Last week, French postal workers went on strike to protest against deteriorating working conditions and rising levels of acute psychological distress amongst its 250,000 employees. French postal services (La Poste) is France’s second largest employer and is cherished by many as a symbol of public service that is bound up with national identity and with the history of the French Republic. The postman was recently voted the second favourite occupation by the French after the baker. According to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, the postage stamp is as a mirror of everyday life and of civilisation itself that tells French citizens about who they are.
Although hampered by division amongst the unions, yesterday’s strike has brought to the fore an issue that has plagued La Poste and other deregulated public services in recent years, namely the effects on the individual employee, on his or her working conditions and well-being, of an overarching drive towards liberalization, financialization and privatization.
Last October, La Poste’s bosses were forced to suspend company restructuring plans when an open letter signed by dozens of medical experts was published in the French press, denouncing unacceptable levels of stress amongst the workforce. One of the extreme manifestations of this acute distress is the rise of suicides by employees at the company.
In July, a 53 year old French postman and father of two, took his own life by hanging himself in his home. In a letter addressed to his employer, he explained his motivations: “La Poste (French postal services) is gradually destroying its workers, the true ones, those who are in contact with the people. In my case, they have totally destroyed me”. His suicide follows a similar pattern to others at La Poste in recent years where victims have left letters blaming work or conditions of work as the cause of their violent actions. At least nine postmen or women have killed themselves over the past three years. Some have sought to make the connections between work and their suicide very clear. In March 2012, a 42 year old manager who was on sick leave took the decision to return to his place of work to take his own life. He left a letter blaming workplace pressures as the cause of his actions. The courts ruled that the suicide was a workplace accident and that the victim’s family is entitled to financial compensation, but La Poste has appealed against this decision.
Since La Poste’s liberalization under European Union directives in the 1990s, successive bosses have sought to transform a cumbersome state monopoly into a competitive and profit-making enterprise. CEO Philippe Wahl’s new restructuring plan introduced in 2014, sets out to expand La Poste’s commercial activities and massively cut staff costs. There were 7,500 job losses at La Poste in 2015. Those who keep their jobs are under immense pressure, as they take on the work of those who have left. Régis Blanchot from the trade union SUD-PTT that called yesterday’s strike stated: “we can no longer accept a position where management continuously increases a person’s workload, as jobs are cut. It is ordinary workers who are bearing the brunt of the economic and financial pressures facing the company”
But liberalization and restructuring have not only transformed material conditions of work. They have also come into conflict with a distinctive workplace culture and identity rooted in a public service tradition. Although postmen aren’t particularly well paid, they tend to share a commitment to republican ideals of public service and a belief that they are providing an equitable service to all French citizens. Increasingly, postmen are being pressurized to abandon this public service ideal and focus on selling products to citizens. Philippe Charry from the union Force Ouvrière which did not take part in yesterday’s strike said: “liberalization and restructuring have created a conflict between a world of public service, where the postman saw himself as a representative of the state and was committed to values of fairness and equality and a world of money where the only thing that counts is getting a sale.”
Both unions have emphasized the importance of focusing on efforts to improve working conditions rather than on the suicides themselves. According to Charry, “It’s really important that we don’t treat suicides as a kind of barometer for workplace conditions.”