Careful about criticising postal workers

Paul Donovan examines the issues behind the postal strike and warns if the railways are anything to

Does anyone remember postman Roger Annies, who rose to fame when he was suspended by Royal Mail for telling his customers how to avoid having junk mail delivered to their homes.

There was a great outcry in support of Annies, especially from some of those same newspapers who now condemn the Communication Workers Union for its refusal in the present dispute to accept worse terms and conditions for its members.

Parroting Royal Mail management they accuse the CWU of restrictive practices and standing in the way of progress toward more flexible working. This is ironic given that at the time of the Annies case, the CWU was busily pushing ahead, promoting the delivery of junk mail. It defended Annies against oppressive management methods but all the same argued the business case in the workplace for delivering junk mail.

The Annies/junk mail case illustrates how the union - in one of the few remaining nationalised industries - has been forced to not just defend its members' interests but also to promote the business in its present publically owned form.

RM management under Chairman Allan Leighton has effectively been stripping down the business over the past few years ready for private provision of the public service. The former ASDA chief's supine attitude toward liberalisation, offering very little resistance to the opening up by government regulator Postcom of the UK market a full three years before any other European country, did not suggest an unyielding belief in the merit of the publically run service.

The market was duly completely opened up in the UK at the start of 2006, encouraging new private sector companies to cherry pick the profitable business post while not picking up the universal service obligation - binding on RM - to deliver the loss making residential mail.

This further undermined the public service provider which previously had been able to subsidise the loss making residential side with the profits made on business mail. Leighton, Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier and the RM board have no interest in a publically owned, nationally run mail network.

The efforts of the board to introduce shares in Royal Mail for staff indicate that they would far rather the company were in the private sector.

The contradictions so obvious in the RM case crop up across the public sector where the unions are organised around nationally owned public sector industries. Public sector union Unison has been amongst the most vociferous defenders of the NHS as a publically owned and run service.

This contradictory position that the unions find themselves in can cause real problems in terms of their own organisation. As the major public services are privatised what do they do? Do they cling to the remnants of the public giant as it is destroyed in a death of a thousand cuts or do they accept the reality and recruit members in the new companies?

In the case of mail services, the unions face a dilemma as to how much energy they put into RM and how much they seek recognition with new competitors in the market like DHL, Business Post or TNT.

Another part of the communications sector provides a salutary lesson. When BT was nationalised back in the 1980s the unions put most of their efforts into securing the position with the major player in the market.

As a result the unions now have a good relationship with BT and workers there get representation and a better deal than most in the industry. However, in market terms BT has been dwarfed by other global telecoms operators like Vodafone.

This left the unions charged with taking their eye off the ball for putting less effort into organising in the new workplaces. The unions are now gradually catching up in this area but it has been a painful lesson. Essentially, the unions are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They must represent members but are also wedded, due to practical and ideological factors, to the nationally owned publically run services. This at times forces them into a poacher turned gamekeeper role.

Unless there is a sudden turn around and return to the industrial relations architecture of the 1970s then unions will have to change their methods of approach. There will have to be a twin strategy. This will involve a more federal approach, seeking to get a foothold in as many different companies as possible operating in their sector while at the same time not giving up on the fruits offered by a declining monolithic public sector employer.

As for the present dispute, those amongst the public tempted to criticise the union's position would do well to remember it is one of the few voices left defending the tenents of a publically run accountable mail service.

If government gets its way the mail service will head down the same path as the railways with tax payers eventually being forced to cough up for private companies to run a worse more costly service - all in the name of neo-liberal dogma. A more progressive attitude toward the mail and other public services might be if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.