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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Postal workers showed up outside Staples office supply stores today with drums and picket signs that read: Stop Staples.

PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The U.S. Mail is not for sale.

BLOCK: The U.S. Mail is not for sale, they're chanting. The issue is a decision to open postal service counters in Staples stores. It's the latest effort by the service to find new avenues of business. But the postal workers union worries it will siphon away jobs.

Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Both the American Postal Workers Union and the leadership of the U.S. Postal Service lay claim to be fighting for the same cause - that is, safeguarding the long-term future of one of the largest employers in the country. The sharp disagreement comes over how to go about it. Mark Dimondstein is president of the union. Speaking at the downtown Washington, D.C., protest today, he says it's fine that the Postal Service wants to open counters in retail outlets, as it began to last year in Staples stores. The problem, he says, are the terms.

MARK DIMONDSTEIN: Our demand on the question of the USPS-Staples deal was to put postal employees in those postal units.

NOGUCHI: Instead, the counters are staffed by Staples employees. And the Postal Service has made clear it hopes to keep expanding within the Staples chain and with other similar partners.

DIMONDSTEIN: Eventually, these kind of deals are going to shift living wage jobs in the postal system to nonliving wage jobs in the retail sector.

NOGUCHI: Dimondstein claims consumers will suffer, too, because postal employees receive better training and offer better service.

DIMONDSTEIN: The people of this country deserve to have their postal services performed by well-trained, uniformed postal workers accountable to the people of this country to protect the sanctity, security, and privacy of their mail.

NOGUCHI: But I think a lot of people feel that, you know, they go to the post office. They have to stand in line a lot. You know, they get some surly service. How do you respond to that?

DIMONDSTEIN: That's on postal management, not on the postal workers. And we agree that post offices should be staffed better. We're not happy about that either.

NOGUCHI: The Postal Service is in a financial bind because, for years, it has run deeply in the red. To a large degree, that's because a congressional mandate requires the agency to pre-fund its retirement benefits many decades in advance. But Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also notes that first-class mail, the Service's bread and butter, is in sharp decline. And in a video response posted this week, he defended these retail partnerships, saying it would help grow postal business, increase revenues, and preserve postal employees' jobs.

PATRICK DONAHOE: It gives customers more choices on where and when they can purchase postal products and services and helps secure the long-term future of the Postal Service.

NOGUCHI: About 100 union supporters registered their dismay in Washington, carrying signs and stopping lunchtime traffic.

RICH SHELLEY: My name is Rich Shelley. I'm a motor vehicle operator for the Postal Service. I drive a truck and I work in Baltimore, Maryland.

NOGUCHI: Shelley says the morale at his job has changed dramatically in the 17 years he's worked at the Postal Service. Now, he says, management cares more about the bottom line than delivering good service and instilling pride in its workers.

SHELLEY: The main thing is postal workers take an oath of office. They're accountable to the American people. They're well-trained in postal regulations and Staples workers are not.

NOGUCHI: He took to the streets today, he says, because he wants postal work to be around for a long time to come. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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