Where now for postal workers?

An update on the postal dispute by a London postal worker

When the postal strikes due for Friday 6 and Monday 9 November were called off late on the preceding Thursday afternoon there was much boasting in the media of a “period of calm” and a “strike-free Christmas”.

This contrasted sharply with the reaction of most postal workers returning to work on the Thursday evening or Friday morning, asking what they had got in return for suspending the strikes, because amid the fanfare nothing concrete was announced other than an agreement by Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) to continue talking.

For many that dismay and frustration continued once they knew the terms of the “interim agreement” agreed unanimously by the CWU’s Postal Executive Committee.

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 TUC head Brendan Barber 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. Whatever the precise wording of the agreement, 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 at http://www.cwu.org/news/archive/cwu/royal-mail-interim-agreement.html, is divided 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 involving job cuts, increased 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 be implemented.

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 (the text was actually embargoed until midday on Friday 6 November), many workers’ attitude has been to make the best of a bad job. Given the document is not an agreement, 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, we are, as usual in such circumstances, getting no reports on the progress of talks other than that meetings are happening. This has got to change: we need to know what is being discussed and what management’s response is. In the meantime, rumour is that very little progress has been made, especially as the negotiators have had to spend most of their time dealing with outstanding issues from changes already imposed rather than the future.

Since the agreement, the situation on this review of changes has been fluid. While, in some areas, management was immediately willing to withdraw some of the most provocative measures, in others, especially London, they continued as before – refusing to even review these changes, continuing to harass and intimidate workers into shouldering the new workloads, and wanting only to discuss future job losses. This increased the frustration with the agreement and nearly led to unofficial walkouts in some areas.

It was in this situation that a meeting on 20 November of the union’s London Divisional Committee (LDC), with representatives from all postal branches in the capital, unanimously called on the Postal Executive of the union to call national strike action. The LDC was adamant that action should be national (rather than just London), since Royal Mail is breaking a national agreement.

In response to this the Postal Executive agreed the situation was critical, but held fire on calling strike action until after the “review” meeting with management and ACAS. But it was indicative that in this situation General Secretary Billy Hayes warned that the strikes might be back on. Clearly, he was feeling the anger and pressure from rank and file postal workers.

The upshot of this was that Royal Mail’s London management were actually told off by ACAS for refusing to abide even by the agreement they had signed up to, and a further agreement concerning London was signed, which amounted to a climbdown by management. In this new situation in the first week of December, reviews are actually taking place of the imposed changes. Whether this new situation exists throughout the country, and whether it produces substantial results remains to be seen.

This move by management has, at least temporarily, removed much of the pressure for the reinstatement of the strikes. However, the serious concern remains that these reviews will only produce, at best, cosmetic changes, while managers are already making proposals for further job cuts early in 2010.

This change in management’s attitude – under severe pressure – also strengthens the hand of those in the union who argue that the interim agreement is a good one, the problem being that management weren’t sticking to it. However, it remains a fact that the issue underlying the dispute – job losses – remains. How little was actually gained from the dispute is shown by the statement from one “left” postal executive member writing that “The Postal Executive called off the strikes due on 6th & 9th November because we considered that the previous two days of action had achieved our immediate objectives. Those were to get a form of words which dealt with the local disputes, to tie Royal Mail into accepting a set of principles which made the successful negotiation of a new National Agreement more likely and to get a third party involved to act as a referee.” While forcing management to back down on changes already made was important, all that has been gained on the substantive issue is an agreement to talk – a green light to management to stall and then restart the process of job cuts in the knowledge that it will be harder to re-motivate workers to take further strike action.

Activists need urgently to discuss how they can assert control over what is agreed by their negotiators with no reference to the rank and file membership, and what concrete demands to put forward as an alternative to the national leadership’s approach that job cuts are okay as long as they are negotiated.

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