CWU members up and down the country ready to vote "Yes!"
Britain  •  CWU - Communication Workers Union

Royal Mail offensive forces CWU union to call strike ballot

05 September 2019

Postal workers need to prepare for “the fight of our lives”, writes a CWU rep

Over the summer Royal Mail’s moves against the “Four Pillars” Agreement (4PA) with the CWU union have morphed into a full-scale offensive, forcing the union to declare a strike ballot on 22 August. This is an all-out attack on the union and a restructuring that could end in the break-up of Royal Mail. So it is no exaggeration when Terry Pullinger, CWU General Secretary (Postal) says that this is “the fight of our lives”. 

Reps and activists need to work all out to get a massive yes vote in the ballot, running 24 September to 15 October. Last time we balloted in 2017 we got a brilliant 89% yes vote on a 73% turnout. Given the level of anger on the Royal Mail shopfloors across the country right now, there is no doubt we can top that.

Efficiency drive turns to all-out offensive

Last year Royal Mail’s millionaire owners installed a new management regime under CEO Rico Back, the anti-union head of Royal Mail Group’s international arm GLS, which was built on zero hours contracts and low wages.

The new CEO has driven an offensive to hike profits from the top. A non-stop savings drive on the shop floor was followed by an unagreed five year restructuring plan in May, increasingly pushing the union aside at every level to impose it.

One top manager told officials that staff who didn’t like the planned changes could “vote with our feet and just leave the business”.  Many hundreds have, in an unprecedented wave of walkouts and canteen sit-ins against the accompanying hike in bullying and sackings.

Terry told union members in a video update, “each day there’s something else that this new leadership does, another move that they make, that takes us further away from our agreements”. But each week that has gone by without a national fightback has seen Royal Mail bosses just get bolder.

Since Spring 2019 bosses have broken the agreement on PDA scanner GPS data and demanded cuts of thousands of hours out of offices, and now want further savings so we pay for the next hour off the working week agreed for this October, as part of the agreed move to the 35-hour week outlined in the 4PA. 

Guns of August

Royal Mail upped the ante in August. According to CWU London Division, the last few managers associated with negotiating the 4PA were sacked in one week, replaced by anti-union old hands. Then Rico pressed the red button, announcing plans to make Parcelforce a separate limited company, still in the overall Royal Mail Group but with workers having to “TUPE” over their terms and conditions as in a totally new company.

Now (unfortunately in line with the 4PA) he wants to reopen discussions on the legal protections in place since privatisation that block zero hours contracts and stop the company being broken up, a sign of what’s to come. 

As part of the same unagreed five year plan, Back aims to take large parcels out of delivery offices and possibly cut the Universal Service Obligation (USO) requirement to deliver Saturdays, as was recently done in the Isle of Man. This would entail slashing up to 20,000 jobs, many full-time, and reducing the service provided to the public, just as socialists predicted back in 2013 during privatisation. Meanwhile, managers are taking millions of pounds in bonuses on the back of the cuts, and have been offered a pay rise to keep them sweet for the dispute.

When Terry challenged him, Rico Back reportedly shot back “I’m CEO of this company so I’ll do what I want, and the union can deal with the consequences”! Royal Mail bosses have refused to negotiate, setting up a new company for Parcelforce and insisting they will be transferring over to it on 1 October.

Royal Mail’s hardball tactics have meant CWU leaders had no choice but to call a ballot, followed by a social media blitz to raise awareness of what’s at stake. Heeding the call, scores of offices have held gate meetings in support. If Rico wants consequences, he’s likely to get them in the form of a massive strike vote.

This time let’s win

Activists and reps should gear up again like 2017, with gate rallies, off-site meetings, delegations of workers from stronger offices visiting the less solid ones to support them, and elected strike committees to make sure everyone votes yes and stays strong. Parcelforce workers can’t wait for the ballot, they should walk out and demand the union backs them.

We need to start building massive support from the rest of the labour movement now. We should appeal to the general public, the Labour Party and other trade unions to get behind the strike, donate to strike funds, and show solidarity with their local postal workers. This fight isn’t just about us, it’s about a 500-year-old postal service being wiped out, and everyone should fight to defend it.

In national meetings around the last dispute, some reps asked “What happens if we get an injunction?” We need to learn from the past, where an unelected Tory judge scuppered our right to strike over some minor technicality in the undemocratic anti-union laws. Sadly, when the injunction was enforced two years ago, the answer was nothing – the union had no preparations for this despite the worries raised.

This time the stakes are higher, and a draw won’t be enough, we need a solid win. If it proves necessary, CWU activists and reps need to be prepared to unleash the kind of mass unofficial action we saw in 2003 and 2007 that both times brought Royal Mail to its knees. That requires organisation.

We can do what UCU university strikers did last year and hold mass meetings in every office at crucial junctures to debate the way forward and lobby our leaders – they managed to stop a bad deal being cooked up.

But we need to go one further and start now to develop a rank and file movement across the CWU of reps and activists. That way we can build the maximum power behind every official initiative, or go forward with any necessary action when the union officials won’t.

There’s no doubt that this is indeed “The fight of our lives”, but equally there is no doubt that if we organise our shop floor power, and begin to build solidarity from the labour movement without delay, we can win.


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