CEDRA in TSS Journal: Logistics and the Transnational Social Strike

Logistics is one of the most important sectors in the modern capitalist system and, as such, – it poses an unavoidable political challenge to any movement aiming to overturn the present conditions of exploitation. It can be described as the underlying logic of contemporary capitalism and one of the leading forces behind the ongoing reconstruction of production, political spaces and social relations.

The following piece was written during struggles between the second largest union in Post of Slovenia and the Post’s management. Portraying the bigger picture, the article describes worsening of the working conditions, different approaches undertook by the company’s unions and underlines the importance and inevitability of union membership inclusion and confrontation with the bosses. Published in the Transnational Social Strike (TSS) reader on logistics in the fall of 2017, the article is our small yet important contribution for understanding the complexity of technical tools, standards, organising principles, institutional structures and legal conditions that affect the way capital attempts to command social relations and govern living labour. TSS is a platform for social movements, NGO’s and workers organizations, connecting them on the international level in order to share experiences and coordinate potential activities, primarily in the logistics sector.

We are aware that analysis is a basis for active approach, and one that can be successfully implemented only in the process of problem solving. With that in mind, we also stress the importance of solidarity, not just within one company or economic sector, and the necessity to include workers in every decision-making stage of their struggle.

THE POST SECTOR AS A LOGISTICAL MOGUL: WORKERS´ REVOLT AND UNION ORGANIZING IN THE POST OF SLOVENIA

The Post of Slovenia (Pošta Slovenije, PS) was recently the focus of domestic media mainly because of the Post Workers Union (Sindikat poštnih delavcev, SPD) activities that tried to warn the public about worsening working conditions in the company, though every year the Post of Slovenia brings huge profits to its owners – the State of Slovenia. The prediction for the 2017 fiscal year says the net profit of PS will be € 9,9 million, but with the rise of profits and revenues the workers’ rights are shrinking, the number of employees is falling, and those who stay are subjected to intensified working norms and constant overtime work, which became the normal working conditions in the service sector as well as in other branches of the economy.

The fact of the falling number of employees of PS confirms the findings above – in the last decade the number dropped from 6723 at the end of 2006 to 5510 at the beginning of this year. In the same period, the Post of Slovenia has widely extended its activities in the field of parcel delivery and increased its share in the supply chains logistics, as well as in the e-services for individuals, companies and the public sector. The trends of the classical letter-post items reduction are clearly showing the structural changes in operations, but PS (as well as many other companies in the logistic branch) did not react to these changes by creating new, more secure and better workplaces, much needed for appropriate handling of all the new tasks, but, quite the opposite, by firing the workers and reforming their Post Offices into contractual units.

The Post of Slovenia started to generate its business model on an authoritarian regime of work, similar to the one incarnated by the technological and service mogul Amazon. The above mentioned processes are well symbolized by the trend of outsourcing. The number of classical Post offices in Slovenia has until now fallen way below 400, and the number of contractual units is rising on their account, now already representing 26% of all postal units. Though these kinds of post models are evidently lowering the accessibility of the post network to its users, the Post of Slovenia management relies on the examples of Germany and Netherlands, where the state-owned Post keeps only 0,3% of postal units while all the rest are subcontracted. Postal services should be public and accessible to everyone, but by introducing this kind of practices, PS is lowering the quality and accessibility of public services.

The decisions mentioned above (together with some others) have led to a significant intensification of work and deterioration of working conditions for all the employees. The most recent case can be seen in the Postal-Logistic center (PLC) Ljubljana, where the Postal Workers Union (SPD) organized a demonstration in mid-June, to warn about totally unsuitable working conditions prevailing there, and getting worse in other PLCs and Post Offices around Slovenia as well. One of the crucial problems for the workers is the growing number of extra-hours, since overtime became something completely normal due to the lack of employees and the expanded scale of work.

Two Differing Strategic Decisions of the Two Post of Slovenia Unions

These kinds of conditions brought workers to great despair, resulted, on the one hand, in numbers of resigned workers and, on the other, in workers’ revolt. Two active unions in the Post of Slovenia reacted to the situation with different strategic decisions, triggering different reactions of workers. Negotiations on acute questions started within the company, during which workers’ side was represented by the SPD Union and the Union of Traffic and Connections’ Workers (SDPZ), speaking for most of the organized workers in the company. More than 3000 workers of Post of Slovenia confirmed the negotiation positions that included new employments, re-framing the norms, revocation of overtime erasure and the rise of basic wages.

The negotiations got complicated right before the end, when SPD submitted the agreement for approval to its members, who did rejected it, and the SPD Union subsequently withdrew from signing the agreement. After that act the Management of PS “found out” that the SPD did not meet the representation criteria any longer, and was therefore excluded from the ongoing negotiations, which continued with SDPZ Union only. The latter made an agreement with the management in June, but PS met only one of the workers’ demands – to employ 111 new post workers, which represents a bit more than 2% rise in overall employment, but does not even meet the 2014 number of employments.

The SDPZ Union decided for a defensive strategy of adjustment to authoritarian regime of work, while SPD chose the active syndicalist strategy and used it to build the organizational power of the Union. Although they have yet to implement their key demands, they’ve managed to grow in numbers, they’ve lifted the level of activity among the members, and created the conditions for a collective action.

SPD protests outside of the Pošta Slovenije HQ

Accession to the (exclusive) negotiations by SDZP Union brought the workers some small concessions, but at the same time it passivated their membership, as the leadership didn’t ask the members for approval of the agreement, and instead of solidarity they were promoting competition between the Unions and workers. Busy apologizing and explaining the agreement, the leadership of SDPZ Union had also stated that «post workers should be satisfied with what had been achieved» and «the employees cannot expect to work 5 hours a day only». With huge majority of employees working unpaid overtime and their hard extra-hours labor materializing as the very profit of the company, this kind of talk of Union leaders turns out to be extremely problematic. The Unions are as strong as their ability for organizing a collective industrial action – the strike, and to execute it they need informed membership, active throughout the negotiation process. Instead of this, the SDPZ Union deprived their members of the right to express their opinion on the agreement with the excuse that «because of technical and organizational difficulties this is impossible to do among 6000 employees». The only thing coming out of this is undermining the power of Union organizing.

The SPD Union, on the contrary, has doubled its membership in just a few months during which the activists of the Union were organizing meetings and demonstrations, and showed they are prepared to tighten up the relationship with the management board, and that’s how the SPD won back the representation criteria again.

Ongoing transnational struggles in logistics –  what is the business model of the future?

Even in conditions severely unfavorable to Union organizing, it is still possible to fight successfully for workers’ rights. This is also the case of workers’ organizing in logistics centers of Amazon in Germany and Poland. Amazon has brought a specific, radically authoritative and neoliberal business model into Europe, a model that is based on different kinds of contracts resulting in very bad conditions for any kind of unity; it is based on disciplining and controlling any unity or its efficiency; on non-recognition of Unions and collective negotiations with workers etc. Though German work regulations is quite strict, Amazon still successfully evades it.

The rise of awareness and organizing did not stay hidden for a long time to the management, that took the advantage of the precarious position of most of the employees and the constant threat of losing a job. The implicit threat contributed to a petition, signed by ca. 1000 employees, saying they are distancing themselves from Union organizing, complaining about «bad publicity» Ver.di, German trade union focused on organizing in service sector, is spreading about Amazon and accusing the Union of molesting the workers in their free time. To avoid the strikes as a result of union activities, Amazon started to move its logistics centers to Poland and Czech Republic, though they primarily still serve the German-speaking markets.

Despite all obstacles Ver.di still managed to organize a strike in 2013, the first one to hit Amazon in general, and the number of days with interruptions of work was raising every year since, up to 150 in 2016. Connections and organizing of Amazon workers has soon involved Eastern Europe as well, activating path of communication and organizing across different countries. The strikes didn’t bring just a lot of media coverage, but have – way more important – mobilized and activated the workers.

Post of Slovenia: centre of new types of Union organizing

The restrictive social circumstances are calling for more radical union activity. If we want to achieve that, we need to overcome the strategies and methods used by vast majority of unions today. We need to return back to organizing at working place. Capitalists and managements will try to find all the possible ways to disable or at least limit the unions’ activities to – for unimpeded profit making – acceptable level. They will use the methods to disrupt the unity and to individualize and pacify the workers.

To limit ourselves to social dialogue and to believe that defensive approach, political trade and legal bargaining around the green table can solve the workers’ hardships, is proved to lead to gradual but persistent decrease of rights.

Container terminals, port of Hamburg

The strongest and the best tool workers can use against ever-growing intensification of work for smaller and smaller wages under unbearable conditions is reciprocal solidarity that needs to extend above one’s company, branch, and sector and understand the interlinked dynamics brought in by logistical reorganisation of production. It has become clear that general precarisation is making a simply defensive strategy uneffective: what do we need is not just an organized and interconnected working class that stands in solidarity with the fight of its integral part to defend its gained rights, but the capacity to fight for more.

That’s why one of our first steps should be the formation of workers’ demands. Considering the intensification of work that materializes in unpaid overtime or limited toilet breaks, one of the first demands should be the respect of 8-hours schedule and new employments to cover the needs, and the next step being the demand to shorten the working hours (while preserving same wages). This kind of demand of course exceeds the level of particular company or branch, and could therefore work as a tool for building workers’ solidarity and interconnection. The big challenge is how to articulate this kind of demands across the transnational scale in ways that are able to attack the dominion of wage and to reclaim a different welfare.

Unions as well faces multiple threats and possible ways after this year’s successes. All the development so far is based on different, more radical approach to workers’ organizing and if they will manage to preserve and develop this model, they will build up workers’ power and will step up easier and stronger to new austerity measures of the management. We may conclude with the words of one of the Post of Slovenia sindicalists when the SPD Union regained the representation criteria: Now we need to connect and stay active. This was just a bureaucratic victory, and the paper has no value if we don’t keep fighting! To build communicational and organizational infrastructure and to establish longterm activity, starting from the recognition that the Post sector, far from being the last remnant of public enterprises has become one of the main actor for logistics across the whole Europe, is the most important for the near future.

Peter Gradišnik, Gregor Kašman, Andraž Mali

Translated by: Arne Zupančič