The Post: No Layoffs for Now

Anticipated downsizing halted, but future still appears grim

Front of Austrian Post Office

The Austrian Post in crisis: how many branches will be closed? | Photo: Jesse Aden

On the eve of the winter holiday season, Postal Workers Union leader Gerhard Fritz called for a nationwide strike, should the government and the board of Austrian Post continue ignoring the pleas of the workers to preserve their jobs.

“We’re threatening with strikes to prevent a worsening of things,” Fritz said on Nov. 27 in a Der Standard interview. “We’ll back down only when we see reasonable solutions.”

Since the initiation of privatization plans in 1999, the Post AG has closed already over 900 of their offices, according to a report in the Austrian daily Der Standard. Recently, the board of Austrian Post has announced plans on Nov. 9 to lay off 9,000 employees and close down over a thousand post offices across the country by 2015. While the government owns a majority interest in the Post AG (51%), politicians have been divided as to whether or not to step in and prevent evolving plan to privatize mail delivery.

The political shock waves hit almost at once, with an ultimatum from Social Democratic (SPÖ) leader Werner Faymann.  “Should the board of Austrian Post hold fast to their plans to fire 9,000 of their employees, then they too have to step down,” Faymann said later that day.

The plan, conceived by Post-General Director Anton Wais, was to decrease the number of employees from 25,800 to 16,800 employees and of Post offices from 1,311 to 300. The management justified its actions as a necessary “cost cutting procedure,” and that they could not afford the number of offices and workers in a mail delivery market that would no longer be a monopoly by 2015.

What followed was a firestorm of negative reactions from politicians across the political spectrum. Faymann made it clear in an interview with the ÖI-Morngenjournal that he would “not allow anyone to  close 200 or more Post offices,” and FPÖ’s Christian Strache demanded the “heads of both the board of the Austrian Post and the ÖIAG,” the holding company that provides managerial assistance to state investments.

Faymann, the chancellor designate, went on to demand immediate governmental intervention to protect the 9,000 Post employees and the localities that would suffer from the Post office closings. He warned that the action would require an amendment of the Post’s Public Service Law (Post-Universaldienstverordnung), which requires the Post by law to provide adequate postal service to the Austrian public.

“The Post would not be able to close any of its offices without the consent of the affected community,” Faymann told the press. “Such actions are necessary in an emergency.”

Union leader Fritz has urged Wilhelm Molterer, the out-going Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister, “to step in and bring an end to our nightmare.” The government’s investment positions in situations of shared public/private ownership is managed by the national holding company ÖIAG, which falls under the jurisdiction of Molterer. Faymann claimed that with the government’s controlling interest, Molterer could have pressured Post executives to alter their privatization strategy.

To date, Molterer has refused to do so, however: “The time in which politicians intervened in businesses is hopefully over and will never come back,” he said on Nov. 10 on the ÖIMittagsjournal.

As a company in the process of privatization, the Post management does have the authority to close offices and prepare for a competitive market; however, the Post Public Service Law requires that it do so responsibly, fulfilling its obligation to “ensure a nation wide mail coverage system.” In this case, it would involve making sure that substitute partner agents fill the voids the closed Post offices leave behind. In many cases, these partners will often be much smaller, often simply mail outlets in kiosks, grocery stores, and even gas stations.

“The job of the post is given over to the butcher,” said General Director Wais.

In an interview with The Vienna Review in February, Wais did not regard the closing of post offices as a loss of mail service to the Austrian people:

“This is a joke. The Post office is a basic institution like the public school, the court, the police, the church, the Gasthaus, the Beisl.” He made it clear that he intended the Post restructuring to be something similar to what was done in Sweden in 1995, where the national mail service was broken down and merged with grocery stores and gas stations. There, the formal existence of mail service offices in the formal sense is very limited; however, many agree that the preconditions in Sweden were different and cannot necessarily be duplicated in Austria. The Post, Wais said, also serves a social function in rural areas where most senior citizens have accustomed to the interactions with their mailmen.

After weeks of shifting blame and responsibility between SPÖ and ÖVP, by the time the negotiations to form a new government concluded on Nov. 23, union officials were complaining that the politicians had become indifferent. Instead of coming up with a solution, they had formulated a compromise to provide the Post with preferential treatment in their privatized future. So, for the moment, the union appears to have won; no one will be laid off in the near future, and Anton Wais and other post-executives have backed off, openly declaring on Nov. 19 that their plans to fire the 9,000 Postal workers are “off the table.”

Union leader Fritz is still not convinced, however. And he is not alone.

“No where on the political agenda does the Post AG come up,” wrote Günther Oswald in a commentary in Der Standard on Nov. 12, leaving observers skeptical that political leaders were truly committed to resolving the issue.

To Fritz, this is simply more evidence that neither the government nor the executives have the best interest of the postal workers at heart.

“Should the Post executives continue to ignore our concerns in their negations, then we’ll exercise our threats,” he said. The issue has been merely postponed. “By 2016, [the Post] will be an economic basket case.”

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