Socialist View, No. 14, Spring 2005
Mobilise postal workers to
DEFEND AN POST
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF losses of €43m by An Post has been used to intensify attacks on the jobs, working conditions and services in the company. The closure of the SDS parcel service with the loss of 274 jobs is only the beginning with 1,750 jobs targeted to go and hundreds of post offices to be closed. We are being told that these cuts are necessary to balance the books in An Post, to prepare the company for competition.
By Terry Kelleher, CPSU Trustee
However, these attacks are part of an overall policy of the government to undermine public sector trade unions, reduce the wage levels and create a more flexible public sector workforce. The ultimate goal, to prepare companies such as An Post for privatisation is purely based on right-wing ideology and not because it will benefit the general public.
On 8 December 2004, the leadership of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the main postal union, organised a one-day national strike and held a national demonstration. While this day was an outstanding success with over 8,000 taking part in the march (80% of An Post's staff), the CWU leaders agreed to call off further industrial action in return for a promise of talks from the government and management. The CWU leadership mistakenly decided to put its faith in the Labour Court and not in the militancy of its members. The failure of the CWU to capitalise on the one day strike and demonstration is rooted in its support for social partnership, and a belief that they have no alternative but to accept the "inevitability" of "competition" and market forces.
The current so-called financial crisis in An Post has been engineered by management and the government to further the government's neo-liberal agenda to privatise the public sector. Sections of the trade union leaders have either bought into this agenda or believe they can neutralise its worst affects through social partnership. This approach is wrong and will result in redundancies, a major assault on the pay, conditions and job security of An Post workers and the introduction of "yellow pack" conditions for new staff.
In the past it was commonplace for trade unions to actively oppose privatisation and to defend the concept of public ownership and the invaluable role that the public sector plays in society. However, a "counter-revolution" has been lead in the union movement over the last 20 years by right-wing leaders who completely support the capitalist system and argue that there is no alternative.
However, the recent struggles in France, Germany, Spain and Italy against neo-liberal attacks on the public sector and pension rights indicate a new period of a fight back by the European working class. The one-day strike by public sector workers in Britain against Blair's assault on pension rights due in March brings these struggles closer to home.
In the 1970s, the government initiated a review of the Post and Telegraph and created two separate companies, Telecom Eireann (now Eircom) and An Post. In 1984, An Post was formed as a commercial semi-state company.
This change in An Post took place at a time when the spurious right-wing ideology known as monetarism argued amongst other things that the private sector could run public services more efficiently and cheaper for the consumer than the public sector. Thus began a worldwide move towards privatisation which is now a major campaign led by the G8 nations, the IMF and the World Bank. It is a lie of epic proportions that is churned out by right-wing politicians, economists and political commentators to give an ideological justification to the wholesale theft of public assets. Around the globe, public services are being sold off to venture capitalists and profiteers at knock-down prices. The result is huge profits for the new owners and deterioration in services to the public as well as an increase in bills and charges.
In Ireland, the capitalist class and their political representatives wanted to pursue the same agenda. In order to facilitate this agenda they began a process of integrating the tops of the trade union movement into the capitalist system. Thus was born the Irish version of social partnership. For nearly 18 years the political establishment has organised and orchestrated a process which bit by bit is aimed at privatising Ireland's public services.
An Post and other state companies were initially saved from privatisation mainly because of opposition in society and amongst postal workers. However, in the meantime An Post has been starved of state investment and forced to be financially independent even though it provides an essential social service which is inevitably unprofitable.
When An Post was formed in 1984, it was promised a £63m investment but only received £8m. In 1985, even though the new company was struggling, the government gave it a mere £4m and said it would not be giving any more state funding. Senior management quickly moved to cutting the "cost base" of the company to keep it "viable". This meant attacking jobs, working conditions and services. The casualisation of the workforce began despite resistance from the CWU and the workers.
Europe and deregulation
The EU has actively pursued policy and laws to organise the break-up and sell-off of public services. The EU proposed the liberalisation of markets like the postal and parcel services through a directive in 1997. In 1998, An Post stated it was in danger of losing £20m due to the partial liberalisation of the market. Liberalisation means postal routes and other such services are opened up to allow private companies to operate. Already in certain areas like Dublin 2 and Dublin 4, private couriers provide the delivery of letters and parcels. This is a very profitable area for a postal company and An Post is losing business as a result.
The effect of this loss of revenue and the lack of a state subsidy was softened by the sale of Ireland On-line for €118m. This money allowed the company to invest in new technology and fund pay rises. By 2009, the company faces full competition on all its postal business. In the meantime An Post is experiencing a decline in its mail business due to changes such as email.
Senior management are using this situation to force through a radical transformation in how the company functions. These changes point directly towards full casualisation of a reduced workforce on lower wages, even temporary contracts and with the outsourcing of work. The drive to turn An Post into a low pay "yellow pack" company is at full steam ahead.
The CWU has a history of militancy and in 1979 led a major strike over pay that lasted five months and contributed to the downfall of the then Fianna Fail government. This dispute was long and dirty, with pickets clashing with the Gardai. The experience of this dispute and the hardship it caused hardened the ranks of this union and shaped industrial relations for the next period in An Post. This militancy continued throughout the 1980s with several disputes over management's attempt to cut costs.
During the 1980s, postal workers were radicalised by these struggles and a strong left wing developed within the union. The union adopted leftwing policies against privatisation, opposition to casualisation of the workforce and advances were made in pay and conditions. This process was cut across by the international and national political events of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The confidence of left-wing activists was dented by events like the collapse of Stalinism and the defeat of the miners in Britain. The leadership of the labour and trade union movement which was already distant from the ordinary union members shifted further to the right. Instead of challenging the new right-wing agenda, they accommodated themselves to it. This gave confidence to the management in An Post and the government to pursue their agenda of cost cutting and changes.
David Begg became the leader of the CWU with the support of a section of the left who bought into a new "third way" approach. Begg pursued the idea of share options for employees in both Eircom and An Post and in doing so facilitated the government's agenda.
In reality, the share scheme was just a ruse to try to buy off workers into accepting privatisation at the heavy price of major job losses and working conditions particularly of new workers at the companies. This is what happened in Telecom Eireann. In the 1990s, the CWU ran a campaign against privatisation, the "claws off fat cats" campaign was mainly organised as a media campaign. The campaign focused on trying to persuade the government that it was in the state's interest not to sell off this state asset. The CWU leadership ruled out taking industrial action and propagated the falsehood that their members wouldn't go on strike to stop the privatisation of Telecom Eireann. The result was that David Begg, Con Scanlon and co., helped the government to sell off Telecom Eireann, which resulted in thousands of job losses and tens of thousands of people losing millions when the value of their newly acquired shares collapsed. Now venture capitalists own this highly profitable former public asset.
The absence of a fighting trade union leadership committed to opposing all privatisation whether in the form of outright sell-offs or public private partnerships is allowing Fianna Fail and the PDs to pursue their neo-liberal agenda. But privatisation not only results in valuable public assets, which took decades to build up, and in which billions of taxpayers' money was invested, being given away to profiteers. Services decline as the new owners cut corners in order to ensure larger returns for their shareholders. The needs of society are ignored and replaced by the need to satisfy the stock markets and speculators. Just as importantly, trade union rights for the workers in privatised companies are eroded. Pay is driven down for new employees as well as working conditions. Thousands of jobs are lost never to be replaced. Privatisation weakens the trade union movement and the working class.
The government has made it clear they will not offer any funding to An Post until they implement major cost cutting measures. The regulator has also stated they will not consider price rises until these changes are met. This conscious strategy of starving the company of funds and pursuing an assault on the workers and services is a preparation for privatisation of the postal service. Management has told the unions that it cannot pay the national wage agreement unless the CWU accepts proposals for further cuts in the collection and delivery of mail. Theses changes consist of introducing new technology and further automation of the postal system in Dublin. They also include casualisation of the workforce and dramatic reduction in the conditions of the remaining staff. The leadership of the CWU has negotiated similar deals in the past but was offered large pay increases in return for so-called productivity deals. An Post is no longer offering any such carrots as persuasion. Management's proposals are opposed by all postal workers. Yet instead of ultilising this opposition, the CWU leaders continue to treat their members as spectators and instead have embarked in a lengthy process of negotiations.
The CWU leaders have agreed to binding arbitration at the Labour Court, which will decide whether An Post can afford to pay the 7% pay rise. Of course this could mean that postal workers won't see a cent of this rise. On the 8 December demonstration the mood amongst postal workers was to fight for the 7% pay rise and against the management's anti-worker agenda. There was also support for the demand for An Post CEO Curtin to resign and for the reversal of the closure of SDS.
While the Minister, Noel Dempsey, talked to the CWU leaders the management suspended 64 workers in SDS, only reinstating them after the threat of wildcat strikes. The state's industrial relations machinery has been allowed to intervene and it will act as facilitator for the company and the government's agenda.
The feeling among some activists is that the momentum and militancy of 8 December is being squandered and lost, while some believe the Labour Court will force the company to pay up. The Labour Court investigation on pay may result in the workers getting the 7% pay rise but at the cost of derailing a potential campaign of industrial action that could have stopped the company and the government's agenda and also delivered a pay rise. Instead of kow-towing to the government's demand to call off industrial action, the CWU leaders should have launched a campaign to convince the members to "sign up" to a strategy of industrial action.
Activists and those who support militant action to stop the drive to cut jobs, wages, conditions and open up the postal market to "competition" should organise a campaign of opposition to the CWU leadership's "strategy".
Postal workers can be won to the idea of a campaigning strategy. Instead of un-elected and unaccountable full time officials dictating and mis-leading the postal workers down the blind alley of the Labour Court and a "partnership" strategy, an alternative exists. That alternative would involve using the industrial muscle of postal workers (as shown on 8 December) to confront and fight management plans. Democratically elected campaign structures should be established throughout An Post, based in the workplaces and involving workers from all postal unions. This would ensure that all postal workers would have a full say in how the campaign was pursued and it would also help maintain participation from the workers in industrial action and protests.
Such a campaign can also be a catalyst to the replacement of the current right-wing CWU leadership with activists who are committed to the CWU being a democratic campaigning union prepared to do whatever is necessary to defend its members and the publicly owned postal service.
The CWU leadership should abandon its "talks only" strategy and instead build a campaign of industrial action around the following demands:
- Full payment, back dated of the 7% pay rise
- Significant increases in basic pay to eliminate the need for overtime
- The reversal of the closure of SDS
- No redundancies
- The filling of all vacancies
- The introduction of new technology to enhance the conditions of workers and to provide a better service
- The removal of the new CEO
- The provision of a state subsidy to An Post to pay for the cost of the essential social services its provides.
A campaign around such demands that was extended to include those communities threatened with post office closures could build a mass movement in defence of An Post. The defeat of the government in the 2004 local elections shows that this is a weak government. A major campaign by the CWU and all of the An Post unions could force it to back off and retreat from its privatisation agenda. This is turn would have a knock on effect throughout the public sector, giving confidence to other workers in areas such as Aer Lingus, CIE and the ESB to also fight privatisation.
Instead, we have the CWU leaders' toothless "Save An Post" campaign that concentrates on trying to lobby the politicians for change. The Socialist Party is working to build a new left leadership in the CWU and other unions, so that our unions will once again become powerful organisations that fight to defend workers' rights and oppose the anti-working class agenda of the employers and the right-wing parties.