Bosses put Irish postal workers with their backs to the wall

The ongoing conflict between the management of An Post (the Irish state run postal services) and the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) may end up with 1,450 workers losing their jobs, the reduction of workers’ incomes, and the subcontracting of deliveries of mail in rural areas, if the CWU doesn’t stand up against these attacks.

The ongoing conflict between the management of An Post (the Irish state run postal services) and the Communication Worker’s Union (CWU) may end up with 1,450 workers losing their jobs, the reduction of workers’ incomes, and the subcontracting of deliveries of mail in rural areas, if the CWU doesn’t stand up against these attacks on the workers.

In the May issue of this year, Socialist Appeal reported on a two-week strike at the Dublin Mail Centre, where 3 million items are processed everyday. The strike, which left Dublin without mail for 2 weeks, started spontaneously on March 27, after An Post management decided to force on the workers a radical change of work practices, consisting in the installation of four automated hubs, without negotiating first with the Union. On April, 5, the strike ended when An Post withdrew its plans and decided to return to negotiations with the CWU – negotiations that have not been closed yet.

What lay behind this dispute was the ongoing disagreement between the Union and the management over the company’s major strategic plan to curb the economic losses of €46.6 millions last year and €30 millions expected for this year. This plan involved 1,350 redundancies, the reduction of overtime (i.e. workers’ incomes), and stricter managerial control of the work process.

The conflict still remains open, but the company has now increased the number of planned redundancies to 1,450, and has also announced the subcontracting of rural mail deliveries. In the later proposal, the company is offering to some of those who leave the company voluntarily to return as self-employed postmen; that is, An Post withdraws them from the payroll and makes them responsible for deliveries with their own vans, at their own risk, in areas where the service is not profitable. The union has correctly said that the subcontracting will cause a poorer service in those areas.

The company has made its strategy very clear. In the mail processing centres it is possible to increase the productivity of the workers with the implementation of a new processing system. The collection and delivery of mail, however, is costly and labour intensive, so the company goes for a subcontracting system.

Actually, the later proposal is not completely new. In the SDS parcels division “owner drivers” are regularly delivering parcels, and small post offices (mainly in rural areas) are subcontracted to local shopkeepers. 300 of these smaller post offices have had to close over the past three years, 65 of them this year alone (Irish Times, Nov 16, 2004).

In any case, the outcome of both strategies is the elimination of jobs, the reduction of wages, the closure of services, a stricter managerial control, and a fatter managerial payroll in return for such a great service.

Management efficiency in An Post, on the other hand, should be called into question. After screaming since the beginning of the year that they expected losses of €30 millions, on November 17, the company just announced that it is going to break even this year. The figures however are not clear and the workers should demand that An Post open the books.

But it is the question of the reduction of overtime what is causing the most important frictions between the union and management. An Post has made a wage increase of 5.3 per cent in three years conditional to the reduction of the annual €17 millions overtime bill (which represents 7 per cent of An Post payroll; a higher percentage than the intended wage increase), but only if there are no economic losses. On the other hand, the company is demanding, in the words of Seán McDonagh (national officer of the CWU), “to work high levels of overtime”.

This contradiction is only apparent. Once the company automatises the processing of mail, fewer workers will be able to process more mail. At the same time, there is a great demand of overtime for collection and delivery of mail, especially with Christmas around the corner.

Most of the agreements concerning overtime are actually for extra tasks during normal working hours, such as the handling of postcards during the tourist season or deliveries not included on the original roster. But it is management practices, and not the workers, who must be held responsible for these “most archaic practices in Europe”, as the company calls them now. For a long time the strategy of An Post has been to offer “compensation” (i.e. bribes) in overtime to some rather than real increases in wages to all the workers.

The reduction in overtime, however, is still more related to the reduction of current workers’ incomes (increase of absolute surplus value) than to the increase of productivity through mechanisation (increase of relative surplus value) as the company and the media have tried to make out (Irish Times, editorial, March 23, 2004). That is why the workers are opposed to it.

The reaction of the CWU has been to ballot its member for industrial action over this ongoing conflict with the management of An Post. The results are coming out soon.

After years of negotiations, all the management of An Post can offer to the workers is the deterioration of working conditions, the deterioration of public services, the reduction of workers’ incomes, and redundancies. All this they call improvements. If, on the other hand, all this were under the control of the workers, improvements (i.e. the mechanisation of the work process, etc.) would mean increases in the efficiency of services, increases in the production of all kind of goods, and increases in living and working conditions for all.

Therefore, the workers have no option but to go on strike and demand real wage increases and real improvements.