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CWU-Royal Mail Deal: The price of not fighting

20 January 2021

After a two-year dispute (without any strike action) between Royal Mail and its workforce, a deal has been agreed by union negotiators and members are now being balloted. This deal, “Key Principles Framework Agreement – The Pathway to Change”, achieves far less than was promised by CWU union leaders and while no doubt represents “the best deal without a strike” is inadequate, with many contentious issues deferred to the future.

To recap, almost before the ink was dry on the 2017 Four Pillars Agreement, made after a previous dispute, Royal Mail was preparing to bin it. They appointed anti-union Rico Back as CEO, who immediately began aggressive moves to shut out the union and turn the company into a parcels operator with a downsized workforce.

The possibility of the zero hours contracts and union-busting activity that marks competitors like Amazon, and even the break-up of the company with Parcelforce, abruptly hived off into a separate company in Autumn 2019, signalled the dangers to Royal Mail workers. Back made it clear he wanted to see the USO cut down to only weekday letter deliveries.

Rico’s offensive didn’t let up for a minute during the corona crisis. The company dragged its feet getting PPE for workers while cashing in on a wave of lockdown parcels and the CWU’s call for a truce to provide an emergency service (despite a second ballot vote in March with a 94% yes vote).

But after trying to impose new shift patterns and break the CWU, the threat of walkouts saw Rico sacked and new more “constructive” executives brought in. They aimed to convince the union leaders to lower their horizons and cut a deal. This approach enabled them to talk out the ballot by September, but even then it took another four months for a deal to emerge.

You give what you get?

The dispute centred on forcing Royal Mail to adhere to the 2017 Four Pillars Agreement. But without a fight that wasn’t possible. Some movement been achieved, but it is only a two year deal, so Royal Mail will use that time to test the new agreement to see if it allows them to restructure and boost profits. Many issues are left for future discussions.

While the turn by Royal Mail bosses was only forced out of them by the shopfloor strength of postal workers, the fact is the big growth in parcel volumes, with profits attached, has made them see the positive side of getting a deal. Even so, they have gotten far more than they have given away. The new deal includes

• Creating a 24/7 OPERATION aimed at parcels, with dedicated parcel deliveries and Sunday deliveries (starting on a voluntary basis but in meetings CWU leaders have made it clear that the aim is to agree new shift patterns for all, so this may not remain the case).

• The immediate priority is revisions (office reorganisations using computer tools and traffic data) to capture the parcel growth and hike efficiency from March-October to cut the work week to 37 hours – but the Four Pillars foresaw achieving the 35 hour week by 2022, and that is now a future discussion.

• Committing to existing agreements including on job security and legal protections against breaking up the company or imposing zero hours contracts (one of the four “Pillars”). However, this will be reviewed in two years, 2023, while other agreements are up for review – attendance, plus speeding up disagreements between reps and managers.

• Swipe cards will replace signing in and out sheets, and while not used to cut pay (for instance if someone is late) there are fears that these will be used to snoop on workers.

• A two year pay deal, backdated to last year will see 2.7% immediately and then another 1% in April 2021, along with pro rata change to the wage as a result the reduction of the work week from 38 to 37 hours.

This isn’t the Four Pillars. It is a short deal while Royal Mail tests out the Sunday and late parcels market and alternative delivery work (like delivering medicines).

The 35-hour week was crucial to ensuring that, as indoor work is automated, the outdoor span remains doable rather than crippling. It was also important for eliminating the two-tier workforce that Royal Mail has developed by hiring only part-timers for years. Without the reduction to the work week, Royal Mail is likely to continue driving down the number of full-time positions.

Selling ourselves cheaply?

Revisions are intended to pay for the shorter working week, while a four percent pay rise is giving away postal worker’s weekends pretty cheaply! In meetings, CWU officials have made it clear that they intend to negotiate “creative attendance patterns” – like a four day week – to compensate for this. It may happen, it may not. It could work in mail centres, but in deliveries most of the work is outdoor, and a six-hour-plus outdoor span would put most posties out of commission. As with many other crucial issues, a review will deal with issues like ensuring 85% minimum of parcels are delivered with letters. But even if that is agreed, it could see walks expanded as letters fall.

Most postal workers want to provide a good service to the public and recognise the sector is increasingly 24/7. So while few would be against Sunday working in principle, it’s family time and we already work Saturday. Working later in the day would stop many collecting their kids from school. These changes should be voluntary full-stop, with incentives like double time pay if needed.

Worst of all, it is clear that the USO is on a conveyor belt to being downsized to five days a week. A government review intends to cut Saturday letter deliveries – with Royal Mail’s open support! So much for “working together to protect the company”! Yet the union has effectively signalled its token opposition to this – like the 2013 privatisation again, without a fight.

This will inevitably mean thousands of job losses. We aren’t just selling ourselves cheaply, we are selling our strength as workforce.

Vote against pay-for-change

CWU tops Terry Pullinger and Dave Ward never tire of reminding members of the number of unemployed, the public sector pay freezes and that workers like British Gas are being forced to sign worse contracts. All true, and from that perspective the deal looks positive.

But when you take into account the kind of money that Royal Mail foresees making from parcels, based on volumes this year, and the real, massive, concession of Sunday working, we are in a different situation.

The CWU claim that the union has done everything right, not calling a strike, letting the ballot go for negotiations – in fact Tory judges’ injunctions stopped the strike twice and, as always, they had no answer. If they had at least called a one-day action, even an overtime ban, to keep the ballot alive, it would have provided more pressure in the negotiations to get a better deal. We should be fighting the USO cut not watching it happen.

The CWU leaders’ strategy since 2007 continues: force Royal Mail to pay for change, while the union concedes on important things to enable it to boost profits. This is how we’ve seen the 35 hour week slip away and ended up with a two tier workforce. It deserves a “no” vote, to demand an alternative strategy.

Most workers seem to support the deal – the strike momentum is dead – and no doubt many will vote yes for the much-needed money, while many won’t bother to vote. But the Four Pillars fight and what it represented isn’t finished, and the clock is ticking to 2023.

Activists and reps who see the need for another direction – an end to selling our strength, and march-them-up-the-hill-and-back-down disputes – can use that period to build up the union’s shop floor strength and demand the union does the same. It is a scandal how little the CWU has done to organise the unorganised delivery sector, whose poor terms and conditions are a threat to ours. The militant minority of activists should join together in a rank and file network to start that debate in the union.

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