Errant European

In case you haven’t noticed, around the world, in former bastions of free enterprise, market economics, and damn-the-unions, we don’t need no government handouts capitalism, things are changing. Handouts are being handed out, and chicken feed they are not. Now we learn that AIG, in addition to the $150 billion it already received, needs another $30 billion. Nationalisation is no longer the privy of Latin American populists, only it’s not called that in polite North American circles. Bailout is the preferred term.

LaPoste_RGBToday in Belgium, however, postal workers are striking to protest incipient privatisation (known in some circles as competition). You might well ask why, in light of the way that the private sector has managed to mismanage the banking, financial, automobile, and possibly many other economic staples, they are now to be rewarded with the gift of previously successful public services?

As David Gow explains in The Guardian, it’s because

The EU’s postal market will be fully open to competition in 2011 and Belgian unions fear this could hasten trends to cut costs by shedding labour and/or moving staff onto part-time or temporary contracts.

As Eric Renette explained in Brussels’ Le Soir last Friday, these proposed part-time and temp employees would be “pensioners, students, housewives, trying to earn extra money.” Oh yes, and these would likely be non-union jobs. Sorry, but I’d like to entrust my mail to someone with a little more at stake than somebody from the temp agency. You know what they say about checks in the mail.

We’ve seen this before. Anyone been on a train in Great Britain of late? Privatisation – someone probably called it competition too – was applied to the country’s rail network, turning it into a non-network patchwork of a bunch of private companies that converted public symphony into a private cacophony. Director Ken Loach covered this sad story in his little-seen 2001 film, The Navigators.

Don’t get me wrong: unions are not perfect institutions, and the “you can’t get me I’m part of the union” (though The Strawbs‘ anti-union message backfired) attitude certainly did damage when carried to extremes. But in the case of privatisation in the time of nationalisation, I’m afraid that I’m part of the union (actually, I do belong to the diplomats’ union, though it is called a “professional association”).

In this time of “whither capitalism?” doubt about what direction economies should take, maybe we should have a moratorium on privatisation. Let the private sector get sorted out – often with taxpayer money – before we hand it any more free gifts for the stockholders. At least in the US – where labour unions and working people were personae non gratae during the Bush years – organized labour now has a receptive audience in the Oval Office.

Capitalists, don’t sweat it. Union people, workers – they have a vested interest in your success. It’s their bread and butter after all. Think of it: workers = capital’s best friend. The postal system – if it ain’t broke…

(Image: La Poste)

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