EL CERRITO -- Sporting sky blue T-shirts inscribed with "The U.S. mail is not for sale," some 30 postal workers, and a half-dozen activists from Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office fanned out around the Staples store on Saturday. The gathering was to protest a U.S. Postal Service pilot program that has workers of the office supply chain staffing postal counters in 80 of its stores nationwide.
The picket, one of a series the American Postal Workers Union has held at Staples stores in the Bay Area and around the country, does not call for closing the Staples' counters.
Rather, said 30-year postal worker Alan Menjibar, the counters should be staffed with USPS employees.
"We want our postal employees working behind those counters," he said. "We want our maintenance people fixing the post office machines in Staples; we want our drivers picking up their mail here. We want our jobs back."
Menjibar said using cheaper, poorly trained workers is a step toward privatization of the postal system. "We are very concerned for the security and the sanctity of the mail," he said. "No one (at Staples) is accountable."
If the pilot program is deemed a success, a decision that USPS has said it will make by the fall, the post office could move as many as 1,600 postal counters into Staples stores.
That could accelerate the sale of post office property, said Sharon Maldonado of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, which is engaged in a multipronged effort to avert the USPS sale of its landmark downtown Berkeley building.
"We think privatization of the post office is behind selling our historic post offices," she said, adding moreover that she believes using Staples workers to do postal business is "a way to destroy the union."
But USPS spokesman Augustine Ruiz said the Staples program is "another opportunity to reach customers where they shop; we provide it as a convenience."
He said Staples employees staff postal counters, just as thousands of private businesses around the country use their employees to sell post office products.
Asked if expanding into the private sector is a cost-savings measure, Ruiz said all decisions are made looking at the bottom line.
However, he added that the postal service is not reducing post office hours or shutting down post offices in conjunction with placing postal service counters in retail outlets.
Menjibar said the post office wouldn't be in bad financial shape without Congress having mandated it to pay retiree health benefits 75 years in advance over 10 years. "All the financial crisis, we believe, is being fabricated," he said. "How could you prefund retirement for 75 years in a 10-year window? It's not right."
Maldonado said the postal service's finances would improve if it followed the USPS inspector general's recommendation to add banking services at post offices.
Responding to a request for comment, Staples spokeswoman Carrie McElwee emailed, "Staples continually tests new products and services to better meet the needs of our customers.
"We are currently operating a pilot program in select stores that is testing specific services and offering added convenience for our customers.
"As a matter of policy, we don't provide details on our pilot programs or on our agreements with vendors."
Saturday's picket at the El Cerrito store comes at a time when Staples is poised to shutter some 225 North American stores by the end of 2015.
"This proves, more than ever, that it's a bad idea to turn public services over to a private company that can close stores at will, with no public input and no public comment," said APWU President Mark Dimondstein in a March 6 statement.
"What would happen if service is moved to a Staples store, the nearby Post Office is closed and sold -- and then Staples closes its store?"