the company’s planned merger with rival Office Depot, intended to stem a decline in sales, was blocked by a federal judge on antitrust grounds.

In the aftermath, Staples’s longtime chief executive, Ron Sargent, resigned. He was succeeded by Shira Goodman, who was the company’s president of North American operations.

Late last year, Staples shed its European business as part of a strategy to focus on its home continent.

The program took different forms over the course of more than three years. But it was consistently criticized as a privatization scheme by the union, which is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and represents about 200,000 workers.

The union also argued the Staples employees handling mail were not properly trained to do so.

Starting in late 2013, 82 Staples stores were marketed as “mini post offices,” staffed by company workers who would offer most of the services a regular post office would. Amid the union’s outcry and an American Federation of Teachers vote to boycott Staples, a back-to-school fixture, the Postal Service and the company ended the program in 2014.

Instead, the Postal Service designated Staples stores as “approved shippers,” eventually expanding the program to about 500 of the chain’s 1,300 US stores. More than 6,500 retail outlets across the country, including UPS and Office Depot stores, are approved shippers for the Postal Service and can use their employees to ship packages through the Postal Service.

The union resolved to keep fighting the Staples partnership even after it was changed, saying it threatened post office workers.

“The subcontracting out of these services was supposed to be for these tiny towns where there wasn’t any Postal Service. We believe the Postal Service was planning to basically turn retail services over to Staples and a number of other retail chains,” he said. “We said we were going to draw a line in the sand on these issues.”

Dimondstein was elected union president in 2013 on an antiprivatization campaign, shortly before the Staples program began. He said the union also opposes the Postal Service’s shipping partnerships with other large retailers.

“We’re hoping the Postal Service takes a different path in the future,” he said.

But the union is not planning to actively protest those partnerships, due to an arbitration agreement in July that said it could not challenge existing Postal Service retail partnerships for one year. The Postal Service, meanwhile, is not allowed to expand the program until July.

“I do imagine we’re going to fight them, but we’re not going to fight them right now,” Dimondstein said. “We have a truce.”

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.
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