Members of American Postal Workers Union and supporters protest in front of a Staples store at Van Ness and Sacramento streets on Tuesday, Jan. 28. Photo Anna Villalobos

The first of a series of planned protests denouncing what union workers are calling the privatization of the United States Postal Service began in San Francisco on Jan. 28.

Over 100 hundred people—many of whom sported blue or red t-shirts bearing the slogan: “U.S. mail, not for sale”—gathered on the corner of Van Ness and Sacramento streets on a chilly Tuesday morning, right outside of a large Staples Inc. store.

They represented a diverse group of American Postal Workers Union (APWU) members, current and retired post office employees and supporters who, armed with picket signs and loudspeakers, came to publicize their outrage at a partnership that blossomed last year between the United States Postal Service (USPS) and Staples.

This partnership is the result of a pilot program that was implemented in October to expand post office services to the retailer’s locations across the country— and was met with outrage by postal union workers, who believe that they are being substituted by untrained Staples employees.

“We are out here to protest the privatization of public postal services to private enterprises like Staples,” said Paul Lew, a 28-year postal service worker. “(The program) means the potential closure of many of our post offices—I believe in the post office as a public entity, and I believe that’s the real threat here.”

The year-long pilot program places postal counters in 82 Staples stores in California, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, with the intention of expanding the service to thousands of other locations.

The new postal units offer some of the more popular services that traditional post offices do — stamp sales, domestic and international mail, and priority and express mail.

To the dismay of APWU members, not included in the plan is the employment of actual post office workers, as the positions will be filled by Staples employees.

“If these pilot services are successful with non-postal workers … we fear that post offices in the surrounding areas will close down, and that will take away further jobs from us,” said Michael Evans, APWU president.

According to AWPU Western Regional Coordinator Omar Gonzalez, the postal service has experienced a loss of 138,000 jobs over the past three years.

“The postmaster general is not … protecting and defending the USPS and what we have here at Staples is workers making minimum wage, not a living wage, doing work that should be done by postal workers,” said organizer Rich Shelley. “It’s turning good, family supporting jobs into low-wage jobs.”

Convenience and saving customers time while being able to offer postal services outside of regular business hours, the program’s supporters say, are the reasons behind the partnership — in addition to cutting costs and creating revenue for USPS.

Union members think otherwise, though.

“If the postal service were interested in what the consumer wants they would not be consolidating facilities in the way that they are doing,” said Phillip Warlick, the legislative director of APWU. “The postal service is listening to private companies more than they are listening to the public, and that is a major problem for our democracy.”

The implementation of the program with Staples, some postal workers said, would pose a threat to well paying-union jobs.

Despite cutbacks in recent years, many consider the postal service still a stable and decent way to make a living by providing a good salary, benefits and hiring preference for veterans, and fostering careers that span decades.

“My brother-in-law came back from Vietnam 40 years ago and went to work for the post office—he raised a family with a decent middle class job with decent benefits,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “Those jobs are threatened by folks who make minimum wage with a high turnover.”

USPS representatives were not available for comment, but said in a printed statement: “The Postal Service has already established partnerships with more than 65,000 retail partners to provide alternative access to postal products and services.”

Union workers have said that they are not opposed to extending postal services and making them more accessible to customers by increasing location and hours. They would even consider the partnership with Staples, as long as trained union members were placed in those new positions with their current contracts.

The unions’ anger at the USPS’ partnership with a corporate entity not only stems from fear a of layoffs, but for many has opened a debate about the privatization that is sweeping public services and institutions across the United States.

And not only in the United States. TNT in the Netherlands, Deutsche Post in Germany and the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom have all suffered some sort of privatization surges.

“(Privatization) is a creeping thing—it is quietly seeping through and by the time it hits us its too late,” said Pam Tau Lee of AFT 2121, City College of San Francisco’s faculty union. “We are really a tale of two cities here, and one of the cities is being decimated while people are suffering and being ejected.”

“We are feeling like we are fighting an avalanche,” she added.