A major blow to postal workers

A London postal worker reports on the CWU ballot on the “Pay and Modernisation” agreement and the situation following the ‘yes’ vote.

Postal workers have voted to accept the “Pay and Modernisation” deal negotiated by Royal Mail and the Communication Workers’ Union by 64% to 36% on a 64% turnout.

The deal gave Royal Mail much of what they wanted at the outset of the dispute – a wage increase below the level of inflation, a “flexible” workforce and an agreement from the union to scrap the current pension scheme.

For many postal workers, pay was never the main issue at stake, recognising that the other issues had more far-reaching effects. However, the pay settlement itself is a big con – the media reports it as a 6.9% increase over two years. In fact, there is no increase at all between April (the due date) and October this year, and 1.5% of the increase is dependent on “full” flexibility. So the basic 5.4% increase is in fact a 2 ½ year deal, amounting to 2.2% a year. In addition a £175 sweetener will be paid, but this is, in fact, money already owed to postal workers under a previous bonus scheme.

The flexibility issue is a major attack on conditions and, ultimately, pay. Under the smokescreen of using the media to attack “Spanish practices” (mostly, in fact, encouraged by management as a way of getting the job done), Royal Mail has won the right, among other things, to vary start and finish times by up to half an hour a day (on “reasonable request”, i.e. as determined by management), to introduce long and short days, and to share the workload of an absent worker among others without paying them for doing it. This will attack earnings because many rely on overtime to top up their low wages.

The agreement on pensions, signed by Royal Mail and the CWU leadership, commits the union to supporting the scrapping of the final salary scheme and raising the retirement age from 60 to 65. It is not even clear what kind of pension scheme new workers would have, but the agreement says they would have to wait a year before joining it.

There are several reasons why the deal was agreed in the ballot:

* Despite 5 members of the Postal Executive voting against the deal, only one, Dave Warren, was willing to campaign against it, with union President, Jane Loftus, being conspicuous by her silence:

* The union leadership claimed, despite the insistence of Royal Mail and Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, that the agreement on pensions is not part of this deal, despite the agreement having been circulated to branches. They argue that there will be a separate consultation and vote on pensions, while failing to point out that this is a vote of all pension fund members, including non-CWU members and the managers who delight in scabbing on strikes, and that the national union is committed to supporting the scrapping of the current arrangements during the consultation;

* While many postal workers were appalled by the deal, the campaign for rejection had to be started from scratch, since many activists put their loyalty to Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary (Postal) above their duty to the membership. Despite this, over 30 branches (about one-third) recommended rejection.

* Particularly the London branches leaderships, traditionally among the most militant, sold the line that pensions are a separate issue, that flexibility would not be so bad in London (defying the trade union principle of defending the week as well as the strong), and even that London could put special measures in place to safeguard against the worst aspects of flexibility. Which rather begs the question as to why, if the deal were acceptable, such measures would be necessary? It also ignores the fact that, even if management do go for the weaker workplaces first, they will certainly go for the stronger ones later.

* Of course, workers received mailings from Royal Mail and the national union urging a “yes” vote, the most dishonest of which was a postcard from the CWU that only mentioned the money on offer. The “no” campaign did not have the resources to compete, and management did their best to prevent the circulation of material calling for rejection of the deal.

* Many workers who didn’t like the deal either voted “yes” or didn’t vote because they had no confidence in the leadership which negotiated this deal winning a better one, while they might be expected to lose more money through strike action.

The deal itself leaves many issues unresolved, including the future of several mail centres which are under the threat of closure and disciplinary action being taken by management against activists arising out of the strike.

All in all, the deal is a major blow to postal workers, and a major task now is to replace those responsible for it in the union elections next year. Disputes will also continue to break out around flexibility and victimisation and solidarity needs to be built beyond the weak efforts of the national union. Those, like the London leadership, who supported the deal but say they will fight for a no vote in the pensions consultation, have to be taken at their word and backed on this.

Above all, a campaign has to be launched against the “liberalisation” of postal services, at the root of this dispute and the decline in service to the public, going beyond the union’s feeble call for a “level playing field” for Royal Mail and its competitors.