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A Worker Interview: Sylvie, Mailwoman in the French Post Office

The following interview, originally published on classeenlutte.org, was conducted with a worker who has been a mailwoman in the Toulouse region for several years. We had the opportunity to revisit the management of the Post Office during a one hour interview. In particular, we looked at how this company, a service that has been partly privatized over several decades, juggles between the duty of public service and the flexibility of a private company, to continue exploiting workers for its own benefit, even in the mess of a pandemic. Good reading!

April 3rd, 2020

What’s your job?

I’m a mailwoman. My job deals with mail and parcel delivery. I’m on a permanent contract.

Can you tell us more about what you do? How is your day organized, what are your tasks, what are your physical and time constraints, and what relationship do you have with your boss?

In France, we deliver mail six days a week. Saturdays are mainly for the press. In the morning, we start with collective work (like sorting), then we leave for our delivery rounds. When we come back, we report on the delivery of registered items, items with a signature, services (such as visiting elderly people)…

We have precise work schedules, and we have to wait until the end of them, even if we finish early since we might be checked by the health and safety inspector.

Before, if you finished work you could go home. But now it’s a private company, and they’re sticking to the schedule. I mean, to get away from work, because we have to fight to get paid for overtime hours. But right now, with these sanitary conditions, it’s silly to keep people in when they’re done working.

How long has this been going on?

Not such a long time, it’s been two years. It took decades to change the Post Office’s status to a private company. There are still obligations towards the State.

How many people work in your office? How many workers, how many managers? Can you give us a brief description of your workplace?

In an office like mine, with 45 rounds, there are about one hundred staff members (teams of mailmen and substitutes, mailmen who supervise the teams, specialized teams for “companies” and the team of registered services). As for supervision, we currently have three team leaders. An HR manager, a director and an assistant.

Does your team leader work with you?

He’s one of the local supervisors. They’re in an awkward position because as supervisors they’re like buffers, they’re under pressure.

Are they former mailmen or do they come directly from training?

Up until now, it was very often former mailmen, people worked their way up the ladder, little by little. More and more, you see people coming directly from school, who have never worked in the field.

Before we talk about Covid, can you describe the atmosphere in your office? What is the relationship between workers, supervisors and management? What struggles have you been involved in recently? And more generally, tell us about the conflicts still existing within the Post Office in France.

In my office, the last big conflict was before 2000, against the opening of the Post to market competition. But there are always opportunities for conflict, depending on the office. Every two years there’s a restructuring, which implies new procedures, especially cuts to rounds, which means more work for those who keep working.

Often, they pass things by putting temporary workers on new or more difficult rounds, so they don’t say anything, and once the employees have gotten used to it, they hope to switch to permanent contracts on these rounds as well. So every two years, there are opportunities to fight, but it’s true that in the office I’m working in, it hasn’t really worked out. The problem is that people get excited quite easily, because it’s tense, but they don’t keep it up. Especially because there’s a lot of fake news and pressure coming from management. And there are more and more precarious jobs, both concerning temporary work and fixed-term contracts.

You were talking about restructuring, the management’s argument is…

It’s the drop in mail traffic. Anyway, you can feel that they’re no longer interested in the mail anymore. What they want is to get rid of the mail, and propose new services… They’re testing everything, from the “silver economy” with the elderly to services for EDF (the biggest power company in France), for Orange (a big phone company), for all the companies that can use the Post Office and its network. We’re being pushed to become salesmen.

Today, are you already under pressure to sell, to achieve results, in your rounds?

Yes, we are under pressure. For a few years now they’ve implemented what they call the “brief”. Every morning, a manager gives us an assessment of the good and bad results, products to be put forward… Knowing that normally we can’t be rated on financial results… But there’s blackmail. Every year, we have an interview with a rating, which can have repercussions in potential transfers, and even financial repercussions. In every interview they give us some objectives, even if they don’t give us any figures, we’re supposed to increase sales… But if there are no sales, our rating will be bad. They have no right to do that.

And the most precarious employees also attend the “brief”. But I don’t think the pressure is stronger on them. The team supervisors can’t deal with everything or control everything, they don’t have time.

I think all the precarious people, at least in the office I’m working in, don’t give a damn, and they’re right!

So that’s good pre-conditions to fight! To fight or not to fight, but in any case to fuck things up a bit.

Let’s say that about conflicts, it’s really unequal, it depends on the offices. For example, in Paris, there’s an office that has been on strike for a year. In fact there’s always at least one conflict somewhere. But at the same time, the Post Office calls the cops quite often, without hesitating. And they come, of course. On picket lines, or when strikers are trying to enter sites.

I have the impression that it works better in small offices, where there are 10 or 20 workers, where unity seems easier to create. Small offices are more often in the countryside. But it’s working for demands… Especially because they can get help, even from mayors, or service users… So unity is easier to create, and to support too.

From a public service point of view…

Exactly. That’s the problem, it’s always in that mentality. With all that it implies, that you’re getting caught with blackmail for public service.

In France it’s now been three weeks since the lockdown was declared. Can you explain how the lockdown took place in your office, what changed, and have there been any latent conflicts?

In the beginning they fully focused on communication, on security, to clear themselves. To make it our fault in case of an accident. With the quarantine, it was massive, many people exercised their right to withdraw. In my office, a lot of people were missing on the first day. But it didn’t last; the next day, a lot of people came back to work

There’s a temp agency that has left its employees alone for a while, they were the majority to exercise their right to withdraw. After a week, the agency pressured them to go back to work, talking to them about lawyers and so on.

Now there are still some absences, most parents who have to look after their children or people who are on sick leave.

If there were still people exercising their right to withdraw for example, would it still be valid? I mean, if the Post Office had made arrangements…

We get one mask a day, these are surgical masks. As for the hydroalcoholic gel, we had a little at first, but the bottles had been out of date since 2016. A doctor told us that there was still some alcohol left in it…

As for the masks, before there were any the occupational doctor told us they were useless. She went as far as to say that there was no human-to-human contamination. In a PIC (Plateforme Industrielle du Courrier, meaning Industrial Mail Platform) they even said that the masks could be dangerous, you could get hyperventilation! They’re just like the government. As long as there’s no equipment, they’re talking nonsense. There are no gloves. We were told that during the rounds, we could go and wash our hands in the offices that were open, at clients’ homes, in tobacco shops…

Can you tell us what PIC is?

It’s a large sorting center. Industrial mail hub. So it’s a warehouse, and it supplies the local post offices. It’s a crew that does more logistical work. They get the mail and they dispatch it between regions. They don’t have any protection. And for them, keeping a distance is absolutely impossible.

Did the organization of work change?

There are offices that, with the balance of power, the mailmen could quickly work every other day, with staggered working hours, with some people starting earlier, others later.

During the first week they had already closed on Saturdays (work had gone down to 5 days a week), because things were getting tense. With speeches like “we thank you for your dedication”.

And after March 30th, there was finally a national thing, because with all the rights of withdrawal, the sick leaves, there were a lot of absences, this put a lot of pressure on them, a balance of power was created. Between right to withdraw, illness, and strikes, a third of the workforce was absent.

So they set up a three-day schedule. And then the press, the mayors, the State, piled in the Post Office. Still there is an obligation of delivery, six days a week. So the next week, they came back to that.

We don’t know anything. Anyway, they will make sure there are delivery shifts for 5 days a week. Maybe the mailmen will yell at them, or maybe they’ll change again…

And there’s also a Post sector that stopped working.

What is it called?

Mediapost. It’s unaddressed advertising. So those workers are in even worse working conditions than the mailmen. They were on partial unemployment (meaning they got 84% of their salary, paid by the State). They’re planning to make 1200 of them work again. Mainly to ensure that press delivery is also done.

In some offices, they are thinking of calling in voluntary mailmen (to carry out this “press” delivery).

It’s quite possible that they don’t renew fixed-term contracts, it happened to one of my colleagues.

And that they call for the guys from Médiapost, who have a worse labor agreement (who sometimes have to use their own car…), and who would cost them less…

And at Mediapost they’re still paid, well, partially, but…

Yes, they are still paid. And voluntary work will be paid as well. I don’t think there’s much work. Three days with 100% pay, I think the management is not gonna like it.

They are also talking about extending the rounds, and this can still change. Anyway, they play it by ear, it’s clear. They didn’t anticipate anything, they’re very bad. The good things that have been done during this period were imposed by the mailmen… The staggered working hours, for example, were pushed by mailmen, the processing of registered letters as well, to avoid being in contact with the addressee. Anyway, everything was obtained by force. Because they didn’t plan anything, and if everyone had kept quiet, we would have worked without protection, without anything. There’s a lot of communication about our protection, but that’s not true. Moreover, there’s a lot of fake news about the right of withdrawal, as if it were not legal to exercise it at the Post Office, for example. Absurd stuff.

Are you still “requisitionable” even if you’re now under a private company regime?

There are still civil servants. And despite the change in the status of the company, the Post Office still has 4 missions (1). The delivery of mail 6 days a week is an obligation. Since last month, the state has no longer been the majority shareholder (2), a deal with Caisse des Dépôts, but there are still public service obligations. And there are still civil servants (a little bit in all professions, but there are fewer and fewer) that can be requisitioned.

(1) universal postal service, contribution to town and country planning, banking accessibility and transport and delivery of the press

(2) on March 16th, the State’s share went from 73.68% to 34%.

The Ministry of Labour explained that if the company had made arrangements, the right of withdrawal was not justified.

And of course, the company says that they did make arrangements…

There’s a fixed “public service” mentality. It should have been asked to close down, not to work. Because it’s not vital. Again, it depends on the office. Some said “we won’t deliver advertising”, they imposed it. And there are other offices, like mine, where despite the quarantine, we deliver advertising.

So, how do you work in this period?

The first week I was on leave. The next Monday, I went to work and told myself that I was going to write down all the lack of protection. On Tuesday, I exercised my right to withdraw. On Wednesday, no one was working because they were settling things. On Thursday, I came back to find that our working conditions were still not properly secured. And now, it’s not directly related to Covid, but I’m on sick leave.

How’s it going with communication between workers? Since the lockdown and these new arrangements, are there renewed discussions between workers at the Post Office? Or about working conditions? Or is it just on your network?

With the masks, the distances, it’s harder to talk. We’re using social networks…

There are people who don’t feel well. Especially those on fixed-term contracts. Some people are in a precarious situation, stuck, people realize they’ve been put into the killing fields… They feel stuck, for example, with a month-long fixed-term contract, how can you find an apartment? The owners tell them to come back when they have a permanent contract. So these guys, that’s how it is, they come to work.

Any changes to your salary?

No, normally we’re paid 100%, even if we work fewer hours. There are offices where people can go back home when they’ve finished their round. Which is more logical. But there is always a little boss who forces workers to stay together in a room until the shift is done.

Moreover, the usual cleaners are absent, probably on sick leave. So the colleague who is coming now is new, she comes from a private company, and she is here at the same time as us. That means one more person on the site. She’s having a harder time working, and she can’t do anything effective in terms of cleaning or disinfection.  

And for you, their goal is to try and find the best way to get back to work normally? Get the mailmen back to work?

Their idea is to get us back to work, that’s for sure.

Do you see any prospect for a struggle? For the time being?

Not in my office. But, I know there are strikers at the PIC. By the way, there’s a striker, a union member, who was banned from the PIC… when he’s supposed to be working there! From the moment he can no longer enter the site, he is suspended. Normally, for a suspension, there’s a procedure. It’s not something that can be done overnight.

There are also sick leaves, which is also a way to fight. But it can’t last very long, the doctors are kept under surveillance. And all withdrawal rights have been considered as irregular absences (AI).

You say that withdrawal rights are irregular. Have you seen any impact on your salary?

Well, we’ll see, because with AI, normally you don’t get paid. It’s going to be complicated to do something global, because withdrawal rights are based on hygiene conditions and each office is going to be a special case. So I think it will be done on a case-by-case basis. Overall, they will say that all the offices are not the same, which is true, and therefore the security conditions cannot be uniform.

And the PIC is a bit special because it’s more of a factory job, do you know anything about restructuring, changes?

They are working 3 days a week now too. I understood it was probably because it was complicated to work every other day in PIC.

As it’s work on machines, it’s complicated to cut jobs. So no team division, I think. Absences fluctuated, but about a third of them were absent in one way or another. And there are strikers at the PIC. But, anyway, they’re being kicked out.

At the PIC, they’re holding general assemblies. First, they’ve been told that it was no longer possible to stay inside, that they have to go outside.

And when this lockdown is over, do you think people will be angry with the Post Office management? That they’ll get into struggles?

I’m pretty pessimistic about that for my office. If indeed they don’t pay the withdrawal rights, there will be a reaction to that. But regarding the struggles at the Post Office, the trade unions are very much there, especially the CGT, so it’s not very good.

But I don’t believe too much in late conflict. In fact, those who react the most are the ones in short term contracts who have less room for maneuver.

Any coworkers infected?

They don’t give us any information, claiming confidentiality…

And the way it goes when there’s a case, it’s random. It’s stifled, they close the office one day, they say they’re disinfecting, and then that’s it. Otherwise, they tell people that if they want to leave they can.
The bosses have a margin, so it depends on the people and, it’s always the same, it depends on the pressure of mailmen. It’s always the balance of power that will make things move.

Are there other services suspended?

For example, registered letters, it’s been done, we don’t do it anymore. The customer identifies himself on the internet and the registered letter is delivered to him in his mailbox.

And then there’s stuff, it’s a do-it-yourself job. At one point, the parcels with signature, we were instructed to contact the person, to ask him if it was ok to sign for him. Which is totally illegal. There have been mailmen who’ve been fired for this kind of stuff before!

So I asked if we could get a written order. They told me to trust my management! But I replied that I didn’t trust them at all. It ended with “you do what you want”…

Anything new with the subsidiaries, subcontractors, or “uberized” platforms?

Not really, but they don’t need Covid to make us work under crap conditions. On parcel delivery, subcontracting, there are unpaid hours, some guys have to sleep in their cars, they don’t have any contract, it’s terrible…

To finish on the Post Office, can you see any arrangements that could be settled by the Post Office right now, and which could be used later to keep on worsening your working conditions?

I don’t really see that right now. In any case, teleworking is not possible. Basically, they didn’t change much during the quarantine. Anyway, they have the reorganizations every two years to do that. To settle what they’re doing right now, like “cluster delivery” for example, which is blowing us apart even more… In other words, they relocate part of the rounds to cheaper sites. So the mailmen who work there don’t meet their colleagues anymore. But above all, the rounds are already “delivered”, sorted and classified by machines. So all the work is done outside. When the weather is really hot or cold, it’s not nice. But especially machine sorting is a disaster. When you’re sorting your rounds, you first do a memorization, it helps you with delivery. Then, there are fewer resources than in a real office in case of material or administrative problems. In fact, it allows them to extend tours, reduce the number of workers, and get money from real estate.

I don’t see what the health crisis is providing them. Even for the policing, since we have software built into the smartphone, it’s already up and running…

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