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“We were never this united, and now we must succeed!”- The Self-Organized Strike of Serbia’s Postal Workers

Photo: Marko M. Dragoslavić / Association of Serbia Post Workers / Goran Klještan BOSKE – Facebook.

The conversations with workers quoted in this report where conducted during the strike. This text is an extended version prepared for Left East. The original text appeared in Serbian on Mašina.

Serbia’s postal workers recently conducted a collective action that stands out as an example of mutual care, worker pride, decency, solidarity, and struggle for one’s profession – a struggle that lasted for almost ten months and has recently ended with an agreement. The value of the strike lies not only in its very humble but persistent assertiveness and sense of community. It stands out even more if we know under what kind of conditions it came about.

Under current conditions, Serbia Post holds a near monopoly in some segments of the product market and is opening up new ‘competitive’ services (after all, it was ‘the’ Serbian company of 2018!). It doesn’t merely exploit its workers, however, but bleeds them dry. It is ruining not only the livelihoods of committed and diligent people, it is devaluing, perhaps even destroying a profession.

Maybe this is ‘just’ in harmony with the criminal capitalization of yet another public company for the benefit of a select few? Criminal power structures within the new ‘elite’ only aim at accumulation, while systematically devaluing the meaning of work – not only for postal workers but for many other workers as well, e.g. pharmacists, retailers, and others all over Serbia.As a result, the workers of the Public Enterprise Serbia Post share the destiny of many people in the country. They work in bad working conditions, for low wages, but are still trying to fight for their profession and a decent living.

The company, with branches in towns all over the country, employs around 15,000 workers, including 12,000 working in its so-called technology segment. These are technicians, drivers, clerks, that is, all of those working in what we call the core of the postal service. It is precisely these workers who have the lowest wages, in a company that is competing in the market with other companies and is realizing profits. Many of these workers receive a salary closer to the official monthly minimum wage of €255 and work without a standard employment contract (mostly on a fixed-term basis). Approximately 12,000 workers receive salaries that are under the national average of €425/month. It is precisely this wage level the workers wanted to achieve with their strike.

How can we interpret these numbers? The cost of living in Serbia is permanently rising. The monthly living wage, calculated for a family of three (!) by the statistical office, was estimated at about €300. This estimate has been criticized since it does not include rising costs of living, especially rent or the cost of servicing mortgages, let alone the cultural and educational needs of workers and their offspring. A family of four is for many the minimal number needed for the reproduction of cross generational labour power. An independent study in 2017 estimated that a four member family would require a minimum of €652/month for a life of elementary decency. Calculating with inflation, this sum is closer to €700 today. The wage demand would thus basically cover 60% of the family budget for a minimal decent living.

There was another element behind the postal workers wage demands: their increased workloads and work-related costs. Due to understaffing and the persistent or even increasing demands on the job, the workload has intensified in recent years. The number of workers responsible for postal traffic was cut, while at the same time new highly remunerated managerial positions were created, mostly linked to clientelist appointments made by the governing political parties.

Overburdened by work and not able to make ends meet, Serbia’s postal workers self-organized to strike in March 2019, without the backing of the trade unions. The collective action included a number of shutdowns that disrupted Serbia Post’s functioning. After nine days of work stoppages and pressure exercised by the government, this initial strike ended with an agreement reached between the postal workers and Serbia’s government. The agreement guaranteed partial improvements to the workers’ financial condition but fell short of their original demands.

In the following months Serbia Post’s management raised the prices of the company’s services while refusing to improve the material condition of its workers. So with no real achievements, the workers struck again. Still lacking support from their representative trade unions, postal workers self-organized once more, launching another nation-wide strike on 3 December 2019. Work stoppages were most pronounced in northern Serbia, including Belgrade, but also spread all over the country.

Workers demanded a company-wide minimum wage set at the national average monthly wage, refusing management’s offer of a 10% linear increase in all wages (which would have been too small to improve the material conditions of the majority of postal workers, but large enough to further boost management salaries). Instead, the striking workers proposed that the wages be raised by a higher percentage for those with the lowest salaries, and insisted on no increases to the highest salaries – those exceeding €936/month.

After another ten days on strike, and under constant pressure from the management and the government, a new agreement was reached on December 13. According to the agreement, Serbia Post will introduce a 13.1% increase for the lowest salaries, a further 3.8% increase as a result of repealing legal provisions restricting salaries, as well as an increase in the guaranteed holiday bonus (the so-called ‘regres’) by roughly €8.5.

Not all workers are satisfied with the outcome of their struggle for better material conditions. That comes as no surprise, since Serbia’s economic circumstances would continue to pose a challenge to workers even if they had won their original demand for the official average wage of €425/month.

Still, the strike organized by Serbia Post’s workers represents a landmark in recent Serbian labour history. The strike’s importance lies in the effective self-organizing of the postal workers. The collective action was launched and conducted without the involvement of representative trade unions. As such, it stands as a warning to trade unions and their representatives as to which side they take. Management targeted workers without a permanent contract with a classic instrument – threatening not to renew their contracts and other threats. The most notorious tactic employed by management was the temporary suspension of hundreds of striking workers, a tactic that the workers outsmarted (by refusing to sign their suspension papers).

The strike, as in many authoritarian systems, was placed under constant pressure by the executive power: police patrols were sent out to striking post offices.  At the same time public support for the postal workers grew, becoming both louder and clearer, which caused those in power and the management of the company to increase their use of repression against the strikers. Workers, nevertheless persisted convinced that they are struggling for the right thing – for a wage that is able to secure more than bare survival. During the strike we talked to some of them to understand what their real problems are and how they live.

Photo: Zorica Jovanović / Association of Serbia Post Workers / Goran Klještan BOSKE – Facebook.

How do Serbia Post workers live? 

“The lack of money is the primary and most basic problem. So many people are dissatisfied because our wages have not been changed in 17 years, and, since 2014 they put their hands even deeper into our pockets with a 10% decrease. Now in January they returned 5%, which, for me as a postal carrier, means 1300 dinars (€11) – what am I supposed to do with that?”

Stefan Mitrović works as a postal carrier and he is proud of the uniform he is wearing. He says that he is a fourth generation postal worker. “My great grandfather was a postman. In the family we have more than 300 years of experience working for the post.”

However, his uniform is not complete. After five years of work at Serbia Post, he still has not received a winter uniform. “I don’t have a winter jacket, I don’t have (half deep) winter shoes, I never received a hat, I don’t know whether one gets gloves”, said Mitrović. His colleague, Branko Sakar, tells us a similar story: “I am working for five years now and I still haven’t received a winter uniform.”

Female customer service workers at Serbia Post also lack supplies (resources) and equipment to do their work.  “We are buying pencils, staplers, and staples. Sometimes there is no paper, so they tell us to buy paper. We don’t have tape for the packing stations,” a female worker told us who wanted to remain anonymous.

As a result, costumers are often dissatisfied with Serbia Post’s services. However, the workers they are meeting are the one’s providing a supply of basic materials from their own pockets. Our female correspondent told us that relations with customers improved during the work stoppage: “Our customers are great, they are mostly supporting us. We have more problems when we are working than now, people are really great.”

The lack of materials, however, is a smaller problem compared to chronic under-staffing. “In order to reach the targets, they force us to work against the regulations, so then there are problems with customers. We face a lack of workers, a lack of vehicles…” explains Sakar.

Mitrović also reminds us of the permanent delusions about a surplus of employees in the public sector. “Some say that there are too many employees at Serbia Post – it’s not that there is a surplus but that we are understaffed. We’ve reached a situation in which the number of postal carriers is lower than the number of districts in which mail needs to be delivered.”

“Good people are leaving who have been working here for 15 or 20 years. Our bosses ask us to find people who would take up the job. Work in the company is so devalued. In earlier times, one could not get [a job] here easily, and those who were hired were mostly graduates of vocational schools for postal services, but now it is not even important that you have those specialized skills or knowledge,” adds Sakar.

Still, even with the lack of employees, Serbia Post’s management decided to begin suspending several thousand workers. “Our managers are constantly trying to present us as those who are replaceable, along the lines of: if you don’t want to work here there are those who want to do the work. There is no more of that, for this salary nobody wants to come, and those who come will not remain for long. Besides, we are not so easily replaceable. The postal service is still an institution, a building bloc of society. When the post office stops everything stops, including the functioning of courts, bailiffs, etc. and one can feel that. So, you need people who know how to do that job so that the system functions” Mitrović concludes.

Making ends meet

While the lack of supplies for work and chronic under-staffing cause frustrations for both the workers and customers of Serbia Post, the main problems of the workers we talked to are the low incomes that prevent them from making it to the end of the month.

“I have two daughters, I am trembling every night at the thought of whether I will have 100 dinars (€0.85) to give them each for lunch.”

A short description of the difficult living conditions at Serbia Post fits this description of Sakar, who adds that it was nevertheless declared the best company of 2018. “Where is that money going, how is it possible that the strongest company in the country does not have sufficient funds to pay its workers.”

Mitrović explains what life looks like on a postal carrier’s income: “My wife and I are expecting a baby, we took out a 30-year mortgage for an apartment, I took loans from two banks to buy a fridge and a stove, the two of us have four loans. Since she is on parental leave, she earns about 31.000 dinars (€264) and at Serbia Post I don’t even get 40.000 (€340). By the time we pay all our loans and bills nothing remains. Then one needs to look for another job. Whatever they would offer me I would take, sometimes a day, sometimes two, I get a thousand or two [dinars like this], you cannot make it otherwise.”

The anonymous female worker of Serbia Post is more concise: “We either all take second jobs or we have parental support. We all function that way.”

“I have come to the point that I have to buy food in installments at the Univerexport supermarket, since the Postal Savings Bank has a contract with them. Summer vacations and excursions are abstract concepts for our children,” Sakar adds.

Another consistent topic in our conversations was the payment of public transport, which, as a daily expense becomes a luxury when one has a low wage. “You work and you are trying to live honestly, and you meet the point when a bus inspection kicks you out from the bus. They say, your company is paying for the costs of travel. Well yes, but those 3200 dinars (€27) I get is only sufficient for a one week food supply for my wife and me,” explains Mitrović.

Many Serbia Post workers are thus in an unenviable situation. Their decision to start a strike is legitimate, and the outcome depends on collective power and solidarity. “We were never better organized. There is no way back, we were never so united and now we have to succeed,” concludes the female worker at Serbia Post.

Photo: Andraš Juhas / Mašina.

This article was translated from the Serbian by Tibor Meszmann.