National Sections of the L5I:

Swedish post workers demonstrate against cuts

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Saturday May 26 saw up to 400 post workers demonstrate their anger against the national Post service company in Sweden. The protest took place in the capital, Stockholm, and was directed against the Post Office board for attacking working conditions through cuts in staff. The protest was also against the negative effects on the service itself, with Posties not getting enough time to do the work expected of them. A third focus of the demonstration was the company’s preparation for putting the Post service on the stock exchange, despite the parliament last year having taken a majority decision not to sell off the state’s 100 percent share of the stock in the semi-privatised firm.

The situation of Post workers in Sweden has been worsening for a number of years now. Every year has seen cutbacks, officially justified by the board by reference to the drop in the amount of mail being sent as people and institutions turn to email and the use of new machines that pre-sort mail before distribution to delivery offices. However, as almost any Post workers can tell you, these changes in technique and patterns of distribution are much less important than the Post Company’s determination to maximise its profits. Despite the changes, which should have made the job better, conditions have never been worse.

The demonstration was initially called for by a trade union body representing the Post workers in the south of Stockholm. The initiative came from grass roots trade unionists who had had enough of the attacks and wanted to mobilise. A similar demonstration last year was organised by an independent network of Post workers but, this year, they have taken the issue into the Union, arguing for it to take responsibility for the mobilisation.

Why only a demonstration? Calling for strike action as the first step was not a realistic option, given a number of factors. Firstly, to strike is not legal except during negotiations, and even then all power is in the hands of the national TU leaders who are not willing to call a strike. The conditions for a wildcat action do not exist at the present time. The Post workers of Sweden and their union have never been on strike, their leaders are used to negotiating their deals rather than using the strike weapon to achieve targets. As a result, there is very little in terms of effective rank and file organisation at the shop floor that could take such an initiative, not to mention the lack of a leadership determined to fight against the bosses. The first priority in the struggle is therefore very much about starting to mobilise the rank and file membership in order to put pressure on the leaders and to strengthen the union as a whole.

In this respect, the demonstration was very successful. First of all it brought together all the union branches in Stockholm, both from delivery and sorting. This in itself was a big step forward, and made the demonstration truly representative.

Among the speakers, there were both the leader of the national Post workers' union and local chairmen of the union branches in Stockholm. One of the grassroots representatives who initiated the campaign was also on the stage. The different speeches reflected different emphases and made clear the differences in attitude on the question of how to fight back. The national chairman did criticise the cutbacks but also felt that he needed to state that the union was not against “modernisation” as such, and he didn’t say anything that went beyond being opposed to putting the Post service on the stock market.

Other local representatives, for example, one of the terminal workers' representatives, went further and argued against the privatisation of the Post service altogether, and called for a national Post service with a monopoly. Furthermore, he quoted a statement of the New York Metro Area Postal Union in support of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), stating that “ OWS is leading the popular movement which demands justice and responsibility. It is more than a physical place, it is an idea that cannot be stopped” and he added that the Post workers should “make the demands of the demonstration become an idea that cannot be stopped”.

One of the grassroots activists, who played a key role in launching the initiative, attacked the board of the Post Company for its hypocritical bids for a dialogue with its employees, and called for organising resistance from below. He turned directly to the young Post workers and encouraged them to organise themselves and learn how to fight back. At the end of his speech, he turned directly to the national union chairman and called on him to use the full strength of the members to stand up against the attacks in the ongoing negotiations. This met with big applause from the demonstrators.

The demonstration itself was very impressive. In front of the demonstrators marched the Post Orchestra, trade union affiliated Post workers with drums and trumpets, playing the Internationale and other traditional songs of struggle. Despite playing at full volume, however, the bans was almost drowned out by the demonstrators chanting slogans such as “We are humans, not machines” and slogans against stock market introduction. The demonstration was met with enthusiasm on the streets, with loads of ordinary people cheering the Post workers for standing up and demanding their rights.

Altogether, the demonstration was very successful. A small step in the bigger picture, of course, and clearly not enough to stop the attacks on its own, but an important one nevertheless, as a means to strengthen the workers and bring the local trade unions in Stockholm closer to each other, uniting delivery with sorting workers and, hopefully, paving the way for more of that fighting spirit so vividly expressed at the demonstration, a spirit that will be much needed for the future.