Strike action hits Post Office

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In July 2003, a large-scale strike occurred at the Belgian Post Office, triggered by the implementation of a new system for organising delivery rounds, which is one of 10 measures being introduced by management in the context of the EU-wide liberalisation of the postal sector. At the end of the month, trade unions and management concluded a pre-agreement that halted industrial action until mid-September, when the outcome of further negotiations will be known.

Since 2000, the Belgian Post Office (La Poste/De Post) has been undergoing a major modernisation programme, in order to deal with the progressive liberalisation of the EU postal sector (BE0202304N and BE0003305N). The objective was that the Post Office should be ready for the first liberalisation deadline of 1 January 2003.

EU liberalisation

The EU Council of Ministers adopted the initial measures aimed at liberalising the postal sector in 1997, in the form of Directive 97/67/EC on 'common rules for the development of the internal market of Community postal services and the improvement of quality of service' (EU9812136F). This identified the notions of a 'universal service' and a 'reserved service', the key issues of the debate on liberalisation. In practice, national post offices were assured a monopoly in some areas in exchange for a guaranteed universal service: this 'reserved service', whereby some letters and packages could be processed only by the national post office, was to cover the costs of the 'universal service', that is to say access to a high-quality postal service at a reasonable price for all people and bodies resident in a Member State. In June 2002, a further Directive (2002/39/EC) was adopted, amending the 1997 Directive and substantially reducing the extent of the reserved service. 'The Directive aims to fulfil the mandate of Directive 97/67/EC to provide for a further gradual and controlled liberalisation of postal services, to take effect from 1 January 2003 and to set out a timetable for further opening. It also proposes to resolve various ancillary issues relating to the smooth functioning of the internal market in postal services,' in the words of the European Commission in December 2001 (Communication SEC(2001) 1961 final).

As a result, since January 2003, the EU postal sector has been liberalised in respect of packages weighing more than 100 grammes, or costing three times the basic rate. In January 2006, this limit will be lowered to 50 grammes or 2.5 times the minimum rate. Although the deadline for complete liberalisation has not yet been fixed by the European Parliament and Council, this is expected to happen in 2009: it will depend on the results of a study being carried out by the Commission, which will evaluate in respect of each Member State the impact that the provision of the universal service will have on the full application of an internal postal market in 2009. At any event, with Directive 97/67/EC expiring at the end of 2008, the European Parliament and Council will have to take a decision on the final stages of liberalisation.

Belgian restructuring and industrial action

To meet the needs imposed imposed by the EU liberalisation process, the Belgian Post Office has established 10 'focus projects' that are seen as vital to its future, boosting its competitiveness so as to avoid a continuing financial deficit. These projects are based on four strategic pillars:

  • improved quality;
  • lower costs;
  • a wider range of services to mail customers (mail delivery); and
  • a robust 'retail' network (post offices).

On of the projects involves the introduction of 'Georoute' software, which will radically reorganise the delivery of mail: for example, by optimising delivery rounds, 'it will be possible to deliver mail using a smaller number of employees' (according to the Post Office's 2002 Annual Report). The software was initially tested in some 30 sorting offices, and then extended to another 56 small and medium-sized offices. Difficulties encountered 'in the field' in the course of these tests prompted anxiety in the larger offices, where the new system was scheduled for introduction at the end of August 2003.

As a result of these concerns, industrial action took place in the Liège province in early July 2003. It was organised by the following trade union organisations:

  • the General Confederation of Public Services (Centrale Générale des Services Publics/De Algemene Centrale der Openbare Diensten, CGSP/ACOD), affiliated to the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV);
  • Transcom, the communication workers' union affiliated to the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV); and
  • the Free Trade Union of Civil Servants (Syndicat libre de la Fonction Publique/Vrij Syndicaat voor het Openbaar Ambt, SLFP/VSOA).

During the ensuing few weeks, the unions formed a united front, and on 28 July this culminated in a strike that was widely supported in Wallonia, and partly so in Brussels and in some Flemish towns and cities. The trade unions stated that they were aware of the need to find a solution to the crisis, but did do not agree with management on a number of issues, notably: the parameters established for the introduction of Georoute; the abolition of the second daily mail delivery; and changes to tasks performed on delivery rounds.

On 30 July, trade unions and management reached a 'pre-agreement' after two days of negotiations. This focuses on 'time brackets' that will take more account of local, and particularly geographical, factors. They allow some more room for manoeuvre in relation to the rounds 'optimised' by Georoute in small and medium-sized offices. The agreement also provides that older employees will, as far as is possible, remain in fixed jobs after reorganisation. Lastly, as far as the second delivery in cities is concerned, the Post Office's chief executive, Johnny Thijs, stated that solutions have been presented to the trade unions, which must now put them to their members. He also said that he was ready to discuss union demands relating to negotiations over a new collective agreement, scheduled to begin on 1 September 2003. Members of the three trade unions represented in the united front agreed to the pre-agreement after being consulted

Industrial action has therefore been suspended until mid-September, when the results of talks on the reorganisation of large offices will be known. However, the spokesperson for CGSP in Liège stated in a daily newspaper that 'there is a recurrent shortage of staff, and strike action therefore cannot be ruled out,' adding, as a warning to management: 'Let us hope that our strike has been effective, because if all they offer us in September is peanuts, we will be stepping up our action.'

Commentary

Given the problems caused by the introduction of the Georoute software, further trouble can be expected in the coming year. Furthermore, the implementation of Georoute is only one of the 10 objectives determined by the Post Office. In its Annual Report for 2002, Pierre Klees, the president of the Post Office's board of directors and its joint committee, stated that, 'last year, management stressed that it was eager to listen to staff in the field … the long experience of staff has been taken into account.' He was also pleased that the industrial relations climate had improved considerably, and that the Post Office's joint committee was no longer a 'war zone'. It remains to be seen whether the events of July 2003 and the September negotiations will confirm this statement (or perhaps wish) on the part of management, and how far management is really 'ready to talk'. (Marie Schots, Institut des Sciences du Travail, UCL)

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