A London postal worker looks at the issues behind the national strike.
Friday June 29th promises to be the first of several strikes called by the Communication Workers’ Union in 3 sectors of the Post Office – Royal Mail, Post Office Counters and Cash services. This strike – and any that follow – can hardly be said to be before time. The government’s policy of marketisation and liberalisation have led for several years to a drive by the Post Office to increase profitability. The Post Office is now expected to make the maximum profit across all its dealings, i.e. making it as far from a public service while still publicly owned as possible. And, of course, the service to the public has got worse in the process. Competition in the postal sector means Royal Mail’s rivals – who aren’t actually interested in delivering the mail, since this would require enormous investment – cream off lucrative contracts from big firms and dump the work on Royal Mail to deliver. Royal Mail cannot refuse this work, and is only allowed to charge an amount set by the postal regulator. Since bulk business mail has traditionally subsidised other mail, this means Royal Mail is now actually effectively subsidising the competition. While the closure of post offices has been most prominent in the public eye, this has been going on across the whole industry.
With full competition introduced in the postal industry since January 2006, Royal Mail bosses now openly claim that postal workers are overpaid and underworked. There is a constant drive to keep down costs and increase productivity. `Surplus’ buildings are being sold off, petty cuts made in equipment available to do the job (and a freeze on the issuing of uniforms earlier this year), training has disappeared and increased workloads are being pressed on delivery workers. In the medium to long term, Royal Mail’s aim is to automate virtually the whole process apart from the actual delivery (contrary to popular belief, delivery workers spend a large proportion of their time sorting mail prior to delivery). This, they hope, would allow them to follow the Dutch model of employing a relatively small number of full-timers to oversee the machines, and part-timers to actually do the door-to-door stuff. However, to date their trials of the most modern machines have not produced the required results.
In the meantime, they aim to cut labour costs as much as possible. Hence the proposal, announced earlier this year, to stop the final salary pension scheme for new workers and “look at” doing so for the current workforce (both proposals are currently undergoing consultation with the CWU). Nightwork (which ensures earlier deliveries) has progressively been reduced in order to avoid paying night allowance, and current proposals are for all delivery offices to start work at 6a.m. or later (again, to avoid paying shift allowances).
During the allegedly `quiet’ summer period management want to `amalgamate’ deliveries so the work of those on holiday is shared among others for no extra pay (at the moment such work is covered either by `reserves’ or on overtime).
The spark for the current dispute is not just the pay offer, but the strings attached to it. Initially, Royal Mail offered no increase on basic pay but a £600 lump sum instead. They backed down on this, offering the alternative of a 2.5% increase on basic as an alternative (a pay cut when the current rate of inflation is taken into account). They have also reduced the strings attached to the pay offer, although the remaining ones are still unacceptable. But management freely admit that beyond this lie even more stringent attempts to increase productivity and cut costs. Their aim over the next few years is to cut 40,000 jobs. Their chosen method to date is to not fill vacancies and offer Early Voluntary Retirement and collapse jobs into one another.
One of the many problems is that, to date, the CWU has gone along with this, provided “there is something in it for the members”, i.e. a bonus or lump sum payment in exchange for agreeing to cut jobs, whether at national or local level. Now management are saying such payments are no longer available, but the jobs must go anyway. The strike ballots were won against a background of unrelenting propaganda from management – posters and leaflets at work, home mailings, work time learning sessions and even videos of Alan Leighton and Adam Crozier telling us how important it was we vote no (although having Adam Crozier – on over £1m a year – telling us we earn too much has been likened to being told by the Queen that you have too many bedrooms). This propaganda has continued since the ballot result and the announcement of the first strike.
The union also had to pull out all the stops, particularly having lost a ballot for national strike action a few years ago. Again, home mailings and – against management obstruction – workplace leaflets and meetings were used. The result was all the better for the fact that management made absolutely clear what was at stake. Royal Mail management have made it as clear as they can that their concern is to crush the union and workplace organisation in their drive to increase productivity. Unfortunately, a similar resolve to resist has not been shown by the Postal Executive of the CWU. During negotiations in the run up to the ballot they offered to accept Royal Mail’s pay offer for 6 months while negotiating the `other issues’. They offered a period of a no strike agreement (at a time when local managements are increasingly trying to unilaterally impose cuts, often provoking unofficial walkouts).
In fact, last year we faced similar issues and the Executive backed off from calling a ballot at all. While a short delay before setting a strike date may have been necessary to prove to waverers that Royal Mail wasn’t interested in negotiating, the way this stretched out, and the farcical involvement of ACAS, meant it looked like the union was actually scared to act on its mandate. The danger is that if Royal Mail drops some of the strings or increases its pay offer by some minimal amount, the union will back off rather than press its advantage home. The commitment to members “not to call an all out strike” is a hostage to fortune. Who knows what tricks management will pull or how the dispute will progress. It is one thing to say you do not want to see an all out strike, another to promise not to have one.
While the dispute is progressing industrially, it also needs political backing. When announcing the first strike, Deputy General Secretary (Postal) Dave Ward said “this is an industrial, not a political dispute”. Yet the very fact that Royal Mail is being driven by the government’s (and European Union’s) liberalisation policies shows that it is also deeply political.
Up to date information on the latest strikes can be got from the CWU website: www.cwu.org
The artcle was written for Labour Left Briefing