As we previously reported the London Division of the CWU has called for a return to national strike action. Here a London Postal worker examines ‘where now for the postal dispute?’
When the postal strikes due for Friday 6th and Monday 9th November were called off early on the evening of Thursday 5th, it was all announced with great fanfare, that there would be a “period of calm” and a “strike-free Christmas”.
This was rather different to the reaction of most postal workers returning to work on the Thursday evening on Friday morning, asking what they had got in return for the calling off of the strikes, because amid the fanfare nothing concrete was announced other than an agreement by Royal Mail and the CWU to continue to talk.
For many that dismay and frustration have not gone away now they know the terms of the “interim agreement” agreed unanimously by the Postal executive Committee of the union.
The agreement does not specifically rule out strikes before Christmas, stating that they are only suspended, and that progress will be reviewed on a two-weekly basis. Dave Ward, Deputy General Secretary (Postal) has made great play of the fact that Brendan Barber of the TUC was spinning things when he said that they had achieved a strike free Christmas, although the video of him saying so is still the lead item on the union’s website. Despite the words, however, it is clear that management achieved their aim of getting the strikes called off in exchange for very few real concessions.
The agreement (which can be read on the union website) essentially falls into two parts, one concerning past action by Royal Mail and one concerning how future job losses will be dealt with.
The section concerning past action by management – the “executive action” they have taken this year, cutting jobs, increasing workloads, changing shift patterns etc, as well as the bullying and harassment they have used to push these measures through – says that all this is up for review. There is very little concrete, but it does appear to promise that all such action can be re-examined with the possibility of reversing it.
As regards the future, the interim agreement really is a “framework for discussion”. Brendan Barber was right to say at the end of the talks that the two sides “are a long way from agreement”. The document mentions lots of things which the union would like to see, but it is all in terms of “issues on the table for discussion”, i.e. no commitment that any of them will actually happen.
Reaction to the interim agreement has been mixed and confused. Given there was no opportunity to discuss the agreement until after the strikes were called off (it was actually embargoed until midday of Friday 6th), many peoples’ attitude has been to make the best of a bad job. Given the document is not an agreement as such, i.e. not something which lays down exactly how things will progress, it will not be voted on by the membership. Loyalty to the union – and Dave Ward in particular – means many union reps have been willing to defend the agreement as a good one.
Arguments for calling off the strikes in exchange for this agreement amount to “you always have to reach an agreement and call off the action at some point”, and “we could not have reached an agreement while strike action was ongoing”. The second of these is one usually used by management, claiming they cannot be expected to “negotiate under duress”, not one we expect our union officials to use. The first is, of course, true, but then it is a matter of judgement at what point you settle, and what for. Given there have been no reports that support for the strikes was diminishing, and that we were about to enter the busiest part of the year for Royal Mail, that judgement is put in question when so few real concessions were gained.
Since the interim agreement was signed, as is usual, we are getting no reports on how talks on the future are progressing, other than that meetings are happening (this has to change, we need to know what is being discussed and what management’s response is). However, it is possible to assess “progress” on reviewing management’s unilaterally imposed changes.
While, in some areas, management has been willing to withdraw some of the things they have done, in others, especially London, that have continued as before – refusing to even review these changes, continuing to harass and intimidate workers into fulfilling the new workloads, and wanting only to discuss future job losses, something that is proper to the national negotiations.
This has increased the frustration with the agreement and has almost led to unofficial walk outs in some areas.
In this situation there are several dangers. The postal executive may simply put its head down and insist “progress is being made”. This would almost inevitably lead to unofficial walkouts, which would be patchy. The executive might decide to reinstate the local strike action in those areas where management is being most intransigent, such as London. Again, this would be unsatisfactory, since Royal Mail can then move work and scab managers around the country. Moreover, many London postal workers feel that the national strikes were introduced very late in the day, after they had taken 15 or more days strike action, and the dispute must be national.
We need the strikes to be reinstated nationally, not just to deal with management’s refusal to reverse imposed changes, but also to get a proper agreement about future job losses. But postal workers also need to discuss how they can assert control over what is agreed by their negotiators with no reference to the rank and file.