French mail service La Poste: A privatisation bill against citizens

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In France, as for other countries (Japan, Britain), the government bill to privatize the postal service stirs up citizens’ mobilisation.

The French mobilisation initiated in November 2008, after the government announced, right in the middle of the financial crisis, a bill to change the legal status of the French national mail service called La Poste, a first step towards its privatisation. This bill is strongly opposed by the mail service users and local councillors, as well as postal workers. But the Sarkozy government intends to use a steamroller policy. The ongoing mobilisations reveal the attachment of the people to public services and their awareness of the damages of liberalism.

A real privatization

Aware of the popularity of public services, especially mail services, the government go on claiming that their bill is only about a change of status and and has nothing to do with privatization. La Poste is today a national state-owned company and the bill will change this status into that of a commercial company. At first, the state will keep control of it.

Nobody can believe that the government is well-intentioned. Every time it has privatized a public service, it has proceeded in stages : first, it transforms the public company into a limited company, then the capital is enlarged with private shareholders and, finally, the state only keeps a minority stake.

On each occasion, as in the case of France Telecom in 1996 or for the energy provider EDF-GDF in 2005, the government swore that it would never privatize. Yet, these companies were privatized in the following years. Therefore nobody today believes the government any more.

In the case of La Poste, its community character, its presence all over the country, including in isolated rural communities, the good reputation enjoyed by postmen and postwomen, the public affection for daily mail delivery, have made this privatization a bitter pill to swallow.

The support of the users

From the previous privatization experiences, we have learnt that we cannot win only with the mobilization of the employees and that we must associate the users with the fight. A National committee against mail service privatization, gathering more than 60 unions, associations and political parties, was set up in order to demand a public discussion and a referendum on the national mail service, thereby making use of new stipulations of the French Constitution that had never been brought into play. It is not acceptable that the government decides in favour of the profit of private shareholders. The people should decide about what concerns them.

The governmental turned a deaf ear to this demand and, in reply, merely created a committee of so-called experts which ratified its bill. The government waited for the end of the European elections to avoid a debate on the privatization during the electoral campaign.

Just after the European elections, the government hastened to introduce its bill right in the middle of the summer holidays, in July 2009.

An exemplary citizens’ mobilization

Faced with such contempt, all the organizations of the National committee decided to organize by themselves a popular referendum about the bill with the help of those councils and councillors who wished to be associated.

People and councillors used this initiative to express how fed up they were with the way public services were degraded, not only mail service but also health and education. Despite the unofficial character of the referendum, its non official organisation, more than 2.3 million people participated and voted against the bill. Many councillors or simple citizens organized the vote by themselves, setting up ballot boxes in cities, villages and workplaces.

President Nicolas Sarkozy refused to acknowledge the value of this popular vote. His only reaction was to scoff at its organization and to announce a schedule for the parliamentary process of debates of the bill : at the beginning of November 2009 for the Senate and mid-December for the Parliament.

The right wing majority of senators voted unanimously for the bill despite the fierce battle of the left opposition and multiple doubts of some right wing senators. The mobilisation went on in November and December with a mass mailing of postcards to the President (5 millions of postcards where distributed all around France), street rallies, etc.

On the postmen and postwomens’ side

Among postmen and postwomen, nobody deludes themselves about possible benefits of this privatization. Two strike days, in September 2008 and September 2009, were among the strongest national strikes of these years and showed very clearly the opposition of postal employees to privatisation.

An inter-union committee gathers the five main unions of La Poste (SUD, CGT, FO, CFTC and CFDT), which is an unusual situation at La Poste where, at the national branch level at least, division among unions is common. This inter-union committee is rather weak as the CFDT refuses to support the citizens’ mobilisation and is far from really opposing the change in the legal status of La Poste. Furthermore, some unions, like the CGT, refuse to break with the CFDT and always try to make compromises.

The SUD PTT Union, after the success of the two national days of strike, put forward to the inter-union committee, the necessity of a continuous renewable strike, relying on mobilizations and rallies of the population, to force the government to withdraw its bill. But this proposal was not accepted by the inter-union committee.The CGT was firmly against it. In this context, the latest one-day strike of La Poste was weaker than the previous ones and there is great risk the government will succeed in passing its bill through Parliament before the end of the year.

La Poste transformed into commercial company

Day after day, postmen and postwomen are subjected to the transformation of La Poste into a commercial company, looking first for profits and profitability, to the detriment of users and public service. The aim is to reduce the costs by work intensification and job reductions. Several thousands of post offices have been closed. In rural areas, a reduced service, a few times a week, is more and more provided by grocery stores or local communities, acting as independent sub-postmasters.

Reorganizations are increasing with continual changes of jobs or workplaces for the workers, often with unwished -for geographical displacements.

Stop liberalism

The steamroller of liberalization and competition for public services has been launched, even if the mail service is not a very profitable industry. Social dumping is going on. One of the main postal operators challenging La Poste, Alternative Post, became bankrupt for lack of profitability, axing several hundred employees overnight.

Only a united mobilization of postmen and postwomen, users and population will permit to stop privatizers and de-regulators.

Fédération SUD-PTT
December 2009


* From the Social Movements’ International Newsletter n° 1, January 2010. English translation by Judith Hitchman.

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