Britain  •  CWU - Communication Workers Union

Royal Mail bins union agreement

26 May 2019

By a CWU Rep

Royal Mail announced a new five year strategy on 22 May to increase automation and develop later parcel deliveries without informing the CWU postal workers’ union. Many outside the company would have been surprised the next day when the union, in a video to members, denounced these new plans as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” threatening up to 20,000 job losses and more office closures. But few CWU members would have been shocked.

The fact is for months the “Four Pillars (4P)” agreement, negotiated last year to end a high-profile strike threat, has been coming apart from above and below. It promised a change of culture in Royal Mail from shopfloor bullying to management working with the union to develop “an agreed joint mutual interest vision”, together planning to harness technology and target the growing parcel market. In return the workforce was promised a 35-hour working week in stages, improved pensions for 30,000 staff and extended legal protections against zero hours contracts and any break-up of the company.

In reality the culture of bullying has got worse, as directors pressured managers to claw back the costs of the pay rise and the first reduction in the work week to 38 hours.

According to union officials the result has been the biggest spike in four years of unofficial walkouts, canteen sit-ins and ballot requests, overwhelmingly against bullying and victimisation and with the verbal backing of the union’s leaders. Just last month unofficial walkouts have occurred in Medway mail centre in Kent, aand delivery offices from Paisley, Scotland to Bristol and Birmingham. And no doubt there are even more canteen sit-ins or threats.

This pressure in part led to the emergency motion at the CWU national conference earlier in May, which accused Royal Mail of a “growing toxic workplace culture” and resolved to take national industrial action to defend the 4P agreement if necessary.

Privatisation comes home to roost

At the top, Royal Mail’s board changed its management team, appointing as CEO the anti-CWU Rico Back from its European operations – built on casualised contracts, long hours and no union – and placing a host of old anti-union managers into key positions.

The 4P’s joint management-union bodies to oversee the redesign of postal operations were sidelined for new management structures going round the CWU and its new plan, developed behind closed doors with the consultancy firm KPMG. That exposes the company’s briefing to staff as a lie, with its claim to be “committed to working collaboratively with our unions on the strategy, detailed design and deployment”. As one official said at a recent national reps’ meeting, “it’s the shortest honeymoon ever after a new agreement has been signed off, barely months”.

Billing the new plan as “investment” in a “second daily parcel delivery”, they aim to strip shoe-box sized parcels out of walks for later delivery concentrated in 300 out of 1,400 Delivery Offices, downsizing the current delivery staff in line with the shrinking letters market while hiking their walkspan (hours spent on physically delivering letters).

While extending parcel deliveries to Sunday, the company has privately floated the idea of slimming the USO commitment to deliver letters from six to five days a week, cancelling Saturdays. Meanwhile Royal Mail managers have said they want to use the tech agreed in the 4P agreement to introduce an Amazon-style “data-led” management of individual workers, while using infotech to change staff shifts, possibly weekly, to fit traffic. This will create a pressure-cooker workplace, messing up workers’ lives and commitments, 35 hour week or not.

Company PR is hypocritically billing the new strategy as a massive investment in Royal Mail, after shareholders have stripped £1 billion in profits out of the company since 2014. It announced at the same time it would increase this month’s dividend! The new five year plan is the fallout from privatisation, as Royal Mail bosses move to reap its fruits by taming or breaking the union.

‘Were we naïve?’

Deputy General Secretary (Postal) Terry Pullinger explained in his video to members, “We thought, new managers, new leadership, new thinking, that’s what we thought – were we naïve?”

Yes. Without some miraculous change in the postal market, and with other companies and the giant Amazon increasingly entering it, Royal Mail was always going to claw back the cost of its promises.

The fact is every deal cut in the last decade starts with affirming the “mutual interests” between the workers and bosses, and they all melted down on the fact that our interests are opposed – our wage rises and shorter working week are a deduction from their profits.

A deal brokered around a conference room table with ACAS couldn’t force Royal Mail millionaire shareholders to even temporarily accept these deductions from its profits. Only a strike that brought them to their knees could have forced this, though not permanently. Now the company wants to go forward without the union.

In December 2017 during the 4P dispute a court injunction stopped us striking – the basis of the 4P’s legal clauses, now incorporated into the 4P itself, which bar strikes – and forced the union into ACAS talks and the current deal. Now as the union prepares for another likely battle, postal workers, activists and reps need to develop our rank and file organisation to provide the power and members’ control that can mean we fight and win.

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