Workplace & Trade Unions

Pay vs profits: Royal Mail dispute at a crossroads

20 March 2023
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Workers need a rank-and-file movement to take control of the dispute and stop a bad deal

By a CWU rep

After three weeks of secret negotiations, breaking two deadlines set by union leaders, members of the CWU postal union still have no idea what is being discussed. All the CWU will say is ‘there is enough in the talks to warrant continuing them’. The promise of an independent review of the 300 victimised members ‘to be agreed by the 6th March 2023’ has disappeared.

In the meantime, Royal Mail continues to create “facts on the ground” by imposing cuts and changes to working conditions and victimising reps and members. This is undermining the talks and the demands of the strike, and yet no strike dates have been set despite 95% voting for further strike action in February’s reballot.

There has been an outpouring of dismay and anger from CWU members online, worrying about a bad deal. Many are demanding that strike dates be set, even starting with a whole week of strikes. Some have pointed out that Royal Mail bosses could be dragging out talks to avoid strikes at the busy end of the financial year.

‘The situation is untenable’

Martin Walsh, a top London CWU official, defended the talks without striking. Echoing the official comms, he claimed progress has been made and executive action (management-imposed changes) has been ‘suspended’ across the company. Any worker will know that’s not true, lots of offices are struggling to clear their mail and yet revision activity is being imposed: later start times, kicking people off walks, and cutting walks. This is a clear breach of the Royal Mail-CWU joint statement.

Under pressure from workers, CWU leaders have been forced into an about-face, admitting ‘the situation is untenable’ with ‘unachievable revisions and the continued targeting of CWU members and representatives’. They have provided an online form for workers to report executive action imposed in their offices and nearly a thousand reps and members have filled it in. But if the situation is untenable, why aren’t we striking?

Walsh asks, ‘if we walked away from talks now and served action do you think both of the above [progress with talks and a pause to executive action] will still be on the table?’ But executive action hasn’t been paused and little evidence of progress. We can walk and talk at the same time, and if Royal Mail genuinely want to reach agreement then they will negotiate with strike dates set. It is always the case that the harder you fight, the more you win. Worse, the stage is being set for a massive climbdown on our demands.

‘Assisting the financial situation of the company’?

The 2nd of March joint statement told workers that the aim during negotiations was to for reps to start to negotiate on revisions, ‘to try and assist the financial situation in the company’. The only way to do that when most offices already can’t clear their mail, means hiking workload, flexibility and ‘efficiency’. Walsh goes even further, saying if we don’t make an agreement RM could ‘go the same way as Lehman Brothers or Woolworths or the hundreds of other companies’ and we need ‘to reach the right agreement to prevent this.’

But workers didn’t go into this dispute to bail out the bosses, we went in to defend our terms and conditions and get an inflation proof pay rise. If Royal Mail isn’t profitable, the union should be demanding its renationalised to defend the Universal Service Obligation and a proper public delivery service. Our union should not be in secret talks to barter with our wages and conditions to help refloat Royal Mail for its millionaire owners. Meanwhile, top CEOs like Simon Thompson are pushing for their Tory mates to cut the USO. Striking would force this crisis into the news and expose their plans.

Martin says this year has seen the union take the greatest amount of industrial action since 1971 – but the eighteen days has been strung out over four months. If we had just taken it together – three days out, four, five, six – and threatened all-out during Christmas, we could well have won outright, and built the solidarity needed to support us and our hardship fund. None of this is ‘against the union’. The members and reps are the union in the final analysis, not its leaders and full-time staff.  

Build the rank and file

In an online poll on popular postie facebook site Royal Mail Chat, a straw poll found a majority thought the negotiations were going to ‘end badly’. One week later a second poll found 14% trusted the leadership and were positive, with 50% in favour of restarting the strikes. These are just straw polls, but the fact is 95% of workers could be in favour of restarting strikes and there would still be no mechanism for them to decide on this and force the leaders to carry it out. So how can members have a real voice in the dispute and control it?

Unlike other unions, there isn’t an organised left in the CWU that can challenge climbdowns and propose alternative strategies, like for instance the United Left in the UCU which successfully campaigned to reinstate their strike. Meetings of CWU militants could discuss the way forward and launch a campaign to build support for restoring our strike, while pressuring CWU leaders not to climb down from our demands. It could be the start of building a proper rank and file movement in the CWU to take control of our dispute and the union itself. In the meantime, workers should reject any cuts and victimisations, with walkouts if necessary as some offices have recently done.

The alternative to this is an uncertain process that leaves members out in the cold, one that clearly is pointed towards a deal that dumps overboard many of our demands, including an anti-inflation pay rise.

No to secret talks – restore the strikes

For a rank and file movement in the CWU

Renationalise Royal Mail under workers and consumers control

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