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Vote seeks to thwart Post Office’s cost cutting

Hundreds of post offices have been closed across the country in the past few years

(Keystone)

Consumer groups and trade unions have forced a nationwide vote aimed at blocking plans to close loss-making post offices.

They argue postal services are crucial for the public, particularly in rural areas. But opponents say the state-owned Post Office has to make cuts to stay competitive.

Voters will decide on September 16 whether to support the people’s initiative, launched by a trade union and the country’s main consumer organisation.

Its backers want to ensure that the local authorities are consulted before post offices are closed.

Supporters of the initiative say the country’s small and medium-sized businesses, the backbone of the Swiss economy, depend on a closely-knit network of post offices.

The proposal also calls for government subsidies for loss-making post offices in remote areas. “We accept that the postal service needs to be restructured, but we need clear rules,” said Christian Levrat, president of the Communications trade union.

Levrat, who is also a Social Democrat parliamentarian, said post offices have a social function – namely to bind communities together – and therefore the organisation should not be privatised.

Competitiveness

Opponents say the financial demands of the union go too far and that the Post Office has to make cuts to remain competitive.

The state-owned Post Office, with a workforce of 54,000, became autonomous in 1998 as certain postal services, such as parcel deliveries, were opened up to private competition.

In a bid to keep its competitive edge the Post Office announced plans to cut about 800 local post offices by 2006. That would leave some 2,500 nationwide.

The government, as well as parliament and most of the major political parties have come out against the people’s initiative, arguing that current laws guarantee the provision of universal postal services in Switzerland.

“We have to ensure postal service for the country, but it is not right to hold on to the current structures,” said centre-right Radical Party parliamentarian, Peter Weigelt.

Opposition

However, the government and centre and rightwing parties are facing stiff opposition from rural areas and from regions in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of country.

“It has often been said that the French and Italian language regions have a different perception of what services the state should offer to its citizens,” said Jeremias Blaser, political analyst at Fribourg University.

“They are often more attached to state values than the main German-speaking part of the country,” he added.

Blaser also points out that fat profits at the Post Office could undermine its argument about the need to save money, at least in the view of the public.

“From an outside perspective it seems rather strange that the Post wants to make cutbacks while reporting huge profits over the past 18 months,” he said.

Announcing record half-year profits of SFr387 million ($304 million) in August the Post Office warned of a bleak financial prospects with the number of letter and parcel deliveries continuing to drop.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The state-owned Swiss Post Office became autonomous in 1998 and ran about 3,400 offices in 2001.
Some 800 offices are due to be closed by 2006.
Swiss Post, which employs 54,000 people in mail and parcel delivery, financial services and the public transport sector, made record first-half year profits of SFr387 million ($304 million) in 2004.

end of infobox

In brief

Voters must decide whether to block the closure of 800 post offices across the country.

Consumer groups and unions say a close network of post offices is vital for the cohesion of the country and for the business community.

Others, including the government and three of the four main political parties, argue the cuts are necessary for the Post Office to remain competitive.

end of infobox


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