Postal Workers Under Fire

Interview: An Post and the Threat of Privatisation

Over the last year or so, the working conditions of staff in An Post have been the subject of cutbacks and attacks by its management and ultimately the government. This includes shutting the SDS Courier service, withholding pay-rises, and understaffing many sorting offices. The strategy is to undermine workers? morale and thereby to facilitate either privatisation or simply to weaken An Post in order to benefit private competitors. Kevin Doyle interviews a postal worker in Cork to find out the mood on the shop floor.

What is the situation in An Post now?

Right now they are the focus of privatisation efforts in the public sector. They are not needed like ESB workers who can stop power, nor are they seen as essential like health workers. They are perceived as an easier target and are weaker.

Was the recent shutting down of SDS a part of this strategy?

Yes, it had to do with the opening of the markets wider for the private mail companies that are already working in Ireland and making profit - like DHL, Federal Express etc. These companies only deal with parcels and packets and it's a profitable business. SDS provided the same service at low cost, which is what you expect of a public service, but now with SDS out of the way, it will be even better for the private operators. People need to realise how dangerous privatisation will be. Right now wherever you live in Ireland you get the service that anyone else gets... it's even. But privatisation will change that. The money is to be made in the high population density areas where post can be moved in bulk easily. So a lot of people and a lot of communities will lose out if privatisation happens. The service will become uneven and unequal.

How is the privatisation issue being pushed?

An Post management is trying to convince the workforce that privatisation is the only way forward for the company. It is a EU directive, they claim, that cannot be ignored. It's a method of bullying. As part of this we see all the new investment in technology. But the new technology has not increased productivity. Similarly, they want to leave a lot of workers go, on the grounds that it would make An Post more efficient. Management claim they have no money to pay workers and yet the give themselves huge bonuses and salaries.

Speaking of investment, the Cork Mail Centre (CMC) is the big new operation with An Post, but it sounds like a harsh place to work.

The situation is crazy. Everyone down there says one thing: too many chiefs and no Indians. That's what it is like there. A lot of supervisors and managers for just 200 people. That is where the inefficiently is. Supervisors watching, watching, watching. Which is even odd because the place is covered with cameras, monitoring everyone.

What is the situation with the union in An Post now?

The union in An Post is very strong if you look at the numbers. It has a big membership. But for the average worker the opinion is not just that the union does very little for the members, it actually does nothing. There is a lot of mistrust.

How can the union be doing nothing in the present situation, what with the drive to privatisation?

The union as I said is strong in An Post, but instead of taking strength in that fact, and putting the real issues on the table for the government and the management of An Post it is just staying quiet. And it is not because they have no perspective. The union leadership know how things are going and where they are going... An Post workers have been hit under the belt a number of times in the last few years, but the union instead of taking the opportunity to defend its members, it is just ignoring the situation. For example, some of the money due to workers under the last national agreement has not been paid yet. But instead of taking the opportunity not to agree to any talks on a new agreement with the government and the management until this money is paid, they accept the situation and make promises to the workers. So now we are in the ludicrous situation where we are being asked to agree to a new pay deal and we still haven't got what is our due from the last! It is a joke.

It?s sound crazy all right. What sort of input does the ordinary member of the union have into all of this?

There is no real democracy in the union. We do have elections once a year but if issues arise in the interim, there is nobody to discuss them. The reps are not doing the jobs that they should. They don't seem to care. For example at the CMC a lot of issues have arisen with shift work, salaries, and the treatment by the management, but the union has been incapable to handling them. There is no decision making process. There is not the gathering of the workers in the short term for us all to be informed of what is going on and what is happening. Or to vote. It is authoritarian. It is and it is getting worse. Because you see the more you give to the management they more they will walk all over you. Little things make a difference, you see.

There was almost a national strike after the recent stand-off over SDS?

The situation is a paradox. There were a lot of people in SDS working hard, 24/7, and they knew they benefited the company. It was well known. But the management just decided that this was the branch to be cut off, even though as I say it was the branch that bore fruit. So it was crazy and especially to those who worked in SDS and knew what the truth was. You just can't do that. People were angry about that but they were also afraid. The union also spun the line that to strike would make An Post even more susceptible to privatisation because a strike would hurt the company financially. So the situation really was not good. It was very disappointing. The union is not doing the job it should do. I think a lot of members don't realise the union leaders are playing games behind our back - their agenda is different.

Where do you see things going?

An Post Worker: I hope things will come around and that at the end of the day we will manage to save An Post from privatisation. You don't want to think the opposite, because it is your job. But the truth is that all the signs, everything is pointing the other way around; in other words that the government and the management will manage to get what they want - privatisation. The problems are manifold but the lack of solidarity between the union members and the general problem with the union as I spoke about earlier - these are central. If we are united there is no way management could get away with what they are planning to do. So the big challenge is to build solidarity and to make the union our union.

Further reading

Workplace struggles and the unions

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This edition is No85 published in March 2005

Workers Solidarity 85